Dad for Russell essay

Father is a complex metaphor for God

Our Faith

While recent decades have seen feminine images of God spread even to mainstream media like Time magazine, our image of God the Father has remained, well, patriarchal. 

I was recently surprised by a conversation among my ministry students over the word punishment as it relates to God.  A couple of the students felt very strongly that “punishment,” at least the threat of punishment, is an important component of our relationship to God. They connected this idea to the image of God as a disciplinarian Father, an image shared by both pre- and post-Vatican II Catholics in my class.

Our image of God the Father has not kept pace with our changing understanding of parenthood. While today’s society emphasizes the importance of fathers as nurturers and caregivers, leading fathers to fight for paternity leave and custody rights, God the Father is still the strict disciplinarian, doling out punishment, or at least the threat of punishment, to keep us in line. This weekend, as we celebrate Father’s Day, perhaps it’s time to rethink this metaphor.

Recent literature in positive and attachment parenting shows that conversion, growth, and transformation do not come about because parents punish their children.

“Wait until your father gets home…” with its implied threat of wrath and dire punishment, is no longer the parenting norm. Research shows that physical punishment is ineffective at best and harmful at worst. Corporal punishment is more likely to teach children to react to conflict with violence rather than teach them sound conflict resolution skills. Even “time-outs” are quickly becoming a thing of the past, replaced with the more relationship-oriented “time-ins.”

Neuroscience and the interdisciplinary field of neurobiology are teaching us that children’s brains develop best through connection and love. Science confirms what many intuit and what the Bible teaches us—we learn to be loving by being loved. We become better people—more moral, more empathetic, more kind—through being nurtured than by being punished.

In his book, The Healing Power of Emotion (W.W. Norton), Dr. Daniel Siegel explains that being loved makes us feel safe and seen. When we feel seen, we experience being real, being connected, and feeling felt. When we do not experience being loved, he goes on to explain, we tend to feel unsafe and become closed off, guarded, isolated, and alone. Punishment or the threat of punishment leads one to feel unloved and unsafe. 

For many people, the ultimate threat of a Father God’s punishment is the image of hell, often thought of as a fiery torment (eternal corporal punishment) or the absence of God (eternal time-out). 

In his article, “Concerning the Relationship between Nature and Grace,” theologian Karl Rahner suggests that hell is not the absence of God, but rather the presence of God. “Even one of the damned, who has turned away from this Love and made himself incapable of receiving this Love, must still be really able to experience this Love (which being scorned now burns like fire) as that to which he is ordained in the ground of his concrete being,” he writes.

Hell, for Rahner, is not the absence of God or torment by God. Hell is experiencing God’s love and being unwilling to accept it. Rahner also suggests that we don’t come to an awareness of our own sinfulness because a minister threatens us with fire and brimstone. Rather, we come to an awareness of our short-comings, sinfulness, and stinginess with our own love when we encounter the abyss of unconditional Love that we name God, or Father. 

The title of Father has a privileged place in the Christian tradition because of its use by Jesus, its enshrinement in scripture, and its ongoing place in our tradition. The recent decades of feminist scholarship have greatly expanded our image of God, breaking us free of the idolatry of relying on a single title for God, but Father also needs to be reclaimed, allowing our contemporary understanding of positive parenthood to restore Christ’s loving Abba. 

As Daniel Siegel frequently reminds readers, the root of discipline is disciple. The heart of parenting is teaching, not punishing. The image of God the Father who teaches and transforms through connection can be an image that supports and encourages fathers everywhere to connect to their children and “disciple” them to be their best selves.

To be sure, every exasperated parent undoubtedly still resorts to threats from time to time, and our tradition does hold those biblical images, no doubt drawn from our own human experience, of God threatening God’s own child, Israel. But like that same exasperated parent, the God of those narratives ultimately looks with love upon that child and bestows mercy and loving-kindness, calling for Israel to become more and be better through imitation of that love.

As we celebrate fathers and the transformation of fatherhood, perhaps we can spread the good news that the Abba of Jesus is not the “wait until your father gets home” figure, but rather unconditional Love who calls us to be loving, empathic, and compassionate human beings, not through fear, but rather by casting out all fear through love.

About the author

Heidi Russell

Heidi Russell, Ph.D., is on the faculty at the Institute of Pastoral Studies, Loyola University Chicago and a fellow in the Public Voices OpEd Project. She is the author of the books Quantum Shift (Michael Glazier) and The Source of All Love (Orbis).

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