An old friend of mine, Doug Hammack, recently asked the question, “Is God really ‘Our Father Who Art in Heaven?'” He then went on to answer the question saying:
“If so, he’s pretty bad at it. What father lets this $#!% happen to kids? Or maybe, ‘father’ is an imperfect metaphor that can only stretch so far before it breaks. Everything we ‘know’ about God…can only BE a metaphor, and there is no ‘right’ one. Get stuck on one, and it’s easy to confuse the metaphor for reality. Consider this one: “the Ground of Being.” A soil image invites us to imagine ourselves rooted in the Divine, always drawing life, always drawing strength.”
Now, I did my master’s thesis in seminary on the role of metaphor in the biblical text, and I have a profound appreciation for the nature of metaphorical and figurative language, notably the metaphorical language employed throughout scripture. And while I can find no reason for accepting Doug’s unsubstantiated assertion that, “Everything we know about God . . . can only BE a metaphor”, the issue he raises about the fatherhood of God is, none the less, a crucial one. So, on this Father’s Day, I would like us to think through the question, “Is God really our Father?”, as well as the assertion “If so, he is pretty bad at it.”
The problem with both God and fathers, or God as Father, is that fathers can disappoint us – think Job and his terrible suffering. Another problem with fathers is that they can abandon us – think Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Unfortunately, the problem with fathers who, “let’s shit happen to (their) kids” does not go away by simply erasing the designation, “father.” It is only by summoning the courage to sit with the powerful and often painful range of emotions that attend the word, “father”, that we discover what is really at stake here in this conversation about God as Father. The god who is the “ground of being” is clearly a safer and more “organic” choice” than “father”, but as the saying goes “be careful what you wish for” and C.S. Lewis warns, there are consequences to playing it safe with our hearts:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal . . . it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” C.S. Lewis – The Four Loves
With a “ground of being”, there is certainly no danger of having our hearts broken, for while, unlike a father, a “ground of being” will never hurt you; it is also unlike a “father” in that it can never love you! We have arrived at the heart of the issue – the issue is about the inherent dangers that come with loving another living person, such as a father or as Jesus says, “Our Father.”
Furthermore, no degree of theological “footwork” will enable us to mitigate the pain, reduce the vulnerability or avoid further heartache when it comes to our relationships with our fathers, including, “Our Father Who Art In Heaven.” Simply exchanging the familial, “Our Father”, for a sterile, impersonal designation such as, “force” or “ground of our being” is a text-book case of denial and emotional suppression. My earthly father does not cease to be my father simply because I am disappointed with him. And in the same way, God is our Father, not because we understand or approve of everything that he does or does not do in our lives and in this world.
The answer to the question concerning God’s true image and identity lies beyond our theological speculation and word play. Our knowledge of God, like all relationships, comes down to vulnerability, disclosure, and trust. As I shared last week in, TO AN UNKOWN GOD,
“When scripture says, ‘He (Jesus Christ) is the visible image of the invisible God’ (Col.1:15), it means that we no longer need to guess or fear what God is really like. Christ himself tells us, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (Jn 14:9). For as Baxter Kruger says, “There is no god hiding behind the back of Jesus Christ.” We can only know another person if they choose to disclose themselves to us. The good news is that Jesus put a face on the “unknown god” when he revealed to us the heart of “Our Father who art in heaven.” Happy Father’s Day!