[Jesus] answered, ‘When you pray, say, “Father, …”’ Luke 11 v2 (other manuscripts read ‘Our Father in heaven …’)
Given the centrality of God-as-Father in his teaching, it’s hard not to speculate about Jesus’s own experience of being parented by a man. Because we often take for granted what is satisfactory in our lives, I rather suspect that the young Jesus’s father was absent in some sense, leaving him having to re-create an idea, an ideal, of fatherhood from within himself, based on his observations of other people’s fathers. It’s a much longer shot to suggest that maybe the absence of his father fed into the story of his mother’s virginity and his alleged divine paternity. But before saying more about Jesus’s God-as-father teaching, I want to clear away any misunderstanding of the place of motherhood in Jesus’s thinking. When we see a new baby, we exclaim hopefully, ‘So like the father!’, as we try to reassure ourselves that who we think is the father really is the father; after all, until DNA testing came along only one person at most could be absolutely sure. The ancient world in which Jesus lived took this concern to what we now see as the absurd length of believing that all a child’s significant characteristics were inherited from its father; the mother only provided the physical material and nurture. In any case, the earlier image of God as King had established divinity as distinctively male in Jewish thought; for Jesus to have spoken of God as Mother would have seemed in his day more bizarre than revolutionary. Which is not to say that we might not usefully pursue that idea on another occasion.
Jesus’s God-as-father theology has enormous implications for our idea of how we relate to divinity and indeed for what divinity means, implications that become clearer when we contrast it with the earlier God-as-king theology which it attempted to displace. Our connection with our fathers is inescapable; while we might leave the territory of a king, we cannot leave our genes behind. Whether or not we know who our fathers are, whether or not our lives are like theirs, we are and will always be their children. To say that God is our father rather than our king is to make a powerful assertion about who we are in our deepest, essential nature. It is to say that, just as there is that of our father in each of us, there is that of God in every person; it is to say something about what marks us out as human as distinct from some other species with a different descent. And, as with the new baby, it’s worth trying to see the traces of that essential inheritance in the people we meet.
Jesus referred his hearers to how the ordinary good-enough fathers they knew treated their children in order to learn how he viewed God’s relationship with us. I doubt whether ordinary good-enough fathers are all that different today from what they were then. A good-enough father cares about his children, not just because they are his investment in the future but because it is interesting to him to see how each child will express his or her inheritance in a unique way; this is quite different from a king’s interest in his subjects. Of course a father has to set down rules for his children, but this is not his principal relationship with them; he is a love-giver before he is a law-giver. And since the principal purpose of the rules is to help the child grow up to be a happy, makarios, fulfilled individual, they may sometimes be bent or broken if that is how that greater end might best be served. The rigidity of the king’s law is inappropriate here.
We always have to be careful about taking any image further than its originator intended. But then it is sometimes the case that images have a life of their own, that they not only express an idea that was already in the originator’s mind, but become a tool for taking that thinking further. A human father knows he will have failed in his task as a father if his surviving children do not grow though adolescence and establish themselves as independent adults like him. He may realise that he will have failed too if his children can only express their independence of him by trying to reject their paternity and inheritance. And he knows that he will die and plans for his children to outlive and to succeed him. Fatherhood is not like kingship – ‘The king is dead; long live the king’. I doubt if Jesus conceived of the idea that God might one day be dead, but at the very least his followers who had taken his God-as-father theology seriously ought not to have been so outraged by theologians of the ‘God-is-Dead’ school that they could not see it as having been suggested in Jesus’s own teaching.
But perhaps they couldn’t do that because Jesus’s effort to break away from the God-as-king theology, if it wasn’t a complete failure, was at least not a complete success. His God-as-father teaching was side-lined by the historic church. While always teaching the faithful to pray the Our Father, the fatherhood of God was nevertheless effectively confined to Jesus himself, reinforcing the story of his virgin birth. A church that in both western and eastern Europe modelled its organisation, buildings and rituals on those of the old Roman empire represented God the Father of Jesus as a celestial emperor, as can be so clearly seen in mediaeval religious paintings. This was a result of focusing on Jesus’s status instead of giving his teaching the attention it deserved. A church that grasped that monarchy has long passed its prime as a form of government would realise that it needs to wholeheartedly adopt the God-as-father teaching and its many implications if it is to have anything useful to say. We would not only understand Jesus’s teaching a lot better but would greatly enrich our understanding of ourselves and of what role religion might usefully play in our lives if we were to think hard about what his God-as-father theology implies.