Can an Infant decide for God?

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Surprisingly, yes. This is a cautious conclusion but I think with some basis. There are two essentials in this: infantile choice and an understanding of God.

When does an infant begin to make choices? There are some relevant insights from developmental psychology. Daniel Stern identified a sense of agency as one of the infant’s early pre-cognitive capacities. It is clear from infant observation that there are many willful behaviors from birth. The infant at two or three months is interested in people and will follow with his or her eyes, examine objects, cry when hungry, laugh when amused, move and bring hands together. A month or two later the infant will recognize the mother’s voice and at about five months a stronger attachment is forming. The baby will roll, sit up, put fingers in mouth and be interested in what the parent is eating, reach and grab anything nearby. These interactions with the world are at least partially determined by the infant.

Every mother knows that an infant will assert independence. Indicate no. Perhaps this begins with gaze aversion at about four months, develops with gestures and vocal intonation at seven months, running away at 14 months and expressed in language by two years.

I will raise an important, possibly speculative, line of thought. Can we also make early life choices? I would like to draw from my clinical experience. People seem to make early choices with no memory of ever writing a life script.

I will start with a negative example. I have treated many patients who would meet the criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder. A severe form of this is the psychopath. It seems me that psychopathy derives in part from an early life choice, probably before language, of “I’m going to get you before you get me.” This is of course a survival tactic that can make sense in a home with little nurture, and negative experiences of violence and abuse. Once such a choice has been made and lived for decades it seems almost impossible to reverse. This has led me to wonder about the implications of life choices made from an early age.

I think early choices are formative of personality. Think of the person who is unassertive. The script is one of avoiding conflict, “I will say yes to anything.” Or to depend on others, “You are strong and I will rely on you for everything I need.” The grandiose person seems to have decided, “I am superior to you and everyone else.” I think such decisions provide a script for life.

Now the question of God. There is no question that an infant is born with awareness. Think about when a young child begins to grasp a notion of God. Psychoanalyst Anna-Maria Rizzuto wrote The Birth of the Living God in which she investigated a range of infantile experience and concluded, “It is out of this matrix of facts and fantasies, wishes, hopes, and fears, in the exchanges with those incredible beings called parents, that the image of God is concocted.” (p. 7). Early in that awareness it seems likely that an attitude towards God is formed. There are many possible reactions to the earliest sense of God:

  • God is scary I need to keep away.
  • God watches and judges me.
  • God could give a ‘big smack’ when I do the wrong thing.
  • God welcomes me and hugs me like my mother does.
  • God is always there.

It seems likely that such early perceptions lead to early spiritual choices. This sets the context for later belief or unbelief. Acceptance or rejection. A walk towards God or a walk away.

Mary was told by her Sunday School teacher that God reads her thoughts, “God always knows when you think a selfish thought.” Mary was frightened and feared being sent to hell if she died in her sleep. She became ritualistic in her spiritual practices and this remained unquestioned until she later went to college.

Early spiritual choice is important, even formative of later attitudes. This is true in psychological development and spiritual formation. Potentially it can begin in infancy with later development. One support for this is the experience of many Christians who have always believed. While I had a different experience, that of conversion experience in my early 20’s, our destination is the same in relating to a loving God through Jesus Christ.

To Read Further:

Daniel Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant (New York: Basic Books, 1985).

Ana-Maria Rizzuto, The Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979).

Author: Bruce Stevens

Professor Bruce A. Stevens (PhD Boston University, 1987) is the Wicking Professor of Aging and Practical Theology at Charles Sturt University. He was previously Associate Professor in Clinical and Forensic Psychology in the Clinical Psychology program at the University of Canberra with over 60 graduate students. He is an endorsed clinical and forensic psychologist who has advanced accreditation in Schema Therapy (individual and couple). He was ordained in the Anglican Church and is an honorary minister-in-association at Wesley Uniting Church, Canberra. He is the author of 10 books and many research papers. His most recent book is The Storied Self: A Narrative Approach to the Spiritual Care of the Aged (Fortress Academic., 2018).

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