The Edge: The sacred cow of the fatherhood of God – by Roxy Gahegan

Roxy is the chaplain at St. Cuthbert’s college in central Auckland.  

At the Presbyterian schools conference in August I heard a presentation by the Right Reverend Ray Coster as a White Ribbon ambassador. He spoke eloquently with a thoughtful and wide ranging approach to the issue of domestic violence. He recognised that this issue is essentially about inequality between men and women; that it is overwhelmingly men who have a problem and women who suffer for it.  And he recognised the part that major religious traditions – including the Christian church – have had in perpetrating and protecting the man’s desire for and sense of entitlement to power and control over women and children.  This is not news, but it is always deeply disturbing to hear.

There were many positive signs of change offered and positive suggestions made as to how we in our schools of special character can support the formation of boys and girls who, aware of the issues, are moved to act to bring change.  But one area which we cannot seem to touch, one area we seem to protect and vigorously defend is the language and images we ascribe to God.

Everything we say about God is only ever partial, limited, and incomplete.  Everything we say is a metaphor and signpost pointing to the One who is beyond our words, beyond our full understanding.  We are willing to recognise this at an intellectual level.  But then we insist that God is Father.  Not Mother.  We insist that God is he and not she.  Can we really imagine our own equality as men and women made in the image of God if we cannot allow that God is as much Mother as Father?

As Father’s Day approaches, I have been reflecting on how children begin to imagine God as a super version of their parents – at first, usually the characteristics of both parents rolled into an upsized version, but our language offers them only a heavenly Father, and so God is imagined less and less with mother-like qualities.  God becomes firmly male.

In the past, this would make me angry. But now I just feel deep compassion for the burden placed on every father’s shoulders – a burden of imaging God for our children that our language keeps firmly in place and won’t allow to be shared.  And I feel compassion for all those who cannot find a bridge of trust to the Father God, because of the relationship with their own father.

I wonder what it is we are really scared might happen if we expand our vocabulary.
I wonder what it is we resist when we quickly justify the limitations of our language.
I wonder if we will always be the last ones to see what is clear to those who stand outside of our traditions.

God loves us, and so we need language and images for God that let us move and grow into a relationship of love, trust, and deepening intimacy with God.  We need metaphors and symbols that affirm the wholeness of human being and that offer us the broadest reflection of the wholeness of God’s being – which ought to be at least as broad as our shared experience.

Don’t you think?

3 thoughts on “The Edge: The sacred cow of the fatherhood of God – by Roxy Gahegan

  1. I find it interesting that not enough people have endeavoured to unpack what is meant by Jesus calling God his ‘father’. For Jesus, to call God father was surely akin to speaking in parables? What did Jesus’ listeners ‘hear’ when he referred to God as ‘father’? What was so important about the father figure in Jesus’ context that was important for those listening to attribute the same attributes to God?

    In my humble opinion, the gendering of Jesus’ use of ‘father’ has blinded the message Jesus was teaching. Jesus wasn’t calling God ‘father’ as opposed to ‘mother’. Rather, Jesus was calling God ‘father’ because of the role God plays, or can play, in people’s lives. Perhaps taking this line of thought will help us in teaching the purpose of Jesus message not just the subject.

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  2. Roxy provides a healthy reminder. I like the statement from a subordinate standard of the Presbyterian Church, the Directory for Worship (1995): “Diverse Language: The Church shall strive in its worship to use language about God which is intentionally as diverse and varied as the Bible and our theological traditions. The Church is committed to using language in such a way that all members of the community of faith may recognise themselves to be included, addressed, and equally cherished before God. Seeking to bear witness to the whole world, the Church shall use language which is faithful to biblical truth and which does not exclude people because of gender, colour, or other circumstance in life.”

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  3. I believe the greater issue of our day is confused/messed up identity. It is there that we begin with our teaching and pastoral work with folk and pointing them to their true identity in Jesus Christ. Changing our Scriptural references of ‘Father’, will not help people find this, but I believe, continue the confusion.
    There is something about seeing God as ‘Father’ that is incredibly important to get right in our belief system and God works all things in our lives to ensure we do. Though there may be much pain from our earthly ‘father’ examples (and 70% of the identity of a young women is shaped by the father figure or lack of), in the end God turns it for good in His incredible ways, as He works change in us by ‘contrast’.
    One of the most wonderful revelations of the heart of God’s Agape love toward us, is in reading 1 Corinthians 13, and wherever you read the word ‘love’ put the word ‘God’. I have to see that He is all of that to me, before I can truly love others; e.g. “God is patient, God is kind, God is not envious…etc”

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