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