By: CS Knight MTh

Attachment theory is, currently, the best psychological tool we have for investigating love. Can this theory be applied to the God-relationship?

 To answer this question we need to look more closely at the attachment bond itself. Mary Ainsworth, a pioneer in the study of childhood attachments, delineated four features of any bond we wish to call an “attachment.” These criteria are:

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.

Let’s reflect on how these criteria play out in childhood and adulthood.

Proximity Maintenance: 
Children desire to be near their parents from birth and this desires for attachment continues into adulthood. We desire to be near attachment figures (parents, lovers, friends). Let me ask you this question: If you were free, right now to go to anyone in the world where would you go? The answer tends to tell us, pretty clearly, who we love.

Separation Anxiety: 
Children show distress when separated from parents. They can begin to panic if they sense they are “lost.” Adults show less separation anxiety, but distress is noted when we say good-bye to someone we love as we go on a trip or are going to be gone a length of time. There are times I still miss my childhood home where I grew up. Watch lovers do their leave-taking and you get the point.

Secure Base of Exploration: 
 A child (toddler) will explore his/her surroundings but keep going back to it’s mother. As long as the mother is within the child’s view he/she has no problem exploring. But if the mother disappears the child will panic and cry out for his/her mother to come. In adulthood, our “exploration” is less physical and more emotional. We feel it as “confidence” which translates into expansion into the adulthood world of challenges and opportunities (going to college, moving to a different state than parents).

Haven of Safety:
 When hurt, anxious, or distressed children turn to their parents. As adults, we also turn to attachment figures, those we love, when in need of care or emotional support. These are the ones we seek out for “help.”

We now have a sense of what an attachment bond looks like. The question is, does relationship with God look anything like this? Can attachment theory be applied to the God-relationship?

First we have to note that God would need to be experienced by the believer as a “Person.” If God is experienced or known as impersonal then attachment theory would fail to describe the believer’s experience. For religions without a notion of a personal God (e.g., Buddhism) or for those holding to more abstract notions of God (e.g., Spinoza, Einstein), attachment theory will be of limited value in describing their experience.

 However, in both the bible and the general Christian experience, God is experienced in personal terms. We speak of being “in relationship” with God. For these believers, attachment theory may indeed be an effective tool to map the terrain of the God-experience. The first researcher and theorist to deeply apply Ainsworth’s attachment criteria to the God relationship was Lee Kirkpatrick. Let’s look at Kirkpatrick’s view of the God Attachment.

Proximity Maintenance: 
Although God is not located in time or space; believers do express their relationship with God in spatial language. We can be “close” to God. Or feel “distant” from God. And, given this language, believers express the desire to be “close,” “near,” or “intimate” with God. Images of this intimacy often are understood as being “held” or “embraced” or “touched” by God. In short, the first attachment criterion certainly seems to apply to our relationship with God.

Separation Anxiety:
 David fears that God will abandon him and cries out “Do not forsake me, O Lord; O my God, be not far from me! Make haste to help me, O Lord my salvation!” (Psa. 38:21-22) And this sentiment tends to capture the distress experienced by the believer when one feels “separated” from God. Generally, this distress is expressed in the language of lament, which captures the emotional devastation associated with being “abandoned” or “orphaned” by God. So, our second criteria also applies.

Secure Base of Exploration: 
Again, our criteria seems to apply here as well. God is often experienced as “home,” our true, eternal Home. Further, God is experienced as a source of strength and confidence, which energizes the believer with hope. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Haven of Safety: 
Our final criterion also applies. When in distress or in need of comfort believers “turn to God” and seek out God’s presence. And this presence, when experienced, is generally found to be healing and a source of peace and security. “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
 “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear” (Psa. 46:1-2).

In summation, Kirkpatrick’s work strongly suggests that relationship with God is experienced as an attachment bond. In fact, the convergence is remarkable. The criteria are a great fit. But this is perhaps not overly surprising given that “love” and the “attachment” bond is the only way we humans understand love.

Attachment is the language of love and it is the only language we speak. 

What this implies, as God is experienced as an attachment figure, all that we have learned about attachments, theory and data from over 50 years of research, can be fruitfully applied to understand our experience and relationship with God. Over the last 10 years, “attachment to God” researchers have taken up this work and found incredible body of information that confirms this theory of attachment to God.

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