Insights for individuals and the church, by Maureen Miner Bridges
For the last fifty years Christians have been exposed to relational theology. Yet our understanding of Christians in relationship with God has scarcely benefited from psychological and neuroscientific advances in attachment as a foundational relational theory. There is good evidence that a believer’s style of attachment impacts their spiritual and psychological functioning. For example, many individuals report insecure attachment to God, consistently experiencing God as distant or punishing and themselves as unworthy or rejected by God. As a result, they find it hard to pray, to join with other believers in spiritual or social activities, and to engage in religious work. They are also likely to be distressed by psychological symptoms. My challenge to Christians and churches is to promote healthy attachment relationships. This challenges us to recognize the pain of those who are insecurely attached to God and suggests ways of supporting them.
Dr Maureen Miner Bridges is Director of Research, Excelsia College in NSW, Australia. She is a Director of the Lumen Research Institute and a practising clinical psychologist. She has authored several books and over 50 peer refereed publications and reports in key areas of psychology including abnormal psychology, organizational psychology, and the psychology of religion and spirituality. Her research and scholarship were recognized internationally by a Crawford Miller Fellowship (St Cross College, Oxford) and a fellowship for the John Templeton Oxford program of seminars and research into Christianity and science.
The Christian understanding of God, and God’s interactions with humans, has in recent decades changed with a turn to relationality. Traditional theology followed Greek philosophy to emphasise God as unchanging, undivided, incapable of suffering, all-powerful, and transcendent. (See Shults, Reforming Theological Anthropology, 2003). In contrast, the postmodern focus on relationships and interdependence led theologians to return to understandings of God as Trinity, as expressed in the Nicene Creed; “ancient claims about the Trinity’s co-equality and mutual reciprocity are being recovered and reendowed with a fullness of meaning and significance that had been largely obscured in the modern era” (Cunningham in Van Hoozer, Postmodern Theology, p.190). Relational theology is associated with theologians such as Barth, Pannenberg, Gunton, Moltmann, Rahner and others. They emphasise God as Trinity, with interdependent, non-hierarchical personhood. Within the Godhead and with people are relationships of intimacy, responsiveness, and self-limitation.
The notion of personhood is prominent: humans are whole persons, receiving their personhood as a gift, called into relationship with God for eternity, engaging in moral development that expands one’s reality but nonetheless results in an ongoing (relative) unity (Rolnick, Person, Grace and God, 2007, pp. 222-230).
I argue that psychological understandings of attachment can flesh out insights from relational theology and open up practical implications.
Attachment is foundational for our sense of self in relationship, our emotional expression, and our capacity to form reciprocal relationships. Secure attachment to caregivers in infancy is a foundation for later psychological health. When adults provide security, infants learn to regulate their emotions. They are then equipped to cope with the usual stresses and losses of life and stay emotionally healthy. They can engage with other people to meet attachment needs: with friends, partners, children – and with God. However, those who don’t develop smooth brain processes for emotional regulation and good coping strategies may struggle to cope with life and develop psychological symptoms.
Attachment is a bio-behavioural system designed for psychological security. It functions over the whole lifespan, beginning in infancy. Babies and toddlers have an inherent tendency to seek proximity to a caregiver when they feel under threat or distressed. The caregiver uses mirroring and soothing to calm emotion. Ideally, the caregiver is attuned to the infant, for example uses her eyes to show she is aware of the infant, responds to the infant and meets the infant’s needs. Over time, the caregiver becomes a safe haven to down-regulate the infant’s emotion. Soothing after separation has clear physical effects: the child’s heart rate falls, growth hormone levels fall, vocalization increases. However, when caregiving is disturbed, insecure attachment relationships may form. The caregiver may be absent or unable to soothe and the child become anxious – sometimes clinging and sometimes pushing away – or avoidant, not seeking proximity and safety from caregivers. Parts of the infant’s brain associated with emotional regulation develop in the context of secure attachment and may not develop properly in cases of very disturbed attachment.
As the infant develops autonomy the ‘secure base’ function is added to the attachment relationship. The child is securely attached to her caregiver not only as she is close to the adult but also as she looks away and leaves their presence to explore the world. Repeated experiences of seeking and finding protection and comfort form the foundational expectation that ‘others will be available and willing to nurture me,’ and that ‘I am worthy of nurture.’ This becomes a pattern for how the child relates to others and sees herself, as she becomes an adolescent and adult. Hopefully we find people who provide attachment functions of felt security and emotional regulation, people who can calm us down when we need it, or at other times help us to become more engaged and lively as appropriate.
Research has clearly shown that secure styles of relating to attachment figures have been associated with psychological health and well-being, compared to insecure attachment styles: greater empathy, creativity, stability in sense of self-worth, effective interpersonal functioning and social competence, satisfaction in relationships, healthy emotional expression, ability to cope with negative emotions, and capacity to respond well to challenges (Mikulincer & Shaver 2007; Mikulincer, Shaver, Bar-On, & Ein-Dor, 2010). Around 70% of people seem to have secure styles of attachment.
Attachment to God
There is both theological (Miner, 2007) and empirical (Kirkpatrick, 1999) evidence that Christian believers relate to God as an attachment figure. God is perceived by believers as the ultimate source of safety and protection from natural and supernatural forces, since God is deemed to be all-powerful and benevolent. Spiritual attachment works in a similar way to human attachment.
Believers seek proximity to God, viewing God as a safe haven in times of difficulty and as a secure base for activities in the world. They protest perceived separation from God by lamentations. Distressing situations activate the attachment system, such as illness, threat of loss, frightening events. These typically elicit the attachment behavior of ‘turning to God’. Perceived comforting by God calms the attachment system, so that believers experience soothing and are able to resume adult activities in the world.
There is good evidence that secure attachment to God is associated with positive, and insecure attachment to God with negative, psychological and spiritual outcomes. These results broadly hold for believers of the monotheistic religions – Christians, Jews and Muslims.
Secure attachment to God is associated with positive religious coping, including: accessing God as a source of strength, engaging in good deeds and displaying fewer expressions of discontent or blame of God (Cooper, Bruce, Harman, & Boccaccini, 2009). And it is also associated with reduced psychological symptoms (Limke & Mayfield, 2011), and greater life satisfaction.
On the other hand, insecure attachment to God, marked by anxiety, is associated with increased psychological distress, (Bradshaw, Ellison, & Marcum, 2010), and both anxious and avoidant attachment to God is associated with lowered religious and spiritual well-being; a person may seek God and try to pray but is unable to be soothed.
A foundation for faith
Secure attachment to God is a foundation for the psychological health of believers and also for their capacity to engage as Christians in the world, and in congregational life.
A secure attachment relationship with God may develop from birth when Christian parents, who are themselves secure attachment figures for the infant, use stories and little rituals to show that God is attuned to the child’s needs and will meet those needs. The child learns to pray. The child expects that God will be kind, and may later seek God as an attachment figure in times of distress.
However, if attachment to parents is insecure, teaching about God will be filtered through the experiences and expectations of insecure attachment. If children view themselves as unworthy of human nurture they are unlikely to be able to experience themselves as being loved by God. If they view others as unwilling or unable to meet their needs they are unlikely to be able to experience God as fully dependable and caring – whatever their professed beliefs. This can become a key difference between what people believe in their heads and what is emotionally felt. As a result, people with insecure attachment to God are unlikely to seek God or find relief at times of distress. Unregulated distress can lead to poor coping, difficulty holding to an intrinsic, committed faith, and psychological symptoms.
An insecure attachment to God can also exacerbate psychological symptoms because the person believes they ought to feel nurtured by God, but they don’t feel love, joy, peace and a sense of security. They may experience guilt for being sinful or for not trusting God or not feeling love of God. One outcome of such insecurity and attachment anxiety is being highly scrupulous (Fergus & Rowatt, 2014). In about 2% of the population (US studies) there is a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder marked by doubts about sin and very strong urges to perform appeasing religious rituals.
Impact on Christian life
Secure attachment to God functions as a personal-spiritual resource that a Christian brings to their everyday living. When job demands increase, Christians with secure attachment to God can draw on their attachment relationship for emotional resources to counter burnout and maintain work engagement (vigour, dedication and absorption). However, spiritual resources are depleted over time; a stable secure attachment to God can provide the motivation and the capacity for maintaining other spiritual resources.
Caring for others comes more easily when we have experienced secure attachment. Generally speaking, people in secure attachment relationships are adequate attachment figures themselves when they provide nurture to others. Offspring who have received high-quality caregiving in infancy not only tend to develop favourably in general but also to display sensitive caregiving to their own offspring (e.g., Francis, Diorio, Liu, &Meaney, 1999; Suomi, 2008). Christians with a secure attachment to God are likely to be good nurturers to other Christians in their relationship with God – in relationships within families and within churches.
Impact on participation in congregational life was researched by Kent & Henderson (2017). This showed that people with secure attachment to God will engage more in congregational activities; people with insecure, anxious attachment to God will participate less. This relationship holds after accounting for level of attendance at worship services. The authors suggest that people with insecure attachment to God are likely to be marginalized because their failure to experience God as warm, loving and nurturing is counter to congregational norms.
Children’s sense of God’s closeness can be traced to their mothers’ attachment security (Cassibba et. al., 2012). The most important influence on children’s sense of closeness to God was the mother’s closeness to her own parents, how secure she felt as a child. The relationship is reflected in the mother’s caregiving for the child. The mother’s religiosity was less important. “A caregiver who desires his or her children to come to view God as a close relational partner may do well in placing a high priority on the children’s own needs for support and closeness. The caregiver’s implicit teaching about relationships is likely to be far more important than his or her explicit preaching about God.” (Cassibba et. al. 2012 p.62). The moral of the story – be a good attachment figure. Don’t worry so much about what you are teaching.
Discipline is problematic
De Roos (2006) describes the impact of parenting style on a child’s view of a punishing God:
“Recently, it was found that parental childrearing practices predicted children’s view of a punishing, strict, and potent God. The more parents use strict and power-assertive childrearing techniques, the more their children will view God as angry, punishing, and potent. The more parents emphasize their children’s autonomy, the less the children will view God as powerful.” The lesson here, is to avoid authoritarian styles of parenting if you want your children to feel close to God.
A mix of relationships
De Roos studied relationships with mother, father, teacher in Protestant and secular schools, of children around 5 years old. “In a context having three negative relationships, children’s God concepts are formed by a positive (.74) and potent (.99) God, but not significantly by a relational God (.33). Children that have negative relationships with all their caregivers are not reinforced to view God as someone who loves them, will make them happy, is nice, and is a friend. When children experience a lot of conflict and feel little openness, closeness, and warmth in all relationships with their caregivers, God is not perceived as a close, personal, and warm entity.”
A remarkable finding in the study is that relationships with mother, father, and teacher can compensate for each other in fostering an intimate relationship with God among young children. That is, even when a child has negative (insecure) relationships with both parents, a teacher can positively influence the development of a perception of God as a loving, kind friend.
When caregiving involves spiritual nurture (teaching children about God) then attachment to the child is more important than the adult’s own attachment to God. However, content still has its place – the parent’s secure attachment to God allows for gradual religious teaching and gradual development of the child’s secure faith.
Developing Attachment to God in adulthood
Important attachment figures for adults are romantic partners and close friends. Amongst believers, both adult partners and God are important resources for coping with life stress (Reiner, 2010). In the case of single adults, Attachment to God can compensate for lack of a partner who is an attachment figure and help the single person deal with life stressors (Granqvist & Hagerkull, 2000).
So how can individual Christians and churches support the development of secure Attachment to God in adults who come to faith in God, especially if they have insecure human attachments?
- Meet attachment needs as human attachment figures – care for their emotional needs to be heard, validated, feel safe.
- Then we can start teaching these people about God as an ideal attachment figure, someone who is close, responsive, nurturing and relational – because we have given a human template for that. We can filter our teaching about God as Trinity on the basis of their implicit learning about what God might be like.
- If they seem anxious, depressed or not coping psychologically, refer them to a Christian psychologist for therapies designed to help people with attachment insecurity. Schema Therapy – Christian therapy from an attachment perspective (Stevens & Miner, Free to Love: Schema Therapy for Christians)
- Don’t judge them for avoiding church if they are struggling to relate. Some people with an insecure attachment with people and with God, coming to a worship service is highly stressful.
- Teach about God as an ideal AF – close, responsive, nurturing, relational
- Avoid authoritarian styles of managing congregational members because such styles exacerbate insecure attachment experiences
- Help them experience God as loving, merciful and forgiving by using relational language in prayer, immersive biblical studies, avoiding blanket condemnation. – as in Jesus welcoming little children.
Warning – downsides of secure attachment to God?
A potential downside can be particularly if faith is based on God as a safe haven, rather than God as a secure base for exploration. Interestingly, secure attachment and a literal understanding of the bible are significantly associated (Kent & Pieper, 2019). The authors suggest that a literal view of the Bible, in contrast to a sceptical or interpreted view, enables the person to perceive God as more human-like and therefore more personal. They also point to relational theology being expressed in emotionally laden forms of worship amongst evangelical Americans. Indeed, “Evangelical Christianity has benefited from the emphasis placed on Jesus Christ as an anthropomorphized God, encouraging followers to spend time with him, talking and sharing life’s daily minutiae.” (p.246)
However, when literalism is a form of ideological authoritarianism – a hermeneutic where scripture is self-interpreting and no external form of interpretation can be given authority – there is danger of religious fundamentalism and prejudice (Hood et al., 2005). So if the Christian has a secure attachment to God they should be encouraged to sift different ways of understanding their faith and extend their hospitality as broadly as possible – to avoid dangers of fundamentalism and prejudice.
“Grace is the pure gift of self for the other; the Trinitarian life of God is infinite and eternal grace. Grace is central to understanding personhood because each person is truly given to be itself.” (Rolnick, 2007, p. 205 & p.7). From psychological studies we find that secure human attachment and secure attachment to God are healthy and foundational resources. They allow the person to use other healthy resources in challenging times and also to be a healthy caregiver of others. Attachment theory helps us understand why some people have difficulty being part of a church community or fail to thrive despite good Christian teaching. It suggests how we can love them wisely. Finally, attachment theory and research show how we can relate to God as whole people – inter-related bio-psycho-social beings – Work on attachment fills in some of the detail of relational theology.
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This article was written for a NZCIS-ISCAST ‘Conversations’ Talk, 2021, edited and abridged by Silvia Purdie