Translating the Theories of Atonement and Attachment

The following is a paper written in collaboration with Ben Shafar for a theology course at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. The work being referenced, “And Did My Saviour Bleed,” can be read in five parts, beginning here.

Although conversation is commonly a major form of connection within relationships, the relationship itself exists outside of the confines of language in the relational space between individuals. In attempting to explain what it is that happens in that space, various disciplines use various vocabulary. Psychology has a vocabulary and research system for discussing styles of relationship rooted in attachment theory. Theology has a vocabulary for discussing relationship between God and humanity rooted in atonement theory. An individual’s style of relating will be consistent with other humans as it is with God. We seek to demonstrate that such correlations exist in lived experience of relationship.[1] To facilitate demonstrating the correlation, we will be referring to the short story “And Did My Saviour Bleed” in order to discuss how we see these theories playing out within individual characters. Essentially, this paper is a preliminary work of translation.[2] This investigation marks a first attempt to bridge understandings from two separate disciplines and to propose the need for quantitative research to investigate attachment styles as they are lived out in churches that hold various theologies. Within “And Did My Saviour Bleed,” characters’ attachment and atonement styles correlate in such a way that reflects an overall way of being. The way a character relates to other family members is similar to the way a character understands the atonement and relates to God.

There are many influences to consider in a discussion of styles of attachment. Current research draws on evolutionary theory as well as contemporary findings in neurobiology. A brief history of the theory of attachment begins with John Bowlby’s definition of “the attachment figure’s ‘availability’ as a matter not just of accessibility but of emotional responsiveness as  well.”[3] Essentially, Bowlby and his research partner Mary Ainsworth observed a strong correlation between levels of attunement in the mother-child dyad and the child’s ability later in life to relate well with others. More specifically, the ways in which a child is soothed by the primary caregiver in the child’s early life serve as a simple set of rules by which the child is likely to continue to live as an adult.

The work of attachment begins even before birth.[4] A child’s neurochemistry is affected by the state of the mother’s brain from the earliest stages of development. The neuropathways that are formed before birth situate a child for certain ways of being in the world. Even as a child enters this world, there are forces at work inside the brain that will assist or hinder in development. The type of interaction and care the child receives has been observed to trend towards one of three general resultant areas: avoidant/dismissive, preoccupied/ambivalent, and/or disorganized.

Attachment styles, or styles of relating, have been observed to exist on a continuum. Distinctions are offered as paradigmatic frames of reference, each blending into the next in the chaos of actual lived experience, yet offering insights into our distinct ways of being in the world. No one relates to others using just one of these observed styles, but for simplicity in discussion, four different classifications of attachment styles are offered. Secure attachment is observed in the behavior of infants that “appear to have equal access to their impulses to explore when they feel safe and to seek solace in connection when they do not.”[3] In adulthood this plays out as a kind of flexibility and resilience in and surrounding one’s relationships with others. The remaining insecure classifications are avoidant/dismissive, preoccupied, and unresolved/disorganized. Each of these styles of relating is characterized by certain types of attachment-seeking behavior—whether positive or negative—and can be identified within a broad range of more healthy or less healthy ways of being in the world. One impetus behind the conversation of this paper is the observed correlations between these styles of relating and the various ways we (the authors) have seen ourselves and others live out these models in the church and in their theologies.

It is our experience-driven observation and reflection that this same work of attachment is at play in the nature of how one conceptualizes and relates to God. One’s God-concept is inevitably influenced by the paradigmatic impact of the primary care one receives, although conversion or outside influences also hold impact. We do not propose to state that theologies themselves are more or less correct, accurate, or even healthy, but rather hope to illustrate that the way an individual believes his or her relationship to God is similar to the way he or she lives in relationship with others.

Atonement is at the heart of the Christian message and of humanity’s relationship with the Divine. Different understandings of the process by which the sins of humanity are forgiven or not forgiven are central issues of theological inquiry. Atonement is the way in which sins or wrongs are reconciled between two parties. In Christian theology, human “reconciliation with God [occurs] through the sacrificial death of Christ.”[5] The need for reconciliation is implicit throughout the Old Testament texts which assert that nothing impure or sinful can approach God. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has provided a way for humanity to be reconciled to Her without need for further sacrifice. The question that atonement theorists seek to answer is, how is such reconciliation accomplished?

Theories of atonement seem to fall into distinctly nuanced categories, but the way such theories are lived out by Christians covers a wide continuum. In the relatedness of these approaches to viewing reconciliation, the intersection is messy. New ways of rethinking beliefs of how God, resurrection, and community are understood come from within the mess. As this is an introductory conversation, the aim is simply to show the associations between various styles of attachment and their likeliest atonement-theory counterparts in an attempt to open up the importance for future conversation and research. Each of these systems is loosely held, allowing not only for systemic integrity, but also for the persons who inhabit the various systems of thought and styles of relating.

Secure attachment comes about in a relational environment where exploration is possible. If a child experiences the mother[6] as available and dependable, the periods and varieties of exploration can become more vast and varied. In interactions with a primary caregiver the child experiences a rhythm of rupture and repair[7] that leaves the child’s feelings somewhere on the spectrum between cared for and abandoned. The child interprets this data and bases her or his own future actions around the likelihood of eliciting a positive response from the caregiver. The nature of this rhythm will set the cadence for the rest of the child’s life. A child whose mother is adequately in tune recognizes the infant’s needs and meets them in a timely fashion. This very basic interaction communicates that the infant is important, and that asking for what she needs will not result in a negative consequence. The less attuned caregiver sends a different message to her or his infant. Securely attached adults exhibit a well-defined sense of self and a strong sense of worthiness for belonging and love.[8] Her ability to function in the world is less dictated by how others view her than by her own thoughts and desires for the communities in which she functions.

The central character in “And Did My Saviour Bleed” is Caron, a concerned and outspoken young woman. Caron is an individual who comes close to an earned secure attachment. That is, although her primary caregivers were not safe people with whom she could become securely attached, such security was developed outside the immediate family. The story does not address the way in which Caron earned secure attachment. She is involved in the church; it may be that she has a community there who has helped develop her. It is just as easily something much more difficult to explain: a conversion experience, an in-breaking of God in the life of a young woman who is paying attention.[9] The reader sees Caron’s secure attachment because she repeatedly proves that she has a sense of worthiness, belonging, and being loved, and is willing to risk and explore in ways that securely attached individuals are. She demonstrates a profound willingness to engage in the rupture and repair necessary in seeking a new way to relate her parents. This willingness is grounded somewhere in her own experience. She has learned somewhere in her life that exploring is safe, and even healthy. The reader sees Caron’s risk in relationship out of a secure center within herself in the second scene as she calls her sister to a more legitimate apology, “You’re sorry for what?” She has a strong sense of boundaries and thus does not greatly fear rejection.

Also notable is Caron’s demonstration that she holds a sense of worthiness in high value not only for herself, but extends it to others as well. In the first scene, the narrator notes that Caron strongly believes that if Kayla “just felt loved, she wouldn’t have to do all this every night,” and believes it to the point where she is willing to risk personally in order to instill such a sense in her sister. In her final plea to her parents, Caron extends a similar invitation to belonging: “I don’t want us to be against each other keeping track of who owes what to whom.” She opens the possibility for them to accept belonging, if they can just accept that they need not do anything to become worthy of it, if they can accept that they already are worthy.

Just as Caron feels a sense of worthiness of love and belonging in order to function with bold vulnerability in her family structure, she operates similarly within her church community. It is not only that her voice “blend[s] into the unified voice of the community”, but that “she allows” the unification to occur. During the sermon as well, Caron “allows herself to believe she’s worthy of such love, allows herself to be vulnerable.” This is the language of a woman with earned secure attachment: the security is not inherently natural, but surrender is chosen. She is not unwillingly melted into the congregation, but she is secure in her own self and chooses to belong; on some level she feels not only that a sense of worthy but also a sense of agency. Later, the reader again sees that Caron feels safe with this community: she both cries openly and “unashamedly wipes tears.” There is a sense, in the celebration of the crowd, that Caron is not the only one with her emotional guard lowered. What both binds this community together and shapes their acceptance of one another is the theology around which they gather.

In the second Easter morning scene, the reader receives a summary of Caron’s theology of the atonement. What is taught by her pastor is, in short, a nonviolent atonement theory. In this theology, according to James Alison, Jesus is understood at once as “the authentic high priest, who was restoring the eternal covenant that had been established long before”, and the sacrifice, “substituting himself for the victim of our typical sacrifices.”[10] As Caron’s pastor phrases it, Jesus “at once fulfills the Jewish atonement rites while exposing the sacrificial violence of humanity.” Such a theology allows room for sin to occur because “the definition of sin becomes: that which can be forgiven.”[10] More on that theology is explained within the text of the story, so the focus here is on how Caron lives such a theology.

Caron applies her theology to her life and relationships. The hope is not only for tolerating this life while anticipating an afterlife but for a different way of living this life now; as her pastor states, “it is not a continuation of the same life that was … what we talk about is a new way to live this life now.” Because her theology emphasizes this life, she believes in the possibility of living a new way and of having a new style of relating. The reader sees this bridging between theology and attachment style in the final Easter dinner scene where she addresses her parents, “I want to have a better relationship with you. You know, going forward,” and later “let’s do something different, let’s find some better way to do this.” Caron’s hope is for improved relationship in this life now, and she is willing to risk for it. “Because love wins, we don’t need to be defensive, we don’t need to be self-protective, we don’t need to be afraid,” as her pastor teaches. She becomes, like Christ, the victim who approaches her abuser without accusation and with capacious forgiveness to offer new life. Just as it is only securely attached people who are able to emotionally risk and make mistakes, it is only individuals who believe themselves to be truly forgiven that are able and free to make mistakes, even to sin boldly, and Caron’s loving confrontation and vulnerability are certainly sins within her family system.

However, Caron is not ideal in a secure attachment style. Although she is healthier than the other characters in the story, she has a tendency towards the insecure style of relating characterized as preoccupied/ambivalent. Insecure styles of attachment tend towards avoidant/dismissive or preoccupied/ambivalent and are the result of significant and/or unresolved trauma.  Preoccupied individuals such as Caron come out of homes where their own efforts to regulate themselves are often thwarted by the additional need to regulate or soothe their caregiver(s) as well. This style of relating has been aptly described as “no room for a mind of one’s own.”[3] Characterized by a tendency to withdraw into one’s own mind for solace, or to act out erratically in the face of poorly demarcated boundaries, the at-times calm exterior observed in this style of relating is a false guise for constant internal struggle. Another description of this struggle is ‘always worrying about how to please others, but never knowing how;’ an apparently calm duck paddling like mad below the water’s surface. In this constant inner chaos, the only help to be found is in the fantasy that others are unnecessary. Then it is practical and helpful to relate to others with ambivalence, or to appear preoccupied with one’s own thoughts. It is important, however, to recognize that there is no rest or escape in this strategy. Anxiety is not absent, it is being dealt with in the ‘best’ fashion that the individual has been able to learn.

Caron’s anxiety is most clearly observed in the first scene of the story, “Good Friday, 2003.” She is herself anxious about her sister’s nighttime activities, but senses her big sister’s unmet need for love and belonging as well. Rather than having the opportunity to soothe herself, she attempts (however unsuccessfully) to soothe Kayla: “If she just felt loved, she wouldn’t have to do all this every night.” Although the risk involved in soothing another requires some level of security within one’s self, taking care of others emotions is a distraction from the ability to self-soothe. One might suppose that Caron’s anxiety is also a cause of her inability to impact Kayla, given Anais Nin’s definition of anxiety in relation to love that “anxiety is love’s greatest killer. It creates the failures. It makes others feel as you might, when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic.”[11] Perhaps Kayla’s glare can be interpreted as a sign of feeling Caron’s anxiety. The story does not resolve whether Caron has sufficiently reduced her society to offer her parents an invitation to relationship from solid ground.

In the following scene, Caron is again the parent of the family as she calls Kayla to better behavior, offering boundaries that are more defined and manageable than those offered by the girls’ parents. The narrator notes that “So much has never been demanded of her [Kayla].” Caron is also the parent in that she is the one who recognizes the nature of Kayla’s behavior and attempts to bring it to her parents attention. Similarly, she is active to the point of distraction in attempting to draw her father’s gaze into her own life. She repeatedly corrects the distinctions between influential instructors in her life, again without success: Jim takes no notice of his daughter’s desperate plea for recognition. In a sense, she is attempting to parent Jim and Ann into being better parents.

Also characteristic of preoccupied individuals is withdrawal into the realm of the mind. During the evening of the first scene, as Kayla leaves for the night and Caron experiences high anxiety, retreating into her mind is exactly what Caron does to self-soothe: “retreats back up to the stairs to her bookshelf.” Caron also resorts to cutting. Her flight away from her feelings results in her infliction of pain in order to experience calm. She is all too aware of the quiet chaos of her family life. Although she is on her way to escaping the drama, she is not free of it.

As stated above, it is difficult to make solid claims about young Caron’s theology. The author imagines that being in the home of a family who (assuming the theology professed in 2010 also applies to 2003) professes that humans are sinners, indebted to God, and responsible for Jesus’s death, would provoke and maintain some anxiety in Caron. Just as her parents are unpleasable and distant, so too is God, requiring perfection—which may not even be good enough. Whereas her parents can dismiss the anxiety that such a theology could provoke (discussed below), Caron becomes preoccupied with the relationship and need for behavior-based affirmation. Caron recalls this anxiety in the final scene—“I tried so hard to be the perfect”—before re-affirming in herself that perfection is not demanded of her, especially not by God.

What helps define Caron as more secure in her style of relating is that she does not live in the fantasy that other people are unnecessary. Indeed, her relationships with her family members—no matter how chaotic and frustrating—remain so central to her that she continues to return to the family table in adulthood, continues to emotionally risk, continues to hope that something better is just about to arrive. Caron is a living invitation to community, akin to that expressed by Kathryn Tanner when she writes of “a community of mutual fulfillment in which each effort to perfect oneself enriches others’ efforts at self perfection. One perfects oneself by making one’s own the efforts of others to perfect themselves, their efforts too being furthered in the same way by one’s own.”[12] Something of this miracle is at work in Caron’s investment with her family. She longs for the interrelatedness they could experience if they were all willing to work on their relationships.

In addition to preoccupied attachment, another insecure style of relating is avoidant/dismissive attachment. This style of relating is characterized by a tendency to think of others as unnecessary to the meeting of one’s own needs. This is generally observed to develop out of a primary care relationship wherein the mother is experienced as less than optimally available. When a child learns, through her own experience of the world, that regulating her own cycles of joy and distress is necessary without much assistance from a caregiver, it becomes patterned for her as a style of relating.

Within “And Does My Saviour Bleed,” avoidant and dismissive styles of relating are noticeable in Kayla, Ann, and Jim. Kayla is absent from the Easter dinner, and likely from the family in general if the reader can infer as much from Ann’s words “Dad hasn’t heard from her.” Caron’s easy acceptance of the excuse implies that such excuse-making is familiar. In short, Kayla has chosen to be absent from family life, to avoid events and conversations. The root of unresolved trauma that leads to such a style is not made explicit in the story, but Ann’s obvious distraction into the crafting world is a clear example of a less than available mother, and Kayla’s youth experiences (as summarized by Caron) of alcoholism, drug-addiction, promiscuity, and anorexia point to a deeply troubled young woman. Because of her absence in the later narrative, not much can be surmised about the correlation of an atonement theology to such a style of relating. Fitting with an avoidant attachment style and presented knowledge of the character, the author imagines that Kayla is in the atheist/agnostic spectrum and uninvolved with any type of community of believers.

Ann offers a clearer picture of an avoidant/dismissive attachment style and its theological correlation. Perpetually at her craft table, she is obviously disengaged from conversations and emotions, beginning with her silence in response to Kayla’s apology in “Holy Saturday, 2003.” She cannot be provoked into emotional engagement even by her husband’s angry outburst—“You entirely missed the point, Ann!” She simply shrugs off the anger and distances herself from it with a dismissive comment, effectively avoiding any further confrontation. Even being confronted more lovingly by her daughter during Easter dinner, she fails to say anything that is helpful and relevant. The rare times she does speak, it is either an attempt to soothe away the problem, although with great insensitivity—“We couldn’t read your mind, honey”—or to distract away from the emotional confrontation by asking “What was the name of that [burger] joint?” Ann’s inability to connect emotionally, either to fulfill others’ needs or to be vulnerable in seeking to get her own needs met, is characteristic of an avoidant/dismissive attachment style.

Such dismissiveness correlates strongly to her theological stance. As her pastor preaches the goal of the atonement, reconciliation is not at all about this life: it is about avoiding eternal pain and suffering in Hell and being rewarded for professed Christianity with life in God’s presence after death. Because hope is placed entirely in the afterlife, there is no call to action for this one. All that is required is weekly sermon attendance, even virtual attendance; in Ann’s mind an hour a week of church is what is required to be a Christian and thus receive “eternal life” after death. She interprets such attendance even more loosely than her husband, never ceasing to work on her project as she “occasionally glances at the screen to fulfill the obligation of attendance.” Here it is obvious that her style of relating is true not only with people, but also with God: she refuses to be emotionally drawn in. It is just as easy to imagine Ann fulfilling the obligation of attendance with only occasional glances at her child. Crafting functions as a way to distance herself from other humans as well as from a message that she believes is of God. Such distance from everyone, and specifically from God, leads Ann to live a life that is functionally agnostic. Although she professes a belief in Christianity, her life looks no different than that of a professed agnostic; the belief that God exists does not influence her lived experience outside of the hour a week she glances at a sermon.

Jim serves as an example of on the continuum of a preoccupied style of relating. Many of his behaviors can be interpreted as either dismissive or preoccupied, which serves as a reminder that these ways of being in the world exist on a fluid continuum. In the “Holy Saturday, 2003” scene of the story, Jim makes it clear that everything must go on as usual. He is not interested in actual relationship with his daughters but only in maintaining the calm that he so cherishes. His wife, Ann, is allowed no impact into his affairs and is only expected to maintain the status quo. The interactions afforded the reader are vacant of emotion except when things are getting uncomfortable for him. His need to keep the peace, at the cost of any true interaction, can be thought of as coming from his own sense of abandonment. His “parents would go antique shopping for weekends and leave [him] five dollars.” His preoccupation with the need for stability dictates his capability of relating to others. It also correlates with his receptivity to and interaction with God.

A great need for debts to be balanced is evidenced in Jim’s threat to Caron: “Unless you want to take on her punishments? That worked when you were kids. You told on her and I’d give you her punishment. Remember that?” Jim is outwardly calm and controlled, but inside he is often frantic. He has a hard time identifying this feeling, as it is all too normal for him, yet it guides his need for the external world to make orderly sense in an immediate timeline. The words of the Easter sermon affect him; the price paid for his redemption is what catches him. It speaks to the frenzy of longing inside him saying: ‘your bill is taken care of.’ The tears he sheds don’t flow from an in-breaking of the joyous spirit of God, but from the sadness that the words touch in him of which he never speaks nor allows to be visible. Jim ‘believes.’ He prayed the prayer and lives a good life. But he is missing the full blessing of Christ’s message for him in community. He is held inside himself by his own need for order. The theology that speaks to him fills a need, but it also perpetuates his stuck-ness by not challenging his assumptions and experiences concerning redemption.

Where Ann is happy to pay her dues of church attendance, Jim is consumed by living by the rules. “Through his cuts, we get healed. It’s what God had in mind all along: to crush him with pain to pay the debt of our sins, all the things we do wrong, our adulteries, our alcoholism, our lies, our lust–,” Jim takes these words to heart by making sure he doesn’t give Jesus any more reason to suffer. His preoccupation with the importance of following the strict structures of scripture eclipses his ability to comprehend the nature of what Jesus fully and already accomplished. Instead, Jim lives in a tightly controlled awareness of the pain that it costs (both Jesus and himself) to make things right. Needing to take care of all his own emotional needs as a child situated Jim in precisely the right location for this sort of theology of retributive sacrifice.

These styles of relating are helpful as diagnostic-like tools for identifying strategies through which one’s attachment might be moved towards more secure. Many believe that this is the central work of psychotherapy. We believe: it is also the work of the church. One’s style of relating affects how one interacts with others. It also influences and is affected by one’s view of the nature of God and the processes by which we claim to know or interact with God. All of these influences intersect in one’s style of relating, in how an individual lives. What a church teaches is both influenced by and influences the people in attendance. These reciprocal influences craft both the institution and the people over time. More research and study is needed in order to assist in learning more about how theology informs the lived experience of God and relationships with others as well as how the church can add to conversations around helpful styles of relating. Simultaneously, in examining how styles of relating influence and are influenced by the theologies to which we cling, the hope is to add new textures to the layers of meaning that are co-created in the dialogue between these disciplines.

Future study may lead to healthier ways of telling the gospel story. It may afford us new and better ways of thinking through and about the gifts God gives. In exploring this terrain free from worry about the status of our salvation, there is great freedom. It is this freedom to sin boldly and to love well that we wish to make more abundant in our families and in our churches, in our nation and in our world. Everywhere that dogma and relationship intersects can be mined in the light of this relational hermeneutic.

* All quotes that are not footnoted are from the short story “And Did My Saviour Bleed,” which can be read in parts: can be found in parts: one, two, three, four, five.

[1]As this paper was a short-term project, we have not analytically researched support for this belief other than the observation throughout our lives that an individual’s way of being tends to exhibit consistency across relationships. The general correlations we draw will not be representative of the wide variety of human experience, but rather relationships as we have experienced them and as portrayed in the story “And Does My Saviour Bleed.” Much research is needed in order to demonstrate a consistent truth to such correlations. Additionally, we do not seek to demonstrate causation in either direction: theologies impacting a person’s human style of relating nor a person’s attachment impacting his or her professed theologies, though there are causal threads worth investigating in the inter-related nature of this dyad.

[2] We understand this translation to be an essential component of inter-disciplinary communication, where each discipline has manufactured and issued language to convey a truth about an experience or reality that exists outside of language.

[3] David J Wallin, in Attachment in Psychotherapy, (New York, NY: Guilford Press, 2007).

[4] Thomas Lewis, Fara Amini, and Richard Lannon, in A General Theory of Love, (New York, NY: Vintage Press, 2000).

[5] Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[6] The language of the discipline still resorts to using the word “mother” here. It is now fairly well assumed that the word “mother” has been generalized to refer to the role of primary caregiver. The tendency to associate a particular gender with this role is no longer useful. The word ‘mother’ will henceforth be used with the caveat that no gender nor biological connections are being assumed.

[7] One can trace a similar theme in the history of the nation of Israel in which humanity’s relationship with God is constantly ruptured and repaired, both directly with God and through the levirate priests. Furthering this conversation will require attention to the ways in which the believing community has seen God’s grace play out in the history of Israel as well as with the church of our current age. Both histories are rife with rupture and repair between God and humanity, between peoples, and between individuals.

[8] Brené Brown, “On Vulnerability”, in TED Talks, June 2010.

[9] There is vocabulary in Christianity of adoption into the family of God. If such an adoption has the power to change one’s attachment style, Caron may be one such example. Research needs to be done on what Christians can learn about the process of attaching securely to God from the process of adoptee attaching to adoptive parents.

[10] James Alison, “God’s Self-Substitution and Sacrificial Inversion” in Stricken by God? edited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, (Abbotsford, BC: Fresh Wind Press, 2007).

[11] Anais Nin in Diary of Anais Nin: 1944-47, 7 vols. Vol 4, (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971).

[12] Kathryn Tanner, in Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001).

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: