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23.6.04

God The Parent -- When We Grow Up

Hugo Schwyzer's recent post on the idea of "God the Father" got me wondering what that metaphor really means. The usual connotation of the term "God the Father" is an idea of benevolent rulership. The parent uses his greater wisdom to look out for the interests of the child, and in return expects obedience and deference. There's certainly an important element of that in the Lord's Prayer -- we ask God to provide our "daily bread," and agree that "thy will be done."

But "child" has two meanings -- "young person" and "descendant." We remain our parents' children in the second sense even after we cease to be children in the first sense. In Biblical society, which was something of a gerontocracy, changing the former didn't necessarily change the latter. A 40-year-old would still be expected to be as deferential to his or her parents as a 4-year-old. But in modern society, that does not seem to be the case. The traditional parent-child model only applies when one party is a child in both senses. As adults, we honor our fathers and mothers by treating them as equals, maintaining a loving relationship without the element of unilateral deference that is appropriate when one party is not deemed fully competent. Indeed, even during childhood, the parents' actions are oriented toward this eventual emergence of the child as a fellow citizen. The well-being that parents foster in their young children includes the skills for independence. Unfortunately, too often the achievement of independence is confused with the dissolution of the parent-child relationship rather than its maturation and a condition of its continuance.

To model the God-person relationship on the relationship of a parent to a young child seems, in the context of our modern system of parenthood, to presume eternal adolescence on the part of the person. I find the alternative -- the idea that we grow to a responsible spiritual indpendence, that God wants to prepare us for not needing to make ourselves totally subservient to his direction -- a more attractive religious concept. It also resonates with a post from a while back (either on Philocrites or the old Right Christians; I can't find the reference right now) about how, far from being literal and infallible, the Bible contains (is meant to contain?) the seeds of its own critique.

Perhaps the idea that "God the Father" is a benevolent patriarch demanding unquestioning obedience (which is his by right and by virtue of his superior knowledge) is not accurate, and that the expression should make us see God in a different light. Or perhaps it means that the expression has become outdated, that our modern experience of the parent-child relationship no longer evokes the correct understanding of God. I also wonder whether the same sort of reconsideration should go on with respect to the idea of "Christ is to the church as the husband is to the wife," given the increasing and desirable egalitarianism of heterosexual marriage.

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