Is our “Heavenly Father” Archaic and Unnecessary?

Romans 5:1-10; Matthew 6:26-33; John 1:18; Luke 10:21-22

This weekend, Orthodox are given two readings that neatly coincide with secular Father’s Day. The first is Romans 5:1-10, in which we hear about all that we have received in our reconciliation with God, what has been done for us in Christ, how we are called to live a life leading to theosis, and how all of this shows us the love of the Father for us. It concludes: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Rom 5:10 RSV) This epistle involves God the Father who reconciled us to himself by the death of his Son. And in Jesus’ astonishing Sermon on the Mount, we hear also about having a spiritual perspective because we enjoy the care of the Heavenly Father. Verses 26-33 of Matthew 6 say,

“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?…Therefore do not be anxious, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

But what was preached as consolation will perhaps strike the ear of twenty-first century North Americans as oppressive. A heavenly Father, a seeking after “HIS” kingdom and righteousness?” And the matins gospel speaks of the mandate to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation,” warning us, “the one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned” (Mar 16:15-16 RSV). Again, we meet the problem: for our baptism is in the name of the FATHER, the SON, and the Holy Spirit.

We know that God the Father is not a male. And the most basic fact about Jesus is that he was made a human being, not merely a male. So are these simply ancient modes of speech, unnecessary in an inclusive world? Some would like to think so. “Father” and “Son” are only one way, they would argue, of talking about God—they are metaphors, patriarchal metaphors that offend, rather than attract, in our day. They will insist that there are more ways in the Bible to talk about God to which we relate better today, ways that don’t risk alienating women, or those whose earthly fathers have been abusive. And since we are only using metaphors, then perhaps it is a good idea to add such pictures as —“the womb of every constellation,” “Mother-Christ,” “Sophia,” “old aching God.” (I’m not making these up: you can find them in contemporary hymnals outside of the Orthodox Church). We can’t ever fully contain God in a name, so these hymnodists exclaim, so we need to bring many names to celebrate this One whom we worship.

I may be preaching to the choir. After all, it is mainline Protestant hymnbooks and songbooks have deliberately added new compositions that use multiple images for God, some subtle, but a few in the traditionalist’s face, overtly naming God “Mother.” And in some of the new hymnals, even the older hymns have the three little letters “alt.” beside them—alterations have been made, and many of these include removing the masculine pronouns or balancing out the masculine language for God, not only for human beings. Protestant liturgists routinely revise the language that they have been given for services, supplying “God” for every He, or “Holy God” for “Father.”

So why should we care as Orthodox? First, we need to realize that this is a matter of deep conviction to many, and know how to answer when they visit us. The desire of such revisionists is to hold up principles of the dignity of women, and the mystery of God, who should not be conceived of as the Big Guy in the Sky. They care especially for those who, at the word “father,” are reminded of deep wounds from their past. They believe that what is important is the inner center of our faith, not the window dressing—and metaphors for God are not the center, they insist. Further, I am not naïve enough to think that these objections have not made some inroads even into our own parishes. As Jaraslov Pelikan reminds us, those who do not know the history of Tradition are indeed the slaves of current trends, doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

So let’s stop a moment and think. What is the origin of the name Father, Son and Holy Spirit? When Christians call on God as “Father,” they give him this name for a particular reason, if they know anything about their past. Perhaps many assume that “Father” is just another way of speaking about the Creator of all. This is true, of course, but for the Christian “Father” has an even more specific meaning—it is intertwined with our understanding of the Holy Trinity, *and speak of Father as, if you like, the head of the divine household. Already we are using images of authority. Democracy is a wonderful political idea, but it does not describe the Kingdom of God.

In the Bible, of course, we don’t have a full-blown description of the inter-relations of the Divine Persons. This would wait until the Church faced various challenges, including Arius. There is no proof text on this. But, we are pushed back beyond proof texts to consider the Christian story as a whole. And when we read it, we find that our names of Father and Son come from Jesus’ own talk about himself, replicated in the gospels and epistles.

The OT uses metaphor to speak of God “as a father,” alongside other images—rock, fortress, king, Lord of hosts, and so on. It is not until the NT that we see the word used consistently as a kind of name that goes beyond a mere picture. “Abba, Dear Father,” Jesus says. As the theologian Pannenberg notices, “On the lips of Jesus, ‘Father’ became a proper name for God. It thus ceased to be simply one designation among others.” Indeed, he is repeating the teaching of St. Gregory the Theologian and others: “But the proper Name of the unoriginate is the Father, and of the originately Begotten is Son, and that of the unbegottenly Proceeding is the Holy Spirit.” (Oration 30.19) And as Jesus himself declared, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son…reveals Him (Mat 11:27). Or as St. Paul puts it, “For us there is one God, the Father, from whom all things come, and one LORD, Jesus Christ, through whom we exist.” The coming of Jesus illumined two mysteries—not only the Son, but also the Father. And soon, at Pentecost, the third great mystery would be revealed, the Holy Spirit!

Please notice that I am giving you a different story of origins than we find in contemporary theology, for example in Sallie McFague’s understanding of “role model theology.” She says “we cannot speak of God without images…None of these images say what God is; they each say something of what God is like.”

McFague is right to safeguard the mystery Who is God. We Orthodox speak of the necessity of apophatic theology (understanding who God is without words, and by saying what He is NOT like) as well as kataphatic declarations. But she seems to have forgotten something. Our knowledge about the Father comes not simply from what we know naturally about human fathers, but by God in the flesh taking up our human language and teaching us the best way to use it. And so, God gives back our own words about him, showing the name that is best suited to his nature, filling in what the names “father” and “son” mean.

But many of the new teachings are being given through liturgy, rather than through direct instruction. How fascinating that, in order to get around the fact that Jesus gave us the name Father, hymnodists have tried to delve into the psychology of the child Jesus. Hymn 283 for St. Joseph’s Day, in the Canadian Anglican Hymnal, describes the child Jesus in this way:

All praise O God for Joseph, the guardian of your Son,
Who saved him from King Herod, when safety there was none.
He taught the trade of builder, when they to Nazareth came,
And Joseph’s love made “Father” to be for Christ God’s name.

On the surface this seems like a nice, domestic picture. But look at the assumptions! Jesus only could understand about God being LIKE a father, because he had a wonderful daddy on earth. It was this HUMAN experience that gave him this idea about God. What audacity is here! It reminds me of the ghostly theologian in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, who wants to write a paper speculating on how Jesus’ theology might have matured had he only lived beyond age 33. Who are we to assume that Jesus’ name for God was born of his own, human particular, limited understanding, and that we can do better, or use richer terminology?

We are, then, not simply talking about a squabble about names, but about serious matters like revelation, the authority of Jesus, and Christian thought in general. When we cry out, Abba, Father, we are in solidarity with Jesus, the One who makes the Father known.

It helps, I think, to remember that we use “Father” in a particular way when addressing God, remembering that God is not “male,” with body parts and passions, and that this God surprises us at every turn of the story. “This God does not jealously hoard his power. As a husband he does not beat his unfaithful wife, but cries out with the pain of a jilted lover and redoubles his efforts to win her back. As Father he “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.” As Son he did not claim the prerogatives of power…but “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…As Spirit he incorporates us into the mystical body, in whom “there is no male and female, neither slave nor free.” As King he does not isolate himself in heavenly splendor, but wills to dwell with us, and wipe away every tear…” (Garrett Green, “The Gender of God and the Theology of Metaphor,” in Speaking the Christian God, ed. Kimel, 1992)

Okay, you will say, so the patriarchal language is used with good intent. But it still is upsetting to many. Why not consider the practice of those outside our Orthodox fold, who use language like “Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer?” The problem with this is that these are FUNCTIONAL terms, describing what God does for us, and they are not accurate, if we mean each of them to refer specifically to one of the Persons. All three Persons are involved in creating, redeeming and sustaining. But only Father, Son and Holy Spirit speak of the personal character of God, of how the Trinitarian persons relate to each other, and how we are caught up, mysteriously, into that life, because we are in Christ.

God is personal, and “it” doesn’t of course, cut it. But why not “she” and “Mother?” Scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier shows convincingly that to picture God as Mother leads inevitably to a different kind of religion, a religion in which God is not personal and transcendent, but interconnected with the creation which has proceeded from the womb of the goddess. (“Female Language for God: Should the Church Adopt It?” In The Hermeneuetical Quest: Essays in Honor of James Luther Mays on His Sixty-fifth Birthday, edited by Donald G. Miller, 97–114. Allison Park, PA: Pickwick, 1986.) There are, of course, feminine images for God in the Bible. But notice that these images are clearly images, not names—God is “like” a nursing mother,” or a hen with chicks, or a midwife who helps us in our human suffering. But God is not ADDRESSED as such. These pictures are helpful in enriching our understanding of how God relates to us, but cannot supplant the mystery into which Jesus has initiated us. And, just an addendum—we need to recognize that though the Hebrew word for Spirit is feminine in gender, and the Greek word is neuter, in the fourth gospel, Jesus (almost ungrammatically) uses the MASCULINE pronoun ekeinos to refer to the Holy Spirit. So our discussion must extend to the Holy Spirit as well, who certainly displays maternal characteristics, but is called “He” by Jesus.

Some have suggested, instead of Father: Mother and Father, Source and Partner of the Eternal Word, Womb of all Creation. Instead of the Son: “Child, Jesa Christa, Mother Christ.” And for the Holy Spirit “she” and “Sophia.” For the Godhead: Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer; Creator, Liberator and Comforter; Creator, Christ and Spirit; Mother, Brother, Holy Partner; Mother, Lover, Friend. All such suggestions bring problems. First, the coupling together of male and female language calls to mind a hermaphroditic, Gnostic deity, and emphasizes sexuality as a characteristic of God. Heavy theological terms like “Source and Partner” create a sort of depersonalization, sounding like a business arrangement. “Jesa Christa” obscures the historicity and shape of the biblical story. And on it goes. Will these terms, and avoiding the pronouns “He” and “His” lead to a new story or depersonalization of God in the minds of those who use them?

Here is one such new story, from the pen of an Anglican woman priest:

Elder Woman, from the wine of your womb-love, You created the universe and bring healing…Pour out on us the elixir of your divine mercy, for you are the One whose splendor gave birth to the angels, Eye of Wisdom, Holy Sophia, Goddess Three in One, Amen.

Orthodox will be shocked, of course, at this very sexualized idea of God. But this is the lengths to which some revision has gone. And there is something else to think about, that may give us a foundation for our continued Orthodox practice of naming Father, Son and Holy Spirit. How do we know that our masculine and feminine language does not correspond to something greater than merely physical sexuality? Is it not more than possible that our human sexuality is mirroring something greater, something bigger, something more mysterious than ourselves? Ephesians 5 seems to think so — “But I am speaking of Christ and the Church.” Could it be that in altering our language for God we are removing a connection to something that we cannot truly understand? What if the masculine language is appropriate because maleness and femaleness pictures something grander, something more wonderful than we can imagine? We need, after all, the idea of order –dare I say HIERARCHY?— to even tell the Christian story. Suzanne Heine offers these powerful words: “Now everything gets turned around….What was above is below; what was below is raised up…Incarnation is…a way of conversion—the lowest becomes the uppermost….Jesus, a man, goes the way of lowliness to the victims, to the lost, to women. Jesus, God, goes the way of lowliness to the victims…A woman could not represent the humiliated because she herself is already where these people are…Jesus the man turns things upside down. Jesa the woman would always have been at the bottom.” (Suzanne Heine, Matriarchs, Goddesses, and Images of God: A Critique of Feminist Theology [1987 German; tr. John Bowden; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989], 139-141.)

Some Christians, as I mentioned before, have assumed that the Father is operative in the OT, and the Son and Holy Spirit in the New. But, actually, the Fathers tell a very different story, for they take the Bible’s words seriously: “The Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made Him known.” Here is the amazing thing: there was perhaps a glimpse of the Father in the Old Testament, where sometimes God is pictured as being like a Father to Israel or to David. But it was not until the Son came among us that we were shown the Father, and made His children. God the Father and God the Son (with the Holy Spirit) are specifically CHRISTIAN revelations. With these names we touch the mystery who is God. There is nothing deeper. As Jesus prayed,

“I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will. All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Luke 10:21-22)

And so, this “Fathers’ Day” we will certainly give thanks for the fathers who loved us, and for our spiritual fathers who nurture us in the faith. But even more, we know that we are blessed to look into mysteries that the prophets and patriarchs only glimpsed. With the Theotokos and the angels, we adore the One from whom all fatherhood is named, the Holy One, the Father shown to us by the Lord Jesus, by whom we also become children of God—not just in metaphor, but in reality!

One comment:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *