From Attachment Theory to Winter Christianity: Part 1, The Attachment Bond and God

Last week it was my honor to be the keynote speaker for the CAPS East conference in Philadelphia. And the week before that here at ACU I gave a presentation to the counseling center/clinic directors from the CCCU schools. At both events I spent some time, informally or during the formal presentation, talking about a research trajectory I've traced.

You can call this trajectory "from attachment theory to Winter Christianity" and I thought I'd devote a few posts to walk you through the journey I've traveled.

Many years ago when I first started doing research in the area of psychology of religion I worked on research related to what is called "attachment to God."

Attachment to God research attempts to use attachment theory to explore our relationship with God. Attachment is the close affectional bond we form with early caregivers. Most often that's our mother and father. Later in life romantic partners and friends become attachment figures as well.

Attachment, it seems, is the language of love. Love for parents. Love for romantic partners. Love for friends. And what's interesting is how the bible describes God as a lover in each of these ways. God as a parent. God as a romantic partner. God as a friend.
God as Mother and Father:
"As a mother comforts her child so I will comfort you." (Isaiah 66:13)

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:9)

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has born?” (Isaiah 49:15)

“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)

“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 as Romantic Partner:
“As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” (Isaiah 62:5)

“For your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is his name.” (Isaiah 54:5)

“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)
God as Friend:
The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. (Exodus 33:11)

"Oh, for the days when I was in my prime, when God’s intimate friendship blessed my house." (Job 29:4)

“But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend." (Isaiah 41:8)

"I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you." (John 15.15) 
So the basic idea is that the emotional template of our human attachments creates the emotional template for how we experience our love relationship with God.

So what is that emotional template?

Mary Ainsworth, a pioneer in attachment theory, described the attachment bond are being characterized by four things:
Proximity Maintenance: We wish to be near or close to our attachment figures.

Separation Anxiety: When separated from an attachment figure we experience distress.

Secure Base of Exploration: The attachment figure functions as "home," our emotional "base camp," giving us the confidence and security to explore the world and take risks.

Haven of Safety: When hurt, fearful or distressed we go to the attachment figure for protection, healing, and/or comfort.
We see all these at work in our relationships with parents, romantic partners and friends. We want to be close to our attachment figures. We feel distressed, anxious, or out of sorts being away from our attachment figures. Our attachment figures give us a sense of security and confidence which allows us to take risks. And we seek out our attachment figures when we're sad, scared or hurting.

Basically, attachment is what it feels like to love a person.

And most importantly for attachment to God research, these four things also seem to apply to God. We desire closeness with God. We become distressed when we feel separated, distant or disconnected from God. God gives us confidence and a sense of security. And we turn to God when we are anxious, hurt or sad.

Like a parent, romantic partner or friend, God functions like an attachment figure.

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