While images for God are necessary, it is also true that all our images of God are inadequate because he is beyond both our images and our imagining. The most profound words spoken about God are the ones that remind us that we cannot speak about God. As soon as we say, “God is this,” we must also say, “God is not this.” But while this is true, it is also true that we can say certain things about God. We can discuss what we do not know, and we can discuss what we are discovering, and we can discuss what we hope to discover. This is what religious talk should be—a group of people who are telling stories about what they don’t know about. When we tell stories, we are making complicated images of the truth in order to make sense of what is mysterious, immense and awesome. We need images to talk about God for the same reason.
Since we need images for God, the best ones are the simplest and the oldest. They are the best because they are the least likely to be taken literally. If we call God “Father,” for instance, we know immediately that the image is not good enough because we think of our own hopeless, funny, and pathetic earthly fathers. The simplest and oldest images for God are also the best because they are the most universal and basic. The fact that every child in every home first knows the big, fuzzy, loud thing and then starts to laugh at his father’s face, is the simplest and most beautiful reason for calling God “the Father Almighty.” The Father is the first “Other” person most 50
of us get to know. (It takes Baby a long time to figure out that “Me” and “Mommy” are actually two different people.) Therefore what could be more simple and ingenious than to call the Ultimate Other “Father”? Jesus and the Jews say this image was revealed by God Himself. The feminist anthropologists from Missouri give a more expedient explanation. They theorize that, like all other simple people, the bearded patriarchs of a patriarchal culture cast God in their own image. The Jews were bearded mini-monarchs who sat around on cushions being waited on, so they perceived God as a bearded grandfather of them all, sitting on clouds being waited on.
This is a reasonable theory, and the history of religion shows that humans have a real tendency to create gods in their own image. (Why else would the savages of the South Pacific worship the Duke of Edinburgh?) But seriously, what if this reasonable theory is also just a mirror reflection of reality? Instead of God the Father being a reflection of our fathers, what if it were the other way around? What if our own existence from our father making love to our mother rests on the fact that the whole cosmos has an ever-loving Father? What if the big bang was a masculine explosion of delight, love and creative force on a cosmic scale? What if God implanted a seed of life into all things? If so, then he really is the father of all, and that minute and precious element we call “life” is a tiny droplet of God implanted by Divine power into each and every cell of creation. If this is so, then calling God 51
Nevertheless the intelligentsia object to God being called “Father.” Could it be that, like all adolescents, they are going through a rebellious stage? Are they simply like the teenaged girl who is embarrassed when her father dances at a wedding? Do these father-phobes stomp their feet and slam their bedroom door, or do they just write a book about the evils of patriarchy? At the bottom of this entertaining dispute is the real objection to God being called “Father.” To suggest that God really is, in some sense, our Father is to say that he is not only a personal God, but he is de facto in a relationship with all those whom he calls his children.
Suddenly the question of God being personal or impersonal is not an academic debating point, but an explosive question of the heart. For if God is “the Father Almighty,” then I am faced with someone who cannot be ignored. An eternal force is easy enough to slight. A cosmic pudding is abstract and safe; but if the Force has a Face, then it may be looking at me, and if he is looking at me it is very possible he is looking for me. Therefore, when I say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty,” I am not simply stating a truth about God, I am taking a part and stepping on stage in the midst of a melodrama of cosmic significance.
If God really is “Father,” then I am in a relationship with him whether I like it or not. As Martin Buber has observed, this intimate commerce with an Other is what makes me who I am. Furthermore, I may as well cheerfully admit that, like any self-respecting adolescent, I am in a rebellious relationship with this Father. I may express the rebellion in furious rage. I may choose to ignore him in a sullen pout. Or I may choose the subtlest form of rebellion and become legalistic and pious. Finally, like the son in the famous story, I may simply choose to run away from that compelling paternal presence. In doing so, I join that dignified band of fugitives called the human race. To run away is perhaps the most honest and wholesome thing to do, and it is not wasted, for as all the great stories tell us—from the Wizard of Oz to the Prodigal Son—we must first run away before we can really turn toward home.