The Image of God


1.     Everyone has an internal representation of God, even those who donŐt believe in God.

2.     We spend our lives dancing around our parents

a.     Psa: significance of early experience for later life and personality

3.     An individualŐs private and personal representation of God is first formed during childhood

4.     The childŐs image of God is made up in part of his/her internalized images of parents and of his/her relations with them.

a.     This can include biological parents and/or other primary caretakers, such as grandparents, siblings, etc.

b.     OneŐs internal image of God is also informed by other external sources, including the images conveyed through oneŐs religious tradition.

5.     The God-representation may have the various features that serve to soothe and comfort, provide inspiration and courage, or produce terror and dread.

6.     While the earliest features of a personŐs internal God-representation remain with him/her throughout life, the representation of God also changes along with us and our primary others.


III. Case Study: Daniel Miller – God, the Enigma


The story of Daniel Miller



      27 years old, physician.  Secularized, Jewish family.  Admitted to hospital for another medical evaluation (one of many), believing that he had a lethal illness.   Referred to psychiatric in-patient unit.

      Withdrew from practice and social interaction, just before graduation – back pain, abdominal pain.  Slow, killing disease.

      Older brother to sister, parents upwardly mobile and had great hopes for Daniel.  Considered a highly precocious child – did everything early, good memory.

DanielŐs Parents:


o   Self-made man, drug co. rep., hard worker.

o   Attacks of intense rage, shouted and threw things.

o   Both parents were proud that Daniel feared his father, even hated him.

o   Disciplinarian, breadwinner, decision-maker, knows whatŐs best.

o   Social worker reports: Ňthe father describes his son as a neuter, sexually, saying that he has never seen any kind of sexual drive in his son – and he laughs about itÓ

o   Daniel hates him but also admires him, wants to be like him.


o   Fearful, fragile. Extremely dependent, no life of her own.

o   Controlled by husband. Submissive, passive – unable to control him and his cruelty toward Daniel. 

o   Distant relationship with husband and son.

o   Could not handle crisis of any proportion. Terrified by injury, illness. Constant fear for her son – bodily injury, dangers.

o   Daniel wished for a mother who would treat him as an adult.

Early schooling:

      Separation anxiety when starting school.  Mediocre performance

      Teacher tells mother that Daniel is not a bright child – mother intensely disappointed

      A loner, indifferent, unemotional, cooperative, fearful of others.

      Forced to go to summer camp, experienced as a banishment

      Hebrew school, disliked God of Hebrew bible.

      Father contemptuous of religious practice and belief, religion is superstition

      Daniel (as an adult) believed, without evidence, that his mother has deep beliefs in a benevolent God.



      First psychosomatic symptoms – pain around heart

      Father deeply frustrated with DanielŐs average academic record, forced him to do better.  Said he didnŐt like him the way he is.  Dreamed of having a physician son. Sat while he did his homework, sometimes did it for him, forced him to apply to medical schools (filled out forms for him), drilled him on question that would be asked in interviews.


Medical school:

      Afraid of his patients, their criticism and potential anger. 

      Returned to live at home.  Preoccupied with his professional life, imagined father would take over and run his entire career.

      Began to develop symptoms: back and abdominal pain, burning urination.  Began going for evaluations.

      Delusional belief that he was dying of a fatal illness which could only be controlled if his father were to donate an organ to him.  Stopped working.

      Continued going for medical evaluation.

      Beginning sexual relationship with a woman he had known from early on.  Frightened of a relationship with her but wanted someone ŇI could confide in, someone I could love.Ó

      One day: fatherŐs office, using medical instrument from the hospital, tube into urethra, inflated bladder painfully.  Did this compulsively. ŇInjuring myself.Ó Caused himself to bleed from the urethra, Ňlike a woman.Ó  Fantasized that he was a woman in face to face intercourse with a man.


The nature of DanielŐs God representation (p.130)


Caption to picture: ŇThis represents my image of God.  Extremely wise but sad at menŐs inhumanity to man.  Also patient and sensitive to [the] suffering of mankindÓ

      ŇThe feeling I get from my relationship with God is more one of intellectual inquiry than anything else because I am unable to approach the subject in any other way.Ó

      ŇI have not formulated any specific ideas on God because the need to do so has not come up.Ó

      ŇThe concept of God appeals to me in that it is a plausible explanation for the meaning of manŐs existence.Ó

      ŇI donŐt have any explicit feelings about God.  I am not sure I believe in God.Ó  ŇThere are no personal feelings by me about God.  I have never personified God. . . God is a subject for conjecture and deep thought about the meaning of life.Ó

      ŇI find it difficult to know or love something that I donŐt understand.Ó

      ŇI consider God as an enigma because I have no clear-cut attitudes about God.Ó


Conditions for believing in God: ŇI would believe in God ifÓ:

      God must be capable of only love.

      I could not believe in a God that punishes.  The biblical God was a bit too revengeful to suit me.  I feel that God should have more compassion than he is portrayed in the Bible.

Daniel claims disbelief in God but makes statements about God: ŇI think that God sees me as I see myself.Ó


From where does the material of DanielŐs God representation come?


Statements about God, statements about father (p.141)


RizzutoŐs interpretations


Drawing of God: GodŐs face looks like DanielŐs father, also like Daniel.


Characterization of God: with the exception of the brief paragraph, little sense of inner world of this God – what motivates him, what God feels.


DanielŐs denial of belief without stating disbelief. Enigmatic quality of God, and distant relationship with sense of potential




God representation is made up from DanielŐs father:

      Fear of making God a real person, with emotions, invasive knowledge of DanielŐs inner life, overwhelming disapproval, controlling, vengeful

      Protects himself against God via: Isolation of affect, withholding belief. As with his father:  passivity, withdraws, removes affect.

Belief in God is tantamount to psychological suicide – see page. 147

      For me to believe, God would have to be capable only of love (not vengeance), sensitive to the suffering of mankind.

o   Rejected biblical God

      Professes no belief, but doesnŐt deny GodŐs existence or call religion nothing but superstition (like his father says).

      God remains an enigma – something that could be explored but that Daniel leaves alone

      Daniel longs to identify with his father – belief that if his father donated an organ to his dying son, it would make him into a man.  Daniel passive recipient, free from fatherŐs rage.


Where is his mother in the representation?

      Mother = a sad but impotent witness of fatherŐs control.

      ŇExtremely wise but sad at menŐs inhumanity to man.Ó



IV.  Case Study: Bernadine Fisher -- God, My Enemy


1.     The nature of BernadineŐs God representation

a.     ŇA bright, clean, warm feeling.Ó

b.     Struggle with a demanding, harsh God that one would like to get rid of if one were not convinced of his existence and power.

c.     Drawn primarily from the maternal representation, with some influence of the father, paternal grandmother, and representation of the family as a unit.  But these later aspects are not integrated into a cohesive representation of God.

d.     BernadineŐs God image is barely elaborated beyond her representation of primary caretakers.

2.     The psychological sources of her God representation

a.     Severely pathological, infantile, depressive, isolated, teen-age parental couple

b.     Early childhood rejections by her parents

c.     Sadomasochistic, rejecting, phobic mother

d.     Passive-dependent, clinging, childish, drug-addicted father

e.     Absence of Roman Catholic God

f.      Resulting and deep sense of her own worthlessness or badness and her need for a maternal object who could give her some sense of self worth

3.     BernadineŐs Problem

a.     Presenting problem: depression and inability to function.  Drug overdose

b.     Events triggering the depression: husband quits job, friend leaves neighborhood, sister becomes engaged, daughter failing in school


4.     BernadineŐs Story

a.     Born to eloping teenage parents out of wedlock and work

b.     Multiple traumatic events, illnesses;

c.     Mother: severe phobias and anxieties; painful birth, no breast feeding, Ňterrible babyÓ; denied existence of problems; placed adult responsibilities on children; made B her confidante without listening

d.     Father: suffered from chronic depression, anxiety, unhappiness, addictions – beat the children, wouldnŐt tolerate crying, refused amusement until too late to go, competition for mother.

e.     Family life: arguments, accusations, open rivalry, verbal and physical fights, curses, evil wishes = unrestricted among all family members.  Like children

f.      Multiple pregnancies, psycho-somatic illnesses; fear of abandonment by husband; depression

5.     BernadineŐs sense of self in relation to God

a.     As it reflects self and parent/family unit:  God doesnŐt listen.  I donŐt deserve GodŐs love.  I donŐt please God.

b.     As it reflects self and mother: GodŐs strength; I donŐt deserve GodŐs love

c.     As it reflects self and grandmother: God is there; I can communicate w/him

6.     The picture: p. 167.  Infantile wishes for holding, good mother; defensive, denial of and compensation for bad experiences with mother.