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Grappling with patriarchal language: Father’s Day edition

Grappling with patriarchal language: Father’s Day edition

A good Trinity Sunday to you, and happy Father’s Day from Episcopal Café.

In the Huffington Post, Brian D. “Generous Orthodoxy” McLaren says referring to God as Father, or using “father” language at any rate, is of course shaped by one’s relationship with one’s own father.

Like most Christians, I address God as “our Father in heaven” as Jesus taught in the Lord’s prayer. I’m sure my positive experiences with my dad (86 now and still going strong) make that language and imagery positive and meaningful for me. I don’t think of God as the stern parent, dominating and rigid, commanding obedience, threatening punishment, managing rage. I think of God as the one who places me in a bountiful, joyous world of lakes and ponds and crashing seas, one who swims and surfs with me, one who introduces me to a world of wonders.

I’ve met many people for whom father-imagery evokes little beyond the dread and oppression of patriarchy — either in their personal experience or our common history. In light of the ongoing impact of patriarchy, I understand why father-imagery is problematic for so many people. That’s why (as I describe in the early chapters of my book Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in Twelve Simple Words) I’m all for balancing and integrating paternal images with other images for God — such as God as loving mother (see Isaiah 49:15 and 66:13), God as shepherd (Psalm 23), God as friend (James 2:23), God as gardener (John 15), and so on.

As someone who has grappled for years with how we imagine, name, and relate to God, and as someone who takes the Scriptures seriously even when I’m willing to acknowledge the problems I find there, I have a hunch about the New Testament’s emphasis on paternal imagery for God. Just as we are careful to use maternal imagery to balance and soften the potentially negative dimensions of dominant paternal imagery, paternal imagery was used to balance and soften the potentially negative dimensions of dominant kingly imagery in the time of Jesus.

The family-of-origin stuff is practically self-evident: If you have/had a lousy dad, you might not be inclined to go to that card as easily as others when using language to ascribe characteristics to the divine. Or you may have/had a perfectly fine dad, but have chosen to move on in your expression of such conceptions.

But I’m curious: what do you make of the “balancing and softening” approach?


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Shelley, Rick:

Perhaps he wouldn’t have been seen as silly; but I also think he wouldn’t have been seen as maintaining the Jewish heritage that was his, and in him is ours.

Marshall Scott

rick allen

“Had he used Mother, would have have been viewed as silly?”

Of course not. The worship of the Magna Mater had by then been around for centuries.


My father was less than ideal, and I am less than ideal as a father. My comfort is that I have a father in heaven who is ideal. He knows me better than I know myself and loves me better than I love myself. I find great comfort in that, and, strange as it seems to me, some people find comfort in seeing me as “father.” I don’t insist on being called that, but I don’t resist it either. I do try to inhabit the role of father in a non-patriarchal way, but as I said, I am less than ideal as a father.

Bunker Hill+

Spearfish, SD

Shelley Huston

Given the time, would Jesus have had any option other than Father? Had he used Mother, would he have been viewed as silly?

Paul Woodrum

As St. Paul rightly saith, ‘we see through a glass darkly.’ None of our metaphors embrace the fullness of the mystery of God. At least on Trinity Sunday we acknowledge ‘one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,’ for a whole third of the sermon while God the Son gets most other Sundays for himself and God the Holy Spirit gets her one day.

According to the catechism, Jesus is ‘the only perfect image of the Father, and shows us the nature of God,’ so why can’t we stick with that and forget all the psychological jargon so many want to layer on the faith?

Liturgical observance of maudlin secular days like mothers and fathers day tends to muddy the issue. If they didn’t help fill the pews on a couple more Sundays, I would suggest we just skip them, then duck behind the altar.

As for Father and Mother as priestly titles, when I was young more people called me Father which I found sort of funny but respected their respect. Now that I’m older most just call me Paul. I suspect it has something to do with time, whether my age or the times, I’m not quite sure.

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