Having written on Sunday about the importance of the Father:Son relationship in Christianity, I realised that this raises a number of issues which might be bugging some readers.
In the first place, is this just a projection of our own needs? In a hostile world do we make up a Sky Father who we hope will look after us? Something like this was the objection raised by the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach nearly two hundred years ago. It is true that for some of us some of the time (and for some people most of the time) faith can be a bit like this. We complain that God has let us down when things don’t work out the way we want. But for the writers of the New Testament, and for millions of Christian believers around the world today, this is far from the truth. For them Christian faith was and is a call to follow Jesus in suffering. Surely anyone inventing a Sky Father to look after them wouldn’t include taking up the cross every day as part of the deal!
I don’t think Christian faith in God as Father is a projection. The Fatherhood of God is not a metaphorical transference from human experience onto the divine. It’s the other way round. Human fatherhood and human families are a portrayal – an image – fitted to our lives and our reality of the primary reality, which is the Fatherhood of God. Fathers and families are given to help us understand the Fatherhood of God. I think this is what Paul means when tells the Ephesians:
I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.Ephesians 3.14-16
God comes first; we come after. We are made in his image, not he in ours.
So maybe not a question of projection. But in an age when fathers have so widely failed their families by being absent or abusive is it unfair and unreasonable to expect people to relate to God as Father? This is a real question. There are Christians who relate well to Jesus but not so much to the Father. For some this comes from problems in their own experience of being fathered – either not being fathered at all because their father wasn’t there, or being “fathered” in such an abusive way as to leave a permanent mark on their psyche. “Father” then becomes either just a blank space in their imagination or something to be avoided at all costs. I suspect that my slowness in grasping the Fatherhood of God was at least in part due to my father’s early death. “Father” was a bit of a blank for me.
So should we ditch the Fatherhood of God? Some people really want to do this – re-writing all the key texts to bring us in line. But there is a cost to this. Presumably we would have to re-write the Lord’s Prayer. Do we really know more about prayer than Jesus did? More about God himself? Surely the answer to hurt is healing. Prayer (supported as necessary by counselling and psychotherapy) can help hurting people into a joyful discovery of God as Father. Our culture has a tendency to exalt victimhood. But we don’t have to be victims of our history. Jesus came to set the captives free, not to make them contented in captivity.
One more thing: is it sexist to call God Father? Shouldn’t we call him Mother too? Is the New Testament guilty of patriarchy?
There are images of motherhood applied to God in the Bible. Here, for instance, is Jesus lamenting Jerusalem’s rejection of his motherly love:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!Luke 13.34
If the Bible is sexist in its language about God the sexism works both ways. Consider the fact that the church is described as the bride of Christ and the consummation of God’s purposes as a wedding. Where does that leave men? We have to adjust our minds to the fact that, as C. S. Lewis somewhere says, “we all are eternally feminine to Him”.
Kenneth Bailey was a distinguished theologian and missionary to the Arab world. He issues this warning about abandoning the Fatherhood of God:
Christians have often used the word father and given that word meanings based on experiences with human fathers. This is a form of idolatry. However, God is personal, and there are two kinds of persons, male and female. To address God with both male and female titles opens a path back to the ancient Middle East with its male and female gods and goddesses. The way forward is to ask, Did Jesus define the term father in any of his teachings?
In the famous parable of the prodigal son, Jesus is best understood to be defining the word father for the use he intends to make of it. In that story Jesus breaks all bounds of human patriarchy and presents an image of a father that goes beyond anything his culture expected from any human father.Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, p99
The Fatherhood of God is something to rejoice in. Abandoning it would be a terrible mistake.