At the very end of “Adam’s Rib,” the 1949 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Amanda quips to her husband: “There’s no difference between the sexes…well maybe it’s a little difference.” Adam snaps back: “Well, you know, as the French say, “Vive la difference! Which means, 'Hurrah for that little difference.'”
On October 31, the French government is scheduled to abolish all references to “mother” and “father” in official documents and replace the words with the gender-neutral “parents.” More about this below.
Speaking of God
God “is totally foreign to all tongues,” writes St. Ephrem in the fourth century, and St. Augustine in the fifth: “If you say you understand God, it is not God.” In our own day, Henri de Lubac warns that, “to speak of God is as dangerous as it is necessary, but he adds that “the danger is no excuse for silence” (“The Discovery of God,” 205).
The Christian East affirms that the only thing we can say about God is in the negative – the apophatic approach. God is incomprehensible, not limited, not subject to change, cannot be defined, cannot err. And the West? We can say something about God – the cataphatic approach, but it is this ‘something’ that causes sides to lock horns.
Images for God
How do we, limited and fallible, speak of a divine Being who is unlimited – pure, simple, and perfectly complete? In biblical literature we find paternal images, kingly images for God. Although depicted as a potter, a good shepherd, rock, fortress, strength, shield, stronghold, God the Father is not literally these names but describes the Psalmist’s idea of God in human language. God is also “my pleasure and delight” (Ps 40:8). God is the Divine Artist and “this tremendous lover” who cares for his beloved creation as a composite work of art. God is Sacred Mystery or the Source and Ground of all being – these are theologically-correct phrases. Yet, they do not express the intimate, covenantal relationship found in the Hebrew Scriptures, as we shall see below. These are figurative and not literal ways of speaking about the ineffable source and creator of the universe. Calling God the “Eternal One represents not so much a re-imaging as a de-imaging of God” (Matthew Berke, “God and Gender in Judaism,” First Things (1996), 36.
Universal Understanding of Father
The most basic and universal understanding of father is one of begetting children. Fathers remain outside the birthing process. But father is a relation, more than begetter.
The universal notion of father is an essential part of mythology and religions. Zeus is the “Father of the gods,” and Abraham, “Our Father in Faith.” In America, George Washington is the “Father of Our Country,” and John Barry, the “Father of the American Navy.” In India, Gandhi is the “Father of the Nation.” As initiators, these fathers are the source of the titles accorded to them. They embody these titles.
Father-God, Mother-Goddess, and the Parent-God
How do Christians speak of the first ‘person’ of the Trinity in human language? God the Father is understood as the creative source of all. The Divine Self is revealed as YHWH (the One who is God’s unlimited existence, God for whom we can never find a worthy name), Avinu (Father and Source), Elohim (Fathers), Adonai (Lord). I-AM-WHO-AM, God’s name given to Moses, “contains the truth that God IS” ("Catechism of the Catholic Church", no. 213). The Father-creator of all is understood in terms of the forgiving and merciful love of God. Yet, the language of womanliness and motherhood is closely linked with the Father’s loving mercy as a mother comforts her child in Is 66:13.
In the creation-narrative, God creates out of nothing, ex nihilo, outside of the Divine Self.
In the creation myths of feminine deities, mother-goddess conveys a notion quite different from that of father. The womb of the mother-goddess sets the linguistic pattern. Mother-goddess gives birth to creation. Her offspring is an already divinized world. God is creation; creation is God.
This notion is foreign to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The affirmation that creation is God, and that God is creation is known as pantheism. In creating the cosmos ex nihilo, God is radically other, outside of the creation process. Moreover, nature and human beings are not good in themselves, already divinized in birth from the mother-goddess. They are divinized because God has breathed divine life into them.
Though men and women can create through the arts, the uniquely feminine metaphor for creation is birth. Ours is a personal and relational God who is beyond us and yet with us, transcendent and immanent. God is at work within us – always, everywhere, and providentially.
Linguistically, a parent-god is even more drastic than the lone mother-goddess. It sees the universe as the product of divine copulation or as a dualistic god (Berke, 34).
On the one hand, God as a divine parent involves no genetic connection and no role for sex or pro-creation. On the other hand, generic parenthood is a meaningless concept because we have no sense or experience of a generic parent, as the French government proposes. Two primordial words remain: father and mother.
The Fatherhood of God
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Jesus revealed that God is Father in unheard of ways. God is Father not only in being Creator; he is eternally Father in relation to his only Son, who is eternally Son only in relation to his Father” (no. 240).
Paternity does not describe the essence of a man – let us call him Steve. Even without begetting children, Steve remains a man. Paternity is added on to his person; therefore it is accidental to his manhood.
God the Father differs from a human father. In relation to his Son, God is eternally and always Father, and then our Father. “It is plain that paternity is applied to God first,” writes St. Thomas. “For in the concept of the person of the Father, God is understood; but not conversely.” ("Summa Theologica", I, 33, 2-3)
This relation takes priority over other realities about God because it is one of unconditional love poured out. All men and women are drawn into this love: “You will understand that I am in my Father, and you in me and I in you” (Jn 14:20). The Father loves Jesus who reciprocates that love. And the love between them is the Spirit, the gift poured out on the world. Relation distinguishes the three Divine Persons – the relation of paternity, filiation and procession. The Father, for example, does have something that the other two do not possess, that is, fatherhood. But at the same time, he is perfectly equal to the other two. Drawn into this Trinitarian love, men and women participate in this pre-eminent model for all relationships.
What Did the Father Mean to Jesus?
When Jesus came on earth, his mission was to reveal God as Father: “No one can come to the Father except through me. If you know me, you know my Father too; to have seen me is to have seen the Father. Do you not believe this (Jn 14; 6, 10)?”
In the Gospels, Jesus speaks the Father’s name no fewer than 170 times, and in the Johannine Gospel, at least 110. When Jesus calls God his Abba (papa), he conveys the reality of an amazing relationship of intimacy, between God and himself, between the Creator and ourselves, and between a father and his family. Jesus chose the Aramaic Abba (papa) because the word was part of the language he spoke (Walter Kasper, "The God of Jesus Christ", 142).
Jesus would often spend the night in prayer to his Father. He thanked his Father and prayed before making decisions. He prayed before performing miracles. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed that his suffering be removed, and if not, then for consolation and courage. On the cross, he prayed to his Father. At various times, the voice of the Father comes from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved, my favor rests on you” (Mk 1:11). This same verse appears virtually unchanged in the other Synoptics.
Today some reject the name Father because it ascribes gender to God. Such language, they say, confirms a patriarchal system that keeps women subservient and prevents them from gender equality. Modern feminism faults a patriarchal culture for developing the doctrine of God the Father’s eternal relationship to God the Son. Accordingly, “the Christian tradition has made the image of God’s fatherhood literal...This tendency favors dominance of male over female onto God’s being, thereby eclipsing women as equal carriers of the divine image” (Catherine Mowry-Lacugna, “Fatherhood of God,” Encyclopedia of Catholicism, 520).
Lacugna admits that Jesus did not refer to God as Amma (mother). However, within this view, doubt remains – a doubt that the words of Jesus, about his Father and to his Father, are insufficient to prove God’s eternal fatherhood because they were interpreted and developed in a patriarchal culture.
The Prodigal Son and the Mothering Father
To this day, the parable of the Prodigal Son remains one of the best-loved of the gospel narratives. In the parable, the father and son are so interior to each other that the father is continually on the look out for his son. He breathes with his son. When the boy does return looking like a wretch, his father immediately calls for a celebration. His love has no limit; it is spontaneous, emotional, nurturing, and unconditional – over the top. He is a mothering Father.
The Disappearing Father
As we believe, so we pray; as we pray, so we believe. Without the fatherhood of God, the Church no longer prays “in the name of the Father” or gives glory to the Father. The Father gives us the Spirit through his Son. Because the Eucharistic sacrifice is addressed to the Father, what happens if the Father is deleted – banished from our liturgical language? Without the Father, how are new Christians made members of the Body of Christ in baptism? Without the Father-Son relation, Christianity collapses.
In conclusion “Father is the origin, point of departure and goal of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. From the Father come blessing, grace, love, mercy, consolation, and joy. For this reason, the Father must be the addressee of prayer, praise, thanksgiving, and petition” (Kasper, 155-6).
We close this essay with an excerpt from St. John of the Cross’s Romanza (no. 9, "In principium erat Verbum") on the love of the three Divine Persons:
And thus the glory of the Son
was the Father’s glory,
and the Father possessed
all his glory in the Son.
As the lover in the beloved
each lived in the other,
and the Love that united them
is one with them,
their equal, excellent as
the One and the Other:
Three Persons, and one Beloved
among all three.
Love that unites them,
for the three have one love
which is their essence;
and the more love is one
the more it is love.