So, in 2003 I re-assessed my research career. I asked myself, "Well, if I don't have access to a clinical population what population do I have access to?" I looked around the campus of Abilene Christian University and noted, "There do seem to be a lot of religious people around here."
And thus was born my research career in the area known as the psychology of religion. Instead of studying anxious, angry or depressed persons I would study religious persons.
This blog is a result of that research shift. As I read and thought more and more about the intersections of faith and psychology I kept having a lot of theological thoughts that didn't have a clear empirical research outlet. So where to gather those theological thoughts? How about starting a blog and dumping the stuff there?
And so was born Experimental Theology, the theological ruminations of an experimental psychologist.
When I first turned to psychology of religion my early studies were focused upon attachment to God. This was and remains a hot area of investigation and it involves the application of attachment theory to our relationship with God. Attachment theory, pioneered by John Bowlby, describes the close affectional bonds that form between infants and caregivers. Early observational work by Mary Ainsworth noted that the childhood attachments with parents can vary in the amount of anxiety they display (separation and stranger anxiety) in what are called the attachment styles.
The early work in attachment focused on parental bonds, but in the '80s and '90s researchers began applying attachment theory to romantic relationships. It was argued that the emotional templates laid down with parents would cast a long relational shadow, shaping how we'd experience subsequent love relationships. For example, if you experienced your early attachment figures as emotionally unpredictable or unavailable you'd have responded to that uncertainty by becoming either anxiously attached (preoccupied with the parent) or avoidantly attached (dismissive of the parent). Later, when your dating career started you'd import that same dynamic--anxiety or avoidance--into this new attachment relationship with your romantic partner. You might be anxiously attached to your romantic partner (jealous, worried about rejection, etc.) or avoidantly attached (fearful of commitment, emotionally distant, etc.).
In the attachment theory literature Lee Kirkpatrick was the first to note that these attachment dynamics--parental and romantic--are also observed in the relationship with God. Kirkpatrick noted that the four attachment criteria described by Mary Ainsworth apply to parents, romantic partners and to God:
1. Proximity Maintenance: We wish to be near or close to our attachment figures.
2. Separation Anxiety: When separated from an attachment figure we experience distress.I wrote about attachment to God in the early days of this blog, back in 2006. So search terms like the recent "theology of god as a parent" often bring people to the blog. And in the first post of that series I noted how the bible describes relationship with God as an attachment bond, God as a parental figure--paternal and maternal--and as a romantic partner:
3. Secure Base of Exploration: The attachment figure functions as "home," our emotional "base camp."
4. Haven of Safety: When hurt or fearful or distressed we go to the attachment figure for protection, healing, and/or comfort.
God as Mother and Father:And if God is experienced as an attachment figure then it stands to reason that relationship with God should also display aspects of the attachment styles, where believers can become either anxious or dismissive about their relationship with God. Relationship with God can become as fraught and distressed as any other love relationship. These were the dynamics--emotional distress in the God relationship--that eventually led me to connect attachment to God with the Summer Christian vs. Winter Christian experience in Part 2 of The Authenticity of Faith.
[God speaking to his people:] “As a mother comforts her child so I will comfort you.” (Isaiah 66:13)
[God’s people speaking to God:] “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father.” (Isaiah 64:8)
[Jesus teaching his followers how to address God in prayer:] “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:9)
[God comparing his love for his people with a mother’s love for her child:] “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has born?” (Isaiah 49:15)
[Jesus comparing his love for the people of Jerusalem to the protective behavior of a mother hen:] “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how I have often longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” (Luke 13:34)
[God comparing his love for his people to a parent teaching her child to walk:] “When Israel was a child, I loved him…it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them in my arms.” (Hosea 11:1,3)
[God comparing his love for his people to a parent raising a rebellious child:] “For the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.” (Isaiah 1:2)
God as Romantic Partner:
[A description of God’s love for his people:] “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” (Isaiah 62:5)
[A description of God’s relationship with his people:] “For your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is his name.” (Isaiah 54:5)
[An image of Jesus, the Lamb, marrying his people, the Church:] “ ‘For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.” (Revelation 19:7-8)
[A continuation of the above image from the book of Revelation, where the people of God are compared to the new Jerusalem:] “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2)
[The New Testament author, Paul, comparing marital love with Christ’s love for his church:] “Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” (Ephesians 5:25)