Ten Short Reflections on the Relationship between Divine and Human Fatherhood

David Blankenhorn, Familia et Vita, 1/1/1999

Here are our choices. We can see fatherhood as a bare biological act, in which case it is very small indeed: no larger than a drop of semen. Or we can see fatherhood as essentially a spiritual calling or vocation, in which case it is very large indeed; one of the largest things a man can do; indeed, one of the most important ways that a human male, even in his weakness and short-sightedness, can participate with God in creation. And here is what will ultimately guide these two choices. Whether we view fatherhood as fundamentally a biological act, or fundamentally a spiritual vocation, depends decisively on whether or not men seek to know and love God. For true human fatherhood, fatherhood that is loving and strong, consisting of the sincere gift of the self, must necessarily point beyond itself, allowing itself to become ordinated toward something larger and better than the fragile human male...

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Subjects: Family, Fatherhood

More by: David Blankenhorn

One

Because this question takes us to the heart of Christian faith and our understanding of the nature of God, the question is necessarily inexhaustible and ultimately mysterious. (Psalm 139: "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it").

But let us begin by recalling one of Jesus' clearest and most startling instructions to us, which is his teaching that we address God as "Father". This teaching represents an historically new and decisively important shift in our understanding of God. For Jesus teaches us to call God "Abba", an intimate and personal form of address, similar to the way in which a child might call his or her father "Daddy" or "Papa".

And so, on many Sundays at my church in New York, the pastor begins the service by saying, "Don't be afraid. You are a child of God in your Father's world". And as a child growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, I learned to sing the song, "This is my Father's world. I rest me in the thought".

Therefore, we might begin to consider this inexhaustible topic, this mystery of the relationship between human and divine fatherhood by asking ourselves: Why did Jesus teach us to call God "Father" or "Abba"?

Two

As regards the growth and development of the human infant, the human father is often described by psychologists and other experts as "the first other" that is, the child's first source of love, protection, and nurture that is outside of, and in important ways separate from, the physical and emotional unity, initially symbiotic, of the mother-child dyad. The child thus meets his or her father as the first loving person who is not "me/my mother". In this sense we might say that the human father is the child's first encounter with an "intimate other".

This may give us a clue as to why we most often call God "Father", instead of "Mother", or alternatively, a name that is non-familial, and therefore more impersonal, less intimate, and less associated with generativity.

For we know from the scholarship of John W. Miller and others that in those religions that speak of God as maternal or female, there is a marked tendency to neglect or ignore the "otherness" of God, and instead to view God as that which is natural or immanent, as in the tendency to view God as identified with nature, or with the natural process of human procreation, birth and death.

On the other hand, if our language or metaphors for understanding God become too "other", too abstract, too impersonal, too distant, too undefinable, we run the risk of losing our understanding that our God is a personal God, a God who is, as the Scriptures say, "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, rich in goodness and faithfulness".

Now, we know that all our words for God are imperfect and partial, but a shadow of the reality. We know, for example, that God subsumes, and is infinitely larger than, male or female sexual embodiment, or human maternity or paternity. And we know that our experience of Yahweh, and of God as Abba, is an experience of a Heavenly Father whose caring, as Miller reminds us, is often felt by us as mother-like in its tenderness and compassion.

And yet surely there is a beauty and truth in our calling God "Father" or "Abba", the intimate "Other" who is the pattern of all parenthood and source of love: a love that is intimated to the human infant early, especially when that infant first looks outside the bond or fusion of "me/my mother" to see and say, "Abba", "Daddy", "Papa", my first intimate other.

Three

Our understanding of God as "Father" also corresponds beautifully and naturally with young children's images of God and of mothers and fathers, as revealed by wide-ranging, cross-cultural research. Children's images of "mother" suggest a cluster of similar and closely related traits, including intimacy, love, belonging, closeness, compassion, and immanence, at times approaching ideals of symbiosis. In contrast, children's images of "father" partly include these "intimacy" traits, while at the same time reflecting a cluster of somewhat opposing traits that suggest dissonance, distance, and even negation, with their clear suggestions of challenge, endurance, coaching, limits, rules, and, generally, the push outward, beyond here and now, toward strangers and risks, or what we might call, in a phrase, early steps in the search for transcendence.

Four

We must frankly admit, I believe, that when we call God "Father", we may, in our shortsightedness, tend wrongly to divinize, to improperly privilege the human male as a by-product of our God-language. Many of us have done this in the past and many of us may do so today. It is important, therefore, to understand that God's love for us, his paternity is intimated to the child through motherhood as well as fatherhood. We certainly do not call God "Father" because fathers are more important than mothers, and not because men are more important than women. On the contrary, I want to venture that part of the reason we are taught to call God "Father" may be related, not to paternal prowess or strength, but instead, and perhaps paradoxically, to the tendency of males toward paternal waywardness, and to the demonstrated fragility of the father-child bond as compared to the mother-child bond.

Moreover, as with any scriptural revelation - and surely this revelation about "Abba" is among the most stunning of them all - we must first and foremost endeavor to become its disciples. And so ultimately, above and beyond the search for reasons, we call God "Father" because Jesus reveals God to us as "Our Father". Similarly, we cannot project human fatherhood onto God. Rather, we believe that human paternity, at its best, can be a partial mirroring of the divine paternity.

Five

Across time and cultures, men abandon their children much more frequently than do mothers. The mother-child bond is the most robust bond in the human species. The father-child bond is significantly more fragile. It becomes an existing reality only when it is supported, taught, and expected by the surrounding society, especially by the society's basic moral codes and religious teachings.

And so, this may be another clue as to why we are taught to call God "Father". It is not because fathers are stronger or better than mothers, and it is not because men need God more than women do. However, evidence abounds that biological fathers need more reminding from God than mothers do. In this regard, the Judeo-Christian revelation has contributed crucially to the gradual establishment of a cultural narrative or story that actively participates in this reminding, enshrining the ideal of the human father who is nurturantly involved with his biological children and their mother in a permanent way. Yet in our time, this narrative has begun seriously to unravel, with dramatic consequences, both religious and social. Calling God "Father" today, then, may be more important than ever as a means of cultural reminding: communicating a powerful message to the men of today regarding their sacred covenant with, and their unbreakable and loving responsibility to their children and the mothers of their children.

Six

In practical sociological terms, if you want to see what happens to human fatherhood in those societies which increasingly fail to recognize God as our Heavenly Father, look around. The evidence is everywhere around us.

Seven

As some modern societies become weaker in their understanding of God as Abba or Father, one important social consequence is the tendency toward a reductionist or minimalist understanding of human fatherhood, in which fatherhood is viewed in strictly natural or biological terms.

Consider a highway billboard near Dallas, Texas. It reads "Who's the Father?" and then the telephone number to call: "1-800-DNA-TYPE". The idea is for mothers to call a toll-free number so that a genetics laboratory can help identify the fathers of their children. There are at least two private companies now displaying such billboards in the U.S.

These signs give us an important insight into our current understanding of what a father is. They are telling us that we can answer the question, "Who's the father?" by obtaining the results of a DNA test. Could our understanding of fatherhood possibly get any smaller?

Here are our choices. We can see fatherhood as a bare biological act, in which case it is very small indeed: no larger than a drop of semen. Or we can see fatherhood as essentially a spiritual calling or vocation, in which case it is very large indeed; one of the largest things a man can do; indeed, one of the most important ways that a human male, even in his weakness and short-sightedness, can participate with God in creation.

And here is what will ultimately guide these two choices. Whether we view fatherhood as fundamentally a biological act, or fundamentally a spiritual vocation, depends decisively on whether or not men seek to know and love God. For true human fatherhood, fatherhood that is loving and strong, consisting of the sincere gift of the self, must necessarily point beyond itself, allowing itself to become ordinated toward something larger and better than the fragile human male. In this sense, true human fatherhood must always consist of what the Holy Father, when he was the playwright Karol Wojtyla, once called the "radiation" of fatherhood: that is, seeking to let the perfect paternity of God radiate through the frail man, and understanding that the human father is genuinely authoritative only to the degree that he himself is under authority, recognizing himself as God's obedient son.

Eight

It has been beautifully said that mothers are not made by children, but by fathers. Similarly, I want to suggest that fathers, in this sense, are likewise made by mothers. A man can become an inseminator through sex alone through mere assertion, as it were, but he typically can become a nurturant father only with the permission and active support of the mother. In this sense, the man auditions for fatherhood, offers himself for fatherhood. The woman must say "I choose and accept you as the father of our child". Thus, the reality of fatherhood extends well beyond the individual man and becomes much more than a purely male vocation. Fatherhood thus becomes clearly metaphysical, in that it becomes inextricably reciprocal and relational, embracing and requiring for its fulfillment not only the child, but also the mother.

This understanding of the father's vocation again militates against our misunderstanding of human paternity as the mere unilateral claim and assertion of male power and privilege. It also points to the centrality of the couple, the union of persons in marriage as the caretaker and nurturer of the child. And finally, this understanding underscores again the fact that fatherhood is ultimately a metaphysical idea, intimately linked to religious faith and the search for transcendence.

Nine

We are living in this generation through what might be called "the great unraveling" of our understanding of personhood and of fatherhood, in which various aspects of the truth are separated from one another, and even pitted against one another, often leading to crude reductionisms and other forms of short-sightedness, especially as regards the connection of the natural and biological to the spiritual. In these remarks I have focused perhaps one-sidedly on the spiritual dimension or culmination of authentic fatherhood, but I hope that in the near future, inspired by all the great synthetic work on the family done by Aquinas and others, including the Holy Father, John Paul II, we might strive to pass beyond the great unraveling, once again integrating, for our time, the natural and biological basis of human fatherhood with its spiritual center and culmination.

Ten

As a Protestant, a Presbyterian who is indebted to Catholic teaching and who believes that the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, is in many important ways the leader on earth of all Christians, I want to conclude with an observation based on my admittedly partial understanding of current Catholic teaching and theological reflection on marriage and the family.

I personally have been deeply moved and instructed by the Church's teachings regarding marriage, women, and children. But I am not aware of similarly rich and socially profound recent teachings and reflection from the Church regarding fatherhood. And since fatherhood as a social role for men is disintegrating before our eyes in so many modem societies, leaving in its wake a vast array of harmful social consequences, my hope is that all of us, in the Church and in the larger society, will do everything we can, in our time, to turn the hearts of the fathers toward their children.

For example, might it be appropriate for the Catholic Church, and for all Christians, to renew and deepen our examination of Saint Joseph as an important model of the spiritual core of fatherhood? And more generally, might it be appropriate, for the Year of the Father, to hope for an encyclical from the Holy Father on the subject of human fatherhood?

Sommario

Nel mistero del rapporto tra la patemita umana e la patemita divina, Gesu ci disse di chiamare Dio "Padre" o "Abba".

Il padre umano costituisce per il bambino il primo incontro con un "altro intimo". Le immagini che i bambini hanno del "padre", mentre contengono alcuni tratti di intimita, suggeriscono i primi passi verso la ricerca della trascendenza.

L' amore di Dio per noi - la sua patemita - e infusa nel bambino sia attraverso la ma- temita che la patemita.

Oggi, chiamare Dio "Padre" potrebbe es- sere piu importante che mai, quale potente messaggio agli uomini sulla loro sacra alleanza e sull'amorosa responsabilita verso i propri figli e le madri dei propri figli.

L'incapacita di alcune societa modeme a capire il significato di Dio come Padre pud portare ad una grave conseguenza sociale, quella di una concezione minimalista e riduttiva della patemita umana.

Summary

In the mystery of the relationship between human and divine fatherhood, Jesus told us to call God "Father" or "Abba".

The human father is the child's first encounter with an "intimate other". Children's images of "father", while containing some "intimacy" traits, suggest early steps in the search for transcendence.

God's love for us-his paternity-is intimated to the child through motherhood as well as fatherhood.

Calling God "Father" today may be more important than ever as a powerful message to men regarding their sacred covenant and loving responsibility to their children and the mothers of their children.

As some modern societies become weaker in their understanding of God as father, one important social consequence can be a reductionist and minimalist understanding of human fatherhood.

This article originally appeared here.

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