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“God image” and diversity

Diverse godsAll too often, it seems that researchers use the word “God” to refer to something clearly defined and universal in meaning. Regardless of age, culture, or upbringing, researchers expect their participants to answer their survey questions about God in the same way. Not surprisingly, some researchers, such as Louis Hoffman (Saybrook University) promote circumspection. Hoffman argues that scientific treatments of “God image” need to account for diversity across age and cultures.

“God image” provides a shorthand for “an individual’s personal experience of God.” This experience usually refers to everyday experiences rather than the ecstatic or euphoric. Put another way, God image describes the subjective aspect to religious experiences (for those who experience God at least). By contrast, “God concept” refers to an individual’s cognitive working out of who God is. The difference can be striking. A person’s God concept can describe a loving, intimate God, while that same person’s God image may be one of a distant God (that is, on a regular basis they experience God as distant not near).

Hoffman points out age and culture as two key factors that influence a person’s God image. Ignoring these factors can lead to a distortion of data. First, Hoffman believes that researchers often overlook childhood spirituality because they see it as a mere stepping-stone to adult spirituality and so not worthy as an end unto itself. Researchers likely ignore childhood and adolescent spirituality because the early stages of faith often have rigid structures and leave little room for internal discrepancies or disagreements. For Hoffman, Western models have a liberal bias in that they assume that latter stages are inherently better than former. That is, researchers fall into the error of thinking that this earliest stage of faith is the most inferior and that “healthy” adults will move to a more advanced stage of faith where they can tolerate opposing and paradoxical viewpoints as well as having greater overall flexibility in their belief structure. In short, more “advanced” stages look like liberal forms of religion. Hoffman disagrees that “advanced” means more liberal and does not see the later stages of spirituality as better or worse than the earlier stages. As such, childhood and adolescent spirituality remain perfectly valid topics of investigation, even if the person never goes on to another stage of spirituality.

As for positive argumentation, Hoffman contends that childhood spirituality can affect adult God image through attachment theory. Attachment theory says that a person’s early attachments provide an emotional and relational recipe for how he or she will experience most of his or her interpersonal relationships. God would be included in here. This means that childhood experiences can and do affect adult God image. Unfortunately, research in the field of attachment theory and God image has led to two opposing views. On the one side, the “correspondence model” suggests that one’s God image parallels (or is at least consistent with) one’s early childhood caregivers. On the other side, the “compensation model” states that one’s God image fills a missing gap in one’s early childhood. The correspondence model essentially says that God image is more of the same, while the compensation model says that God is different in the sense that it provides what was missing from one's own childhood. Hoffman himself suggests a model that integrates both correspondence and compensation models.

Second and finally, Hoffman stresses the importance of cultural diversity when it comes to understanding a person’s God image. He notes that, in general, Christians’ God image relates most closely to object relations, Jews’ God image to social and interpersonal health relations, and Muslims’ to connection with others. Furthermore, God images more accurately reflects Hinduism and polytheistic religions. The singular “God image” favors monotheism. Lastly, Chinese religions such as Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism do not have a central God concept and so these believers likely do not have a God image. That said, Hoffman believes something similar to a God image exists in these religions.

At the very least, it seems that researchers who want to measure people’s religious experience or God image should take into account the wide range of differences that age and culture can make. Simply hoping to catch everything with the word “God” may lead to deceptive results. If, as with the Western tradition, God is associated with the Infinite, it should come as little surprise that the Infinite is not so easily contained.

For more, see “Religious Experience, Development, and Diversity” in the journal Pastoral Psychology.

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