Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Heavenly Father

One dangerous theological practice is the transcribing of earthly paradigms to explain spiritual wonders. It is natural to attempt to explain the divine in terms that can be understood, but we must remember that analogies, similes and metaphors must be kept in their proper context.

It is a tenant of Christianity to presume that what made the Jews lose their way was their clinging to the Messiah as an earthly king, a saviour in the literal sense, rather than to expand their thinking to a broader, more spiritual sense. Notwithstanding, Christians continue to use the metaphor of “King” and “Saviour” to describe the Christ. What earthly paradigms do we Christians cling to?

My particular pet peeve is the reference to God as a “father.” On a micro level, it is a comforting and perhaps effective symbol – unconditional love, strong, caring, compassionate, protective – traits one would associate with a loving father. But on a macro level, the symbol is exactly the opposite of a father, and likely is the sort of bad theology that can lead to harmful assumptions about the divine.

When my first daughter was about 18 months old, we started leaving her at a daycare facility. She was uncomfortable and shy, as you’d expect, so I often stayed with her for some time to acclimate her prior to sneaking out. One morning I dropped her off particularly early and there were only 2 other children there, a girl, maybe 4 and her brother, about 2. They were sitting at a little child-sized table eating breakfast and I encouraged my daughter to go over and sit with them.

Unsure, my daughter took a few slow and waddly steps toward the two children when the older girl held up her hand and said, defiantly, “She can’t sit with us, she can’t even talk yet!” My daughter froze in her tracks and I, as any father would, resisted the overwhelming desire to drop kick this oppressor through the nearest window. My new-born fatherly instincts made me angry, protective, vengeful, proprietary and violent, which, to me, are natural reactions to injustice perpetrated at one’s child.

Now, I don’t see these instincts as being bad, necessarily, to the contrary, we should protect our children. We should give them preferential and deferential treatment. It is how society is structured and it works. But while I may not know much about God, I can pretty much assume that He has never had to resist the urge to drop kick a 4 year-old girl. And in my mind, that’s good – but it’s not fatherly.

The problem with thinking of God as father is that a father is not universally caring, loving, and protective, a father is disproportionately caring, loving, and protective of his children relative to others. This makes it difficult apply the metaphor on a global scale. Sure, we try to say that we are ALL God’s children, that we are ALL brothers and sisters. But if that were the case, then the analogy breaks down.

A father protects his children from harm. A father helps his children succeed. So what does it mean when I succeed and you fail? When I am free from harm and you are not? It is an easy leap, and one made all too often throughout religious history, that God is MY father and not YOUR father. Whether by race, ethnicity or good works God loves me more than you, just as an earthly father would.

And that’s dangerous.

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