by Bonnie Zahl
As a researcher in psychology and religion, I study religion from a
psychological perspective (and vice versa, albeit less frequently)—not
to disprove or explain away religion, but to draw parallels between
religious experiences and psychology. One idea that has interested me
both theologically and psychologically is the idea of imago Dei, and
the implications of this idea on our understanding of humans
There are plenty of things to say about imago Dei, but I will briefly
highlight only one. The Bible says that we were made in the image of
God (Genesis 1:27); no Christian can refute that! But the debates get
heated when we start to talk about the degree to which we retain (and
recover) that image of God, fallen creatures that we are. Rather than
grossly over-generalizing different Christian traditions' view of the
degree to which we retain (or recover) the image of God, I will
outline some research showing that God is (sometimes, and in some
ways) made in the image of man.
First, a clarification of terms: in psychological research, God concept refers to the cognitive
or theological understanding of God. God image, on the other hand, refers
to the emotional or affect based understanding. Discrepancy between
the two can lead to resentment, anger, guilt, or anxiety.
Psychologists are not always consistent with these terms, but often
their methodology makes it clear whether they are tapping into the God
concept ('head knowledge') or God image ('heart knowledge').
Piedmont, Williams, and Ciarrocchi (1997) conducted a study in which
they compared individuals' self-ratings of their personality and their
ratings of what they think Jesus' personality is like (God concept).
Using validated and comparable personality measures, participants (68%
Catholic, 25% Protestant, 7% no religious affiliation) rated their
personality and then their view of Jesus' personality on the scales
(some did it the other way around to counterbalance any order
effects.) Below is a section describing the personality profile
generated by subjects, published in the Journal of Psychology and
Based on the psychological meanings of the Adjective Check
List scales (Gough & Heilbrun, 1983), a personological sketch can be
drawn of Jesus' personality. Overall, the results presented here
portray Jesus to be imaged as a caring and concerned individual who
yet maintains a degree of detachment from those around him. In some
ways, this profile is reflective of the self-actualized person as
described by Maslow (1970). The acceptance and compassion for others
is balanced by a need for privacy; he has a concern to bring others
into harmonious relationships while not always encouraging stereotypic
roles and values. No doubt the historiographic profile that emerged
here reflects a Jesus who is perceived to have a complex inner
Piedmont et al.'s study also found that subjects' one's own
personality is associated with their perceptions of Jesus'
personality. Specifically, multiple regression analysis indicated that
subjects' collapsed (i.e. overall) self-ratings were most predictive
of Jesus' level of Conscientiousness. The study also found that 11% of
the variability in ratings of Jesus was accounted for by subjects'
self-ratings, which is a moderate-sized association. Further analyses
revealed that it was self-rated dimensions of Extraversion, Openness,
and Religiousness that constituted the overlap with ratings of Jesus.
In other words, variations a person's self-ratings of those three
dimensions accounted for 11% of the variations in ratings of Jesus
(i.e. they overlapped).
Despite 'knowing' the person of Jesus (as opposed to a more abstract
person of God) biblically and catechistically, our perception of
Jesus' personality is dependent on our own personalities. It is
interesting that in this sample (which, admittedly, is not evenly
distributed amongst the Christian traditions), it was self-ratings of
religiosity that was correlated with ratings of Jesus'
Conscientiousness, not one's own level of conscientiousness. It is
unclear why this is the case, but is noteworthy because it suggests
that religiosity is a stronger predictor than simply one's own
dispositional sense of duty or level of self-control. Subjects were
not just projecting themselves; they were seeing Jesus as what they
thought they ought to see Him as, and the more religiously preoccupied
they were, the more pronounced was their rating on Jesus' level of
Given both the broad and more detailed findings described above, their
conclusion highlights what most interesting about this study:
In many ways this profile reaffirms biblical presentations
of Jesus. That such perceptual consistency is found within our
relatively heterogeneous sample underscores the power of these New
Testament images. Yet despite such influence, the results
show that individuals do not veridically internalize these portrayals.
Perceptions of Jesus are significantly related to the needs and
temperaments of the individuals themselves.
I am not proposing that God is simply Freud's idea of an "idealized
father-figure". But one thing is certain: empirical evidence shows
our tendency to do what Feuerbach saw as a criticism of Christianity:
"In the object which he contemplates, therefore man becomes acquainted
with himself; consciousness of the objective is the self-consciousness
of man. We know the man by the object, by his conception of what is
external to himself." Feuerbach said that when Christians talk about
God, they are really talking about themselves and their own ideas, and
he was not entirely wrong. When we talk about Jesus, we are also
talking about ourselves. Simply put, we sometimes unconsciously
project our own characteristics (particularly those that are
religiously relevant) onto Jesus.
This brings me to the question of whether our sense of control over
our spiritual lives also affects how we see God. It is possible that
there is a direct proportional relationship between the extent to
which we think/ experience ourselves to be able to effect meaningful
change in God's level of affection for us, and the extent to which we
believe that His level of affection actually depends on us? In other
words, if we have regularly experienced efficacy in "cooperating" with
God, we will come to think that His affirmation and continual love
depend on us. Conversely, if we do not think we can effect meaningful
change in God's level of affection for us, we believe that His level
of affection does not depend on us. "For I am convinced that neither
death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the
future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in
all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is
in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39)
Admittedly there are problems with psychology as an approach; it is
reductionist, social psychology renders all experiences as the result
of 'nurturing', how can we study the supernatural using natural
methods, and so on. Certainly psychology and theology are two
distinct disciplines, with different methodologies and epistemologies.
Psychology cannot say much about the supernatural God and His ways,
but it can say plenty about the natural man and his ways. How much of
the fallen (and redeemed) man is in God's image? We do not know; but
we do know that in our fallen (and redeemed) state, we continue (to
one degree or another) to make God in the image of man. This should
serve as a cause for our humility over our own condition.
Piedmont, R.L., Williams, J.E.G., & Ciarrocchi, J.W. (1997).
Personality correlates of one's image of Jesus: Historiographic
analysis using the five-factor model of personality. style="font-style:italic;">Journal of Psychology and Theology,