The ancient world – and indeed the modern, until fairly recent times – tended to see the child only as an incomplete adult; children, someone said, are a recent discovery.  It is normal enough for Christians to refer to themselves as God’s “children” (even when they are in advanced old age), and some saints made a special point of it: one thinks of St Thérèse of Lisieux and her way of "spiritual childhood."   This emphasis was known before her time, of course, but it tended to fix on the miseries and humiliations of childhood, while she emphasised instead simplicity, joy and affection.

Today, we lean to the opposite extreme from the ancient world, without always catching very much of what St Thérèse had in mind.   We tend to glorify and romanticise childhood in a way that suggests a lack of meaning and direction in adult life rather than any wise appreciation of childhood.  Parents, in our age, are losing confidence in themselves as parents.  Particularly fathers. 

Fathers are fading out of the world.  Many of them are becoming invisible in their families: they leave home for work before the children are awake, and they return after these have gone back to bed.  Unless they take special pains they may seldom even see their children.  In addition there is a habit in popular psychology of blaming parents generally, and fathers in particular, for everything that is wrong in one’s life.  There are even cartoons that habitually show fathers as rather stupid, absurd and inept figures.

Some writers take for granted that no one could relate meaningfully to God as Father any more, because this word, they say, connotes only authority and power.  For people, male or female, who had a good relationship with their fathers, this will always sound peculiar, despite every effort of imagination; it is other people’s stuff, like shoes that are not your own size.  Though I was an adult, when my father died I thought the world had ended.  I hope I am not mistaken in thinking that this is normal.  Let’s not be persuaded by any writer to take the abnormal and the failed relationship for normal. 

But what if you have had an unhappy relationship, or none much at all, with your father? 

In that case, consider the following thought.  To call God ‘Father’ is to go beyond human fatherhood; “call no one on earth your father; you have only one father, who is in heaven” (Matt 23).  Jesus had no human father, his only Father was God.  This becomes true of us too, in a sense: to call God ‘Father’ is to say that our life in Christ is such a new kind of life that God alone can be its Father.  This effectively sets aside all patriarchal structures.  “Do not presume to tell yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ because, I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matt 3).  These must be among the most subversive words ever uttered: they are a ringing assertion of the supremacy of God and of the vertical relationship to God.  But with the passing of time horizontal structures try again and again to take precedence; the patriarchal chief priests, the scribes and the Pharisees are always waiting in the wings, waiting for any weakening of prophecy, waiting to step in and take over.  Far from being patriarchal, it is prophetic to call God your Father. 
It is important to know what you are not saying: you are not saying that God is like your human father.  And even if your father looked like God to you, God would still not be like your father.  God is not an instance of fatherhood.  Our relationship to God is not symmetrical: let me explain what I mean.  I can stand or the right or on the left-hand side of the tree, and while that makes a difference to me it makes no difference to the tree; we have an asymmetrical relationship.  Likewise God is not related to us in the way we are related to God.  It has been said, and it is still repeated like an axiom, though it is illogical, that if God is male then the male is God.  This is not how religious language works.  Our names for God are names for the unknown: they are like a finger pointing to a horizon, and not like a finger pointing to an object.  There is no object that might point back, making the relationship symmetrical; God is not an object, God is transcendental. 

But doesn't all this help to fade fathers out even more? 

I don't think so.  An unloving father does not make it impossible for you to think of God as Father, but a loving human father makes it easier.  Like all created things, human fatherhood can be (at its best) an image of the divine, a vestige, a pointer beyond itself.  And by the way, fatherhood is not the same as maleness: there are many males who are not fathers.  Maleness is a characteristic of an individual, but fatherhood is a relationship.  Perhaps because of this distinction I feel comfortable calling God ‘Father’, but not ‘he’ or ‘him’.  It is this relationship, not a whole package-deal of maleness, that is used by Christians as a metaphor for God. 

If your relationship with your father is so damaged that in practice it cannot work as a pointer to God, then take some other human relationship that will serve better.  Every human relationship, Julian of Norwich implied, can open out to God: “I saw that God rejoices that he is our Father, God rejoices too that he is our Mother, and God rejoices that he is our true Spouse and that our soul is his beloved wife.”  She travels farther along this line than any feminist of our own time.  “Christ rejoices that he is our Brother,” she wrote, “and Jesus rejoices that he is our Saviour....The fair lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone nor to anyone except of him and to him who is true Mother of life and of all.”  This remarkable freedom with ‘gender’ is not a manoeuvre in a war of the sexes, rather it is a profoundly theological point.  She is not saying that Jesus is like your mother.  She is saying the reverse of this: your mother, at her best, is like Jesus.  He is the incarnation of God’s wisdom (“she who knows and understands all things”) and like a mother he feeds us with his own body.  Julian has as little trouble in calling Jesus Mother as in calling God Father. 

God rejoices, she said, and Jesus rejoices: it seems to me that Julian herself is rejoicing in a vivid theological imagination that gives her immense freedom.  Oh for a piece of it! 

Donagh O’Shea



These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.