Relocating, Reanalyzing, and Redefining Miracles: A Psychodynamic Exploration of the Miraculous

Daniel J Gaztambide. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. 

Miracles … are events which have a particular significance to the person who experiences them. That is the one fundamental statement. Miracles are subjective-objective, subject-object-oriented, always in correlation, and never comprehensible in any other way. Not merely subjective, they are not merely objective, either.

~ Paul Tillich (1963, 111)

What is the meaning of the term miracle, and what does a psychology of miracles look like? Is a miracle an objective or subjective reality, and how can we analyze it? Psychologically speaking, miracles can only be understood within the life context of individual persons. They are the experience of the divine intervening in one’s life for the purpose of allaying anxiety and restoring security to a self, in such a manner that the very self and its patterns of relating may be transformed in the process. I wish to analyze miracles from a phenomenological and psychodynamic perspective and define miracles as experiences of meaning making.

Hume’s Paradigm of Miracles

In An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume (1777, sec. 10.1.90) defines a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature. A wise person, he argues, shapes his or her belief in accordance with the available evidence of personal experience. A miracle, defined as a violation of natural law for Hume, is a violation of everyday human experience. If one’s everyday experience, which establishes the epistemic basis for our belief in natural law, militates against miracles, Hume (1777, sec. 10.1.90) advises us to tread the path of wisdom and reject such singular events in disbelief: “The proof against a miracle … is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.” Miracles, thus, are events without any strong evidence for us to believe in them. Only the unlearned and unwise would believe in such things, which, according to Hume (1777, sec. 10.2.94), “are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations.”

Under Hume’s influence, an image of miracles arose and is rather popular in both contemporary mainstream and academic parlance: miracles are violations of natural laws, impossible events, events without evidence, and events that a rational person would not believe in.1 What would a psychology of miracles look like when informed by Hume’s perspective? Since his argument rests on experience that leads to an a priori denial of the possibility of miracles, what is psychologically wrong with those who believe in them? Hume (1777) argues that people who are sufficiently wise as not to be deluded, whose integrity places them beyond suspicion, do not report miracles. So those who tell miracle stories are deluded or live in fantasy and illusion.

Hume (1777, sec. 10.2.93) claims that religion deprives people of common sense, and so religion is the usual source of miracle stories. The dreamlike feelings of awe that miracles produce may overcome one’s capacity to reason. According to Hume, a believer (1777, sec. 10.2.93) “may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best intentions in the world,” as a result of the wishes and passions that feed the delusion. Furthermore, the delusion of belief in miracles might arise from a lack of enlightened education, as in the case of Hume’s “ignorant and barbarous nations,” or as a result of a misleading education of civilized people by their ignorant and barbarous ancestors (Hume 1777, sec. 10.2.94).

Hume argues that people believe in or experience miracles, despite the lack of evidence from experience,2 because of the positive affect miracle illusions inspire. The feelings of wonder aroused when one hears the story of Jesus healing the sick and the blind, or when one has the impression that God has saved him from sheer catastrophe, are an anesthetic to cognition and reason, leading to what may be rightly referred to in psychological terms as a neurosis. This emotional neurosis hampers the capacity to effectively perceive the external world. With reason impaired, the possibility to believe in miracles becomes available. One is either ignorant and deluded, or lying in an attempt to exploit the ignorant and deluded.

If we were to craft a psychology of miracles using Hume’s paradigm, we would find a friend in Freud (1961). In the same way that Freud spoke of religion in general, he might have reflected on Hume’s words regarding miracles and defined them psychologically as wishful illusions, interwoven with a disavowal of reality (Freud 1961). For Freud, religion is grounded in the need to fulfill infantile wishes. Instead of actively seeking to understand and be in the external world, religion drives us to seek illusions that satisfy our narcissistic desires and dependency needs. Among these is the desire to find personal meaning and security with which to exorcize the terrors of nature (Freud 1961). Before the dangers of earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, floods, fires, and wild beasts, “man’s helplessness remains, and along with it his longing for his father, and the gods” (Freud 1961, 22), who are seen as sources of protection and salvation.

Under the lens of this psychology, miracles seem to express the wish for an omnipotent parent, God, who will do away with humanity’s hardship by intervening in the physical world of time and space. There is a price to pay, however, for the wonder and security such events provided. Freud wrote that (1965, 206) “miracles … contradicted everything that sober observation had taught, and betrayed all too clearly the influence of human imagination” (cf. Freud 1965, 42). From his scant comments on the topic, one can discern that Freud believed our wishes for providential intervention diverted energies from the ego, which housed the rational and cognitive capacities, shifting them to the id, the source of pleasure seeking, narcissistic desire, and illusion. Thus, dovetailing with Hume’s argument, Freud might have concluded that those who believe in miracles are experiencing a dysfunction in their capacity for reality testing, their ability to understand external reality and the experience it yields. Instead, they land in distortion of or projection on reality (Freud 1961, 54-57). Miracles are an illusion in which humans project on the world their needs for safety from the natural elements and warmth from a cold, unresponsive world. For Freud, this bore the stamp of serious mental illness.

It is my judgment that the Hume-Freud equation does not provide a sound basis for a psychology of miracles. Hume assumes that his view of the world is the correct one and that of believers in miracles is ignorant and barbarous, misinterpreting the nature of this world.4 Hume holds his experience as normative, and any counterclaims are rejecting of practical experience altogether. Is it not likely, however, that the experience of Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment scholar, would be markedly different from that of a Caribbean shaman or a first-century healer? Could it be that the difference between one who believes in miracles and one who does not has more to do with his or her particular perspective and experience, rather than with ignorant and barbarous interpretation? Hume leaves no room for intercultural discussion or for the understanding of differing worldviews. As a background paradigm for a psychology of miracles, it is deficient, for it is unashamedly ethnocentric and does not allow for a consideration of the data experienced by those who believe in miracles.

In the Hume-Freud equation, a psychologist’s research agenda would be to find out what psychological dysfunction is taking place in the person who believes in miracles. It is presupposed that something is wrong. Such an agenda would be an epistemological and ontological polemic in psychological drag, and not objective psychological research. The project would not be interested in why one would believe in miracles or what factors contributed to the formation of such beliefs, but in constructing arguments that consider such artifacts as illusions and the believers as delusional. This would also lead to a one-sided pseudopsychology, for much of its analysis would rest in matters outside psychology. It would be only after deciding what the one true reality is and the one correct approach is that one would begin the research to account for the neurosis that was preventing the proper perception of reality. That overlooks any attempt to understand the contexts, experiences, data, phenomenological evidence, and heuristic rationale driving a person’s belief that a miracle took place.

A sound psychology of miracles must be objective and not interested in proving or disproving the appropriateness of belief in miracles. Moreover, it must begin with a motivation for understanding from the inside why believers hold that miracles are real. Thus exclusivist views that only one’s own worldview reflects reality, or that only one’s own religion has authentic miracles, must be avoided in a sound psychology of miracles. A sound psychology must be grounded in psychology, not in philosophy or politics.

An Alternative: A Relational Paradigm of Miracles

I wish to discuss a relational paradigm. This paradigm would suggest an interest not in debates between science and religion or God and natural law, but in the embeddedness of miracles within one’s experience of mundane reality and one’s relationship with what is considered ultimate and absolute. The relational philosophical tradition understands religious processes, symbols, concepts of the divine, rituals, dogmas, spirituality, and the miraculous as emerging from within the context of human interpersonal relations. For example, the particular elements of any one person’s experience of God, as existing or not existing, of providential warmth or divine cruelty, are seen as arising from one’s experience of closeness or distance, love or control, with other human beings (Macmurray 1957, 1961; Niebuhr 1960; see also Fowler 1974).

Through this unconscious process of depending on human experience for the construction of religious experience, one is developing a foundation for one’s personality, a ground of being, with the purpose of integrating one’s self and one’s experiences (Niebuhr 1960; Buber 1970; Tillich 1958, 1963). Our relationship with God reverberates with all other close relationships, and all those intimate relationships connect to inform our relationship with God. Buber wrote (1970, 123), “Extended, the lines of relationships intersect in the eternal You.” Tillich (1958, 1963) would have agreed. Although we may discuss the differences between these authors, for our purposes here, the ties that bind them together within this paradigm are their understanding of religious matters as intrinsically rooted in human relationship.

“Faith,” wrote Tillich (1958, 1), “is the state of being ultimately concerned.” To be ultimately concerned is to cultivate a relationship between one’s subjective capacity for seeking meaning and significance and an object that is perceived as the self “expressed in symbols of the divine” (Tillich 1958, 10). What we consider to be ultimate demands our full attention and the fullness of our capacities (Tillich 1958) as “an act of the total personality” (Tillich 1958, 5). Tillich claims that faith cannot be pigeonholed into any single category of our subjectivity. It is not “an act of knowledge that has a low degree of evidence” (Tillich 1958, 31), nor can it “be restricted to the subjectivity of mere feeling” (Tillich 1958, 39).

Faith is not the inability to line up one’s belief with the available experience, but the ability to relate to an object experienced, as though it is profoundly meaningful. Faith is not the state of being blinded by childish, overeager emotion, but the ecstasy of attaining a coherence that makes sense of one’s life experience. Not irrationality or delusion, but meaning making is what propels faith within the individual, for it “gives depth, direction and unity to all other concerns and, with them, to the whole personality. A personal life which has these qualities is integrated, and the power of a personality’s integration is his faith” (Tillich 1958, 106).

In the process of integration of one’s life experience, faith could be said to operate through certain capacities of reason that enable us to grasp and shape reality (Tillich 1963, 75). While we experience our world subjectively, our reception of that data and reaction to it fashions our relationship to our world (Tillich 1963, 76). That data will be physical, psychological, cultural, religious, and spiritual. We use it to construct our sense of our world. Cultural norms and prohibitions, common beliefs and community values, and our own tastes and preferences spice this data and influence our worldview. In this sense, our world is perceived objectively and created subjectively, a consideration that leads Tillich to suggest that when we perceive (1963, 76), “an act of shaping is involved,” and when we respond, “an act of grasping is involved.” Our reality is transformed in accordance with our perception, and reality is perceived “according to the way we transform it” (Tillich 1963, 76).

As indicated in his Systematic Theology, Tillich considers the popular concept of a miracle as violation of natural law to be a (1963, 115) “term misleading and dangerous for theological use”; however, he cannot find a substitute that will express what he thinks may be a genuine experience of the miraculous. So he settles for the Greek term semeion, “sign,” to emphasize the religious nature of the meaning that miracles afford one. Tillich deemphasizes the (1963, 115) “bad connotation of a supranatural interference which destroys the natural structure of events.” Tillich is interested in salvaging the role of miracles as revelatory events fraught with deep religious significance. They are awe-inspiring events that provide new revelations of the state of one’s being, while at the same time shaking the core of one’s being.

Tillich writes (1963, 116), “The sign-event which gives the mystery of revelation [to a miracle] does not destroy the rational structure of the reality in which it [the miracle] appears.” The sign-event/miracle does not violate the rational structure of reality in the sense that a miraculous event can only be (or not be) in the context of a subject’s grasping and shaping of the experience. D. W. Winnicott (1971) says that we discern reality in accordance with our experience of our sociocultural environment. We experience and believe in miracles if they are present in the epistemological and experiential economy of our psychosocial or spiritual context.

For a member of a charismatic evangelical Christian community, miracles are perceived to take place in the life of others or of oneself. Miracles are celebrated, rehearsed, and reenacted through the reading of the biblical texts that reinforce the person’s or community’s awareness of them. Someone socialized in an opposite type of community would likely have an opposite experience of reality, in which miracles are neither expected nor experienced. Tillich’s argument that miracles do not violate “the rational structure of reality in which they appear” means that they do not violate the perceived reality of those to whom miracles appear. Turning back to Hume for a moment, one can see the sense in his argument that miracles would violate his reality if they indeed took place. It is unreasonable, however, for Hume to extrapolate from his arbitrary philosophical claim that miracles would violate the reality of a first-century leper who was healed and believed it was done by a deity or healing shaman with transcendental power.

While miracles do not violate the reality of those who perceive them, they do, nonetheless, convey religious meaning that is life changing. Reflecting on the diverse miraculous stories handed down from religious tradition, Tillich finds it (1963, 116) “striking that in many miracle stories there is a description of the ‘numinous’ dread which grasps those who participate in the miraculous events. There is the feeling that the solid ground of reality is taken ‘out from under’ their feet.” The experience of the miraculous upsets the self’s sense of security, leaving it vulnerable but also receptive to the revelation to which the miracle is serving as a sign-event. This revelation reflects the state of one’s relation to the meaning of life and the experience of the transcendent world. This unsettles the life one had before. It both challenges the self’s conception of its ground of being and invites a reassessment of that being and a reshaping of that self.

Our relational paradigm suggests that a sound psychology of miracles must seek to contextualize them within the realm of a person’s religious, cultural, and interpersonal experience, realizing that the experience of the miraculous emanates from a broad conception of the divine. The person’s image of the divine is seen as acting in his or her life to restore a sense of security lost amid the challenges of daily life. The resolution of this loss of security is the experience of the divine intervention that restores the self. How this functions in a given person’s life will be influenced by the communal context. Accordingly, a psychology of miracles must discover the meanings and emotions in a person’s culture and the interpersonal world that are being reenacted in the person’s experience of God and of God’s intervention in that person’s world. That set of experiences defines what the person sees as miracles.

Towards A Psychology of Miracles

Although relational Psychoanalysis and attachment theory at times seem to be in conflict in the psychology of religion, as regards method, epistemology, and empirical validity (Granqvist 2006; Rizzuto 1979; Wulff 1991), there is much to be gained for a psychology of religion from a theoretical integration of the two. In her landmark study of human development of the God-image, Rizzuto suggests that (1979, 123) “properly investigated, under detailed and careful historical reconstruction, God’s representational characteristics can be traced to experiences in reality, wish, or fantasy with primary caretakers in the course of development.” Experiences of empathy, compassion, rejection, or neglect by one’s caregivers lay the groundwork for the formation of our image of God.8 The impact of the parent/caregiver’s behavior on the God-image is such that even his or her very physical characteristics may be melded on a physical image of God. Such was the case of one of Rizzuto’s patients, who, after finishing a drawing of her image of God, remarked about how she forgot to draw his whiskers.

Although Rizzuto gives much attention to the influence of parental behavior on the child’s image of God, she also discusses other relationships and life patterns that are established in the child. Not only is the parent reimagined in the image of God, but so is the sense of self experienced within that object-relationship. It is a two-way dynamic. The God-image will shape one’s life, but one’s life experience will revise the God-image:

Defenses begin working to protect the individual from anxiety and pain. If the relevant objects of everyday life are a source of pain, God may be used, through complex modifications of his representation, to comfort and supply hope. If they are accepting and supportive, God may be used to displace ambivalence and angry feelings, or as a target for disturbing and forbidden libidinal longings. (Rizzuto 1979, 89)

In this sense, Rizzuto argues that God is a transitional object (Winnicott 1971) unconsciously crafted from the representational fragments of one’s inner world for the purpose of establishing a cohesive sense of self. As a transitional object, the God-image may be used for ego-synthesis or rejected when it fails to keep up with a developing self. Like the transitional object, God is both a product of the subjective world of the person and of the objective world of culture and of personal experience. It is in that sense that Rizzuto, using Winnicott’s terminology, remarks that God is (1979, 87) “a psychically created object who is also ‘found.’”

According to Rizzuto, God becomes both a carrier of the individual’s parental object-relations as well as a point of reference for the interpretation of events in the world. Any and all events affecting a person will fall under the lens of his or her life history as well as under the eyes of his or her image of God. A natural catastrophe, such as a massive flood or earthquake, may lead one to seek comfort in one’s image of God, using it to explain the event as a test or a punishment for ill deeds. God may provide new meaning with which to cope with adversity, meaning that may be reinterpreted and reworked in accordance with the surrounding environment. But it is not only a matter of external events being interpreted from the viewpoint of the individual and his or her God-image, for even

so-called actions of God in the realities of our lives (his responses to our prayers, his punishments, his indication of what we should do) rest upon our interpretation of events and realities to accord with our state of inner harmony, conflict, or ambivalence with the God we have. (Rizzuto 1979, 87)

Jones (1991, 1996, 1997, 2002) has also expanded the psychodynamic study of religion by introducing post-Freudian and object-relations theories. Jones (1991) reviews the movement within Psychoanalysis from Newtonian-Galilean, classical Psychoanalysis to post-modern relational models of Psychoanalysis and applies this new paradigm to religion. Drawing together insights from British object-relations theory, self-psychology, and inter-subjectivity theory, he employs a post-Freudian understanding of transference as his main tool of analysis of the function of religion. Instead of being a projection of childish wishes, transference is understood as the person’s “basic patterns of relating and making sense of experience” (Jones 1991, 84). It is the unconscious process by which those patterns of behavior, affect, and experience with the world around us are internalized, leading to the construction of organizing themes, which help guide behavior as well as interpret and organize future experience.

Jones posits that these (1991, 110) “internalized affective relationships” lie at the heart of a person’s image of God. Following Rizzuto, Jones argues that children’s experience of comfort or neglect with the primary caregivers forms a crucial part of their image of God; however, he makes an important distinction between his understanding of the dynamic and that of Rizzuto. Jones writes (1991, 47), “Although it is clear that the internalization of objects cannot be separated from our relationship with them, Rizutto tends to focus more on the internalized objects themselves and less on the internalized relationships.” Rizzuto’s focus is on the objects relevant to the development of a self—parents, caretakers, peers—and the way those objects are internalized as crystallized entities in the psyche. Jones, on the other hand, acknowledges the impact of objects, while focusing on how the relationship with the object is internalized and becomes a pattern of behavior throughout life.

In essence, it could be said that Rizzuto’s theory involves the analysis of the object-relation (characteristics of certain objects internalized), while Jones’ theory emphasizes the object-relation (life themes experienced in a relationship). Without pushing this point too far, it is necessary to point out their theoretical differences for the sake of also delineating the ways in which their works form two sides of the same relational Psychoanalytic coin. Their works are complementary.

Under the lens of a post-Freudian understanding of transference, religion is defined “not primarily as a defense against instincts or a manifestation of internalized objects,” Jones (1991, 63) argues, “but rather as a relationship (with God, the sacred, the cosmos, or some reality beyond the phenomenal world of space and time).” This relational paradigm

focuses the Psychoanalysis of religion on the affective bond with the sacred and how that object relation serves as the transferential ground of the self. Such an analysis seeks to uncover the ways in which that relationship resonates to those internalized relationships that constitute the sense of self…. Our relationship to the transcendental reality, or lack of it, enacts and reenacts the relational patterns present throughout our life. (Jones 1996, 44-45)

Thus a person of low self-esteem may ground that sense of self in a critical, judgmental God. Or alternatively, such a person may develop an image of God that is patient, tender, and forgiving, developing an object-relation that sustains that sense of self. No matter how much one falters, God will always be there, ready to forgive and accept one as is. Such a perceived relationship with God serves as a point of reference to the invariant themes in a person’s life, organizing the affectivity generated in his or her experiential world. For Winnicott, transitional objects are, in the end, outgrown, after they have served their purpose in the infant’s psychological development; however, while transitional objects are set aside, the capacities for meaning making that spawned them are not. As Jones explains, the creativity and imagination of playful infants do not simply disappear, but instead “become spread out over the whole intermediate territory between ‘inner psychic reality’ and ‘the external world as perceived by two persons in common,’ that is to say, over the whole cultural field” (Winnicott, as quoted in Jones 1991, 60).

This capacity to create symbols allows the developing person transitional experiences “of artistic creativity and appreciation, and of religious feeling, and of dreaming” (Winnicott, as quoted in Jones 1991, 60). From this viewpoint, Jones’ understanding of the God-image, and other aspects of religion, is rooted in its development from a transitional object into a transitional experience able to (1997, 120) “allow entrance again and again into that transforming psychological space from which renewal and creativity emerge.” Psychologically speaking, religious practice and spiritual experience “reverberate with the affects of past object relations and are pregnant with the possibility of future forms of intuition and transformation” (Jones 1997, 120).

Kirkpatrick introduces Bowlby’s attachment theory, which (1997, 115) “postulates a primary, biosocial behavioral system in the infant that evolved to maintain proximity of the infant to its primary caregiver, thereby protecting the infant from predation and other dangers” (cf. Kirkpatrick 2005, 28). Under normal circumstances, “the infant develops a secure attachment to the mother in which she is perceived as a reliable source of protection and security, … an important influence on behavior ‘from the cradle to the grave’” (Kirkpatrick 1997, 115-16). Kirkpatrick indicates that Bowlby specifically intimated that the child’s internal working models (IWM) of attachment developed early on and (2005, 39) “were carried forward into adulthood as models of close relationships.”

Kirkpatrick believes that among the kind of relations that are affected by such IWM in ongoing life are those that are perceived to exist with God, angels, Mary, or any other supernatural being. He considers the analogy between the attachment relationship with a caregiver and a relationship with a divine being to be

striking…. The religious person proceeds with faith that God (or another figure) will be available for protection and will comfort him or her when danger threatens; at other times, the mere knowledge of God’s presence and accessibility allows a person to approach the problems and difficulties of daily life with confidence. (Kirkpatrick 1997, 117; cf. Kirkpatrick 2005, 52)

Of course, Kirkpatrick believes that the relationship with God is not like an attachment relationship, but really is an attachment relationship. To support this contention, he argues that a person’s image of God serves many important functions, which attachment figures normally fulfill.

Attachment theory posits three conditions under which the attachment system is activated: “(1) frightening or alarming environmental events, that is, stimuli that evoke fear and distress; (2) illness, injury, or fatigue; and (3) separation or threat of separation from attachment figures” (Kirkpatrick 2005, 61). In the face of death, crisis, catastrophe, and illness, people turn to God for protection, support, and healing. Even in circumstances of familial rift with one’s own parents, one may seek comfort from God as one’s ever-loving caregiver, invoking Psalm 27:10: “Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.” Thus, when Kirkpatrick applies these hypotheses to religious experience, he concludes with the fact that (2005, 62) “people primarily turn to God … when severely distressed is thus consistent with an attachment interpretation.” God acts as an attachment figure in the way in which he serves as a haven of safety, to allay anxiety and restore security to the person. God also acts as a secure base, serving as a foundation from which one may push forward against the adversities of life. Like a child whose supportive relationship with parents has led to a secure and able self, a person of faith goes forward with the understanding that God provides the support needed to overcome difficulties (Kirkpatrick 2005, 66).

With regard to individual differences in images of God, the two primary dimensions identified by Benson and Spilka (1973) as loving God versus controlling God, Kirkpatrick notes that they (2005, 83) “appear to map neatly onto the two primary dimensions of parenting that have been widely studied in the developmental psychology literature.” This is usually conceptualized as either warmth versus control, responsiveness versus demandingness, or care versus overprotection (see Kirkpatrick 2005, 83). These parallels between images of God and images of primary caregivers “would be expected if thinking about God is guided by the psychological mechanisms designed to process information about parental care giving” (Kirkpatrick 2005, 83-84).

This consideration is particularly relevant to Kirkpatrick’s hypothesis on the positive relation between images of God and of one’s parents, which he terms the correspondence hypothesis (2005, 108): “Children who perceive their attachment figures as loving and caring tend to see themselves as worthy of love and care.” If, through his or her human attachments, a person sees himself or herself as worthy of love and care, then his or her generalized IWM would suggest that God is also loving and caring. The opposite is also true.

Apart from the positive correspondence between IWM of parents and God, Kirkpatrick also formulates an alternative hypothesis that is designed to study the negative relation between human and divine attachments. From the perspective of this compensation hypothesis, “the importance of God as an attachment figure might be greatest among those people, in those situations, in which human attachments are perceived to be unavailable or inadequate” (Kirkpatrick 2005, 127). An environment that is perceived to be chaotic, offering no safety or security, might predispose the self to find that security, order, and affection “in a God who is, in important ways, unlike one’s human attachment figures” (Kirkpatrick 2005, 127). One interesting example of this possibility is some research suggesting that people with insecure relationships with their parents are more prone to sudden religious conversions (see Kirkpatrick 2005, 130). Through these religious conversions, the new believers may find in God the perfect, loving parent they never had. Their attachment relationship to a loving God may help a particular self recuperate from an environment fraught with conflict and ambivalence, compensating for the much needed security that was never provided.

Granqvist (1998, 2002; see also Granqvist 2006) proposed a rereading of Kirkpatrick’s data, in which he argued that attachment to one’s parents does not moderate the image of God developed, but that attachment makes the socialization to their beliefs more feasible when it is secure, but not when attachment is insecure. Granqvist (2002) defined his version of Kirkpatrick’s hypotheses as socialized correspondence and emotional compensation. Socialized correspondence, in this case, meant “the parallel between one’s religious beliefs and one’s parents’ beliefs, rather than, as in [Kirkpatrick’s] interpretation, between one’s religious beliefs and the security of one’s own attachment style (or prior attachment experience)” (Kirkpatrick 2005, 114-15). Granqvist used the phrase emotional compensation to refer to individuals who were not able to have secure relationships with their caregivers and hence could not internalize their religious beliefs. Instead, they develop alternate religious beliefs and an attachment to God that regulates experience in such a way as to help foster a more secure self in spite of problematic parental relations.

Taking Stock: What Could a Relational Psychology Say about Miracles

The relational paradigm would suggest that the psychologist should focus on miracles as expressions of a relationship, or a matrix of relationships. On the other side of the miracle perceived by the individual is an image of the sacred, or more specifically, an image of God. Rizzuto might advise us to take a closer look at that God-image and attempt to reconstruct what object-representations lie behind it. A father who grants all the desires of his children? A mother who would help her child at the very last moment of his or her struggle? Perhaps a mixture of parental elements? From a strictly object-relations approach, one would have to ask, What is the nature of the God at the other end of that miracle, and what parental object-representations unconsciously pull its strings in performing that miracle?

Jones would point us in a parallel direction, focusing on what affective bond with the sacred a miracle might reflect. In tandem with an analysis of the possible parental images behind the God-image, Jones would also have us look at what life patterns or organizing principles are reflected in the miraculous event itself. What kind of experience might be revisited in the feeling that God spared one from an imminent death in a car crash? What meaning and affect are evoked when one is declared healed of a disease or cleansed of ritual impurity? One would have to contextualize the miraculous experience within a person’s overall experience of the divine, understanding the role it plays within one’s experience of God. In studying the meaning of that miraculous experience in the context of that relation to God, the psychologist must also contextualize both the miracle and the relation within the person’s life narrative. Laying both side by side, the presence of common principles of experience, organizing principles, are bound to emerge: patterns of behavior or experience that govern interactions with others and with the world in general, drawn in part from interactions with the caregivers, but following one through life.

Jones would also point out that miracles and miraculous experiences are not just repetitions of one’s past, but can also be transformative. In his use of Winnicott, it is especially apparent that when one unconsciously uses past relational and schematic scripts of interaction, one opens up the possibility for the transformation of those scripts and the creation of new ways of being-in-the-world (a Heideggerian term). In that transformative sense, we would do well to refer to miracles conceptually as transitional phenomena, following Tillich’s discussion of miracles as events that renovate present conceptions of one’s self and reveal new opportunities or ways of being.

Another sense of Winnicott’s terminology employed heavily by Rizutto that is relevant for our discussion of miracles is in the transitional experience between the subjective world of the person and the external objective world. A psychology employing Winnicott for the study of miracles could also define them as transitional experiences in the sense that they do not belong entirely to the objective world of rocks and chairs, but at the same time, they do not belong completely to the subjective, psychospiritual world of a given person. Miracles belong in a transitional space that is between subjective and objective and involves both in mutual interaction. Tillich’s understanding that one shapes reality, while, at the same time, is grasping it certainly finds much agreement with Winnicott’s contention that transitional phenomena are both created and found.

The relational paradigm as sampled in Tillich also speaks of the numinous dread experienced when the miraculous shakes up a person’s world and the “ground of reality is taken ‘out from under’” his or her feet. In other words, miracles as transitional experiences render asunder the self’s sense of security, broken down to be brought back up in a new way. A new determination may be produced and security reestablished in a new way of relating to God and the world. Some relationships and ways of relating may be severed, with new relations and ways of relating instituted. The resonance with the themes of attachment, safety, and security in attachment theory here is unmistakable.

So an important theme in miraculous experience is the issue of security and attachment. I see a parallel between the triggering of the attachment system in times of stress and the miraculous experience, depicting a setting for safety and security in divine intervention. Some crises upset a person’s state of being, leading the attachment system to be activated. As discussed via Kirkpatrick, a person’s relation with God is itself an attachment relationship, meaning that under times of adversity, God’s protective or alleviating capacities are activated, lending support to the person in coping with the problem at hand. This also provides a heuristic interpretation and resolution of the suffering. IWM of the self in turmoil and of the self overcoming the turmoil are involved. What IWM could also be activated that would aid the self in regulating its emotions and in resolving conflict? Certainly those of the self being soothed by one’s caregivers to endure difficulty, and even of caregivers helping resolve problems when one’s resources have reached their limit.

Considering that IWM of God’s behavior are regulated in part by higherlevel IWM based on experiences with one’s caregivers, we can expect to find a similar dynamic. The experience of miracles, then, must be drawn from IWM of the self’s loss of security and present helplessness, followed by IWM of the restoration of security by the intervention of a divine caregiver. As alluded to in the previous paragraph, it is certainly a possibility that a miraculous experience corresponds to past experiences of protection with one’s caregivers. Another consideration involves the ways in which a person’s experience of a miracle compensates for the lack of consistent security from parents and the experienced world. If an image of God who can provide that security serves to compensate for the lack of it from a nonresponsive parent, one may explore how a person’s experience of miracles extends from that compensation. Another consideration that can be drawn from attachment theory involves Granqvist’s contribution highlighting the importance of socialization in the development of IWM of the miraculous and of the way these affect our experience of them.

Case Studies: Applications of a Relational Psychology

The following two cases illustrate how some of the psychological dynamics we have discussed actually operate. Notice the psychological nature of the person’s image of the divine, the organizing principles or relational patterns reflected in the miraculous, the role of themes of security in the modulation of the experience, and the continuity or discontinuity between the experience and previous IWM. The sociocultural contexts in which the experiences took place are also important. The cases are drawn from interviews with Christians from two different ethnocultural communities. They were asked about their miraculous experiences, their feelings and images of God before and after the experiences, and their life histories leading up to and after the miraculous experiences. The names have been changed to ensure privacy.

John, age 21, was driving to his father’s house one evening, when his car was suddenly struck from the side by another vehicle. His car spun around, flipped over, and was totally destroyed. John crawled out from the wreckage dazed, suffering only minor cuts and bruises. In the aftermath of the accident, John emphatically thanked God for having saved his life. When questioned regarding this assertion, he claimed that in the moment between being hit by the other vehicle and his car flipping over, he initially felt that he was going to die. “I just froze when the other car lights appeared. When I felt the car hit me, I just thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die!’” He relates how in that moment, when his car was flipping in the air, he suddenly felt a presence, as if someone was holding him tightly inside his car, cushioning him from the effects of the crash. When he crawled out of the car and turned around to witness the extent of the damage, he explained, “Like the two men on the road to Emmaus [Luke 24:13-34], I didn’t recognize that it was Jesus saving me inside that car until afterward!”

It is most enlightening from a psychological perspective to see this event within the context of John’s life. He was raised as a Protestant Evangelical, receiving much of his instruction from his father since John’s mother had died at his birth. John described a very affectionate relationship with his father, who had balanced his work with the demands of raising a child as a widowed parent. It appeared that one way John’s father had coped with his mother’s death was to engross himself in his religion, always invoking Jesus Christ to protect him and his remaining family, his only son. The language of salvation and Jesus Christ as an ever watching parent was quite pervasive, not just in John’s father’s devotional life, but also in the Evangelical church they attended. One particular theme reinforced in the church’s theological rhetoric was that of the helplessness of human beings in a hostile world and their necessity of an omnipotent, ever present God to protect and love them in the midst of that world.

One incident that held deep significance for John was when, at the age of eight, he was almost run over by a car at a birthday party. At one point, the dog of the birthday girl had gotten out of the house and run across the street. When John tried to catch the dog, he heard the loud honk of a car coming right at him. In the moment that he faced the oncoming car, he froze, when suddenly, he was swooped up from the ground by his father, who was praying and sobbing, thanking Jesus for saving his son.

John’s life entered a new chapter as he left home to attend college. He dealt with the demands of school and work, while balancing new friendships and a girlfriend; however, his religious beliefs prevented him from engaging in certain practices commonly enjoyed by some college students, such as drinking and leisure sex. This lifestyle was met with some rejection from his friends and strained his relationship with his girlfriend. Things became even more complicated when he found out that his girlfriend was having an affair with one of his friends, effectively ending the relationship for him and estranging him from his friend. Because his girlfriend and his friend both belonged to the same peer group, John became even more distant from those he knew at school. The feeling of isolation led him into a depression. To cope with the recent events, John decided to visit his father after work one evening. It was then that the auto accident took place.

From an attachment perspective, we can see a correspondence, then, between the image of Jesus protecting John and holding him tightly in the midst of the accident and his father pulling him away from an oncoming car and holding him tightly as he thanked Jesus for protecting him. The loss of relationships in college had threatened his sense of security as he became more isolated, with this car crash threatening his very life. The attachment system became activated, leading John to reexperience that feeling of being held tightly in the face of danger. Speaking Psychoanalytically, we can also see the resurgence of an organizing principle, which stressed the dependence of a helpless son on an omnipotent father, who offered unconditional protection and acceptance.

This object-representation of an omnipotent, loving father, reinforced both by the parental relation and the theological language of a particular community, stood behind John’s image of Jesus. The accident and the perceived miraculous intervention reinvigorated John during a time when he faced alienation and rejection from the peers he had once trusted. He felt that even in the midst of his suffering in a world hostile to him and his beliefs, Jesus still loved, cared for, and protected him. This expression reminded him of his relationship to Jesus as a meaningful source of empowerment for coping with his problems.

Naomi, age 32, was on the verge of a painful divorce, fearing for the well-being of her two children. Financial problems and her husband’s increasing alcoholism had eaten away at their marriage, with heated arguments placing more and more distance between them. One day, after another argument, her husband left her and the children, promising divorce. Although their troubles and her husband’s behavior angered her deeply, she actually loved him and blamed herself for everything: their financial troubles, her husband’s increasing desperation, the marital disputes, and his eventual desertion of the family. Their separation beset her with fear for her children since they had to live with only her income. She began to feel completely hopeless. She believed that God was punishing her for her dishonoring behavior toward her husband. A month later, her husband returned, having found a new, higher-paying job, and asked for her forgiveness. Naomi and her husband were reconciled, resolved their financial situation, and have been able to form a stable family with their children. “When my husband showed up at my doorstep,” she explains, “talking about a new job and wanting to reconcile, I just couldn’t believe it! It was a miracle of God!”

Following the theories discussed above, we turn to the context of Naomi’s life to shed light on the psychodynamics of her miraculous experience. Her earliest memories involve the image of a happy family: a loving father, who doted on her every want, and a mother who cared for her every need. She was especially fond of her father, who often played with her after returning from a hard day’s work, while her mother prepared their dinner. Unfortunately, when Naomi was around the age of six, her father mysteriously left the household. She never understood why her father had left, and her mother was never willing to speak about the matter. Rumors around her community circulated, however, that he had gone to live with another woman. As Naomi grew, her mother became more demanding of her around the household and in her daily life, often invoking God’s wrath on a child who would not honor her parent whenever she would not do as she was told and whenever she failed to carry out a task with perfection. Her mother was especially imposing on Naomi when she began to date in high school.

Naomi was confused as to why her loving father had left the family so suddenly and without reason. The idea that her good and loving father had left her, coupled with her mother’s now ever present emotional punishment, led Naomi to conclude that he had left because she “was a bad girl, why else would my dad have gone away? Why else would my mother punish me so?” This self-image was certainly reinforced by her mother’s use of God to validate her righteousness, while reminding Naomi of her badness: as a bad daughter and later as a bad girlfriend and as a bad wife. God was an almighty judge with a watchful eye set on Naomi’s “rebelliousness” toward her mother and her “wickedness” in her relations with men. He took stock of whenever she disobeyed her mother or could not perform a task efficiently.

The experience of overbearing demandingness from her mother and perceived demandingness from God led Naomi herself to become increasingly demanding and critical in her personal relationships. Her mother would often disapprove of the men Naomi dated, pointing out supposed economic and moral shortcomings. Naomi, in turn, became very demanding of her suitors, as she sought to make them “good men, good enough for my mother.” The twofold pressure from a possible mother-in-law and then from Naomi herself often turned these men away, leading Naomi to turn on herself, dwelling on how her attitude had not only cost her the relationship, but on how her own moral failings shamed her mother and her God.

The man Naomi eventually married was described as a wonderful man, a family man who worked hard to please her and their two growing children. They lived well financially until the birth of their second child, when it became necessary for Naomi to take a job to help supplement the family income. This led to criticism from her mother, who shared the views of the church Naomi had grown up attending. Her church, which she had attended from her childhood to her marriage, presented the image of a wrathful and condemning God. This included very stern teachings about a man’s role as the head of the household, the breadwinner, and the ultimate provider. Women who held a working job, thus, were frowned on.

This greatly upset Naomi, who in turn began to criticize her husband for his financial failings in providing for the family without her income. In the long term, she began to see this as moral failing as well. The pressure from his financial and familial situation began to take its toll, and so the husband began to take up some casual drinking after work. “Although he never really became a drunk,” Naomi clarified, “the very fact that he had begun to drink angered me.” She became more critical of his behavior, which pushed him to the point of wanting to leave the marriage. After a heated argument, he left the home, and with his leaving, once again, Naomi turned her anger against herself, blaming herself for everything.

When her husband returned a month later, asking for forgiveness for having left her and the children, and explaining that he had found a new job that would help cover all of their needs, something changed inside Naomi. “That he would come back with this new job, wanting to make it work with me and the kids … it was a miracle!” God had brought her husband back and restored her family, “but that felt different,” she claimed, “because God was always taking things away from me for being bad. Here he was giving my family back. Did that mean I was good enough to have them?” The question struck a chord with Naomi, as the miracle she experienced challenged her notion of who God was.

The understanding that God loved her enough to intervene and bring her husband back led her to think of herself not as a bad person, but as one less than perfect who was more than deserving of love. God, for Naomi, became more forgiving and empathic, aiding her in her time of need, instead of criticizing her in the face of her failures. This was reflected in her reaction to her husband, whom she forgave for leaving, and in turn asked him for forgiveness for the difficulties she herself had caused. She could acknowledge her failings and those of her husband without demonizing either, gaining peace with herself and learning how to deal more effectively with interpersonal conflict. Her new understanding of God helped her keep a certain emotional distance from her mother’s disapproving tone, as she reconciled with her husband. She even continued to keep her job without any guilt of transgressing religiocultural norms or because of her mother’s thoughts of how a woman should behave.

The confusion over the loss of her father, together with her mother’s overly critical stance toward her as she grew into teenhood, and even adulthood, led Naomi to conclude that she was a bad person who could not do anything right. She had internalized not only the feeling of badness, but also the behavioral pattern of demandingness, which she continued to act out in her relationships with others, particularly her romantic relations. Her mother would disapprove of them, Naomi would in turn become more critical of them, and they would leave her without ever coming back. Then she would berate herself for being so demanding, for being a bad daughter, a bad girlfriend, and finally, a bad wife. This dynamic also played out in her image of God, who was a jealous judge looking down to condemn human weakness and frailty: Naomi’s failure to honor her mother, to be a good Christian woman, or to be a good Christian wife.

When her husband left, and she assumed he would never return, the stress caused her sick attachment system to be activated, with its attending IWM of self and others. This led to the same self-denigrating behaviors, with the image of God looking down on her with contempt. When her husband returned wishing to reconcile, he went against her IWM, her organizing principles, challenging the structure of her beliefs and patterns of behavior. She saw the incident as a miracle: God had intervened in her life to return what was lost and restore what had crumbled. With the crumbling of her family, there was also a crumbling in her sense of security and selfhood. With the restoration of her family, there was a restoration of her sense of security and selfhood. The new security, invoked by this miraculous experience, gave Naomi a new understanding of God, who had changed from a critical judge to a more benevolent and tolerant father. Indeed, she reckoned that she “had found the father once lost.” We can see in this dynamic also a compensation process, whereby this new image of a God of tolerance and empathy acted inversely to her old God-image of intolerance and control. One might also argue for the resurgence of Naomi’s image of her affectionate human father, and the positive affection she held for him, as an influence on her new image of God.


In this chapter, I have carved out a psychology of miracles using a relational paradigm and employing key insights from relational Psychoanalysis and attachment theory. What, then, is a crisp psychological definition of miracles that respects the conceptions of philosophical and theological discourse, without becoming subject to them? A miracle is a transitional experience, in which an emotional, social, or physical stress threatens the sense of security of an individual by confronting him or her with a striking counterintuitive event. This stress triggers the individual’s attachment system and patterns of relating, the purpose of which is to allay anxiety and restore security. This focuses the system’s activation on the IWM and object-representations of the self in relation to what it considers divine (God, Jesus, angels).

Depending on the particular subject-object correlation within the transitional experience, the person perceives that the divine attachment figure has intervened in the resolution of the crisis on his or her behalf, restoring a sense of safety. This perceived divine intervention then presents the person with a revelation, a new meaning that either reflects and upholds the person’s IWM or leads to their transformation. Another, more simplified way of defining a miracle from a psychological perspective is as an expression of a person’s relationship with what he or she deems to be the divine, in which the divine intervenes to allay anxiety, restore security, and provide a new meaning to an individual’s life context.

Although great care has been taken here to define miracles within the bounds of an interactive subject-object relation (Winnicott 1971), the emphasis is on a subject’s percepting the world in a psychological mode. The impetus for this chapter has been the shift from discussing miracles solely within Hume’s paradigm to studying them within a framework that relocates them from the world of natural law to the world of dynamic interaction between a subject and its contextual experience. This relational framework asks us to reanalyze miracles using the lens of psychodynamic psychology, instead of philosophical epistemology or ontology. The considerations raised by this alternate paradigm, in the end, lead us to redefine miracles, seeing them no longer as violations of natural law, but rather as reflections of the deepest meanings of a person’s subjectivity.