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  • Sean Tobin

God Image and Psychology



The impact of psychological development on how one experiences and relates to God has become a popular subject in both the pulpit and the therapy room. The topic itself is as old as creation but made more significant as the Fatherhood of God became an object of contemplation through the Judeo-Christian tradition. With the advent of the field of psychology, the topic of relational dynamics as they relate to the transcendent – i.e., one’s relationship with God, has been implicitly present but infrequently addressed. Before continuing further, it would be helpful to define what exactly is meant by “God image”.

The term God Image is easy to confuse with related the image of God. The Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that Man was created in the “image and likeness” of God (see Genesis 1:26). According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this means that “Man occupies a unique place in creation: (I) he is ‘in the image of God’; (II) in his own nature he unites the spiritual and material worlds; (III) he is created ‘male and female’; (IV) God established him in his friendship” (CCC 355). While there may be many images of God throughout the history of art, none speaks as eloquently of God, “clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20), as the human person.

Study about the nature of God has unfolded throughout human history (also known as theology), and has led to a rich understanding about the concept of God. The God Concept, however, is still different from the God Image, as it relates primarily to the abstract, intellectual, mental definition of the word “God”. While it becomes difficult to epistemologically separate thought from feeling, it generally represents what people think about God, rather than what they feel about God (or what they feel God feels about them!).

God Image, finally, relates more to the complex, subjective emotional experience of God. Generally speaking, it is shaped by a person’s family history and causes their experience of God to resemble their relationship with their parents – a sort of lens by which one interprets relational material, mentally categorizing and framing one’s reactions in any given relational experience. Despite having to do with God, the topic is primarily a psychological construct, as it exists across religions, cultural, academic, and theoretical boundaries.

God Image is universal, whether or not it is used as an object of Faith – every atheist can describe the “God” they don’t believe in, but the association and experience with that construct is what is psychologically relevant. God Image relates more to the psychological capacity in man to be in relationship with the transcendent, and thus, is properly more a topic of psychology than theology (or even phenomological philosophy), as it deals with the study of concrete human capacities of thought, emotion, behavior, and development – the subject of psychology.

While modern psychology often relates its beginnings to Freud, the term God Image was coined in 1979 by Dr. Mary Rizzuto, a psychoanalytic, Catholic psychologist. She published a book entitled The Birth of the Living God, dedicated precisely on this topic. Freud famously made religion the subject of analysis – often arguing for its discredit, while speaking from the point of view of his own atheism (see Vitz, 1999, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism). Rizzuto, on the other hand, considered that atheism should be too, by taking a step further back to understand the psychological processes. Her exploration of the topic reflects the evolution of psychoanalysis (the psychological tradition originating with Freud), with Melanie Klein’s (1882-1960) development of early attachment, William Fairbairn’s (1885-1960) personality and internalization, and Donald Winnicott’s (1896-1971) transitional objects and “Object relations” theory.

Freud’s model for development was focused almost exclusively on the relationship between a child and their father/father-figure (i.e. the Oedipus or Elektra complexes), while Klein included the mother and other significant figures in the child’s early life. Fairbairn extended this model further, describing how one’s entire personality is structured by the internalization of interpersonal experiences – the brain being a social organ. He demonstrated how personality and behavior are organized around and motivated by a primary drive to establish and maintain connections with others, as a basic survival instinct. Internalization, however, is not a static mechanical recording of impressions, but rather, is an active, constructive process by which relational experiences structure and transform the personality. Lastly, Winnicott moved beyond the dichotomy of the inside or outside of the individual, by describing the relational space between them. The interaction between them defines this third domain and is the product of the experiences of the individual in the environment.

In early development, a child first consolidates a coherent sense of self, made up of spontaneous desires and actions, and their effect on the external world. The child internalizes these interactions with the world in terms of a variety of “object representations”. These are complex phenomena that may include, among other things, somatic sensations, affects, and concepts. Neurological and cognitive development occur simultaneously, as the neurons that “fire together wire together”, and object representations are categorized according to mental schemas and generally in specific neurological spaces. This process begins even in-utero (in the womb), beginning from the simple experience of relationship itself, to “me” vs. “not me”, pleasure and pain, etc. These are the basic building blocks upon which all rational functioning is structured.

A child learns to accommodate external reality (in the ongoing separation from the womb in birth, to the tomb, and the soul’s final transition) with the use of transitional objects which engage that intrapsychic space between the internal and external world. These transitional objects carry the child’s first relational experience with the mother and conveys her presence when she is absent. These processes also may help enable a believer to have a more experiential awareness of the “God who is always present”. While the concept of transitional objects are commonly related to specific material objects, it is the relationship with objects (both material and mental), carrying certain qualities and meaning, that are of most psychological significance.

The following are some common examples: newborns feel more secure when swaddled and “shushed” – both reenacting the experience of some of the sensations of being in the womb in the warm enclosure and white noise of bodily functions; a toddler, may prefer to carry their swaddle/blanket, or expand with an object such as a teddy bear (often personified and interacted with). Rather than seeing these developments in a negative light, as “illusions”, it is important to appreciate and respect the psychological meaning of these objects, as the same imaginative capacities of a child are the source of Shakespeare and the formulae of Einstein! Lastly, adults too make use of transitional objects as the consolidation of and transformation of self is ongoing, especially through different stages of life.

Winnicott’s theory is not only about objects but also about certain kind of experience – a capacity for experience. Transitional objects may be recognized even in religion, such as through objects (candles, bells, and sacramental objects, like the Rosary – which embodies for some a strong sense of a maternal bond, which may be both authentic and psychologically constructive), but also objects of belief (such as God or angels), and sacred space (the church building, etc). Rizzuto described God as unique transitional object, as the carrier of the capacity of experience par excellence. While traditional transitional objects serve a purpose of aiding in moving into a more mature state of development, they lose their meaning when the transitional phenomena is diffused and permeating the intra-psychic space between the internal and external world.

The difference between God and all other transitional objects, however, is that God as an “object” of transitional experience is infinitely plastic – meaning, it can change and adapt to fit any need and at any moment of development, and rather than losing meaning or significance, becomes heightened. Considering that every developmental stage also has a crisis of sorts through which one develops and matures, a crisis of belief also occurs, demanding the God image to be transformed to compliment the developing sense of self. If the God image is too brittle or rigid, it might not adapt as well as it should, and can be rejected in order for development to continue. As an example, creedal formulations and ritual actions may remain unchanged from childhood to old age, but their inner meaning to the believer is continually being updated on the basis of new experience.

The conscious beliefs about God, therefore, rest on unconscious processes and come with a long and complicated developmental history. While this understanding may describe how one, through the use of reason, may ascend to belief in God, penetrating into that mystery is less a matter of intelligence but of wisdom and grace. Therefore, beliefs about God’s existence or non-existence, as well as of God’s nature, are objects of incredible emotional investment and to more fully understand them involves understanding more than their cognitive content.

The implication of psychological development and God image sheds a lot of meaning on different models of religion. For instance, for Freud, the experience at the core of the internalized image of God is of feeling guilty, of being judged, of dependency on a superior power. Rizzuto, however, presents a model of religion built on a sense of presence, with the root of the internalized God image being the interpersonal experience of being mirrored, and standing in relationship to another. Differences on the theory regarding the internalized God image, therefore, reflect not only different models of personality, but also different theologies.

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