On being Father

At the moment, fatherhood seems to be out of favour at all levels: from God the Creator bringing light out of darkness, creating the world with His Word - through the ‘patriarchal’ ordering of the roles of men and women in the world (which according to feminism almost universally privileges the men) - to the questioning of any distinctive role for men in the parenting process which all too often seems to leave the father in the position of ‘parent, second class’. We would like readers of the St Peter’s Nottingham Magazine - and interactive visitors to the Claves Regni site - to comment on any of these impressions (which might just as easily have been put in the form of questions) from the perspective of their understanding and practice of Christianity.

Father Creator

In so much of the broadsheet press we find, in effect, that the image of an old man with a white beard presiding over the collective imagination and governing the assumptions of feature writers, commentators, reviewers, even leader-writers, is that of Charles Darwin - not ‘the old man in the sky’. It now tends to be assumed without argument in such contexts that ‘God is dead’ - that without any evidence of a divine origin, or (even more crucially) of a divine design underlying the material world, there can be no God exterior to the human mind, while claims that there is (nevertheless) a God within are easily sidelined. If we are still convinced that we can meaningfully think of God as Creator, how can we justify our confidence to anybody not sharing our faith? And when we seek to do so, which word will it help to use (literally or metaphorically): ‘Father’ or ‘Mother’?

Father Parent

And how, if we do still acknowledge the First Person of the Trinity, do we think of his attributes: Justice and Mercy, Rightwiseness and Peace? The New Testament identifies Christians as those who address God as ‘Daddy’ - in the confidence that his longsuffering and love are much more central to our relationship with him than a rule book and a chastising rod. This may point to a workable model (and a real basis for equality with the mother) in the role of a human father. The father who, while he sees the strengths and weaknesses of his children, does not force his will on them or seek to live at second-hand through their achievements, but who remains in intuitive contact and knows the right time to speak, when to warn and when to console, may similarly exercise a creative role in the emergence of a free individual. But is that role distinctively masculine? And - if he is to be thought of and loved as a father - does God (on the evidence) seem to measure up to that model of creative longsuffering? If, despite his love and patience he seems to let chaos, evil and suffering run rampant, we might begin to want him to exercise those other attributes! Finally, what about St Joseph as a model for fatherhood?

The Divine Father

Milton has a picture of God the Father looking down at the newly created universe ‘His own works and their works at once to view’. This implies a difference between knowing everything about His creation, and controlling everything to which it, in its turn, gives rise (especially the unconstrained choices exercised by conscious and rational beings, such as men and women):- though if omnipotence is taken seriously it must involve God’s assumption of control over the consequences of such actions, for example, in making evil intentions conduce to good results. Milton’s God also invites Adam to imagine what it might be like to be in His position: ‘Seem I to thee sufficiently possessed of happiness, or not... who am alone from all eternity, for none I know second to me or like, equal much less[?]’ In such a position, who can He find to talk to, or relate to, except ‘the creatures which I made’? Perhaps, though, the supreme experience of creativity, joy and fulfilled love for such a Being, within such a relationship, would be to hear the ‘new song’ sung - and composed - by every created consciousness, in its response to the command or invitation voiced in Psalm 149. A new song (though it may be a song of renewal or restoration) suggests something really different, and having all the force of difference even if foreseen. A splendidly extreme form of this is found in the story of the learned rabbi who appeals to God to endorse his interpretation of a passage in Scripture, against the opinion of all his fellow scholars. God, indeed, thunders in confirmation but the majority persist in their view - and consequently somebody, in a vision, sees God’s reaction, which is to laugh delightedly, saying (over and over again) ‘My children have overruled me!’

The Human Father

Thinking of the human relationship of father and child, whether or not this bears on our relationship with God as Father, I am struck by the difference between the mother and the father in David Hockney’s painting of his parents- now in the Tate Modern. The older couple are sitting rather uncomfortably on two spartan, folding white-wood chairs. The mother looks straight towards her son at his easel, while the father, formally suited like an elder but with his heels off the floor like a child just settling into school, pores over an art book - which can probably be identified, though I don’t know whether it’s a publication of Hockney’s paintings or of some other work. Either way, it’s as if his father is saying to himself ‘I’d better see what this son of mine is up to’. It would not be wise to assert too strongly that this characterises the difference between maternal and paternal love - i.e. to suggest that the mother’s emotion and commitment centre on the physical tie, expressed here in her eye-to-eye contact with the painter, while the father’s feelings must be founded imaginatively and intellectually (here, through the effort to understand). But the father who has not borne the child into the world does need to affirm a bond of similar strength, valid and sustaining in its own way. By understanding he can either advise the child, or learn from the child and be renewed in his own childlikeness - whether he aids the child’s sense of identity, or comes to accept the extension or modification of his own.

If you look very closely at Hockney’s painting you’ll see reflected in the mirror on the studio wall, a reproduction of Piero della Francesca’s ‘Baptism of Christ’ - in which, through the descent of the Spirit, the Father identifies and affirms his Son. It might be argued that the painting shows us a human trinity, as a supplanter of the Holy Trinity - or that it sees them both as reflections of each other.

Robert Cockcroft

© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 4th June 2000