The Importance of Being Father

Truth be told, after thirteen years of fatherhood, I have to admit that I still am not used to thinking about myself in the context of Father’s Day. Father’s Day doesn’t feel like it’s about me, at least not intuitively. On Father’s Day I reflect on my own father. I remember the very good moments with my dad, moments that in some ways get more poignant as he and I get older and the relationship roles reverse just a bit. I think about the ways in which I am shaped by being the son of an Appalachian coal miner, influences that go down to my core, accidental on his part, but molding who I am as a person and as a professional. These days I spend a little of Father’s Day telling myself I’ll be more faithful this year in calling home and visiting. On Father’s Day, I think like a son. It continues to catch me a bit by surprise that this day could also be about me.

And yet, being a father is who I am, and with every passing year it becomes as formative to my character as being a son. My sense of self and my responsibilities in this life are defined in large part from the duties of parenthood; my calendar certainly reflects that I have two jobs now. I think as a father now, too. In the classroom, I approach many of the ethical issues I teach with different eyes. In the airport, my heart beats faster when I hear a small voice crying. I know more about circumstances we broadly refer to as “special needs” than I ever did before. I am more invested and interested in a place and culture on the other side of the world (where my sons were born) than I ever was before. I watch baseball and NASCAR now; as it turns out, there are sports other than football played in this country! I am father now.

Still, this day surprises me. I wonder if I haven’t successfully internalized my identity as parent because frankly I don’t think I’m nearly as good in that role as I am in the others I occupy. The response to my books by editors and readers seems to suggest that I’m a pretty good writer. Positive course evaluations reassure me that I’m a good teacher. Unless my congregational friends are just being kind (a distinct possibility!), I’ve got game as a preacher.

But parenthood? I am far from the head of the class on that front. I work too much. I hear stories of parents who “never miss one of the kids’ games,” and I know immediately I fall short. I’m not where I should be when I should be. I am impatient. I am naturally wired to spend more time alone than with other people. I’m still working on molding my strong personality and genetic deficiencies to the requirements of parenthood, to meet my kids where they are, where they need to be, enough to be the reliable support each of them needs in climbing the hills that stand before them.

The idea of fatherhood—of parenthood—is problematic for many of us. For some like me, it evokes our own shortcomings. For others, it triggers reminders of parents who have failed us, sometimes in traumatically injurious ways. And while parental failures are possible from mothers, too—as anyone who has read or seen Mommie Dearest knows—the history of fatherhood is arguably spottier. It is accompanied by shadows of patriarchy, domination, absence, misogyny, and abuse. For many, the concept of fatherhood is morally ambivalent at best.

That’s part of the reason why more and more Christians have such a hard time using the language of “father” to refer to God. Reference to God as “Father” is embedded in that classical Christian formulation of God as Trinity, and these days both the parental language for God and the Three-in-One rhetorical gymnastics are contested ideas, even among Christians themselves. But both have deep, deep roots in our theological tradition, so they aren’t easily jettisoned. As Matthew tells it, the Great Commission of Jesus’s disciples after his death was to go and recruit followers, not just to the cult of Jesus of Nazareth, but to a life lived in allegiance to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So picking a fight with Father God or the Trinity can feel like the foundations of faith are crumbling beneath us.

To be sure, Christians invoked the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit long before they were quite sure how the three related to one another. In this seemingly contradictory invocation, they struggled to maintain the Jewish monotheistic confession of one God and yet insist that the Son and the Spirit also were manifestations of God. Christian thinkers spent an awful lot of time in the church’s early period trying to make sense of how both of these ideas could be true: that God is one and God is three. In fact, the church has never stopped trying to make sense of it, though in the fourth and fifth centuries certain formulations began to get official traction—which millions of Christians recite each Sunday in the Nicene Creed or Apostles’ Creed.

Even in those creeds, Christians weren’t entirely sure what they were saying, forced to invent language in the Greek to capture the distinctions they were defining. And while this traditional Trinity-language has come to dominate Christian worship in the Western world, many Christians find it problematic. Some reject it because they find the Nicene concepts unhelpful in our time and place. But many more reject it because of the first part: Father. To refer to God as Father, as the church has for centuries, invests our understanding of God with the very real baggage that comes with bad fatherhood. To talk of God as Father tempts us to think of God as an old white man who sits in brutal authority over the world; who thinks like a stereotypical man, through the lens of warfare, vengeance, and punishment; who exercises and endorses patriarchy; and who underwrites men’s domination of human society. For many people, talking of God as Father is not only less useful, it’s downright harmful.

Those who reject Father-God-talk sometimes suggest that we substitute “Mother” in referring to that aspect of the Holy Trinity. I actually like that quite a bit; it’s biblical imagery as well, and it maintains the relational intention of Trinity language while infusing it with a significant social and theological corrective. But even to talk of Mother-Child-Spirit instead of Father-Son-Spirit doesn’t get you away from the negative connotations that parental language can have—authoritarianism, abuse, neglect. Because humans are imperfect, any parental language can encourage negative associations with God, leading some Christians to prefer alternative wording altogether, like Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer.

But on this Father’s Day, I wonder if there’s another way to respond to the liabilities in Trinity-talk, besides moving (with Mary Daly) “beyond God the Father.” Is the only healthy response to its shortcomings to dispense altogether with the traditional metaphor? Certainly for many of us, parental metaphors carry important positive connotations, too. Dependable care, unconditional love, wisdom, patience, and trust are ideals we associate with good parenting. Might they also help us constructively describe how we experience God in the world and in our lives?

This may seem like a silly example, but one of my earliest childhood memories is of walking in the woods with my dad and his favorite beagle, Spotty. On that day, Spotty accidentally stuck her nose in a yellow jacket nest in the ground, and before we knew it those hornets were all over her, Dad, and me. And I remember my dad bending down and picking that dog up with one arm and me with the other and running out of the woods, with strength, swiftness, and a disregard for his own well-being. That reliable, other-regarding strength in the face of need works as a reassuring divine analogy for me. My point is that there are virtues to good parenting that might make Mother and Father useful images for describing how we experience God in our lives, even if they are inexact.

But it’s also true that our actual experiences of parenthood, of either being parents or having them, often fall short of the ideals of love, care, and goodness we associate with God. Sallie McFague reminds us that theological metaphors are at best approximate comparisons between the divine and the human, and we learn something significant in both the similarities between the image and its divine object and in the disconnect between God and our imperfect words for God. We have to admit that there are ways in which the language of parenthood fails to fully capture who we profess God to be, because of the imperfect way we experience and practice parenting ourselves. But even in those moments, the metaphor teaches us something. In fact, it’s possible that using parenthood as a metaphor for God can help redeem the concept. For referring to God as Parent provides a plumb line for what it means for us to be parents. Using the idea for God doesn’t necessarily demean our concept of God. Perhaps it has the effect of elevating parenthood above the imperfections we experience, and inspires us to think more virtuously of the calling to be mother or father, parent, grandparent, or guardian.

Striving to be parents under the watch of the one we call Parent reassures us with the expectation of grace to forgive ourselves when we fall short. Confessing God as Parent reminds us to receive forgiveness and unconditional love as well as to give it, to be relieved of the burden to be perfect, and to embrace the virtue in the striving. Confessing God as Parent reminds us that parenthood, like the Christian life, is always a work in progress to be embraced with prayerful enthusiasm, not with dread and fear of failure.

In these ways, talking of God as Father or Mother gives parenthood holy significance. It encourages us to see it as religious vocation. Being father is every bit as important to the person I have been called to be as being teacher, preacher, and writer, even if—or perhaps especially because—I’m more naturally endowed for those professional roles than I am for being dad. Being father is part of the imperfect Christian striving to which I’ve been called. Reliance on God the Father reminds me of the good to which I aspire in this role, while it also assures me of grace when I miss the mark.