Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sociobiological systems: Attachment

Editor's note: I apologize that the article is late this week. It is my intention to post a new article every Monday, but this week I am two days late. I am sorry for any disappointment for those who were expecting an article on Monday when it was promised.

James Griffith describes 5 sociobiological systems that operate in religious organizations: attachment, peer affiliation, kin recognition, social hierarchy, and social exchange. Considering these systems one at a time might help us understand at a deeper level the functioning of Unitarian Universalism in our society and in our personal lives.
Griffith writes, “Attachment systems evolved to ensure that mothers and their offspring would bond securely and protectively.”

In psychology a great deal of research has been done by Harlowe, Bowlby and others on attachment behaviors and dynamics. Attachment systems are described by proximity, secure base, safe haven and mutual awareness of each other’s well being. Attachment involves identification with the nurturing object to the extent that physical, emotional, and social survival depend on the availability of the object for need fulfillment. Griffith writes, “When God is an important attachment figure, these themes of proximity, secure base, and safe haven are lived out in relationship with one’s personal God.”

Marya Hornbacher points out in her book, Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power that this attachment need not be to a personal God as we usually think of Him in our culture. Hornbacher is writing for people in recovery and she writes: “Finally, someone pulled me aside after a meeting. He said,’Here’s the thing. I don’t know that God is, or if there is a God. I only know that there are moments when I feel spiritual. I can be in a church or a mosque or a temple or a grocery store or the woods. And I get that sense of being spiritual. Of something alive in me. It’s not necessarily a sense that something outside me is present. It’s the sense that I am present. Completely present. Alive.’” P. xvii
This intuitive sense that there is something more than our small selves and the surface phenomenology of the world is an experience to which we can become attached as well as a personified object.

Griffith describes three attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant. Griffith further divides the avoidant attachment style into two types: the fearful-avoidant where the person keeps a distance from God for fear of retribution and punishment, and the dismissive-avoidant in which the person perceives his/her God to be unreliable and a disappointment or outright unfair. The anxious attachment style is characterized by ambivalence fueled by a sense of inadequacy and unworthiness or hesitation based on confusion and lack of intuitive integrity.

It would appear based on UUA President Morales’ observation in his 01/15/12 letter “Congregations and Beyond” that 4 times as many people (650,000) identify with UU values than actually join congregations (160,000)that people attracted to the Unitarian Universalist denomination probably have an anxious or avoidant attachment style as this personality characteristic is expressed in religious affiliation. How can people be provided with experiences that would facilitate a more secure attachment style? The provision of proximity, a safe haven, a secure base, and mutual awareness leading to reciprocal consistent interactions that meet fundamental physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs would be necessary.

Increasingly, mainline churches are not meeting the needs of their congregants and they are leaving. “Nones” is the fastest growing religious group in the U.S. today. The days are past when churches need to provide educational, health care, and social services. People are looking for something more and the common complaint is that they don’t feel “spiritually fed”. I have heard this complaint often and I am very interested and curious in learning about what specifically this yearning is.

Perhaps Joseph Campbell gives us a clue when he describes the 4 functions of mythology in a culture and in universal human experience. Campbell teaches that the four functions of mythology are: mystical, cosmological, social, and pedagogical.

As I consider Unitarian Universalism in light of Campbell’s four functions, it seems to me that the “feeding” which Unitarian Universalism provides is anemic and barely satisfying. Unitarian Universalism appears to be incoherent and so ambiguous and amorphous that it is hardly helpful in clarifying the existential questions which a spiritual seeker might have. Unitarian Universalism appears to have potential, but its possible potential dynamic qualities have yet to be articulated and manifested.

Unitarian Universalism will need to re-invent itself with more clarity and substance if it expects that potential seekers will “attach” to its congregational life. At the current time this is a local phenomenon based on the local circumstances of the cultures and leadership of local congregations. Whether Unitarian Universalism can provide the safe haven, and secure base that people yearn for remains to be seen. At the present time, it does not attract enough people to attach to the Mother Church so that those who might identify with UU values anxiously and avoidantly bond with a congregation if at all.  
On the basis of a personal spirituality, however, attachment is a much deeper and more fulfilling experience. I have begun asking my psychotherapy clients “What kind of interior spiritual life do you have?”, and I am pleasantly surprised that I rarely encounter any surprise or resistance to what I consider a very intimate question. People seem to readily and thoughtfully answer the question as they explore their more inner experience. This attachment to an inner world varies based on the level of self awareness of a person. It is this attachment which people refer to when they say that they are spiritual but not religious. It is very interesting to explore with people their description of this personal, inner spiritual realm unmediated but perhaps somewhat informed by religious organizations and culture.

This interior spiritual life always has a mystical element otherwise it is merely an ideology. The interior spiritual life is open heartedly willing to be receptive to the unconscious and intuitive experiences as they emerge into the consciousness. This activity is what Socrates was referring to when he said that an unexamined life is not worth living. Becoming aware of and creating an interior spiritual life has a mystical component as well as a pedagogical one. We become aware that there is much more to life than the superficial phenomenological experiences of our daily living and that this awareness teaches us how to live in an awareness that there is more to life, often mysterious, than meets the eye.

The principles of Unitarian Universalism point to this deeper mystical awareness in a very thinly described way when they are articulated as the “inherent worth and dignity of very person”, and “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”, and “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”. Meditating on these principles and searching for an authentic understanding of them in their elementary and universal meanings creates a cosmology which could be very engaging, and create social organizations which are very fulfilling and rewarding at a personal spiritual level and in terms of the sociobiological functions which good religious organizations can perform.       

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this article. I think you have hit on something essential for UU when you write about attachment. There is very little to attach yourself to. Unitarian Universalism has not done a good job articulating a theology and so anything goes. It UU is to survive as a denomination it must become clearer on the "good news" that it proclaims. As it is, it is nothing but watered down secular humanism.