UCAN Spirituality Catholic Church News

Calling God “Father”

Calling God “Father” thumbnail

Mary Ann Fatula

Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying, ‘Abba! Father’ (Gal 4:6). For many contemporary readers, this passage expressing the trinitarian reality central to the Christian experience presents a problematic on two levels. The first difficulty and the one most easily addressed concerns the Christian community to whom these words are proclaimed. Women are daughters, not sons of God, and many of us have learned to adjust our language accordingly in order to affirm explicitly women’s and men’s equal dignity before God.

On the other hand, the second part of the passage touches upon a problem at a second, more complex level. People who have suffered neglect or abuse from men often refuse to employ masculine words and especially the name “Father” in referring to God. Even those who have been fathered in strong and tender ways and who have relationships of equality with respectful and caring men sometimes are reluctant to use male gender nouns or pronouns in referring to God because they feel that language of this kind fosters a second class status for women.

Certainly it is easier for us simply to cut out a problematic word like “father” rather than to do the hard work of uncovering its meaning in the experience of Jesus and its consequent significance for our own lives. Yet our own integrity calls us to this task. For being a Christian means nothing less than entering with our whole being into Jesus experience, allowing him to take hold of us, to claim us, and to make his experience our own: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20)….

Undoubtedly, our own personal experience defines what the name “father” comes to mean to us. For some of us the very word cuts into our hearts and opens wounds of abandonment and betrayal, of absence and abuse and pain we would give anything not to have known. And for others of us, the name “father” evokes a sense of gladness and faithful presence, of unconditional love and unselfish giving, of memories that make us smile with gratitude….

Jesus experience of God as “Abba” was so central to his personal meaning that it claimed and defined his entire identity. And in an amazing act of love Jesus gives to his disciples a gift so radical that its use will distinguish them as his own. This most intimate and personal name which Jesus alone used of God, “Abba, Father,” is now to be the one by which they themselves are to commune with God as familiarly as a child snuggles close to its mothers breast or lies safe and secure in its fathers arms. Jesus invites his followers into such unreserved union with himself that his own experience of his Father’s extraordinary closeness and care is to become their own: “When you pray, say ‘Father’….” (Lk. 11:2).

Jesus thus takes a word of tender familiarity, a word little children used of their own fathers, and, applying it to the God who utterly surpasses the limitations of male gender, gives it a radically transcendent meaning. The name “Abba” for Jesus thus does not mean “man” nor any other created reality. What, then, does it mean? …

Although all human language stands dumb before the absolute mystery of God, not every name is necessarily as valuable as any other in attempting to speak of this mystery. The God of Jesus is certainly “Creator of the Universe” and “Source of All Being.” But far more importantly – and precisely because of all possible names Jesus himself has given us this one alone – God is our “Father.” In bequeathing his own name for God to us, Jesus does not take an ordinary household word and use it simply as a metaphor, as if to say, “God is like a father,” just as God is also in some way like a shepherd and like a rock. No, it is God as “Abba” who defines the meaning of true fatherhood and motherhood and not the other way around, for the very best of human fathering and mothering gives only a minuscule hint of what it means that God is our Father.

This is why contemporary authors such as Diane Tennis and Robert Hamerton-Kelly rightly emphasize that Jesus use of the name “Father” for God, far from fostering the patriarchy which subjugates women to men, stands in fact as a radical critique of patriarchal systems. “Do not call anyone on earth your father. Only one is your father, the One in heaven” (Mt. 23:9)….

Far from being a way to further male domination, the name “Father” for Jesus signifies the God whose love and tenderness call us into a family where equality and mutual respect are to reign. Our Father thus frees us from any claims made upon us that do not respect us as free persons and in Jesus calls us to an entirely new kind of family based not on the ties of kinship and fate but upon grace and freedom.

The tragic irony is that this tender name for God which Jesus has given us has been “interpreted out of context to present a male god who secures the primacy of the male.”…

Diane Tennis … asks what irreplaceable value there is for us as women in knowing God precisely as our Father. She shows that a great wound of our society is exactly the absence of loving and reliable fathers. And so we women learn to take upon ourselves “enormous responsibility for the world,” assuming the duties of both mother and father in the sacrificial role of “Inexhaustible Earth Mother.” To reject God as our Father is thus to imprison ourselves even more deeply in damaging stereotypical roles by relegating the capacity for tenderness and faithful care to women alone. In this way we tolerate irresponsibility and “let men off the hook.”

Tennis concludes that our need as women and men for a faithful and caring father is too deep and ineradicable a component of our human meaning simply to abandon this symbol for God. On the contrary, we need to free it from distortions linking it with domination by drinking in the truth the Scriptures proclaim to us.

For the Father of Jesus knows and loves each one of us so intimately that every single hair on our head is counted (Mt. 10:30). This is the Father who refuses to give up on us, who searches for us when we sin because his own heart feels such tenderness for us. He throws his arms around our neck and covers us with kisses in our very weakness; having found us he cries out that all of heaven and earth must celebrate because his lost child has been found, his dead child has come back to life (Lk. 15:18-23). This Father desires us to trust him without reserve and yearns to lavish his care upon us in our every need (Mt. 7:11; Lk. 11:13).

These and other Gospel passages can only hint at the unbelievable tenderness which Jesus unveils to us in the one he calls “Father.” But by recovering precisely this content of Jesus’ own experience, we can open ourselves to the Father’s extraordinary tenderness in our own…. In this way the symbol itself can be used “to create a different human situation,” a world in which women and men respect and relate to each other as equals.