Attachment to God, Part 6: Reappraisals and The Road Ahead

This is my final post in this Attachment to God series. For psychology students and researchers interested in attachment to God research I hope you've found these posts to be a good, albeit informal and personal, introduction to the literature. For all other readers I also hope you've found this research interesting and illuminating.

In this post I want to both look ahead in the attachment to God research as well as express my current views on this literature.

Looking Ahead
In the coming years I see four outstanding areas of future research.

1. Attachment to God in Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism
Again, the attachment to God model works if the relationship with God is experienced as "personal." Thus, attachment to God should apply to Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism. Although Hinduism is not monotheistic, persons do tend to have more unique relationships with a particular god out of the fuller Hindu pantheon. However, very little work as been done to apply attachment to God models outside of Christianity.

2. Attachment Styles Over Time
In my last post we noted that anxious attachments in the human sphere tend to manifest themselves in the God attachment as well. Are these people then condemned to be anxiously attached to God throughout the faith journey? Evidence from marriages suggest that those who began their marriages as anxiously attached gradually grow more securely attached as time goes on. And this makes sense. As years pass the person should be less fearful of both intimacy and abandonment. I think a similar thing should also happen in the God relationship. If the faith journey proceeds in a healthy church community people should grow more securely attached to God over time. We just need the research to support this contention.

3. Peer Attachment and God
In the first post in this series I noted that the two biggest love images of God in the bible are parental and romantic. But there is a third: Friendship. Work in psychology is just beginning to examine peer attachments and now, with instruments like the AGI, attachment to God research can move concurrently with those developments. My friend Angie McDonald is already doing some of this research.

4. Dismissive Attachments, Agnosticism, and Apostasy
Some attachment researchers have suggested that a Dismissive attachment to God is symptomatic of agnosticism. This seems confused to me and I've tried to clarify this in my publications. To have an attachment bond one must, of necessity, believe that the attachment figure exists. You can't have an attachment bond for a relationship that might or might not exit. This then raises the question as to the exact relationship between Dismissive attachments, agnosticism and apostasy. My hunch is that a Dismissive attachment is probably best seen as a precursor of agnosticism and eventual apostasy.

My Current Views on Attachment Theory
Although I have contributed to the attachment to God literature I have of late cooled on the approach. My reasons for this are twofold. First, I think the attachment to God model does an excellent job of describing healthy relations with God. That is, the attachment features of proximity maintenance, haven of safety, separation anxiety, and secure base of exploration all seem operative when the attachment bond to God is at its best. However, and this is my concern, I don't think that the attachment model is comprehensive enough to describe the complications that can arise in the God-relationship. And this relates to my second concern. When difficulties do arise in the God-relationship the labels "Fearful," "Preoccupied," or "Dismissive" signal pathology. As if difficulties with God are not "healthy." It is true that these labels will apply to some believers. Some believers will own these labels to both identify and describe how their relationship with God is somehow "sick" and in need of improvement. But I don't think these labels cover the entire domain of what needs to be explained. For some people, whose struggles with God are at a Book-of-Job-level intensity, to label their struggle with God as "Fearful," "Preoccupied," or "Dismissive" would be downright insulting to their experience.

In short, my optimism about attachment theory has waned in the last few years for these reasons: Attachment theory is not comprehensive enough and it tends to view struggles with God as "diseased." Thus, in the last year or two I've been working with a different model of the God-relationship that builds on top of attachment theories but addresses the problems I've just outlined.

A hint of this model was recently published in Beck, R. (2006). Communion and Complaint: Attachment, object-relations, and triangular love perspectives on relationship with God. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 34, 43-52. A fuller theoretical explication of this model is now under peer review with the Journal of Psychology and Christianity (keep your fingers crossed that it will get accepted).

In Beck (2006) I did a factor analysis of a variety of God-relationship measures. The Attachment to God Inventory was in this mix. What I discovered was a two dimensional structure that explained most of the variance between these measures. One dimension I labeled Communion. I called this dimension Communion because the subscales that loaded on this factor assessed the degree to which the believer experienced engagement with God, the feeling of having God as a regular feature in your life. For example, the AGI-Avoidance of Intimacy subscale correlated negatively with the Communion factor (i.e., if you were high on the Communion factor you did not avoid intimacy.)

The second dimension that emerged in Beck (2006) was orthogonal (i.e., perpendicular, at right angles, uncorrelated with) with the Communion factor. When I looked at the measures that loaded on this factor they all seemed to share a single feature: They all expressed some sort of "complaint" toward God. When I first saw this factor I didn't know how to label it. So I called my theology friend Dr. Mark Love and read off the items that loaded on this factor. After hearing them Mark said, "Those items sound like the Complaint Psalms." Bingo! The second factor appeared to capture the emotions of complaint and lament expressed in many of the psalms. The Cry of Job. Of Jeremiah. Of Jesus on the cross. So, I named the second dimension Complaint.

I hope you can see why I was so excited about hitting on this structure. Recall, the attachment model is not comprehensive. It seems to trivialize the deepest struggles with God. Can you imagine labeling Job "Preoccupied"? Second, the attachment model pathologizes complaint toward God. But in the Communion/Complaint structure both of these problems are overcome. First, the Communion/Complaint structure is comprehensive. It is possible to use the model to describe someone like Job. Job would be high on the Communion dimension because he is very engaged with God, obsessed with God in fact. But Job would also be high on the Complaint dimension: He has a lot of issues with God, big issues. But further, the Communion/Complaint model does not pathologize Complaint. That is, Complaint is not a diseased state nor is it incompatible with active engagement with God. It is true that complaint might be diseased or dysfunctional but that is best explained by the interplay of Communion and Complaint.* Job's Complaint is not dysfunctional because his Communion is so high. Job's Complaint is expressed to God, within the God relationship. However, Compliant expressed when Communion is low is more diseased. It's complaint expressed outside of the relationship. Like complaining about your wife to a coworker. This type of complaint is dysfunction and destructive to the relationship. In short, the disease in not Complaint per se. The disease is the interplay of Communion with Complaint. And this, to me, is a much richer model of the God experience.

For a fuller phenomenological and theological description of the interplay between Communion and Complaint see my post on Winter Christianity from my online book Freud's Ghost.

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2 thoughts on “Attachment to God, Part 6: Reappraisals and The Road Ahead”

  1. I'm sorry I've had a full week or so and haven't had time to keep up with this. Didn't mean to just disappear, and didn't even get any St. John of the Cross in!

    I plan to forward some of this to some friends who will be interested, so don't be surprised if you get more comments. (Or if you don't...I have some shy friends...)

  2. The mention of "Communion" brings to mind the mytics. They go so far as to seek union and identification with God. The term is "Theosis" and is quit orthodox to the Greek Orthodox tradition. It goes back at least to the 2nd century CE and, as far as I know, is completely ignored by Protestantism. Iraneus, Athanasius, and others who formed our Christian world view believed in it to some degree.

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