The Psychology of Christianity: Part 6, Jesus and I

Just to recap, this series (which will be very long) is roughly following the content of a chapter I just submitted for a upcoming APA handbook on psychology and spirituality. My task was to overview the Christian faith noting its theological distinctives while reviewing the empirical psychological literature associated with these particular beliefs. As noted in Part 1 I selected the Apostles' Creed to be the theological "outline" of the chapter. In Parts 2-5 I shared some of my psychologically-oriented reflections on the first part of the Creed dealing with God the Father. In these next few posts we move into the Christological sections of the Creed.

The second part of the Apostles' Creed deals with Jesus Christ:

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
When I examined this part of the Creed I decided to focus on the psychological literature (if there was any!) that had any relationship with these Christological beliefs:

The Incarnation: "...born of the Virgin Mary."
The Imitatio Christi (the "Imitation of Christ"): "...our judge the living and the dead."
The Atonement: "...was crucified, died, and was buried."
The Resurrection: "On the third day he rose again."

Before turning to these particular beliefs, however, I wanted to search the literature to see if any work had been done on the experience of being "in relationship" with Jesus. That is, as noted in Part 4, Christians experience having a "personal relationship" with God. Some psychologists have suggested that this "relationship" looks very similar, phenomenologically, to the attachment bond we see in human love relationships (first observed with parents and later seen in the attachments found in marriages and friendships).

But Christians aren't just in relationship with God the Father. They are also in relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Many Christian prayers, the primary means by which the Christian seeks intimacy with God, are directed to Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Given all this, has there been any empirical work examining the attachment bond between the believer and Jesus (as compared to the attachment bond with God the Father)?

The answer, again surprisingly, is no. I couldn't find a published study that empirically compared God-attachment to Jesus-attachment. This is a thesis or doctoral dissertation just waiting to be done. And the outcome of such research should be interesting because, as we've noted, while relationship with God can easily become troubled (e.g., if God is seen as "wrathful," you have negative father associations, or theodicy issues) Christians often report being "closer" to Jesus. I have a few friends who literally can't stand God, and ignore him completely in their prayer life, and who focus their spiritual life almost solely on Jesus. Basically, lots of people seem to hate God but love Jesus. I think this is a common experience and it is just begging for some empirical attention.

Interestingly, while looking for Jesus-attachment studies, I did come across a few studies that examined Jesus' personality. Specifically, researchers have had people complete personality inventories for Jesus, trying to capture how people imagined Jesus' personhood. Not surprisingly, people tend to see Jesus as compassionate and extroverted (Note: the extroverted part worries me). Intriguingly, one study I found also had participants complete a self-evaluation. The researchers then compared the Jesus-personality ratings with the participant's own self-reported personality. And guess what? Jesus is just like me! That is, people tended to see Jesus as very similar to themselves.

On one hand, this makes perfect sense. Because of the Incarnation Jesus is understood to be the person in the Godhead who identifies most strongly with me. Jesus understands and knows me better than anyone in heaven or on earth. And this empathic and loving connection leads to a kind of "personality capture," where Jesus looks more and more like me.

But there is a potential problem with all this. Walk through these steps. First, what happens if your view of Christianity becomes increasingly Christocentric (i.e., you hate God but love Jesus)? And, second, what if over time, via an "empathic personality capture,", Jesus starts looking more and more like you? Gradually, you've allowed Jesus to become a cipher for your own interests and agendas. In short, you've created an idol. You are worshiping yourself.

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39 thoughts on “The Psychology of Christianity: Part 6, Jesus and I”

  1. Jesus as an extrovert? This is the guy who disappeared on a regular basis to the desert to be alone.

    Compassionate? Yes. Loving? Yes. Caring for others? Yes. But an extrovert? Not likely. At what point did we make those into be extrovert characteristics?

    I test out on the far end of extroversion but lately the push to claim that as the "right" personality trait concerns me — greatly. Our personalities are gifts from God as much as our talents. Why the big push to change who we are?

    Thanks, Dr. Beck, for the points you raise such as self-worship in characterizing Jesus as us and reminding me that not everyone sees God as a benevolent figure because of their relationship with their father. I was blessed (not lucky) to have a super dad.

    Strangely enough, I have more trouble connecting with Jesus than with God or the Holy Spirit. When you run across studies on that, I would like to read them.

  2. Richard,
    You said, And, second, "what if over time, via an "empathic personality capture,", Jesus starts looking more and more like you? Gradually, you've allowed Jesus to become a cipher for your own interests and agendas. In short, you've created an idol. You are worshiping yourself."

    There is nothing wrong with having different goals than what is represented in scripture, as scripture is not comprehesive. The danger, as you point out, is when "Jesus and me" become so inter-related that one cannot distinguish their own agenda. Jesus then, is useful to sanction one's own agenda, at great costs to social peace. Their "self" has not been developed apart from an identification with an "outside source"....and their ego, though weak, is strong through this identification. Poor self-image hides behind another 'source of power"...

  3. And I might add, "self" has more to loose because of the devastating costs to admit that one's agenda is one's own among many other agendas. Power disperses, because no longer is "God" or "Jesus" a useful source of puffing up an un-individuated self...

  4. Thank you for this post. This is really an interesting idea of conforming Jesus to our image that begins seemingly harmless. I can't help but correlate this with churches. Having grown up in the Church of Christ, I can see a Jesus/God idea that fits a Church of Christ mold. But I also see this in other denominations. Theres a certain feeling about spirituality and a certain aura of what Christianity is really about that I get from the churches I grew up in. It's not easily articulated, it just is. And now I'm beginning to be convinced that aura or vibe is a characteristic of those particular churches and not necessarily of true Christianity. It may in fact be the result of individuals sharing certain "idols" of Jesus, and their own understanding of Him that morphs into church-think.
    I greatly appreciate these posts. Thanks.

  5. Sorry, I hit the wrong button. I meant to comment, not necessarily to endorse.

  6. Ericmclaughlin,
    You assume that there is a "real" Christianity and denominatons are only forms or expressions of such. That is really all we have isn't it? What the Church has "formed"?

    Intially, Christian was a Jewish sect, so why Christian? I think that all religions are expressions of human pscyhology and development.

  7. I also have a harder time connecting with Jesus/ Holy Spirit and am unsure how Christians should. And I find the emphasis on extroversion as distressing (and correlated to?) the emphasis on emotional response and the de-emphasis on study and meditation. Since when has 'spiritual discipline' become a dirty word?

  8. After Tina commented, I wanted to say that Christianity can be looked at in various ways; as a religion and it historical situatedness and development, as a religion among religions, as a pscyhological phenomena, as a social structuring of society, as a government, etc.

  9. angie:
    those are called cultural religious hermeneutics...that shape human psychology,and philosophy.
    come on girl get with it.
    another smile and giggle for me...
    thanks Angie,

  10. When Patternism Subverts Gracehttp



    "JUST DO IT" :-)

  11. rich,

    I am "not into" the Restoration/Campbell movement. I would not think I had integrity, if I supported such a movement. That doesn't mean that I don't think it should be allowed.


  12. rich,
    This is sort of what I think about Jesus,
    Paul used Jesus, as an exemplarary example for social cohesion and identification. The same could be said for any exemplarary example for a social group.

    The saints are examplarary examples in the Catholic Church, Martin Luther King to the African American, Gandhi to the Indian, or fathers to their children, etc.

    Any individual can become an exemplaray example in their sphere of influence, if they develop beyond groupthinking or group behaving....a principled conscience."

    A principled conscience means that certain values are non-negotiables for a person. This is part of one's personal character. Different people will have different values that are non-negotiable.

    Jesus, had a principled conscience concerning the "outcasts" or the poor. But, to make political philosophy out of Jesus life and think that everyone in the world should believe and think the same way, is ludicrous!

  13. Angie: you sound a bit prejudiced,and i imagine rightly so.
    jesus had a little more on his plate than what you infer.

    he was what was called the True vine a Jew that complied with what the words of god had been trying to get a cross (no pun intened just can't type :-),
    to the people of Israel for 1500 years.(early date of Moses)
    like all religion tradition took over and ruined and perverted gods words to them.
    ya know every "religious tradition" try's to fix the people with gods word,or the sayings of Jesus or the apostles..
    although what is interesting to me is how screwed up buying into a dead hand (tradition formed by say Luther or Calvin or Campbell / stone) had it not been like this the "self deception of the leaders of these traditions"because of a cultural hermeneutic"
    reading scripture would not be so much fun.
    as we Christians or "people of the way" are finding out just how screwed up we all have gotten the teaching.
    it truly is about freedom, and the freedom to do good stuff for each other not about "formal religion" and giving god the father the glory because his son showed us how i the middle of a corrupted realigious
    social setting, so bad in fact that the very one they "ISRAEL" was waiting on "their deliverer from god" they called him a blasphemer,and killed him.
    oh ya religion and religious tradition at that point should show people more than enough.
    although Angie you shouldn't be so prejudiced,
    i am not saying you are wrong under the circumstances of this cultural religious mess steeped in so many traditions, although what i am saying is their are a few people that understand their position, and are humbled by how fucked up we have become and are takeing a fresh look at what the trinity was expressing to the creation.
    "john mark hicks is one of those guys".
    i just got to say this to you i think you will see the humor
    "those of us that know it all, really don't think much of you people that think you do":-)
    blessings this Saturday morning angie
    now go back and read that article lick you were told to do.

  14. Angie: ps
    take a "fresh look" loose the baggage.
    try anyway
    listen to me an by next year YOU MIGHT BE well who knows.
    as luck would have it i won,t finish that.....

  15. I did read the article, and that is why I said what I did. I am biased, but not prejuidiced.

    Bias is one's commitment to a certain way of understanding the world. Prejuidice is when we don't allow another the differences that those biases inevitably lead to.

    Therefore, what you call "the way", is your bias. I am not opposed to that bias, just have a different view of what it means to live in the world. This is why I believe that our form of government which protects our citizens is the highest for of government. It isn't based on a religion, but does have justice as a value. And justice is about ethics, which allows all to have those differences.

    Problem is today, that multiculturalism is pounding on the door so that "globalism" will intrude, dissolve our borders and destroy the Constitution that protects (makes distinction) of our rights.

  16. Angie
    unbridled freedom if your old enough look at 1960-2010
    i don't know what you think about the change in ethics across the board in this cultural capitalistic world has been sold to the smartest Harvard law student money can buy to circumvent moral and ethical principals,
    i won't be around for the next 50 although.
    understanding what you have just said our way of life is most likely going to be like the dodo
    change it will,
    sorry bout that word thanks
    our only hope is a restoration movement....
    i just couldn't help myself.
    i do get a kick at your biasdness (is that a word)

  17. What is the culprit of our demise as a country? Is it truly liberty? No, I don't think so, it is a lack of education that brings about an appreciation of our Founders principles that protected liberty, limited government, and made people appreciate their country.

    Ethical indiscretions are still taken to court in our country. What is the demise of our country is multiculturalism! Marxist/communist ideology based on equality, which means subversion of liberty.

    The other demise of our coutnry is a lack of character in our leaders/representatives.

    So, a lack of civic education, multiculturalism, Marxist/communist ideology, and a lack of character are all the foundations of our country's problems right now.

  18. Angie.
    in this gov you cant legislate morality or ethics you can try and it can be promised.
    but it will be unconstitutional.
    also the more influence and pressure by multicultural populace and as us old dogs are forgotten and our ethics and morality are for gotten we will possibly be seeing soon the circumcision of women being legalized...
    ain't that a happy thought

  19. your right Angie and and we all bought our e- ticket i am sure for starters liberty and entitlement programs for civil servants, would not conflict with your idea of socialism or the structure of the election process where special interest form the agenda of the government,which over a period of time forms a court system,that is almost all forms of "normal even mildly aberrant " concepts of ethics and morality.
    to say nothing of a free press that is sided and brings focus to defuse the political agenda of their choosing.
    i hate to ramble i am saying i so disagree with anything you call hope
    with out a clear concept of morality and ethics for liberity.
    they in the gov of this nation should all be fired,every stinking one of them.
    and every one of those seats should be filled with good christian men and woman. that care about liberty like the founding fathers did.

    yep reformation is the shortcut butt i am sure the media conglomerate would not allow that to happen.
    bless you Angie you are just a little misguided,
    but then i have grown up in the church of Christ
    "religion" that took 40 years of my life to find out how miss guided i was and now i get to make a lot of personal corrections in my system of belief.
    all i can say is thank god for the internet.
    don't you even say xerox

  20. Rich,
    Bless you, too.
    One doesn't have to be a Christian to be a person of character.

  21. Angie
    try reading if you would please
    should be an easy read for you..
    by Dr. Paul Davies

    john mark hicks has been called a narrative theologian,
    also he does like to dialogue on his blog you might enjoy that for a new perspective on the restoration movement.
    he is a pretty smart fella.
    and has lost a lot of baggage that typifies the R.M. as you perceive that position on "religion".
    these are new times and time for each and everyone of us to go back to school in some respect.
    please read that book it will put
    some interesting questions on your plate
    also john mark
    blessings to you this fine Sunday morning from rich in Calif.

  22. This is the problem, I think, when a cultural religious hermenuetic thinks of itself as absolute...reality is so much more complex than tradition....and fact these two parts of the Quadralateral are "under" a human beings reason/experience....sensate experience, but at the same time, what frame one comes from in regards to the experience is just as important to understanding how a specific human being might (and I want to underline MIGHT) understand and interpret his experience...

  23. "a narrative theologian" is postmodern, isn't it? Transcendant realties are not easy to believe, but Barth would have us believe that they are real... William James would adhere to varieties of religious experience, ...neurology would seek to explain these experiences as a "conditioning response of the brain" is religious experience separate from our brain function? No, but can one "prove" that it isn't just a brain function, given the right environment? Is "God" a human coping mechanism? Naturalists, and materialists would believe so, while postmoderns, charismatics, spiritists, or Trinitarians, would adhere to "God speking through experience or a real reality... What frame are you in determines how you will understand or/and interpret the "reality"....

  24. And I might add, how one defines character and what that NEEDS to mean is put within a particular frame, whether what is needed for a particular situation, or what someone thinks is the most valuable characteristic of a character. This plays into one's personal value system..

  25. and sometimes when one has a certain goal that one wants to accomplish, that someone might judge another as being a person without character because that person doesn't go along with their particular goal and how it should be accomplished...

  26. Angie: absolutely right although....
    i suggest you read that book...
    also again the tipping point is fulfilled scripture,in the start of the new cov.process of belief that their is a GOD,
    take number theory,please :-)
    take eight incidents in the old test.
    which are out of the control of the one being spoken of only eight mind you there are over 300.
    random theory states the odds of eight falling into place would be like loading the state of Texas 2 feet deep with stacked silver dollars marking one blindfolding a man sending him out to find the marked silver dollar and he does first try
    i think that number is 1to10to60 almost a mathematical impossibility
    Newtonian physics worked well for a lot of years,not so now,to say nothing of molecular biochemistry and irreducible complexities of cellular structure,in a stated time line.
    on to the book and it is old 1983
    theoretical physics has a hard time with.. say the atomic weight of a hydrogen molecule +or - 10% which would alter the composition of the universe as we see it in our reality. which is to say nothing of the random possibility's throwing in all the other molecular weights to balance the system of the universe as we perceive it.
    all the order coming from a random boom.
    defies logic at that level of understanding.
    once we progress past newton and the age of philosophical ignorance 16th 17th 18th century of that era we find we have new questions.
    and then their is the ostrich Angie.
    lot of new stuff out there when nuanced
    make a lie of this reality of the mind and make this universe and our physical make up a mathematical impossibility. without someone or some thing messing with the numbers.
    i personally think the game is rigged...

  27. I went to see, the play, "Spinoza on Trial" tonight and am still 'chewing'...
    I recognize that we can only comprehend 3 dimensions, and yet, there are many more dimensions to reality, at least according to theorhetical, what we percieve is only a small portion of all that is...I just don't think that necessitates that God caused all of reality.
    Spinoza's view that "nature is God", so everything is "in God", and everything is ultimately really a call to passivity, as "all is God"...The Greeks called it "fate", the Calvinists call it predestination, the Muslims call it "God's will", and Spinoza calls it God, himself". It seems that systems theory would be similar, in its effect. But, can we really say that all things are caused? There are no chances, irregularities, ....Then, how can one make any value judgment? Wouldn't it dissolve what we deem important to distinctify?

  28. Angie what do you call it in the face of evidence.
    can you not make sense of god allowing us to choose.
    and if we choose wrong we are held accountable

  29. p.s. Angie we as a people are called by god to give him the glory...
    who said god is a comedian with an audience that has forgotten how to laugh

  30. i know Angie in the face of our reality that god does not exist.we are so enlightened,although
    are we or is that subjective convenience.
    that makes for a serious
    study, an endless pursuit of jumping off the cliff as god says we an interesting word at a personal level of accountability.

  31. I can accept society's conventions (as long as they are based on just principles, which another area, I need to think about), as all societies have to have laws that form that society. And government holding people accountable to breaking the law is what crime and punishment is about. I just don't want "moral policemen" becoming a reality in our society...nor do I want a militarized State, where religion is "overseen"...Government should allow liberty, and protect "equality under law"...when it pertains to another's right. Protection of differences are why we are a diverse nation, where people can find their niche.

    Don't use "God" as justification to social convention. Too many times, our social conventions are not just...and often it is because we have our own agenda that we want to promote.

  32. Rich,
    You said that "we are called by God to give him glory"..."called by God"???
    If God predetermines everything, then he is not worth serving, because he does not respect individuals in their own right. One must be understood as a person to be loved. Otherwise, it is only about power games, with God being the biggest bully of them all!

  33. We all use reason to support our "subjective convenience". But, is that 'wrong"? Not if one believes that the individual has any right of choice, differences of opinion or circumstance, various ways of understanding his priorities, etc.....So, faith is not what YOU or ANYONE ELSE can "do" or expect from another. Faith is a personal choice of value. Atheists have faith in reason, and don't think that jumping off cliffs is "enlightenment", or should rationally be expected.

  34. I believe that is a paraphrase of a Voltaire quote: "God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh". It's one of my favorites. Have a great day!

  35. good lord Angie the people that wrote that book were camel jockeys...
    and the story doesn't vary in ethics or morality a thread, a story of this creator fixing an issue through Faith Hope AND LOVE IF WE WILL but realize that reality is him not ours to do as we choose which we can. but the although is always the kicker.
    to much fun the idea of faith.... choice and the held accountable
    to a good kind loving god that wants to give us everything worth having the intrinsic characteristics of a peace and rest, and we say no that just can't be
    and after all that we have discussed we both know nether one of us has a clue. just faith in a system that has failed and will continue to fail.
    i find that ludicrous we have nothing to loose if there is no god
    and every thing to gain by trying to help as we are instructed build a good place to live in.
    as we have found out in physics 1+1is not necessarily 2 although the lie is real to Newton.

  36. Rich,

    Been enjoying the exchange. You said in your last comment "his eternal plan was to rescue IF something went wrong with his very good creation."

    I suppose that makes Jesus and the cross a contingency, plan B, just in case He got plan A wrong? Glad to know He isn't that much different from me, my plan A's are almost always wrong. :-)

  37. Angie when you create a good thing and if you are as smart as god must be you can factor if we do this and they all get to choose some one will want to take advantage of a weak suck god say maybe a smart eternal
    he started the clock and let it run i see god as experiencing his creation,knowing some one or something would start a fracture in the perfectly good creation and the rescue plan is back to a relationship with him through the suffering servant of his good in a world being deceived by our own deviation from the good he started

    fractal geometry you know how that works don't ya
    think about good being rationalized over thousdands of years and here we are to day
    i find this a little funny on the conceptional side.
    that angle gods prime angle gets a little prideful and his supreme being seems to be not giving him the validation he thinks he so rightly deserves so he is manifested at the tree of good and evil and says hay you get to choose to be like god knowing good and knowing evil and so the story goes.
    good fractures we pay the price of accountability we die the rescue plan in this mess of personalities if built on god being good and vindicating that good in a just and right way must play out to total corruption of gods good. then a rescue built around how good god is with an evil world good fractured to the point that gods people don't even know him when they see him although those prophets foretold the event.
    fractal geometry can be called self similarity
    we can be good people great character responsible
    although is that what the rescue plan is about....
    you know better than that Angie
    we will always be a part of self similarity until we choose gods good
    the rescue plan gods unmerited favor redemption through his sons faithfulness to gods plan to vindicate his good. and get ride of self similarity (unfaithfulness to gods good)

    o well that is the way i see it to day Angie

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