It’s complicated: Father’s Day and descriptions of God
The language we use matters in how we talk about God.
Rev. Michael Woolf
June 17, 2020
There is nothing that will make you more aware of your own behavior than being a parent. As the father of a lively two-year-old, I have had the pleasure of teaching my child how to walk, how to build Legos taller than she is, and how to put on her shoes. I have also had her repeat a swear word to me seconds after I uttered a hasty exclamation of frustration. Having to explain that sometimes Dad says things that you can’t drove home for me just how closely my behavior is being watched and replicated. Parents of all stripes know this feeling of observation well, and we also know that we make plenty of mistakes. Fathers are not perfect, and many mistakes are made on the path of love.
There are many ways that God’s designation as Father map onto the experience of being a parent. Perhaps God felt pressure, too, and perhaps the Divine felt pride. One of my favorite Christmas songs, “It’s True” by Sara Groves talks about the star of Bethlehem in tender terms: “God put it there when his baby son was born, to be like a spotlight shining on him…You see God was like a new dad, he couldn’t keep the good news to himself.” The sense of anticipation in Jesus’ birth story and the bright celebration of God certainly resonate with my experience of fatherhood.
But there are other ways that the term Father does not map onto our experience of God. For one, many folks in our society do not have positive connotations of fatherhood. Whether that’s due to abuse, neglect, emotional distance, or the lack of a father in people’s lives, fatherhood carries diverse connotations and not all of them are good. Likewise, the type of fatherhood mentioned with regard to God does not have all the myriad failures that attend our earthly experience of fatherhood. The Divine does not err in the same ways that we do.
What Father’s Day should do for people of faith is open up space for us to consider the ways that earthly fatherhood does and does not map onto our experience of God. There will undoubtedly be points of slippage between our experiences of being fathered or being fathers and our experience of God’s love. For those for whom there is much distance between their personal experience and the term Father, I would invite them to find and use different terms for God.
Moreover, there are plenty of ways that the Divine acts in what are traditionally thought of as motherly ways. In Job 38:29, we are invited to imagine a God that gives birth to the ice. In Luke 13:34, Jesus longs to gather the residents of Jerusalem under his wings like a mother hen. The authors of Scripture used both genders to describe God’s loving action in the world, However, Scripture also affirms that God is Spirit, and the Divine has always been beyond the binaries we associate with gender, transcending them and giving us new opportunities to reflect on our gendered existence. Gendered language is used to give human beings grounding for their conceptions of God, but it has made experiencing God’s love difficult for some.
What Father’s Day should do for people of faith is open up space for us to consider the ways that earthly fatherhood does and does not map onto our experience of God. There will undoubtedly be points of slippage between our experiences of being fathered or being fathers and our experience of God’s love. For those for whom there is much distance between their personal experience and the term Father, I would invite them to find and use different terms for God. In prayers, I often use Parent, and when I do choose a gender, it is often that of Mother God.
One thing we can be sure of is that God will not be jealous over what pronouns and titles we use for the Divine. These are all matters of poetics, put in place for human beings to make emotional connections to Divine. Scripture encourages us to learn by metaphor and analogy how to love God and love one another. That invitation is an ancient one that we should employ in our daily lives.
On this Father’s Day, perhaps you find yourself reaching for more masculine notions of God. That too, is perfectly acceptable, so long as you realize that there is much more to the Divine than those masculine aspects. My hope is that Father’s Day will open up a space to consider the ways that our lived experience does and does not do justice to the Divine’s presence in our lives.
The Rev. Michael Woolf is senior minister, Lake Street Church of Evanston, Illinois and a ThD candidate at Harvard University.