A Transdisciplinary Perspective Viewed through Anabaptist Eyes

A Transdisciplinary Perspective Viewed through Anabaptist Eyes

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Introduction to Theme

This paper presents two claims: (1) Attachment is a universal thread that holds the fabric of life together and (2) Anabaptist theology theorizes Christian community and relationship with God in ways that identify attachment for human flourishing and social peace.  We expand the first claim by describing the necessary biological bases for attachment with a focus on oxytocin as an important hormone involved in attachment behaviors.  Colored by our Anabaptist perspective, we suggest that many biblical and theological themes are consistent with attachment.  We posit, consequently, that attachment is an emerging scientific and theological paradigm, which is inherent in academic disciplines investigating life.  In this introductory section we will share three attachment stories and provide explanatory definitions of two concepts: attachment and “Anabaptism”.

Three Attachment Stories

As a way of enlarging our understanding, we share three stories that deal with attachment within different spheres: cellular connections, sibling relationships, and mother/child bonding.  We see these stories as descriptive vignettes.  Although primarily based on simple observations, they enhance our appreciation for the diverse aspects of attachment.

Primordial germ cells (PGCs) are the earliest embryonic cells that are destined to become gamete or sex cells (ova or sperm) in mammals.  Their initial formation, migration, and homing (attachment) to the primitive gonadal ridge area has been well documented for many years.1,2  During the past few years, further research has pointed to causative factors involved in the migration and subsequent attachment to the gonadal ridge.  In the human at about 24 days after fertilization, PGCs are first recognized in the wall of the yolk sac which is external to the body of the developing embryo.  In the mouse, where this has been extensively studied, about 100 of these cells change from stationary epithelial to motile cells.  These cells leave the yolk sac, migrate into the hindgut epithelium, and move through the dorsal mesentery of the gut, until they reach the primitive gonads.  During this elongated journey past diverse cells and through crevices between sheets of tissues, these PGCs multiply as they move so that about 4,000 PGCs ultimately enter the gonad.  During migration, many PGCs are loosely attached to each other through long cytoplasmic processes.  When they reach the gonadal ridge area, the PGCs form attachments to the substratum of that tissue, and become resident there.

This fascinating odyssey quickly raises questions: How do PGCs “know” when and where to go?  How do PGCs recognize their homing or attachment site once they arrive at the gonadal ridge area?  We really don’t know the complete answers to those questions, but we do know that PGCs express receptors on their surface called cKit.  Furthermore, specific molecules, called Mgf, are expressed on the surface of the pathway cells, forming a kind of road surface along which the cKit receptors can attach.  In a way we do not understand, these cKit-to-Mgf connections presumably function as recognition linkages.  (To use a road analogy, maybe the cKit-to-Mgf connections function somewhat as painted stripes on the highway that designate lanes of safe travel!) We know that other factors and influences (e.g. mitogenic factors such as LIF and Steel and Oct-4 expression which maintains the totipotent state of the PGCs) are also present during this transportation time that keeps the PCGs motile and moving.  In the case of the human, by the fifth week of development, the PGCs have reached the primitive gonad and have taken up residence there.  While we don’t understand all the mechanisms of this intriguing process, attachment with interactive timing is written all over this story.

Occasionally PGCs become misdirected and end in extragonadal places, where they lack the ability to attach appropriately.  When that occurs PGCs typically die, but if they do survive they may form bizarre tumor-like growths called teratomas, which ultimately develop into an amalgamation of differentiated tissues –such as skin, hair, cartilage—all of which are non-functional and purposeless.

The second story, based on personal observation, deals with sibling attachment in sheep.  Sheep are herd animals and typically form attachments and bonds with each other more strongly than with non-sheep animals, like goats or calves.  A couple of years ago, we mated one of our Polypay ewes, named #20, to a Barbados Blackbelly hair ram.  #20 was pure white and wooly, characteristic for Polypay ewes, while the ram was multicolored, largely black/brown and had hair rather than wool.  That year, #20 birthed quadruplets: two of the lambs were pure white and wooly like their mother; the other two lambs were dark, almost black, and had more hair and less wool, similar to their father.  The quadruplets appeared to represent two sets of identical twins.  #20 attached to all four lambs and successfully raised them without supplemental help.  From the shepherd’s perspective, it did not seem that the ewe showed any favoritism toward any one set of her lambs.  Interestingly as the lambs matured, a distinguishing grazing pattern became evident.  Typically young lambs graze with their ewe-mother.  In watching this set, most of the time the two wooly lambs grazed close together on the one side of the ewe, while the two hairy lambs grazed close together also along-side of the ewe, sometimes on the same side but frequently on the opposite side.  All four lambs grazed together with the ewe to the exclusion of grazing with other lambs from other ewes, which reflected that the sibling attachment was greater than attachment to other lambs.  However, clearly the twinning bond (attachment) was stronger than the simple sibling bond.  What was the causative factor here?  We do not believe lambs are racists. However, if the lambs were identical twin sets they probably shared the same chorionic and maybe even amniotic bag in their mother’s uterus.  (Genetic testing was not done to prove this.)  Prolonged, close proximity that also constitutes sharing is a factor in forming attachments.  In contrast, removing either a single lamb or the ewe mother from this pastoral setting creates anxiety and anguish in the individuals as depicted by bleating and crying in protesting the potential cleavage of an attached relationship.

The third attachment story describes mother/child bonding.  On October 24, 1991, Regina Miller married Matthew Schlabach.  The Schlabach couple, conservative Anabaptists, eagerly and optimistically formed a new home, anticipating a family of children.  About a year later, their first child was born.  Then in December of 1994, when Regina was pregnant with their second child, she was diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor.  The attending physician advised aggressive treatment – surgery to remove the tumor mass and subsequent radiation treatments.  A suggestion was made that the fetus be aborted so that anti-cancer treatment could be initiated as soon as possible.  Regina declined the abortion option as well as the early aggressive treatment for the tumor, since that would compromise the health of the fetus.  Regina’s health declined during the following months.  Recognizing that her health was unstable and that she was becoming more weakened, the decision was made on March 27, 1995, to birth the fetus via cesarean section (10 weeks prior to the due date).  The premature neonate, a son named Dylan, survived.  Two days after the delivery, the physicians initiated aggressive treatment of the initial tumor via a lengthy operation and radiation treatments.  Subsequently during the following weeks, the cancer became invasive with the appearance of multiple tumor sites along the spinal cord.  Ultimately, the delayed treatment regimen was unsuccessful and Regina died on January 14, 1996.  Regina Miller Schlabach was my (RJM) oldest niece.  Her struggle for health and her ultimate decision to save the life of her embryo/fetus at the cost of her own life was shared by her immediate family and most persons in her church congregation.  In conversation about her decision, it was clear that she was attached to and felt responsible for the growing fetus (“her baby” as she said) inside of her uterus.  She was willing to risk her life and ultimately die to save her developing young one.

In reflecting on these three stories, we make several points.  Attachment is essential for survival, growth, and well-being.  Biologically attachment is found in diverse settings and seems to permeate life and living things.  However, we are practically agnostic in understanding the process that forms attachment or comprehending the factors that cause attachment to go awry.  We believe that further research and transdisciplinary conversations will illuminate and increase our understanding of attachment.

Attachment and Anabaptism: Basic Definitions

We wish to provide definitions for two words—attachment and Anabaptism—and to provide a broader support for our usage of these terms.  Both of these terms have multiple facets and depending on one’s perspective may have varying definitions.

We understand attachment to be an ontologically dynamic event that has both physical and metaphysical dimensions.  Typical dictionary definitions describe attachment as a binding by personal ties of affection or sympathy or a feeling that binds persons.  In published literature attachment is sometimes described as forming connections, reciprocal relationships, bonds, or adherences.

We suggest that attachment encompasses two facets or dimensions: an inward (soma-based) reality and an outward reality that is recognized by specific behaviors or rituals.  The inward facet of attachment is reflected in physical aspects such as cortex neurons firing and release of hormones as well as in metaphysical aspects such as emotions.  We believe the physical and metaphysical aspects of the inward facet of attachment have a strong unity and if separated result in the loss of attachment itself.  Thus, a key to understanding the lack of attachment (attachment disorder) is to understand the malfunction of the central role of either aspect of the internal reality of attachment.

The central insight that we provide here is that there are unique internal dynamics or energies that are causative for the formation of external (outward reality) attachment bonds such as parental-child, pair-bonding, sibling bonding, etc.  Furthermore, we suggest that this attachment is foundational to what it means to be a holistic sentient individual such that when attachment is lost or is not properly formed, the individual becomes vulnerable to loss and disorientation.  The simplest form of biological life, the cell, survives by attaching to other cells to form complex tissues and interacting systems of organs essential to its life and function.  In a similar way, the human organism requires meaningful attachment to others as a basis of survival and as a pathway toward providing for a healthy and holistic environment.  Does attachment unlock a process that is already there, e.g. programmed by the genes, or does attachment elicit something new?  Does attachment possess emergent properties that powerfully influence holism and meaning?

Anabaptism is a contemporary Christian theological praxis that has grown out of the Radical Reformers of the 16th Century.  From that historical movement, which was neither Catholic nor Protestant, men and women emerged who sought to follow Jesus of Nazareth by faithfully obeying his teachings. They were convinced that this kind of discipleship was the manifestation of true Christian belief.  They also believed that discipleship, following after Jesus, was a voluntary activity.  Believers become disciples by accepting Jesus’ invitation.  The church is a gathered Christian community committed to discerning and meeting the needs of each other and of the wider world. Moreover, for Anabaptists, the way of Jesus is a way of peace and non-violence.  In a society characterized by war, violence, and oppression, the followers of Jesus demonstrate suffering love, promote justice, and live righteous lives.   The mission of Christian community, in short, was to embody the Gospel of God.

Transdisciplinary Attachment

In the 1950’s, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth hypothesized that attachment patterns can explain interpersonal relationships between humans (both asymmetrical parent-child and symmetrical adult-adult relationships).3 Since then, attachment theory has slowly emerged as a paradigm in psychotherapy (although rival ones exist).4 We believe that theoretical work on attachment is important and central in disciplines beyond psychotherapy, ranging from biology to theology that is from Darwin to Jesus!

Some of the insights into the human condition and the nature of the universe, which were articulated during the late Renaissance and early modernity, were forgotten when we adopted more mechanical and industrial models to explain things. The current emphasis in education on test-driven performance rarely considers connections and specifically does not consider that disordered attachments mitigate against internalizing even the best curriculum.  However, there are signs that the atmospheric wind is shifting. Craft pedagogy, to continue the example from the discipline of education, posits a master and apprentice co-learning environment sustained by the dyadic connection.  In a more philosophical discipline, recent work in feminist bioethics and the ethics of care illustrate the primacy of attachment in human sociality and ethics.  An ethic of care contrasts with the principled utilitarian and totalizing cost-benefit analysis ethics as a mode of understanding human interaction that values objectivity and rational choice above connections.

This raises certain questions: can an ethic and politic of care, which takes its cue from attachment, be understood in terms of a continuation of biological evolution? Are there signs of the emergence of connections and bonds all throughout the academic disciplines?  This paper seeks to argue that attachment is a recurring multi-disciplinary theme and that a trans-disciplinary conversation will contribute greatly to our understanding of what it means to be human together on this earth.  We have a hunch that attachment in its physical, chemical, biological, sociological dimensions is the catalyst that enables us to experience transcendence.  In short, attachment is the key that ultimately unlocks the closed circle rationality of our universe and opens up the possibility of experiencing wholeness in our existence, the sense that this is creation.

Attachment: Biological Aspects

Attachment: Emerging Biological Ideas

Biological links involving attachment are being discovered in physiological, neurogenetical,5 neuroimaging, and behavioral studies.  These studies show brain involvement of the medial preoptic area as well as limbic regions in attachment behaviors.6  Using pine voles as a model of monogamous pairing,7 studies have implicated the role of hormones, especially vasopressin, oxytocin, dopamine, and corticosterone, in attachment activities related to pair-bonding.8  Attachment studies in sheep demonstrated endocrine mechanisms involved in maternal-young bonding.9  From a human neurochemical and behavioral perspective, affiliative bonding (another term for attachment) has a broad biological basis involving the amygdala, opiate potentiation of dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area, and facilitative effects of gonadal steroids and oxytocin on social memory and behavior.10  Scholars have suggested that biological attachment activities form the basis for healthy human personality development including the ability to love and to form meaningful relationships in adulthood.11

The connection of attachment issues to love and to the formation of meaningful relationships suggests the need for philosophical and theological reflection.  Philosophically, it may be possible to argue, on the basis of the evolution of attachment, for an emergent ethic of care and love which gains biological traction through attachment.  Such an ethic of care and love would, at the very least, place an ethic of survival and cost-benefit analysis in tension.  Numerous descriptions of feministic bioethics and nursing ethics describe this ethic of care.12  This may be a significant move in counteracting the socio-biological attempt to reduce everything to a cost-benefit analysis with regards to fitness, and it may also provide a much better explanation of spite and altruism among human animals.  Theologically, it may be possible to argue that humans are capable of forming meaningful relationships with God.  In short, these understandings make devotion and connection to God, as well as community connections, a vital component of life.

Oxytocin: Facilitator of Bonding]

Oxytocin is a small peptide hormone that is primarily synthesized in the paraventricular and supraoptic nuclei of the hypothalamus, transported to the posterior pituitary, and secreted upon appropriate stimuli.13  Oxytocin receptors are widely distributed in the brain and found specifically in regions such as the olfactory bulb, neocortex, hippocampus, amygdale, substantia nigra, and in the hypothalamus.  Some sexual dimorphism has been seen in rodents with oxytocin binding to the hypothalamus being higher in females than males; while in the other regions (e.g. amygdala) a sexual dimorphic binding pattern of oxytocin is not seen.  The female role of oxytocin  in mediating uterine contractions during birthing and in causing milk-let down during nursing have been described for many years in mammals and humans.  More recently during the past decade, social aspects attributed to oxytocin influence have also been suggested and partially described.  In various studies, oxytocin has been clearly implicated in social bonding, or affiliation behavior, in several mammal models as well as humans.14

Most mammal species are polygamous, however about 3% display sexual monogamy and biparental nurturing.  Many comparative studies have focused on two groups of voles: prairie or pine voles which are monogamous versus montane or meadow voles which are non-monogamous (polygamous).15  Monogamous voles have higher concentrations of oxytocin receptors in the frontal cortex, amygdala, and thalamic regions of their brains.  Polygamous voles have higher concentrations of oxytocin receptors in the ventro-medial hypothalamic area.  Pair-bonding was facilitated in monogamous voles with exogenous oxytocin.  Endogenous levels of oxytocin were correlated with increased social contact in male rats and male squirrel monkeys.  Increases in both circulating oxytocin and in oxytocin receptors were found in female rates, voles, rabbits, and ewes during pregnancy, at parturition, and when nursing offspring.  In the presence of physiological levels of estrogen, oxytocin stimulates rodent maternal behaviors such as grouping pups, licking pups, crouching over pups, nest building, and pup retrieval.  One group of mice, California mice, expresses biparental behaviors.  In male California mice endogenous oxytocin levels increased in expectant fathers in contrast to levels in non-expectant fathers.16

Oxytocin has a regulatory role in the sexual behavior (e.g. copulatory behavior, ejaculation, penile erection) of both male and female rodents.  However, this role of oxytocin requires physiologic levels of steroids (estrogen or testosterone) to be also present.  Steroid hormone levels alone seem to be more influential in stimulating sexual behavior than oxytocin.

While the data from human studies are less conclusive, oxytocin is implicated as a facilitator in affiliate bonding.  Levels of oxytocin are positively correlated with positive communication behaviors, increased feelings of attachment, and in those who are self-reported to be “intensely in love.”  In the human maternal-fetal/infant situation, oxytocin enhances attachment behaviors such as gazing at infant, vocalizations to the infant, and affectionate touch.  Furthermore, exogenously administered oxytocin enhances affiliative behavior by humans toward unfamiliar other persons of either gender17 increasing ratings of trustworthiness and attraction in both male and female facial targets.  Similarly, exogenously administered oxytocin enhances positive communication in conflict situations for heterosexual couples.18

The hormonal story is not complete, but even in its infancy the influence of oxytocin is significant in the formation of bonding.  How steroid hormones and other brain factors interplay with oxytocin in the formation of bonding is not clearly understood.  Flourishing attachment promotes survival and reproductive success which are obvious keys to the survival of the species.  This illustrates the potential emergent properties of attachment that arise from the biological base.

Attachment: Anabaptist Praxis

Philosophical Linkages for Attachment

The philosophical and theological issues are important enough that they require us to be very specific.  Some biological anthropology and sociobiology scientists have suggested that the essential nature of humans is encased in violence and selfish behavior.19  An alternative view, shared by others, suggests that the evolutionary emergence of human rule-governed behavior was made possible by the formation of attachments, e.g. maternal-child, pair-bonding, tribal formations, etc, which provided the milieu for the emergence of human culture.20  The suggestion here is that attachment is a natural catalyst for ethics.  This would explain why traces of morality can be found in non-human animals.  Furthermore in the Christian tradition, biological anthropology is understood with reference to human beings as made in the image of God (imago Dei).21  We believe this imago Dei reflects a Divine-human relationship initiated by God in creation.  The consequence of this Divine activity may well be the “imprinting” of a sense of the Divine in the being of humans, resulting in the human desire to attach to the Divine.

The violent and selfish anthropology proposed by some sociobiologists is therefore unacceptable to the Anabaptist conception of God as peaceful and reconciling love.  Precisely because Anabaptists argue for an ethic of following Jesus who is God, there needs to be a coherence between conceptions of human beings and conceptions of God (although not, of course, identity since that would collapse the difference).  Anabaptist faith statements assert that humans are “made for relationship with God, to live in peace with each other, and to take care of the rest of creation.”22  These connected relationships (attachments) contrast to the paleoanthropology view that humans simply represent the last of the surviving hominids on the planet.

Early Anabaptism

As we described earlier, Anabaptists trace their theological lineage to the Radical Reformers in 16th century Europe.  The Anabaptist group was distinctive from some of the other Radical Reformers, e.g. the inspirationists or the rationalists.23  The theological praxis of Anabaptism has been called an “existential Christianity,” a realized and practiced Christianity of the gospels.24  Their emphasis and understanding of Scripture, grace, and church were distinctive from other Reformers or Catholics.

The Anabaptists believed that Scripture was the starting point for reform.  However, rather than emphasizing “Scripture alone” they emphasized “Scripture and Spirit together.”25  Of primary importance was the New Testament, especially the gospels which reflected not only the words of Jesus but also his actions which together demonstrate what it means to follow God.  Furthermore, discernment, of both the letter of Scripture and the voice of the Spirit, occurs in the gathered congregation of believers, consisting of educated and non-educated men and women alike.  Participation in this discernment was by those who were doers of Christ’s commandments rather than by theologians who were educationally trained as discursive thinkers on religious questions.26  Furthermore, the Anabaptist New Testament-based understanding of discipleship redefined family and the Kingdom of God so that being connected was experienced as a spiritual oneness, kindled by God’s Spirit, rather than an inheritable “one blood” relationship.

Anabaptists believed that grace was the means by which humans were connected to God.  Grace according to Pilgram Marpeck (16th century Anabaptist) is the “act whereby God renews the divine image in man and thus makes the believer a participant in the divine nature.”27  This contrasts with the more traditional Reformation forensic view that grace is seen as God’s favor or mercy.

The Anabaptists experienced church as a voluntary community of committed believers who were in union with God and with their brothers and sisters.  The church is a community of saints, members of the body of Christ who experience the unity of the Spirit.  Furthermore, “the vertical relationship (God to man) and the horizontal relationship (brother to brother) are inseparable.  The binding together of the brethren is as essential for the disciple as is dedication to obedience to God.”28  Within the context of this fellowship of believers, ethical virtues, such as love, peace, compassion, and empathy emerged out of common attachments.

Evidence from early Anabaptist martyrdom suggests that a union with Jesus (attachment to God or to a cause) made it possible for followers of the Anabaptist movement to participate in a radical community of believers (attachment to fellow humans) even when facing persecution and death. 29  For early Anabaptists, gelassenheit or “yieldedness” — the resignation involving the giving of one’s self to God and God’s people — was a central spiritual virtue and a pre-requisite to experiencing oneness with God and others.  In one sense, gelassenheit makes it possible for a renewed “Divine imprinting” whereby God’s being infuses the spirit of the human mortal.30  Humans do not become Divine but ontologically obtain power to follow and respond to Divine initiatives.  The early Anabaptists understood grace as divine enablement flowing from union with God 31 that resulted in a life transformation and the ability to truly follow Jesus.  Christian community is the embodied environment of attachment within which union with God and with fellow believers takes place and becomes real.  These spiritual attachments produced emergent properties that transformed an individual’s character and provided desire and ability to walk with others in following Jesus.

Within the Christian tradition, two religious rituals are commonly practiced: baptism and communion (the Eucharist).  For the early Anabaptists, baptism was an emblematic event that visibly symbolized salvation, forgiveness of sin, and regeneration of one’s being.  What was important in baptism, was not the physical water ritual, but an inner baptism of the Holy Spirit that was symbolized by the ritual pouring of water.32  According to Hans Denck, an early 16th century Anabaptist, baptism is an outward sign that gives expression to the inner certainty that through Christ sins are forgiven.33  Furthermore, baptism was understood as the sign of a reciprocal covenant between the believers and Christ.  In many ways this was similar to the covenant between God and the people of Israel with this difference that obedience was not to the law of the Old Testament, but rather to the rule of Christ.  This covenant of the obedient ones transforms a natural ethnic community into a new people who form the body of Christ.

The ritual of communion was seen as a celebratory supper where, as members of the body of Christ, individuals are united by their common love of God and for each other.  They served each other with their material goods and spiritual gifts.34  The analogy of bread was frequently used.  As individual grains are ground up losing their individual identities to form flour and ultimately a singular loaf, so believers become one at the celebration of the supper as they commit themselves to the way of the cross.  They are consequently ready to be broken in the loving service of their brothers and sisters in the faith.  In the words of Hans Denck, “He [Jesus] was transformed into our nature that we might become one bread, broken for one another.  Since he became bread for us and was crushed and baked for our benefit, we should remember this in the breaking of bread.”35  “The real transubstantiation does not happen in the bread and wine, but in the many individual believers who are being transformed into the body of Christ, a new incarnation of his healing, forgiving, and reconciling love.”36

Sixteenth century Anabaptist theologians seemed to have understood and experienced the centrality of attachment.  Much of their thinking presupposed that faithful spirituality was evidence of divine and human bonding.  There is, therefore, reason to think that the Anabaptist conception of the people of God being called to be a people of peace and witnesses in the world was sustained by experiences of deep attachments.

Contemporary Anabaptism

Contemporary Anabaptist writings — in fact, contemporary theological writings in general — on the theological dimensions of attachment are scarce.  Four contemporary Anabaptist theologians are notable exceptions by their peripheral references to attachment.  David Augsburger suggests that radical attachment to Jesus of Nazareth is the fertile soil for Christian spirituality and that it produces Christ-like living.37  This raises the question of how attachment to Jesus is formed and sustained.  Tom Finger describes the practices of baptism, Lord’s Supper (communion), discipline, and economic sharing as essential, not simply because God commands them, but because they are needed for “whole persons to submit themselves humbly to God and each other, and to be indwelt by God.”38  Finger further notes that “…Christian communal life is not simply doing things together.  Above all it means belonging, through deep commitment, to a historic church community involving worship, remembrance, and spiritual nurture.”39  Finger further points out that virtues such as holiness or obedience can not be individualistic but are relational virtues; he insists that true community simply involves (requires might be a better term) commitments, limitations, and accountability (all marks of attachment) and is incompatible with individualistic freedom.40  Norman Kraus opines that self-identity ultimately forms through relationships with God, other humans, and other creatures.41  Furthermore, virtues emerge through these interactive relationships, especially the connection of oneself with God.  And finally, Sara Shenk reflects that early Anabaptists drew strength for discipleship from their identification and attachment to Christ.  She further links “abiding in him [Christ] to the inherent relationship between loving, obeying and knowing God…true knowing comes from the sort of personal and bodily investment in a relationship that resembles the covenanted intimacy of sexual embrace.”42

All of these persons share a common theme: attachment is a key component in following Jesus and this attachment is not only a human-Divine one but also involves human-human connections.  As Christians we make individual decisions to follow Jesus with our brothers and sisters in the faith.  Accepting Jesus parallels our participation within the body of Jesus, those who have chosen the “way of Jesus.”

We understand that these are only neonatal glimmers in the development of a full-bodied theological framework that will inform our understanding and experience of attachment.  The maturation of that task awaits us.  In the remainder of this paper, we want to explore three things: aspects of attachment, Anabaptist theological and Biblical principles that undergird attachment, and a proposed conception model for thinking about attachment.

Aspects of Attachment

We distinguish three aspects of attachment: ontogeny, actualization, and extension.  The ontogeny of attachment responds to the guidance of genetic and endocrine influences, which are further strengthened by behavioral initiatives.  We believe that genetic, neural, and endocrine factors initiate the inner somatic mechanisms that elicit initial innate attachment mechanisms that give rise to weak neonatal behaviors.  When beginning attachment behaviors are positively rewarded, the ontogeny of attachment is strengthened and the initiation behavior becomes more certain and pronounced.  Both animal and human models depict this ontogeny aspect.

The actualization of attachment flows from early experiences as the subject begins to comprehend and reflect attachment behaviors.  A specific stimulus produces an expected response in an attached subject which is different in a subject who does not have a similar attachment or has an attachment disorder.  For example, when a very young subject is hurt she runs crying to her mother for comfort and support.  Why?  Because as an attached being, she has learned that a mom provides solace, comfort, and protection.  This behavior is consistent with a three-week old collie puppy or a three year old human child.  This response of seeking comfort from a maternal figure provides evidence of attachment.  Conversely an unattached subject when hurt may try to find an alternative hiding place which is not necessarily the shadow of an adult figure.

A different example of attachment actualization occurs as individuals attach to their peers.  Five week old collie puppies play together, sleep together, and are comforted with the presence of each other even in the absence of an adult or parental figure.  In a similar way, human siblings, although demonstrating sibling rivalry as expressions of individualism, typically exhibit intense loyalty to each other especially when threatened with an outside harm.  In a comparable fashion, members of a club, a sports team, or an organization explicitly or implicitly pledge fidelity to each other and exhibit attachment behaviors with each other in contrast to those who represent competing groups.

Finally, individuals who have experienced healthy attachment innately seek to extend attachment to new individuals and in new settings.  While insecure persons, who frequently are not well attached, struggle to make new attachments, those who are secure in their current attachments are ready to make new and additional attachments.  The exploration of attachment extension involves identifying entities that are attachment candidates.  First impressions are powerful determinates for deciding whether or not a new attachment can be formed.  For an animal example, our female collie dog, Cindy, is very out-going, friendly, and quickly forms alliances with visiting dogs and human visitors who exhibit even a mild interest in her.  A post-pubertal single human walks into a room with several persons of the opposite gender and at least subconsciously (frequently, consciously) considers when subject A versus B versus C is potential “friendship material”.  The person with many friends readily makes new additional friends; the person with few friends is much more reticent to form new friend attachments.

Attachment Undergird by Anabaptism and Scripture

Anabaptism is a life lived within attachments.  Finding strength through a human-divine attachment, an Anabaptist concurrently lives out the implication of divine presence by experiencing the life of Jesus within the community of believers.  To be like Jesus is to be in relationship – attached to the vine (Jesus) and becoming one of many branches that receiving and sharing nourishment through a common stem and root.  The words of Jesus in the Gospel of John describe this very appropriate vineyard metaphor for attachment.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.  You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.  Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.43

What is significant about Jesus sharing viticulture as a metaphor?  In the Hebrew Bible, the vineyard as a metaphor was frequently referenced where the vines represented God’s covenant people, the children of Abraham who were planted and tended by God so that Israel would produce fruit.44  In the gospel the metaphor is altered.  Jesus revised the concept of the vineyard by saying that “God’s vineyard has one vine, he [Jesus] is that vine, and attachment to God comes through attachment to him.  It is no longer a matter of possessing the vineyard, it is now a matter of knowing the one true vine.”45


The Apostle Paul picks up this horticultural theme in further describing the believer’s connection to Jesus:

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.46

For the vine branch, survival, growth, and fruitfulness are totally dependent on biotic connections with the vine and its root system.  The ebb and flow of nutrients and water from the soil via xylem and phloem channels in the vine’s branches provide the essential nourishment that enable leaf activities such as photosynthesis and the formation of sugars for fruit development and maturation.


In a similar fashion, authentic Christian relationships are matured and strengthened as persons choose to give up individual rights and freedoms for the common cause of the group.  The Anabaptists saw the Christian community metaphorically as a loaf of bread where individual grains of wheat are ground up losing their individual identities and then are blended together with other ingredients to form the substance of the loaf.

As a child I (RJM) grew up in a small tight-knit conservative Anabaptist Mennonite congregation in rural Mississippi.  I remember the angst that was experienced following a time of congregational difficulty and then in response singing the following hymn:47

Bless’d be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne we pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, our comforts and our cares.

When we asunder part; it gives us keenest pain,
But we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again.

I clearly remember the sense of peace and tranquility that permeated us as we sang those words together in harmony.  We had each other; we were attached.  Evil may be outside, but through our bonds to each other and to Christ, we have hope and confidence in the midst of our troubles.

Connections (attachments) to God are not unique to Anabaptists, but are found in other Christian faith traditions such as Catholics and Protestants in general.  While there are common elements in all three of these theological streams, we point out also unique distinctive characteristic of each one.48  All three theologies—Catholic, Protestantism, and Anabaptism—strive to attach to God.  The divine/human linkage is foundational in these faiths.  However, in Catholicism, the human/divine attachment is mediated through the priest; in Protestantism individuals are responsible to form their own attachments to God; in Anabaptism, believers connect together to form union with God and simultaneously with each other.

A Conceptual Model for Attachment

Thinking, the brain/mind issue, can provide a model for understanding attachment.  For thought, functional neurons provide the biological basis (soma) of brain mental activities, such as reasoning and memory.  Functional brain activity is evidenced by PET scans, EEGs, etc.  In a similar way, we consider that the ontogeny and actualization of attachment require and rely on soma function.  Thinking and reflection, while dependent upon neuronal activity rises above or beyond the soma and becomes a metaphysical reality.  In a similar way, while attachment requires the flow of nerve impulses and hormonal surges, the actuality of attachment is more than its biological basis.

We understand that attachment has both inner and outer facets or dimensions.  In considering the inner dimension of attachment, we may distinguish between two aspects: physical and metaphysical.  While both are present, require each other, and ultimately can not be separated, distinguishing between the two aspects help us understand the ontogeny and formational processes of attachment.  A metaphor to distinguish between the inner physical and metaphysical aspects might be to allow the color, green to represent attachment.  Green is created by equal mixing of two primary colors: blue (representing the soma aspect of attachment) with yellow (representing the metaphysical emotion aspect of attachment).  Green (attachment) can only be seen or occur when the two primary colors are blended.  Attempts to analyze the inner physical soma aspect (blue)—neurons firing and hormones flowing—to the exclusion of the inner metaphysical emotional aspect (yellow)—tranquility/tumult, joy/sorrow, contentment/unrest, pleasure/repugnance—will not enhance the understanding of attachment (green) since that is lost in the separation.

The interplay of hormones flowing and emotions rising is extremely complex and involves mutual interactions.  Thus for example, the flow of maternal oxytocin in response to neonatal breast suckling creates both milk-let down and feelings of tranquility, joy, contentment, and pleasure creating strong maternal child bonding.  The desire to suckle is an innate one which leads the offspring to attempt to initiate the act.  As the act is initially fulfilled, the maternal/offspring bond is enhanced.

As an illustration of attachment, consider the role of oxytocin which has been well documented in mammalian organisms as a causative agent in milk ejection.49  A ewe (female sheep) quickly identifies which offspring belongs to her at the time of birthing.  As the ewe licks a newborn lamb, she recognizes its unique odor and appearance.  As she nudges the newborn toward her udder, the newborn lamb instinctively searches for a milk-filled nipple.  If the lamb is successful in its search and suckles, the ewe responds with further caresses, milk-letdown (due to oxytocin’s influence), and the ontogeny of attachment continues.  Sensory impulses from the suckling action are transmitted via somatosensory neurons to the hypothalamus which stimulates the posterior pituitary to release the hormone oxytocin.  Oxytocin flows to the udder (breast) where it stimulates myoepithelial cells to contract moving milk into the mammary ducts.  The suckling action of the lamb quickly removes the milk from the central ducts of the mammary gland allowing room for more milk to flow from the smaller ductules.  Lambs quickly learn the unique calls of their maternal ewe as opposed to the call of other ewes who are not their birth mother.  As time progresses, lambs follow their mother and sibling lambs also graze together.  Interestingly enough even at times when the ewe hears her lamb crying, the sound is enough of an emotional signal that the resultant hypothalamic stimulation releases oxytocin from the posterior pituitary.  Occasionally as a consequence of trauma, a ewe may reject a newborn lamb’s effort to suckle.  After repeated maternal rejections the lamb ceases its attempt to connect and becomes listless.  Unless some mediation occurs through the actions of a shepherd, the lamb will not attach and will die within a short time.

The role of oxytocin as a hormone of positive emotion in both males and females implicate this hormone as a hormone of attachment.  Oxytocin may well be the primary hormonal signal that initiates bonding activities in most mammals.

We understand that the innate attraction of a neonatal lamb for her ewe mother (and vice-version) is a consequential genetic influence that has emerged over evolutionary development and time.  Organisms, requiring attachment for survival and who were successful in forming those very basic attachments, grew, thrived, and consequently passed on their genetic tendencies to their offspring.

The outer dimensions of attachment are the observable behaviors elicited from the inner dimension of attachment responses.  We posit that outward attachment behaviors generate shalom, a Hebrew word that means completeness, wholeness, health, and peace.  Examples of shalom behaviors include parental child nurturing, pair bonding in marriage, baptism, and joining and participating in a team or group.  Alternatively the absence of attachment or mal-formations of attachment are also exhibited in outward observable behaviors such as parental child abuse, divorce, church divisions, and individuals exhibiting self-aggrandizement rather than team spirit.

In Conclusion

In this paper, we have attempted to advance the idea that attachment is a broad comprehensive way of understanding our reality.  We understand reality as a hierarchal stack of disciplinary layers of understanding, e.g. theology, biology, psychology, ethics, etc whose edges are rather indistinct.  We know that the attachment is essential within the biologic and theological layers.  But as we continue with transdisciplinary conversations and explore additional layers, we will continue to find the essentiality of attachment within these layers also.  We think that attachment is a rich and deep concept that is important in all layers of living and ably functions as a unifying idea in disciplines of knowledge from biology to theology.  We believe that further conversation in diverse disciplines such as sociology, ethics, education, business, nursing, psychology, etc will provide windows into some of the emergent properties of attachment.  We see this paper as a beginning conversation that needs broadening and sharpening.



1 Bruce M. Carlson, Human Embryology and Developmental Biology (Philadelphia, PA: Mosby, 2004), 3-4; 408-409.

2 Fred H. Wilt and Sarah C. Hake, Principles of Developmental Biology (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 254.

3 Inge Bretherton, “The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth,” Developmental Psychology 28 (1992): 759-775.

4 Daniel Jay Sonkin, “Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy,” The Therapist, January/February, 2005. http://www.daniel-sonkin.com/attachment_psychotherapy.htm (accessed June 1, 2009)

5 Zoe Donaldson and Larry Young, “Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and the Neurogenetics of Sociality.” Science 322 (7 Nov 2008): 900-904.

6 James Swain, Jeffrey Lorbergaum, Samet Kose, and Lan Strathearn, “Brain basis of early parent-infant interactions: psychology, physiology, and in vivo functional neuroimaging studies,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 48:3/4 (2007): 262-287.

7 C.S. Carter and L.L. Getz, “Monogamy and the Prairie Vole,” Scientific American, 268 (1993): 100-106.

8 J. Thomas Curtis and Zuoxin Wang, “The Neurochemistry of Pair Bonding,” Current Directions in Psychological Science (2003): 49-53.

9 R. Nowak, M. Keller, D. Val-Laillet, F. Levy, “Perinatal visceral events and brain mechanisms involved in the development of mother-young bonding in sheep,” Hormones and Behavior 52 (2007): 92-98.

10 Richard Depue and Jeannine Morrone-Strupinsky, “A neurobehaviorial model of affiliative bonding: Implications for conceptualizing a human trait of affiliation,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28 (2005): 313-395.

11 Theodore Waters, “Learning to Love: From Your Mother’s Arms to Your Lover’s Arms,” The Medium (Voice of the University of Toronto). 30 (February 9, 2004)

12 For example, Paul Benson. “Feminism and the A-word: Power and Community in the University.” Hypatia 22(4) (Fall 2007): 223-229. and Ruth Groenhout, Connected Lives: Human Nature and an Ethics of Care. (Lanham, MD.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) and Maria Grypdonck “Ethics of Care, Asymmetry, Recognition, and Pity in Nursing Care,” Nursing Ethics 15(2) (2008): 274-275.

13 Arthur C. Guyton and John E. Hall, Textbook of Medical Physiology, 11th ed. (Jackson, MS: Elsevier Saunders, 2006): 927-929, 1040.

14 An excellent review of oxytocin can be found in this article: Heon-Jin Lee, Abbe H. Macbeth, Jerome H. Pagani, and W.Scott Young, “Oxytocin: The great facilitator of life”, Progress in Neurobiology 88 (2009): 127-151

15 Richard W. Hill, Gordon A. Wyse, and Margaret Anderson, Animal Physiology (Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates Publishers, 2004): 413.

16 Heon-Jin Lee, Abbe H. Macbeth, Jerome H. Pagani, and W.Scott Young, “Oxytocin: The great facilitator of life”, Progress in Neurobiology 88 (2009): 127-151

17 Angeliki Theodoridou, Angela C. Rowe, Ian S. Penton-Voak, and Peter J. Rogers, “Ocytocin and social perception: oxytocin increased facial trustworthiness and attractiveness,” Hormones and Behavior 56 (2009): 128-132

18 Beate Ditzen, Marcel Schaer, Barbara Gabriel, Guy Bodenmann, Ulrike Ehlert, and Markus Heinrichs, “Intranasal Oxytocin Increases Positive Communication and Reduces Cortisol Levels During Couple Conflict.”  Biol Psychiatry 65 (2009): 728-731

19 Wrangham, Richard and Peterson, Dale, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. (New York, NY: Mariner Books, Houghton-Mufflin Company: 1977).

20 Sussman, Robert W.  “Exploring Our Basic Human Nature: Are Humans Inherently Violent?” in Biological Anthropology, 4th ed, Michael Alan Park, editor (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005): 92-98.

21 A foundation Scripture text for this doctrine is the creation account is found in the Bible, Genesis 1:26-28.

22 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1995), 28-9.

23 William R. Estep,. The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth Century Anabaptism. (Grand Rapids, MI: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996): 21-24.

24 Robert Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism: An Interpretation.  (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press,1973), 29

25 C. Arnold Snyder, From Anabaptist Seed: The Historical Core of Anabaptist-Related Identity. (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 1999): 12-13,

26 Robert Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism: An Interpretation.  (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973), 21

27 Robert Friedmann,  The Theology of Anabaptism: An Interpretation.  (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973),  93-94

28 Robert Friedmann,  The Theology of Anabaptism: An Interpretation.  (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973),  119-121

29 Peter Hoover, The Secret of the Strength: What Would the Anabaptists Tell this Generation? (Benchmark Press: Shippensburg, PA, 1998 ), 147-170.

30 For example, consider the passage from I Peter 1: 3-4: “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version.

31 Alvin J. Beachy, The Concept of Grace in the Radical Reformation (NieuwkoopL DeGraaf, 1977): 4-5.

32 John C. Wenger,  Even Unto Death: The Heroic Witness of the Sixteenth-Century Anabaptists.  (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1961), 72-74.

33 Sjouke Voolstra, “Themes in the Early Theology of Menno Simons” IN: Menno Simons: A Reappraisal, Gerald Brunk, editor. (Harrisonburg, VA: Eastern Mennonite College, 1992), 37-55.

34 Helmut Isaak,. “Menno’s Vision of the Anticipation of the Kingdom of God in His Early Writings” IN: Menno Simons: A Reappraisal, Gerald Brunk, editor. (Harrisonburg, VA: Eastern Mennonite College, 1992),  57-80.

35 Hans Denck, “Concerning True Love (1527)”. IN: Early Anabaptist Spirituality, Daniel Liechty, Translator and Editor. (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1994), 117.

36 Helmut Isaak,. “Menno’s Vision of the Anticipation of the Kingdom of God in His Early Writings” IN: Menno Simons: A Reappraisal, Gerald Brunk, editor. (Harrisonburg, VA: Eastern Mennonite College, 1992), 67.

37 David Augsburger, Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, Baker Publishing, 2006), 23-56.

38 Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive.  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 166.

39 Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive.  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 178.

40 Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive.  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 220-221; 233.

41 C. Norman Kraus, God Our Savior (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press 1991), 106, 108, 113.

42 Sara Wenger Shenk, Anabaptist Ways of Knowing: A Conversation about Tradition-Based Critical Education (Telford, Pennsylvania: Cascadia Publishing House, 2003), 137-138

43 John 15: 1-4, The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version

44 Gary M. Burge, John, The NIV Application Commentary, Terry Muck, editor (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), 414-420.

45 Gary M. Burge, John, The NIV Application Commentary, Terry Muck, editor (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), 431.

46 Colossians 2:6-7, The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version)

47 Text: John Fawcett, Hymns Adapted to the Circumstances of Public Worship…, 1782; Music: from Johann Nageli; adapted by Lowell Mason, The Psaltery, 1845.

48 Diagram from: Robert Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism: An Interpretation.  (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973): 81

49 Arthur C. Guyton and John E. Hall, Textbook of Medical Physiology, 11th edition (Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders, 2006), 1040.