Is God Our Father?
This year (2017), in the U.S., Sunday, June 18 is designated as “Father’s Day.” (Mother’s Day was May 14th.) As I have said here before, in contemporary American society, fatherhood is an ambiguous concept and many people have ambivalent feelings toward fathers—their own and others.
A few years ago I happened to be watching a morning talk show on a major American television network. It was Mother’s Day and the talking heads were discussing a “report” about the value of a “stay-at-home” mother. Someone had decided that her worth, in monetary terms, what she should be paid—if stay-at-home moms were paid for housework and child raising–, is about $250K. After everyone agree that most moms deserve at least that much, a male anchor person asked “I wonder what a father is worth?” The sole female anchor, talking head, snapped “About seventy-five cents.” It was an awkward moment and everyone else laughed a bit nervously. She didn’t smile or laugh with them.
For quite a few years now Americans have had more conflicted feelings about fathers than about mothers. Yes, there are weird movies and television shows about “bad moms.” But nobody would be interested in a movie or television show about “bad dads” because popular culture is saturated with “bad dad” images.
One catalyst for modern (1960s forward) feminism in America is the failures of fathers. Even allegedly good fathers are accused of having been and often continuing to be abusive in terms of being “patriarchal”—even when their intentions are mostly good ones. I remember a time, probably in the 1970s and 1980s, when American feminism was really growing in influence, that the 1950s television situation comedy “Father Knows Best” (1954-1960) starring Robert Young as the pater familias and Jane Wyatt as the wife and mother, was used by feminists as an example of patriarchy. I always thought that strange because, having grown up watching the series, I knew that, in many cases, the mother was “righter” than the father and he admitted it. I always thought the title of the series was somewhat satirical or at least sardonic because the father was so often, perhaps even most often, wrong and did not “know best.” The mother was the stronger character in the show which really focused mostly on the children.
Perhaps unintentionally, modern feminism has led to a popular decline of respect for fathers and fatherhood. On the other hand, many fathers have contributed to that decline. Far too many have abused and abandoned their families. Some sociologists are beginning to come around to recognizing and talking about a crisis of fatherhood in American society. I occasionally see a public service announcement promoting fatherhood. And, notably, in the last year or two television has begun to air numerous commercials featuring good dads with their kids.
On my more optimistic days I think, hope, that good, supportive fatherhood is beginning to make a comeback in popular culture and even in academia. And I happen to know many young fathers who do not fit the popular culture stereotypes of bad dads who abuse and/or abandon their wives and kids. I know many young fathers who are deeply involved in their kids’ lives in positive ways. I like to think I was one. When I was a young dad raising our children, equally with my wife, I was often the one who took them to doctor’s appointments, helped them with their homework, went with them to school events, attended parent-teacher conferences about them, etc. Of course my wife also did when she could but her work schedule was not as flexible as mine.
Still, it is the case that even the very best dads often are denied equal custody of their children in divorce proceedings—even when both he and the mother work full time. The judicial system tends to favor mothers. The impression that children need a mom more than a dad is still widespread—to the detriment, I believe, of both fathers and children.
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Over the past several years I have paid close attention to the differences in the public celebrations of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. On television, for example, most programs focus on Mother’s Day much more than Father’s Day. One example: A few years ago a local network-related television station included a ten minute focus on mothers (on its morning and evening 30 minutes local news show) every day of the week leading up to Mother’s Day. The only mention of Father’s Day on the same station’s news show was a five minute interview on Friday with a soldier-father stationed nearby. It was clear that the producer of the news at that station felt the need to tip her hat to Father’s Day but with no real celebration of it.
Some will, of course, I know, think I am whining about this matter and dismiss my concerns as mere sour grapes because I’m a man. Actually, I don’t care much for Father’s Day or Mother’s Day except to hope that our adult children will call, even if only for a few minutes, on those days. They usually do and it makes our weeks both times! As for churches, no, I don’t care at all about churches celebrating either of these popular culture celebrations that have become largely commercialized.
My concern here, now, is with the question especially religious feminism has forced on us: Is God our Father? Should we abandon “father” language and imagery for God—because it reinforces cultural and religious patriarchy and, as one leading religious feminist put it: “If God is male, then the male is God.”
In my opinion, this is a case of profound misunderstanding of the biblical and traditional language and imagery of God as father. As many theologians (e.g., Emil Brunner, Donald Bloesch, Stanley Grenz) have pointed out, the biblical and traditional language of God as father, especially in the New Testament, is not at all meant to convey that God is male but that God, whose primary characteristic is loving kindness (Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son), is an archetype for good fatherhood (among other things). Yes, the Bible also includes female and motherly images of God and there is nothing technically wrong with calling God “mother” (so long as that does not incline toward pagan ideas of creation being “born” out of God such that it is also divine as God is divine). One of my favorite theologians, Donald Bloesch, advocated addressing God as “Our father who is also like a mother.” Of course, that did not and does not satisfy many religious feminists (or anti-religious feminist critics of traditional Christianity).
The idea that “If God is male [or our “father”], then the male is God” is a classic example of projection theology. So is much traditional Christian language and imagery that has wrongly treated God as male.
Sometimes I wonder if one reason the Bible—including Jesus—so often described and depicted God as father is to challenge men to be more like God in his loving kindness. Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son (which could just as well and perhaps better be described as the parable of the Elder Brother or the parable of the Loving Father) is for many Christians almost a “canon within the canon” in terms of the gospel “in a nutshell.” Could it be that one function of that story is to promote better fatherhood, to show men what it means to be a God-like father in the sense that the father in the parable is God-like: patient, forgiving, embracing, celebrating…? I think so.
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