The Fatherhood of God for the new Millennium


1999 is to be, for the Church, 'the Year of the Father'. In our society the phrase has all the happy resonance of 'the Day of the Jackal'. How have we got where we are? Fathers, of any sort, get only bad press these days. My husband, himself a father, has pointed this out to me. Fathers-as fathers-seem only to appear in the press if associated with criminal violence of a sexual, physical or psychological sort (usually all three) towards their nearest and dearest. Or else they appear as absent. Fathers aren't around. Single-parent families are overwhelmingly led by women while 'fathers' can't be found or won't be found or start up new families with someone else.

Fathers, then , are regarded with suspicion. Many fathers pick their children up from school, but it is a brave dad who will try to arrange in the playground - as any mother would- for his child's little friend to 'come round our place to play'. We can all understand all this. We can all understand that priests get treated with the same suspicion in many quarters. But isn't it sad? Yet it is true that even very good fathers are often absent fathers. A friend of mine remembers, in the sixties, telling her two young children they had to get tidied up to go to meet daddy at the airport. 'Has he been away?' they chirped. He'd been away for two weeks.

Now that was the sixties, but businessmen still travel, work late and leave early. Children in Florida a few years back were posed with the question, 'If you had to choose never again either to see your father or to watch TV, which would you choose?' A poser, admittedly, for anyone, but it's not surprising most of them elected to keep the television and ditch Dad. After all they see the television between four to six hours a day.

And yet on Sunday we expect the sinews of the Christian heart to pulse to the invocation of God as Father, we pray that God be near us and hear us. Some might find the comparison more apt if we offered to fax the Father, or leave a message on the answering service attached to his mobile phone.

Father in scripture

Yet in the New Testament, calling God ' Father' is a sign of great intimacy, of new relation, of hope and of love. Much has been made in the scholarly literature in recent years of the fact that Jesus, on occasion, used the Aramaic abba in addressing God-an intimate title. But any invocation of God as Father - personal father rather than father of the people Israel- was in all likelihood new and striking in his day. The Hebrew Bible with its plethora of divine titles by no means privileges 'Father'. Indeed God is styled as 'Father' only eleven times and never invoked in prayer in this way in the Old Testament.

Under the terms of the convenant Israel emerges as adopted sons. Some have suggested that this reticence in the Hebrew Bible reflects a desire, especially early in the history of Israel, to dissociate the God of Israel from those gods who were held to be 'fathers' and 'mothers' of their peoples in some literal way. That Israel might one day call God 'Father' as a title of intimacy is suggested in the prophetic writings (see Jer 3:19-20) and it may be that Jesus, in calling God 'Father', was suggesting that this promised hour of intimacy had arrived.

In any case, Jesus taught his disciples to pray to God as Father and nowhere, with the exception of the cry of dereliction from the cross, does Jesus address God by any other name. The relatively insignificant usage of the title in the Old Testament makes Jesus' preference for calling God 'Father' (over 170 times in the Gospels) distinctive.

The New Testament writers and theologians of the early Church saw it as such. Writing in the third century, Origen remarks that nowhere in the Old Testament is God prayed to as 'Father'. He also notes that in John's Gospel it is only after the resurrection that the disciples are told that the father of Jesus is to be their Father, too. In some of the earliest Christian writings Paul expands upon the idea that the Christian is no longer slave but a son of God, 'the spirit of sons...makes us cry out, "Abba, Father"' (Ron 8:15, see also Gal 4:4-6). The extension of the familial metaphors, begun by Paul, suggested to early theologians a nexus of familial metaphors in which Christians are 'children' or 'sons' of God by virtue of being one with Jesus, for whom God was 'Father'.

It would be a mistake however, and one which on our entry to the third millennium we must not make, to think that Jesus inherited, as a first century Jew, a frozen and austere kind of theism and transformed it into a new religion of love. God's relationship to Israel is, from the stories of her earliest foundation, one of intense intimacy and love. The God of the Hebrew Bible has a really shocking knowledge of and concern for his people. Jesus' teaching is in continuity with this, an intensification perhaps.

And while 'Father' is not a prominent divine title in the Hebrew Bible, God's fatherhood and nearness became a important feature of Rabbinic teaching in the first to fifth centuries of the current era. Montefiore and Loewe point out that the phrase 'Father in heaven', common in the Gospel of Matthew, is common in the writings of the Rabbis, simply one of the pioneers of the move towards calling God 'Father'. It does seem clear, however, that his way of calling God 'Father' suggested to those around him a special relationship - that this man was, in a way no other could be, 'the Son of God'.

Son of the Father
We seem to find then, in the first centuries of the current era in the very mixed companies of Christians and Jews, an emphasis of the nearness of God that went hand in hand with calling God 'Father'. What is new, and for the Jews shocking, amongst the Christians is not the calling God 'Father' but rather the special status of Jesus as the Son.

What the 'fatherhood' of God might mean in conjunction with the conviction that Jesus himself was the messiah and the Son of God posed its own problems. While the frame of trinitarian belief was present from the outset, for some centuries there was impassioned and sometimes murderous debate about the nature of trinitarian orthodoxy. For some early theologians the fact that Jesus called God 'Father' suggested the subordination of the Son to the Father, on the model of then customary relations in human families, where sons were 'lower than' their fathers. Deploying a penchant for biblical literalism, some Arians moved from insistence that scripture shows God is the Father and Christ the Son to the conclusion that the Son must have been non-existent before begotten. This, from a distance of two millennia may seem a piece of theological nit-picking, but as those theologians who defended emergent trinitarian orthodoxy were quick to note, if accepted would kibosh insistence on the true divinity of the Son. If the Son is not eternally one with the Father he inevitably drifts towards the status of some divine underling - some demigod who had a part to play in the scheme of things. Praying to Christ, then, would be praying to 'another God', a lesser God and Christianity would really be - as some of its Jewish critics surmised - a polytheistic religion and one that had departed from faith in the one true God.

But this subordinationist theology was, as we know defeated by the trinitarian orthodoxy which insisted on the equality and co-eternity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The titles 'Father' and 'Son', it was early observed, were relational. Origen argued that there must always be the Son if there is always the Father, for the Father is not Father without the Son. Athanasius developed the notion that the Father was eternally generative of the Son. In contrast with our modern predilections, none of these early theologians who were engaged in hammering out the doctrine of divine fatherhood drew much on the biological, psychological, or sociological aspects of human fatherhood - on what we might call the affective range of the metaphor.

Equally, as Peter Widdicombe points out in his The Fatherhood of God from Origen to Athanasius (Oxford, 1994), in the technical, relational theology of Athanasius, 'the term Father implied anything but sexuality and gender in the divine nature' (p.258). This early theological reflection on calling God Father was, for historical reasons, driven by the need to establish the divine status of the Son. The language is from our point of view remote, philosophical and technical. Despite subsequent refinements of trinitarian theology there remains a tension between the affective ascriptions of 'Father' and 'Son' in the New Testament writings, and the more metaphysical reflections on these titles which emerged as a consequence of trinitarian controversies. This is not, of course, to say that formal language is not 'good', truthful or the product of deep piety.

Philosophical considerations
Into this rich stew came also the influence of Greek philosophy. Plato had spoken of God as 'fatherly' in his generative powers and contrasted passive, 'maternal' matter with the active and creative male principle. In his Timaeus we find:

'And that which has come into existence must necessarily, as we say, have come into existence by reason of some Cause. Now to discover the Maker and Father of the Universe were a task indeed; and having discovered Him, to declare Him unto all men were a thing impossible.'

The early Christians and hellenised Jews of the first century know their Plato. Philo, an Alexandrian Jewish contemporary of St Paul, echoes the Timaeus when he speaks of God as 'the Father who as its begetter and contriver made the Universe'. Platonic deployment of the image of divine fatherhood stressed generation and governance, and was not at all interested in the affective or intimate range of the metaphor. This is not the 'Father' of Jesus in the New Testament, or for that matter of the Rabbis. None the less, this more metaphysical 'fatherhood' was to have its influence on subsequent Christian theology.

Beyond God the Father
Of the various histories of the metaphor of God's fatherhood and its relations to human fatherhood in the West and beyond much more could be said. Let it suffice to say that while no divine title has been more central to Christian thought and worship than that of 'Father', the title seems now, for not a few people and for understandable reasons, to be vexed. The modern period has seen real concern amongst theologians and the Christian faithful about the symbolic and psychological outworkings of the 'fatherhood of God'. The criticisms are associated now with feminist theology but antedate it considerably. Hume, and any number of Freudian critics of religion, preceded Mary Daly's Beyond God the Father, and indeed seem to be influences on it. Daly's work, however, is a locus classicus. She writes:

'The biblical and popular image of God as a great patriarch in heaven, rewarding and punishing according to his mysterious and seemingly arbitrary will, has dominated the imagination of millions over thousands of years.' (p.13).

While Daly notes that 'sophisticated thinkers' have never identified with God a Superfather in heaven, nevertheless 'if God is male, then the male is God. The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination'(pp.17,19). Carter Heyward sketched an 'idolatrous' God in even stronger terms as an 'impassive, unflappable character who represents the headship of a universal family in which men are best and women least...the eternal King, the Chairman of the board...the Husband of the Wife...'(The Redemption of God, p.156).

How, to repeat, did we get here? 'Surely', we want to say, 'this is far from any recognisable picture of God as father, or even of human fathers?' But is it? The fact that so many women, and not a few men, found Daly's critique compelling - broadly said 'yes' to her sketch of the Father - should at least make us pause for thought. The book sold, and continues to sell and to convince. Brutality, psychological violence, or just plain indifference marks the experience many have of their earthly fathers - and much of it, until recently, was accepted as 'just the way fathers were' or 'just the rights fathers have'.

Montaigne, in his Essays, records a conversation with a friend who regrets that he never in his life told his adult son, recently, killed, that he had loved him. The question must arise for us, how if the New Testament paints so positive a picture of God's fatherhood and one which surely must be a model for human fatherhood, did the Christian authoritarian office, and one that could degenerate into capricious violence of physical or psychological nature? Montaigne's friend was not a bad father. Indeed he was trying to be a very good one according to the standards of the very Catholic France of his day. Shouldn't biblical fatherhood have tempered and formed this picture more? The irresistible conclusion is that conceptions of the father's office as benign and intimate gave way to notions of paternal authority and discipline whenever that suited those in control of either domestic or church life.

Fatherhood = oppression?
Added to this history of fatherhood, Christian churches are coming to terms with an inegalitarian past in which acceptance of a natural subordination of women shaded at times towards genuine misogyny and contempt. The question now is whether 'the fatherhood of God' as found in scripture and tradition must inevitable yield to a patriarchal Christianity in which women are held in low esteem. Does 'fatherhood' always imply dominance and oppression? Was Freud right in thinking religion is born of a stubborn delusion that God is the omnipotent Father who can protect us even as we fear him?

The very diversity of the Church may come to our aid - as well as the diversity or cultural configurations of 'fatherhood'. For while every human being has a biological father, what 'fatherhood' means at the social and symbolic level varies greatly across societies and historical periods. It's interesting to note that after stinging criticisms of 'fatherhood of God' from white feminists, some black or 'womanist' theologians were quick to point out that they did not have the same difficulties with 'God the Father' language in their religious sub-culture (the famous,'what you mean "We", white girl?' argument). We are looking at a social postiion and a symbol that are not static or uniform across time and space. Those who say that language of 'fatherhood' is completely tainted and must be got rid of entirely are as wooden in their response as those who say 'there never was a problem with the symbolic resonance of "Father" and there isn't one now'. There is a problem, and we need to address it - but we need to address it with something more delicate than a pair of pruning shears.

Pedagogical challenge
The problem is now without parallel. After the First World War, preachers in Germany found it difficult to use the language of 'sacrifice' with their congregations. The term had been invoked so much by the state in the war effort that it held only bad assocations for that generation. This phenomenon is well known - George Steiner, writing after the Second War, notes that the German poet cannot write of 'beechwoods'. The poet might have, of course, but his or her audience would, at that time , be likely to hear more in 'Buchenwald' than 'beechwoods'.

The modern preacher, perhaps especially in the West, faces a pastoral and a pedagogical challenge. What tools do we have to address it? 'Father' is a central term in the New Testament writings and closely associated with the teaching of Jesus. If it is the case that the 'fatherhood' of God has been used as a template for oppressive human relations in Christian churches and societies, then that said there seems little warrant for this in the Gospels.

Jesus' use of the title 'Father' was above all affective , and suggested an intimacy which the Christians were to enjoy as a new family of God, not by blood but by Spirit. As such this new family was subversive, as various early martyrologies attest, of the loyalties of the biological family and the biological father.

There is, in this New Testament use (and unlike that of the Platonists), no correlative and subordinate female principle (akin to matter) over and against whcih the male creative and generative principle is contrasted, and over which the male symbolically dominates. The 'fatherhood' model in Christianity moves, for the most part, within the affective, and not the 'governance' extensions of the metaphor.

Jesus' startling preference for calling God 'Father' suggests not only a natural human intimacy, but aludes to other kinship metaphors deployed in the Hebrew Bible, and perhaps suggests the fulfilment in his person of a prophetic aspiration that one day Israel will call God 'Father'.

And Finally, within developed Christian theology, 'Father' has always taken its place as a trinitarian title. The 'Father' is father of the 'Son', the Christians are one with the Father, through the Spirit, in the Son. The Father cannot be, within the trinitarian economy, sole ruler, Chairman of the Board, Emperor of celestial domination, without collapse into monarchianism. So we need, from our preachers, good teaching on the developed, trinitarian theology of 'fatherhood'. We need to be told a story that is historically nuanced. We need also from our preachers and church leaders some recognition that there are problems - that things are not now and, most importantly, have not been what they sould be. While Cathlolic women have been strongly encouraged, in the last couple of centuries at least, to model their motherhood on the albeit very different motherhood of Mary, Catholic men have not equally been encouraged to model their fatherhood on the, albeit very different, fatherhood of God (1. Western fatherhood seems rather to have remained within the pre-Christian model of the Roman paterfamilias - to owe too much to Plato's all-disposing authority and too little to the Bible's 'prodigal' father. This bad picture of human fatherhood has continued to inform popular conceptions of the Christian God, as the popularity of Mary Daly's work attests.

It would be quite wrong to dismiss the problems many people have with the 'fatherhood' symbol for God as cranky or neurotic and not worth bothering about. It would be as much a pity as to try to mollify these critics by repeating, mantra-like, 'but it doesn't mean that'. We have an opportunity now, at this late date in the millennuim, to ask what impact our understanding of God as Father should have on all our human relationships. It might be a symbolic start if all Catholic fathers were encouraged, in this year, to look over their past behaviour and to apologise to wives and to children for any behaviour that now seems high-handed, thoughtless, selfish or brutal - even if, at the time, it was doned for the good. Perhaps 2001 can be the 'Year of the Mother'?

1. The stress on Mary as a model for women is, arguably, quite modern since in earlier Mariology Mary is the model for all Christians, male or female.

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