"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

On Fatherhood: the Need for an Adequate Theology and Ethics

(My husband and daughter share a love for reading.)

There is a lot of talk and debate about how mothers should be mothers. In the West, and particularly in the U.S., this has an interesting history, involving the industrial revolution, World War II necessities, and Evangelical culture. The big question often seems to be - to work or not to work? while being a full-time mom. This of course has variations, such as, what kind of part-time work makes possible dedicated mothering while still providing necessary income? Recently, I've been privy to the decisions many of my friends have had to make with the advent of their first babes.

But while I could continue on this topic, I would like to change the subject to fathers. With Father's Day just past, it seems like a good chance to reflect on what exactly fatherhood entails. It's oft-noted that the English verbs "to father" and "to mother" strike an interesting contrast. The former indicates a one-time seminal donation while the latter indicates a more time-intensive, personal, and involved set of actions. In some ways, our society seems to extrapolate from these verbs an understanding of motherhood and fatherhood, wherein mothers are very involved with children and fathers not so much.

In light of this, it is facinating that our Christian tradition refers to God as "Father." God certainly does not "father" us in the conventional, English meaning of the verb. Hence it seems that this verb came into usage without any reference to God the Father. While it would be unrealistic to argue that we change the common understanding of the verb "to father," I would like to challenge the way that we think about fathers and fatherhood. To my knowledge, there is very little theological work done on this topic, in contrast to the popular and academic debates on motherhood.

In his book Believing Three Ways in One God, Nicholas Lash notes that the words we use to speak of God are not simply ways of saying how God acts, e.g. "You know, of course, what kingship and shepherding, landowning and loving, fatherhood and judgeship are? Well, that is how God is and acts" (44). No, he says. Instead, "the things we say of God are said in criticism of our inhuman, and hence ungodly, practices. Unlike other judges, God judges justly; unlike other shepherds, God brings back the strayed...unlike other fathers, God acts like the father in the misnamed parable of the prodigal son. It is, therefore, only through the redemptive transformation of our human practices that we discover what these images might mean when used as metaphors for our relation to the unknown God" (44).

In other words, Lash here is making the same distinction made by Hans Urs Von Balthasar in Theo-Logic, II: Truth of God. The movement from human language to describing God is katalogical. What we ought to aim for, however, is an analogical movement - from God to human beings. Hence we do not know God as Father because of our experiences with our own fathers. Rather, we know our own fathers as fathers to the extent that they reflect God the Father. (Might this be why Jesus says (Mt. 23:9) we ought to call no man "father"? No human father fully reflects God as Father.)

It seems to me that this will have some very serious implications for a theology of fatherhood. As Lash says, calling God "Father" will necessitate a critique of our earthly father practices. In particular, I think we will need to consider fatherly choices regarding children vs. work. I know of several men who have made their work choices based on their family life. One was a father of seven with whose family I lived for a summer. He admitted to me one day that his work was not really prestigious, and, while fulfilling in some sense, it wasn't his life's dream profession. He had accepted that job because it gave him the income to support a large family, to allow his wife to stay at home, and because he knew it wouldn't make the demands on him that a more competitive job would (traveling, etc.). Another friend of mine chose a career in teaching at a public school in California primarily because it allowed him to spend time with his wife and children. Granted, he also enjoyed working with students, but in the end, he sacrificed greater ambitions (a higher salary, more prestige) in order to have the summers and afternoons with his children. And, of course, we all probably know of a stay-at-home dad who has chosen to be a full-time father. My own husband spent the past year adjuncting a class per semester so that I could continue my Ph.D. program, and we could share the childcare for Maia.

In such men, I think we can see a reflection (however small) of the Fatherhood of God.

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