Search Term Friday: Theology of God as Parent

At the start of my research career my focus was on emotional disorders. My doctoral dissertation was on anger management and most of my early journal publications focused on assessment models trying to untangle anxiety and mood disorders. But after a few years I grew bored with this research. Plus, it's hard to do clinically-oriented research when you are working at liberal arts school. You need access to clinical and psychiatric populations to do good clinical research and I didn't have that.

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.

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.
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:
God as Mother and Father:

[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)
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.

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37 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: Theology of God as Parent”

  1. Sabio's point #2 is where the breakdown comes for me as well. The varieties of religious experience (apologies Wm. James) more-or-less proof that this is something pertaining wholly to the human imagination. Thus my "faith" was lost. OK, I had crappy parents (as did my spouse), but that has nothing to do with a "relationship" based on non-reality. Our real work here was to avoid making the same mistakes with our own child, which I believe we did for the most part, and continue to do. But I have stopped looking for answers of any kind from a theoretical being. In that sense, there never has been a "clinical or psychological population" (of One) to either study or relate to. I find it a bit strange when anyone refers to an "experience" with God.

  2. This gets at something that I've always found very hard to explain to people who don't have the same kind of religious background as I did. They really find it hard to get just how intensely fraught and psychologically distressing my relationship with God was (and how very, very real that was to me), particularly since I ditched God the Father a few years back. It's hard to explain to people, but I say "Well, think of God as my abusive boyfriend, and that pretty much sums up the dynamic." (And there are SO many ways that my relationship with God got fused with my relationship with my parents. It's a therapy gold mine.) Attachment theory really does explain a lot.

  3. Do you know Theology and Pastoral Counseling: A New Interdisciplinary Approach (1995) by Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger? In it she interfaces the theology of Karl Barth with object-relations theory, particularly as deployed Ana-Maria Rizzuto in The Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study (1979), concluding with a superb "Case Study: Eva and Her 'Black Despairs'" in which she traces Eva's self-torturing image of a God back to her dysfunctional relationship with her parents. In effect, Eva's punitive representation of God is a projection of her psychologically abusive mother. "No fundamental change in this system seemed possible unless a crucial distinction could be made between the voice, authority, and attitude of Eva's mother and those of God."

    However, there was another source of Eva's God-representation, in particular the image of the loving, nurturing God of Jesus disclosed in the Bible. "Conflicting images, attitude, and expectations seemed to coexist side by side. Sorting them out according to implicit psychological and theological norms was an ongoing part of the interpretive [counseling] task." And it was here that Barth's theology of grace and justification became (implicitly) central to Eva's therapy, overcoming - well, as Philip Larkin (in)famously put it:

    They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

    They may not mean to, but they do.

    They fill you with the faults they had

    And add some extra, just for you.

  4. Saying this 25% tongue-in-cheek, anxiety and mood disorders might also find their place in (if not caused by) religion.
    I've read tesimonies of those (Christians) who were driven to despair and insanity over the doctrine of ET hell alone. With that, it's understandable why some (many) might spend most of their lives wondering/questioning if God has personally embraced them as their Father in the first place, let alone enjoy some level of a trusted Father/child relationship. It seems just getting to a place where one is assured/convinced God loves them personally (never mind developing a healthy parent/child relationship) is elusive.

  5. That's profound. Not too many people want to talk about this with a 50,000 foot pole I suspect, but I think about this as well and want to talk about it. Just the other day a Christian friend was encouraging me that he sees me as a misfit in society and about how much God loves misfits. But then I starting thinking....does this mean that I can't get normal love of fitting in so I fabricated a God who loves misfits in my imagination? Haha...maybe either!

  6. Good to see you again Sabio!

    (1) This is exactly what I was wondering. Here is a meta-analysis on persistence of attachment types. It appears to have an empirical basis, although it should be noted that the correlations are not extremely strong. We are talking about broad tendencies here, not a determinative model.

    (2) If your premise is (a) People have various expectations of God, then I don't see how this conclusion follows from it: (b) People don't have a relationship with a real entity but with their imagination of how they imagined that OTHER or how they think it should be. The argument seems to have the same form as this one (a) People have various expecations of the shape of the earth, therefore (b) people don't have a relationship with a real earth, but with their imagination of how they imagined that earth or how they think it should be. I don't consider the latter argument valid, so I also don't see how the former is convincing to you.

  7. (1) The conclusion of that study was, “attachment security is moderatly stable across the first 19 years of life…”

    That is short. Where after the second theory (revisionist) then holds that later relationships then greatly influence attachment patterns.

    But either way, the data is weak. But it is clear that those first relationships are critical and for some lifelong in their influence.

    (2) Dan, don’t be silly. I wasn’t trying to show that santa, spirit ancestors or gods don’t exist. But as But pointing out the obvious: people’s relationships with Krishna, Kannon, Jesus, Yahweh is certainly largely imagined. Such evidence would only match the theory that peoples gods are totally imagined, but not offered as “proof” in the form of an argument.

  8. (1) This wasn't a comprehensive literature review. Before concluding that the data is weak, I would recommend a more comprehensive literature review.

    (2) I don't think you would find it convincing if I were to say, "Pointing out the obvious, relationships with Krishna, Kannon, Jesus and Yawheh are certainly not largely imagined." The form of your argument here is essentially to assert that your conclusion is obvious. I actually do think that in the case of a creator deity, who communicates through creation, that your statement is obviously wrong. Here is why (1) if a deity is believed to communicate with people through careful empirical observation of the created order, then (2) the relationship with that deity is, at least in that respect, no more imagined than any other form of empirical inquiry. Do you have a similar argument for your conclusion? I do not consider the statement "x is obvious" to be an argument.

  9. (2) Viewing emotional responses to observing our world (“Nature”) and a god relating to you seems odd to me. If you want to label those emotions as “God” that is fine, of course. But it seems odd to label being awed by mountains and stars, repulsed by hurricanes and tornadoes, and disgusted by deformative diseases and “my precious Lord.”

    But if that is how your god talks to you, great. But the way we usually use the phrase “relationship with someone” is nothing like that. You are using “relationship” in a highly technical theological way.

    I think even many theists also agree with me when I say: “People’s relationships with their god is largely imaginary. Religious professionals try to get them to tweek that imagined relationship to fit their sects preferences.”

    Look here at a graph of “have a personal relationship with Jesus” to see how fadish the expression itself is.

    If you want “Nature is talking to me” the same as “God talks to me”, that is great. And I agree, that is certainly different than what most Evangelicals think who love the “relationship with Jesus” meme.

    There are lots of flavors of Christianity -- enjoy your meal.

  10. Oh yes, for a pic of what I think of complicated, technical theological reframing of normal words, see here:

  11. Thanks for your response! That helps clarify some of my confusion.

    Regardless of how you think about emotion, that is not what I have in mind here. Instead, I am thinking of the natural theology that Darwin studied at Cambridge, as an example.

    I am also thinking about presuppositional critical discourse analysis. It is very tangentially related to emotion. (Although I'm a huge fan of emotion, and of the importance of emotion in reaon

    In my experience with Evangelicals, 'relationship' does not just mean 'feelings'. It also refers to an intellectual endeavor, an effort to understand and critique, as well. There is more than a little of the Cambridge 'natural theology' in it. Your experience may differ, and I think that exploring how Evangelicals understand 'relationship' with God is an interesting empirical question. I'm sure there are a wide range of ways that they understand it, some more prevalent than others.

  12. I'm going on the road, to the funeral of my wife's brother today. He died suddenly yesterday. As a result, I'm going to be out of pocket for a while.

    If you'd like to revisit my critique of your approach with the 'knot', I believe it can be found in the comments section of your blog. To provide a short response: I don't think that is what I'm doing here at all. In fact, I would go so far to say as that it should be obvious that this is not what I'm doing ;) The fact that it is not obvious to you suggests that I might want to help you understand the difference, when I have some time :)

  13. Sorry about your loss.

    I won't be revisiting your critique -- if you'll remember, our conversations inevitably have died fruitless and frustrating -- and all that while being very long and time consuming. So, no thanks on your offer "to help [me] understand the difference". :-)

  14. Actually Dan, why not take my advice on this post:

    On your own blog you can lay out clearly your flavor/sect/denomination of Christianity. Otherwise comments on other people threads just becomes you trying to teach your religion in sound bites. There are too many sects of Christianity, too many religions to hear everyone's spin and why theirs is better than the others. Give us the option to visit your chapel with a click.

  15. Sure. I had hoped that you might be more open to considering some reasoned critiques, but that is okay. Still, I think discussions like this can also help other people think more clearly!

    Thank you for your condolences, and take care.

  16. I still think that was a good suggestion. Im working on it. Still, I'm not arguing for anything particularly distinctive here. I'm just pointing to major trends in Christian thought.

  17. Christianity, at its core, is a religion based on a "relationship" with a "personal" Creator/God. Christians pride themselves on this knowledge. Given the variety of human experiences and personalities, there are those who are able to cultivate such a relationship, and others who are not. What we in the latter category seem unable to do is find any similarity whatsoever with any real-world relationships we have had and a MEANINGFUL relationship with an imagined Being. I am not referring here to any other bit of wisdom or knowledge about humans and the natural world, but only to the stated dogma of a "personal relationship" as applied by most followers of Christ.

  18. I hear what you are saying, Sam. But everything hinges on what Christians mean when they refer to God as "personal". There are certainly Christians out there who, in my view, refer to God as "personal" in ways that are puerile at best and superstitious or idolatrous at worst. The best spokespeople in Christian tradition, however, would say that the term "personal", which is indeed crucial to Christian faith, (a) has the critical function of insisting that God is not impersonal - a void, an "it", a force - and (b) must be understood not univocally but analogously to human personhood (e.g., God as Mother/Father in Richard's catalogue above).

    Above all, Christians claim that God "loves" us and "speaks" to us (both verbs "personal", but, again, to be understood analogously) in the first century Jew Jesus of Nazareth. As a human being, Jesus was, of course, univocally a person ("fully human" - Chalcedon), but as the Word made flesh his human was unique ("fully divine" - Chalcedon); and, moreover, because he is risen and ascended, he is now present to us not directly but indirectly, mediated to us by the Holy Spirit (yes, I'm afraid we have to use trinitarian langauage!) through the scriptures and the sacrament.

    Again, there are Christians for whom Jesus/God is a walking, talking, if invisible, figure, a kind of Casper the Friendly Ghost (in Robert Jenson's delicious bon mot), but abusus non tollit usum. That God is "personal" can be affirmed with coherence and integrity, a God whom we can experience, know, and love, albeit in ways that are extremely hard to articulate, ways at which we gesture really (but not merely gesture!). What else? God the ultimate-intimate and intimate-ultimate is - mystery!

  19. It is comments like that which close dialogue.
    Of course I am opened to reasoned critiques.
    I told you how and where. But maybe you are doing just what you said,
    writing for others. Again, I strongly suggest a blog where you can simply link to arguments you may be presenting over and over to people on various blogs or threads. Also, they could read you "about" section and see your religious affiliation history, your academic & work background. And, if you read that post I supplied, it gives templates to share your particular flavor of Christianity (even if you consider yourself in the majority of "orthodox" opinions).

    I am all about trying to understand each other and not rhetorical armwrestling nor tieing knots with words -- too time consuming. So a blog would help. If you are clear on your blog and inviting in conversation, people will follow. If not, you will good feedback as to how welcome your ideas and presentation are.

  20. Just to tie up any loose ends regarding the semantics here: I think the basic epistemological point I'm making here is relevant, regardless of whether 'relationship' is defined in the common, nontechnical way I am using it or the common, nontechnical way you are using it. It is often helpful to clarify how we are using words. I don't consider clarifying how one is using words, especially from among their common multiple meanings, to be 'tying knots with words.' Still, the underlying epistemic argument holds either way.

  21. And just to be clear -- I think I've clearly stated my points.
    If you don't understand what I said, questions are welcome.
    I think I was pretty straight forward.
    I don't care to get into subtle difference that wouldn't be productive.
    Looking forward to seeing your blog.

  22. I appreciate the offer. I think your points are easy enough to understand. I just think your conclusions don't follow from your premises, and that at least one of your premises doesn't pertain to the object of your critique.

  23. Dan, state what you think my conclusion is -- please put it simply.
    I don't remember presenting any syllogism. My first comment dismissed your misunderstanding of some imagined "God does not exist" syllogism, if you will remember.

  24. Boy, Kim, amidst all that theological mumbo-jumbo, I have no clue how your god is personal to you that, as Sam states, I can "find any similarity whatsoever with any real-world relationships". So it seems you are using "personal" and "relationship" as highly qualified, technical theological words so as to stay safely within the creeds -- but not out of experience.

  25. That's right, Sabio. I've been a Christian for almost 40 years, and have had no experience whatsoever of the living Christ. (Have you read my last paragraph?) However, I have known plenty of Christians who have informed me, rather like yourself, that because I have not had certain prescribed experiences - among them the "born-again" experience - well, "poor you" at best and "you're not a real Christian" at worst.

    And as to my "mumbo-jumbo" - way to go: you've disenfranchised most of the Church's finest, not to say orthodox, theologians, who have hardly found the creeds "safe", and who have always suggested how bloody difficult it is to speak of God, how even the best of our God-talk (as Rowan Williams puts it) is "the noise of someone falling over things in the dark".

  26. Right, Sabio, I take your point. I hadn't read the thread of your conversation with Dan [below]. I now see that I completely got the wrong end of the stick as to where you're coming from: you're not gullible about "experiencing" God-talk (gullibility bears the brunt of my critique) - my apologies - on the contrary, you are skeptical about "experiencing"-God-talk, i.e., you think that alleged experiences of God are "imaginary", "delusional", etc. or at least cannot be demonstrated to be other than such. Is that right?

    Still, then I must repeat my point that our experience of God is a unique kind of experience, precisely because God is not an item in the world - or, for that matter, is God in addition to the world, let alone the world itself - rather God is the creator of the world. So an "experience" of God will be sui generis, and the the grammar of "experiencing"-God-talk will likewise be sui generis.

    I can hear you thinking "mumbo-jumbo" again. Fair enough, and, yes, at this point we are probably talking past each other. So I'll leave you alone too, wishing you well - except for one final point. As David Bentley Hart rehearses in his recent The Experience of God (2013) (which speaks to that theme, and to the atheist, materialist, naturalist opposition to it in ways a zillion times more knowledgeable, sophisticated, articulate, and, I dare say, persuasive, than I ever could), David Hume's well-known argument for dismissing the miraculous finally amounts to an assertion "that what is exceptional is incredible because it is not ordinary." Which, I think, rather echoes your take on the experience of God. The problem is that it's circular.

  27. Kim, I am so glad you realize that you were talking to an imagined "Sabio".
    You hand a whole conversation with someone who did not exist. ;-)
    As I said to Richard Beck in my first comment. I think many of our earthly (real) relationships are just like this. We imagine our friend, our spouse, our enemy to be something very different than they are and talk to them as such. So if we do this with flesh-and-blood relationships, imagine how it must be with beings we talk to with our eyes squinting.

    If you check my blog, you'll see I am a former Christian.
    I used to pray and "speak" with God/Jesus fervently for years.
    I loved my "relationship".
    I don't think I am or was a deluded person, but I do feel how I interpreted my experiences back then were mistaken. But the experiences were real, of course. And I think such relationships can be very useful.

    Be careful not to imagine who I am further because you now have the label "atheist" for me.
    It is a wonder experience to learn to know and talk to a real person -- not one we are imagining. We should try to really understand all our friends, lovers and enemies as they really are -- in all their ever fluxing complexity.

  28. BTW, Kim:

    I am familiar with Hart’s book though I have not read it. I have read critiques good and bad — for it is in a whole class of similar books. If you read the first 3 paragraphs of this post, you may see how I would view such enterprises.

    Does a “God” exist? Well, it depend on the definition and how we test it or understand testing. And in there lies the horrible epistemological chasm that makes useful dialogue difficult.

    I am reminded of this horrible interview of Oprah with Diana Nyad where she must force fit the word “God” onto an atheist’s experience. It shows how people will go out of their way to preserve a word and intentionally misunderstand someone else just to keep the wordview intact. Admittedly , this happens both ways.

  29. Hi Sabio,

    Just been over to your blog. Loved it! Your recovering evangelicalism; your eccentricity and eclecticism; your rich and rangy life-experiences; your interrogative and empirical cast of mind; your rootededness in the somatic; your fine bullshit detector that, however, has no setting for animus; your at-easeness with your selves and wills, yet your sense (I think) that there is a heap of soul-work to be done on this me-mess, on awakening from the human condition of somnambulism, on liberation from our slavery to disfigured desires and bad habits. Is that there or there-abouts? Or do you remain an imaginary as well as virtual acquaintance? No matter; yes, I hope occasionally to pop by your e-house.

  30. LOL

    That is pretty much “there”. Very fun way your wrote it !
    Nicely done.
    You see, it helps to have a blog to help us know each other.
    You may consider this post, so as to help us know you:
    Build an About Page

    I find very few people on Disqus that know how to click the to find if a writer has more info on the person they are reading. I think that knowing each other helps a great deal than just trying to deal in sterile ideas. Ideas are always connected to people and their emotions.

    I must correct one tiny point of yours, I am not a “recovering Evangelical” but instead, I am recoverED evangelical. I have been a Charismatic and mystic Christian too. "Recovery" seems a stubborn hobby of mine. But likewise (if you view my “confession” posts), I am recoverED from Buddhism, recovered homeopath, recovered vegetarian and much more!

    I am indeed a silly creature.

    Looking forward to your comments on my blog when you are inspired. But be nice, I am very sensitive. ;-)

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