The Psychology of Christianity: Part 4, The Love Relationship with God

Given that Christians conceive as God as "parent," psychologists have suggested that the relational schemas associated with the child/parent bond are imported into the God-relationship. That is, the emotional and cognitive dynamics governing our first love relationship gives us a psychological "language" to approach the love relationship with God.

John Bowlby's attachment theory is, perhaps, the most influential theory we have regarding the nature of the parent/child bond. In the psychological literature, Lee Kirkpatrick was the first to suggest that the four aspects of the attachment bond (as described by Mary Ainsworth) characterize the Christian's relationship with God:

Proximity Maintenance
Christians desire to be "close," "near," and in intimate "communion" with God.

Separation Anxiety
Related to the desire to maintain proximity, Christians are distressed when they feel distant, separated, forsaken, or abandoned by God.

Haven of Safety
Christians seek God in times of trouble or distress, finding God a source of comfort, support and protection.

Secure Base of Exploration
God functions as "home," the location of identity and "groundedness" and, thus, the location of confidence and courage.
In short, the human experience of love functions as a psychological template for how we experience the relationship with God. Attachment creates the emotional texture and tone for the experience of God's love.

In light of this, one of the outstanding questions in the attachment to God literature is what is known as the "correspondence versus compensation" question. This question goes back to Freud who famously suggested that God functions as a replacement or surrogate attachment figure when our relationships with our parents are deficient or troubled. In this, the attachment bond with God "compensates" for the lack of human attachment. For Freud, this would be symptomatic of a regressive Oedipal dynamic, seeking a "Father in the Sky" to replace a dysfunctional or absent earthly parent.

An alternative hypothesis is that our relationships with parents actually correspond with our relationship with God. This is the dynamic I hinted at in the last post. That is, a troubled relationship with one's father causes those troubles to be imported into the God relationship. In this, the dysfunctional "God the Father" schema corresponds with the troubled human father experience. (And this can also work in a healthy way, with positive experiences with fathers producing a healthy father schema when applied to God.)

So which is it? Correspondence or compensation? The data is mixed. The most interesting research in this area is trying to sort through the conflicting data by suggesting that we examine attachment along explicit (cognitive) and implicit (emotional) dimensions. Interestingly, these two dimensions might be divergent. That is, one's explicit attachment to God (i.e., how a person cognitive understands God) might be very different from one's implicit attachment (i.e., the emotional experience of relationship with God). In short, theology and experience can clash. A person might claim, cognitively, that "God is love" but, at the experiential level, feel abandoned or abused by God. If this is the case, then relationship with God is complex and conflicted, with theology and experience often coming into conflict.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

9 thoughts on “The Psychology of Christianity: Part 4, The Love Relationship with God”

  1. Philip Greven's book "Spare the Child" about the impact of (abusive) child rearing practices on the images of God held by the Puritan religious leaders is perhaps my favorite of all time. I don't know if it is still in print but I highly recommend it.

  2. Here's the funny thing. I looked and looked at that sentence and couldn't figure out what was wrong with it, what you were kidding me about.

    In short, I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer...

  3. Dr. Beck,
    While I think a great many people will fall into the compensation camp, I view God in a corresponding way. But it has less to do with my relationship to my own parents, by my relationship as a parent to my children. I don't know if this is particularly good, by my parenting colors my theology, not the other way around.

  4. Anisa,

    Greven's writings are indeed well worth the read. But Greven's thinking is that a punitive, apocalyptic, literalist theological reading of the text affects how children are seen: essentially demons unless hindered by physical/emotional punishment. In those schemas, punishment and discipline are one one and the same.

  5. Justin,

    I think it works both ways: theory helps to frame practice and practice can both re-inforce and undermine theory. Alas! Being human can be take some time to sort out.


Leave a Reply