Friday, February 17, 2006

Bonnie Zahl on Imago Dei:

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
(particularly Christians.)

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
25, 367-373.


Eve Nash said...

Bonnie-- I like this a lot, the more times I have read it and tried to understand. At first it depressed me, because I don't want to limit God just because I have psychologically defects or have a crummy personality. . Then (I think )I realized that one of your points is that God's affection for me is NOT dependent on my effective cooperation with him. (Then he would be as unreliable as I am--no thanks). Just having this awareness is very helpful.
Along these same lines, (but secular) have you read a book called "The Lovely Bones"--

anhomily said...

I like to compare the Edenic state to the heavenly state, both of a which are perfect in different ways, in order to guide my thoughts about how things should be now, and what I/we should be striving for. For example, paradise in Eden is a garden, but our eternal paradise is the city of God, the New Jerusalem. This is part of the reason why I feel there is an inherent value to ministry in cities, because they have they potential to reflect the perfect redemption of human nature and all creation, which is the human vibrancy of a city, but one fully focused on worshipping God. That is, God chooses to glorify himself through partnership with humanity, and our “accomplishments.” Regarding imago Dei, we would agree that we have been "created in God's image" and that ultimately we will "share in his glory," but what is the difference, if any? In both cases one could say "the dwelling place of God is with man," and that they are not separated from one another. However, I think there is a sense in which Adam and Eve are less like God, because they don't have the knowledge of good and evil, whereas the redeemed saints of the Lord will have that knowledge, and will be nonetheless washed clean of sin. This brings up a question that I have often wondered to myself, about what separates us ultimately from God, if we are becoming more and more like him, and we are with him for eternity, sharing in his glory... if we can even understand such a thing. maybe one could say that it is sort of a hyperbolic model, where we are constantly approaching God's character, but never attaining it fully? This further raises interesting questions about eternity, because if the nature of God's eternal infiniteness could be characterized by a line, our own could only be characterized by a ray (NB this is a relative comparison, since God would encompass more dimensions than we could imagine, not just one; the comparison breaks down when one tries to visualize it in greater than 2 dimensions.) So it seems as though we are created in God's image in Eden, but that we reflect God's image much more when we are with him in heaven. However, this doesn't account for the others... “outside [of the city]are the dogs, the sorcerers, and the sexually immoral and the murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” (Rev. 22:15) So actually, the ultimate state of all mankind is eternal and whether it is eternal glory or eternal suffering is defined by the choices (however we construe that) of each individual, to become citizens of the city of God or not. So actually some people become much less “in the image of God” ultimately, but there is still a baseline of eternal spiritual existence, which (if accepted – as many psychologists surely wouldn't) is the only certain thing that uniquely shows us to be in God's image...
And for a final note, I had to say a little something about Feuerbach... I found this quote: "To enrich God, man must become poor; that God may be all, man must be nothing." He seems to think he is explaining in this statement how man has created God, yet it was in God's doing the very opposite things that we can call him Lord... “To enrich man, God must become poor; that mankind may be all, God must become nothing.” For God's existence to actually mean anything for us, to lift us out of our depravity, he must become that which he can not be, making himself nothing.

bpzahl said...

Hi Eve, thanks for your comment! I'm glad you like the article, although i'm sorry that it depressed you at first!

One of my implicit aims in writing that article was to caution us to not limit our knowledge of God to what our vocabulary implies or states. Since languages are really symbols trying to capture the "real thing", we have to acknowledge that even language can hardly capture what we think God is like. I find it a dangerous thing to then talk about the image of God (and how we are made in the image of Him) as if we know what He is like, as if we don't have flawed (and personally biased!) views of Him. We can't fully know imago Dei until we see him face to face, and till then that idea is (to me) remains hidden. When I see imago Dei I see Christ on the cross and Christ resurrected. But the latter is only for days; the former--the suffering Christ--was for several years, and that is the clearest imago Dei I have. And I don't think anyone would voluntarily say they'd be made in _that_ image!!
That's why I think we have incomplete view of "God image"; too often we focus on the parts of God that we like, and stroke our egos by saying how much like Jesus we are (obedient, strong, loving, compassionate) but we forget that to be made in His image is to suffer in that likeness, too. How many times do you hear people say "oh yes, I was made in the image of wear a crown of thorns and to be nailed on the cross, to be spat on, to be beaten and to be deserted by people I love"? Not often!

bpzahl said...

anhomily: you raise really good points about the whole pre-fall/ post-eschaton state of man. Again, I find those to be secondary issues. I find it unhelpful to be overly concerned with how what we are "supposed to be" as Christians, because I think God is the one who ultimately does that work of transformation. For me to say "I think I should be this kind of Christian, and I think I should reflect the image of God in these ways..." is to limit the image of God to my understanding and my potential. This is what I know: that I am saved ultimately, but I also *feel* like I need to be saved (Help! Help!) daily. I also know that there is something better to come. I also know that I don't know much. I know the Spirit is at work. How, what the outcome looks like, I know not, and I don't dare to decide. (I had wanted to be a missionary in Kosovo--and look where I am now?!)

bpzahl said...

A great quote from a seminar I attended today by Graham Richards

"Since when did Christianity become just a dose of Prozac? I thought Christianity was to primarily be a resource for the struggles, and in many cases exascerbate the struggles because our lives are brought into the light."

Eric Cadin said...

Bonnie, this was an interesting read, and you very succinctly point out the reason why a Magisterium is SO important. Not that keeping the Bible out of people's hands is a good idea, but when people are allowed to interpret Scripture as an isolated individual as he or she sees fit, we seem almost inevitably to de-evolve to Exemplarism, which many would contend, is one of the BIGGEST problems in the Church today. When we toss aside, what for lack of a better word, the metaphysics of the Incarnation, then we are left with an ideal man. The ultimate heresy. It would seem that left to our own devices we come to "our perception of Jesus' personality is dependent on our own personalities." His actions are not to be emulates per se, rather, they are efficacious. Thus every aspect of revelation is intergral, including among other things the Immaculate Concneption, not because it points to Mary but because it points to HIM.

Anyway, I digress, and rant somewhat. The authority given by Christ to His apostles, headed by St. Peter, is to preserve the writings, and teachings and traditions of Christ. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Magisterium serves the Church by enlightening and preserving the Truth, the salvific power of jesus Christ

bpzahl said...

Thanks for your note, Eric, and for the record, the sample from that study was largely Catholic (68%). I haven't yet come across a study that compares different traditions (i.e. catholic, protestant, and different protestant denominations).

Please please please note that I claim nothing, absolutely nothing, about doctrine based on this article. What I am simply pointing out is the strong predictive power of our personalities in how we construe Jesus. How we view Jesus is, in part, dependent on who we are and what we are like - the effect cuts across several denominations in this study. There was no statistical effect on denominational differences, meaning that we all do it--including those who take the authority of the Magisterium.