The Taser's Edge


Attachment Theology, or A Whole New Meaning to “No Crying He Makes”

I said it was coming, a look at what attachment theory may say about how we as humans relate to God, and whether it’s to our flourishing or not.

Traditional Attachment Theory (Mama and Baby)
This is the kind that everyone basically believes in, whether they would call it ‘attachment theory’ or not.  The basic thought I’m claiming we all buy into: infants who fail, for whatever reason, to form loving, secure relationships in their earliest life will not thrive in adult relationships.  What not everybody knows: not only do those kids most likely fail to form secure relationships, but often they will actually physically fail to thrive.

Interesting study #1–Harry Harlow’s famous study shows that primates prefer comfort even to food.  Later Harlow studies on furry folks like the one below showed that primates beyond humankind fail to form healthy adult relationships if they don’t form infant attachments:

And to understand how much this matters for humans, listen to “Unconditional Love,” a This American Life episode whose first act is about a kid whose earliest years were spent in an Eastern European orphanage, until he was adopted by American parents and brought to the States.  Or, for a similar horror which attachment theorists would also connect to failure to make early attachments, recall the American mother who last Spring sent her adopted Russian son back to Russia on a plane with nothing and no one but a note about how he was too hard to raise.

Adult Attachment Theory (Adult to Partner)
While any relationship with anything requires some form of attachment, the most interesting may be within the most intimate relationships we make as adults (and specifically in adult romantic relationships).  If we are to be in healthy relationship with our significant others, then we must be able to bond securely to them.

That’s all the stuff from Sue Johnson’ Hold Me Tight I’ve been quoting around here lately…

We all experience some fear when we have disagreements or arguments with our partners.  But for those of us with secure bonds, it is a momentary blip.  The fear is quickly and easily tamped down as we realize that there is no real threat or that our partner will reassure us if we ask.  For those of us with weaker or fraying bonds, however, the fear can be overwhelming.  We are swamped by what neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp of Washington State University calls “primal panic.”  Then we generally do one of two things: we either become demanding and clinging in an effort to draw comfort and reassurance from our partner, or we withdraw and detach in an attempt to soothe and protect ourselves.  No matter the exact words, what we’re really saying in these reactions is: “Notice me.  Be with me.  I need you.”  Or, “I won’t let you hurt me.  I will chill out, try to stay in control.”

Attachment Theology (Human to God)
I really don’t think it ought to be a stretch to think about our relationships to God through the lens of attachment theory, now that we’ve seen how it affects two other types of relationships.

1.) I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but the Hebrew Bible’s “El Shaddai” -while comfortably and traditionally translated from Tyndale to Michael Card as “God Almighty” (or “Almighty God”) – actually seems to have more in common etymologically with ideas of fertility.  A fully plausible translation: “Breasted One.”  Not that hard to understand how if our Father is our breasted mother, then our relationships with God require the secure attachments made between mother and child.

2.) What’s more, if we are all children of God, as Christianity (and plenty of other religions and belief systems) tells us, then attachment theology spells out for us that when we fail to make secure attachment bonds with our divine parent, it deeply affects our relationships with one another.  That is, just as failure for infant to bond with mother means difficulty or failure at that same person, when an adult, to forge emotional bonds with other adults, when we fail to make attachment bonds with God, we will find it difficult-to-impossible to relate healthily to other human beings.

3.) So what does the Garden of Eden mean through an attachment lens?  To start, I’m reading through Augustine’s City of God right now, so I know full well that much (most?) of the Christian tradition has read the sin of Adam and Eve as Pride.  So, I’m not saying necessarily that it wasn’t Pride.

But might it also be something else?  What if it is seen as insecurity that the Father would provide?  The serpent’s trickery is then, “Do you really think God wants your best?  Will he really keep you safe?  Will he really provide for your needs?  Do you really believe that?  No, God knows that eating that fruit would really cause you to flourish, and that’s why he won’t let you have it.”  Imagine what happens to the infant who begins to believe that the breast holds poison and that though a newborn, the mother’s lunch looks much more appetizing.  Adam and Eve react to this fear by first eating the fruit (not bad in itself, but bad for them at this time, to follow Augustine) and then by throwing some clothes on to cover their shame.

Humans only feel shame in places where they don’t feel safe or where they don’t trust the owners of the eyes who see their nakedness.  The infant is not ashamed of its nakedness.  The lovers are not ashamed of their nakedness (and if they are, it’s a sign of brokenness, not of health).  Original Sin is that the way of humans is always to distrust and feel unsafe around God and therefore each other.

4.) So what is redemption?  It is the Trinitarian pursuit of life-giving relationship with the beloved child (humankind) who will die because she has no ability to attach.  Think of the infant who can choose to release her mouth from the nipple, but then cannot find it to reattach and begins to squall.

The Fall is the infant choosing to look elsewhere for food because it either doesn’t trust that the supply will keep coming, or because it believes that it can go off into the world to find better sustenance.  Salvation is that the Son becomes one of us, the only one among us who fully trusts the Spirit of love and attaches his mouth to the breast of the Father as his only sustenance.  His life says, trust the Hand which guides you back to the Breast.  You will not find the Breast apart from being guided by the Hand as I am guided by the Hand.  And without Breast or Hand, you will die.

Yes, I just named the Trinity as Breast, Infant, Hand, and I used Augustine to back it.

5.) If you’ve listened to the This American Life episode prescribed above, then you already know that a treatment used to help kids who have attachment disorders (extremely controversial, but with apparent effectiveness for what are sometimes cases beyond healing) is to break the kid down psychologically into infant helplessness so that he is forced to form attachments with his parents.  This makes me think of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus that he would have to be born again in order to enter the kingdom of God.

Through an attachment lens, the command could be “You have to start over with your attachment to God in order to relate to God or to have life.”  Or, “You must realize that you are an infant who will never find the nipple without help.”

6.) In the context of Jesus’ other teachings, baptism has a similar understanding.  Death of the self is required for the sake of resurrection in (attachment to) Christ.  Do not fight it.  Let the Hand take you to the Breast.  Your Brother, the Hand, and the Breast love you and only want to bring you to flourishing growth.

7.) And the Lord’s Supper?  I think the implications should be clear, but if you want me to say nipple or breast again in this theology post, I just did.  How does the infant give thanks for the Breast, for the Hand, and for the Brother who showed how it’s done by being the only one who really got it?  The infant enjoys and then settles in for a nice Sabbath.


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