Our Image of God

by John A. Speyrer

"There is nothing which is more necessary and more precious in the experience of human childhood than parental love.... nothing more precious, because the parental love experienced in childhood is moral capital for the whole of life.... It is so precious, this experience, that it renders us capable of elevating ourselves to more sublime things--even divine things. It is thanks to the experience of parental love that our soul is capable of raising itself to the love of God."

--Valentin Tomberg was a Russian Orthodox mystic. Born in 1900,
his most famous work is Meditations on the Tarot.

"Ought it not to be too much for God Himself to see the truth of His creation? If God heard the inward truth, would He not repent ever peopling this planet? Could the Creator face so much rage of infants writhing in pointless suffering? Could He stand up to so many death-wishes against Himself, so much hatred of His policy, envy of His power, and jealousy of His pleasures? Could He keep His self-respect when He learned that so many innocent babes had been flung into the abyss of dereliction? Could He face it if they cursed life, cursed Him for the life they didn't want, the life they could never, in all eternity, ever trust again? Could He ever contemplate again His own well-being, without a sense of humiliation when the truth came out, and little children cringed from Him as from a persecutor? With bitter words such as these the hurt self cries out. And although all this comes from a tragically mistaken idea of the character of God, it is not easy for those who are still suffering the effects as though they were still being hurt, to see where the mistake lies."

--Frank Lake, M.D., Clinical Theology: A Theological and Psychiatric Basis
to Clinical Pastoral Care
, 1966, p. 190.

The source of our concepts of the "personality" of God, like many of our own personalities, are often unconscious derivations, sometimes in opposition to our religious traditions, which teach us that God is just and loving. Dr. Charlotte Kasl writes in, Women, Sex and Addiction: "Very often children create their image of a god or the universe based on their relationship with their parents. Cruel parents, cruel gods."

D. W. Winnicott, was a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst. He believed that the newborn's first mirror is from a reading of his mother's eyes and face. These infantile experiences, - the transitional space which will later be used for the later projection of personal images to God for the rest of the person's life.

Psychiatrist Ana-Marie Rizutto, in The Birth of the Living God, writes:

(T)he mirroring experience of the maternal face, which begins with eye contact, expands during the first month of life to encompass sequentially the mother's face, the total handling of the child, the mother's fantasies and wishes, her mythological elaboration of the child's identity, her overt or covert wishes, and her demands that the child in turn mirror her wishes. All this happens in the wider context of family romances and myths between parents, grandparents, other children, the religious and political background of the family -- in a word, with the entire familial mythologization of everyday life. . . .(T)o create a God that is not oneself, the child has to pass through the glass of the mirror to where the real mother dwells." [p. 186-7]

Dr. Michael Persinger, neuro-psychologist, writes in his, Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs, how the attributes which an infant has of his parent(s) are transferred later onto his perceptions of the qualities of God. Persinger believes that the helplessness of the infant makes him consider this same relationship to God as he had towards a parent during his infancy.

In, Parents, the Image of God, and Mysticism: Reflections On Some Works of Michael A. Persinger, I discuss his theories insofar as they relate to the origins of particular mystical themes which a person may experience. Persinger calls mysticism, the God Experience.

Early intuitions or impressions can create feelings which persist for a long time. Floridian psychotherapist, Andy Bernay-Roman recounts a heart rending experience with his daughter, Kaia, during a regression therapy group session:

"I'm getting a horrible feeling. I've felt it before, and it scares me. It's taking me way down."

"Go with it, honey. We'll keep you safe. What's the feeling?" we ask, concerned and curious.

"It's in my stomach, and it's making me nauseous.

"Stay with it."

"It's horrible. It sounds weird to say it, but it's like somehow God doesn't want me to be born," Kaia cried. "How can I be here if God doesn't want me here?" She moaned gently and started gagging.

"I'm stunned. My brain races and I start sweating. "What's going on here? What's she talking about? This is no conscious belief she's ever expressed to me before. What can she possibly mean by this?"

"Kaia too broke into a sweat, with wrinkles of dismay quilting her brow."

Then it hit me! "It's me she's talking about!" Unbeknownst to Kaia, before her birth, upon learning of her mother's pregnancy, (we weren't married), I was not pleased. I loved my bachelor's ways, and did not want a child. On my insistence, her mother made an appointment at the local abortion clinic, and only there, in the waiting room, did she burst into tears with, "I can't do this! I'm having this baby!" I reluctantly agreed. But for months before, I actively hadn't wanted the child, and little fetus - Kaia, somehow had picked up on it, and was currently experiencing that memory. For her own healing, and for mine.

"I'm so sorry," I blubbered out loud. "Kaia, that's not God. That's me before you were born. I wanted your mother to have an abortion. I'm so sorry, sweetie."

"Little vulnerable tears spilled out of Kaia's eyes."

"I've been carrying this awful feeling my whole life!"

"I was young and stupid. I'm so sorry. I do want you here, and God has always wanted you here. It was just me who didn't want you for a short while -- and that was before I met you. I've wanted you ever since."

"The deepest nagging doubt about her existence had today come undone, uprooted from the recesses of her fetal imprinted mind. Kaia cried and cried."

"I'm so sorry," I kept stammering."

--from Andy Bernay-Roman's, Deep Feeling, Deep Healing: The Heart, Mind, and Soul of Getting Well

In, Faith of the Fatherless, Professor Paul Vitz writes that even belief or disbelief in the existence of God is not the result of any rational objective decision but rather is based on feelings derived during one's early childhood environment - usually parental interactions with onesself.

A study of school children separated the attributes of nurturance and power based on parental qualities which were later projected into the attributes of God. The research was published five years ago in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion by Jane R. Dickie, et. als. and showed how parents help shape their children's image of God.

The study concluded that children think of God with the same attributes as their parents. If the father was nurturing, then God was felt to be nurturing. This was the factor that best predicted the projected factor of nurturance. But it was the mother's "power" which was the best predictor of believing that God was powerful.

One would assume that the normal maternal role of nurturing and the paternal role of having power would be more logical because of normal gender attributes, but that was not what the study found.

In my own case, while re-living my birth and pre-birth traumas in primal-oriented therapy and holotropic breathwork, I had sensed my mother's inability as unwillingness to help in my birth process. These characteristics, as well as other ones sensed in early infancy and before and during birth, were the set-points for what I later projected as the qualities of God. [See my article, My Mother As God, God As My Mother.]

In almost thirty-five years of reliving early traumas (mostly birth), I have experienced very few primal feelings with my father. Of the thousands of primals I have felt, only half-a-dozen concerned him. They were only mildly traumatic and some were positive feelings. I do not believe that my early relationship with my father had any part in my later feelings that God was distant and unsympathetic.

Although Dr. Vitz's theory relates to the factors causing belief or non-belief in the existence of God and not to the attributes of God, my experience as well as the results of Jane Dickie's study point to the importance of the maternal influence in one's personal theodicy as it relates to maternal "power."

"The infantile experience of rejection by the source-person may leave behind it a lifelong sense of aggrieved resentment, especially against women, or against God." "It is inevitable that (Kierkegaard) should have attributed the responsibility for the break with the source-person, not to the mother, but to God."
-- Frank Lake, M.D., Clinical Theology (1966), p. 703, p. 713

British psychiatrist and primal-oriented therapist, Frank Lake, explained how one's intrauterine life, can result in the beginnings of a schizoid process which repells one against social engagement in later life and even with being close to the personhood of God. Some see God as apart and distant from onesself. This conclusion can originate in the womb. A fetus may have longed for non-existence rather than endure rejective maternal despair.

Dr. Lake explains:

What is now repressed cannot be forgiven. It can only make loving trust impossible. Therefore no true outgoing response can be made. The cap that fits her is made to fit God. He, too, demands, or seems to demand the right to reap where He did not sow. So long as the face, the word, and the fact of God's action are thus distorted in the direction of a demand and a hungry longing on the part of God, the schizoid elements in the personality will not budge. They remain as a persistent root of unbelief, doubt, and atheism, or at least agnosticism." -- Frank Lake, M.D., in Clinical Theology, (1966), pps. 780-1.

Lake based his theories on a lifetime of experience as a regressive therapist with deep study of the schzoid psychological process, particularly of St. John of the Cross' life (1542-1591) and the biography and "dark night of the soul" sufferings of other medieval and later mystics, including, Simone Weil, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, John Bunyan, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, as well as P. T. Forsyth and Søren Kierkegaard.

"If, in the womb, or later, dependency on others has proved too risky, especially in situations so intimate that it is not possible to get away from them, the recoil into non-attachment resists any call back into closeness and dependency.

This applies to God as much as anyone. This call to trust, in depth, the steadfast love and reliable supplies that are 'supposed' to come from God, is felt to be particularly menacing if the primal experience was of a bad maternal input which had an overwhelmingly evil power of invasion." -- Frank Lake, M.D. in Studies in Constricted Confusion, p. T8

The Linn brother's book, Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God (1994), explains how one constructs one's own version of the characteristics of God. As one who has issues with his own imago dei, I found the position taken by the authors interesting, but perhaps simplistic. Perhaps for others also, Good Goats might only have provided a superficial understanding of the origins of their negative image of God.

For many, it might take deeper and more frequent regressive relivings of their severe birth trauma to solve the problem of the origin of their negative image of God. This was so in my case, as the origins of that issue extended deeply into severe trauma during birth. As with other psychological issues, merely understanding the origins of one's personal concept of God, based on unconscious life events other than birth trauma, may only provide a superficial explanation.

Another case:

"One had to be a witness to this outrage (the Holocaust) in the course of which the only choice that remained, was to hate or love the God who permitted all these things. This was the cause for me to revise my religious views, and I resisted loving a creator that martyred peopled and would even gas children and would let people be guilty as happened here. If the order of the world was determined through death, then it was perhaps better for God not to believe in Him and, instead, to struggle against death with all one's strength, without lifting one's eyes to Heaven, where God was silent. If on earth there should only be "Scourgers and Victims," then it is an obligation to stand, not on the side of the castigator, but to espouse the cause of the victims." -- Major Plagge
-- The Seach for Major Plagge: The Nazi Who Saved Jews, by Michael Good, p. 223-224


G O D . . .
From one viewpoint
God is described
As the creator.

Yet, paradoxically
It is equally true
That God is the creation
Of each man.

Each man being singular
It must follow
That each man's God Is unique.

The collective God--
The idea of which can only arise
From the similarities abstracted
From specific, individual Gods--
Must therefore be indefinitely limited
By comparison.

The power and the glory of God--
If perceived at all--
Must come to each individual
In the character and the keeping
Of his own awareness.
--Bradford Shank

G O D S . . .
The agnostic's reiterated affirmation
Of ignorance
May make learning difficult.

The atheist's rigid denial of any God
Leaves him a godless world in which to live
A world which will faithfully reflect to him
Whatever godless properties
His imagination creates.

The fundamentalist's bearded fairy-god
Never-here, always there
Gives rise to fairy-tale consequences
Of dubious utility.

The God of the institutionalized church
Must be a limited God
Whose boundaries are defined
By the area of agreement
Among the church's controlling members.

And those minor Gods
Who represent the sectarian fragments
Of mother church
Serve more often as the subjects
Of acrimonious debate
Than as givers of life
And the guides to salvation.
--Bradford Shank

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