So a couple of days ago was Father’s Day, but instead of any of a number of worthwhile meditations on fatherhood that I could offer (there are a lot of them out there, and well worth reading), what struck me was our longstanding, virtually timeless, concept of God as Father. In Christianity, and perhaps in American society in particular, the idea of fatherhood has such strong emotional appeal that the instant draw many people feel for God as Father can sometimes (as I’ve noticed, anyway) seem to leave God’s fatherhood almost taken for granted: a beloved, comforting, and comfortable assumption — as it should be (except for the assumption part) — but still, like any assumption, not thought about.
“What’s to think about?” some people might interject. “God as our Father — that’s wonderful, a blessing, and speaks volumes in and of itself. What else do you need to ask about it?” Well, I think it’s interesting that people have ever looked to God as Father in the first place, that’s what. I mean, it’s not as if that idea originated in the Bible; that Book grew up in ancient Semitic cultures (that is, centered around the Middle East), yet in other equally ancient cultures, God was often seen the same way, as Father. If you will now, buckle in for a little excursion with me into some language history. It’s not too bumpy of a ride.
Most of Europe’s tongues descend from what is called the Proto-Indo-European language (conveniently abbreviated PIE; if that makes you think of dessert, I’d say that’s a perfectly appropriate response), whose homeland around 6000 years ago was probably found around the north sides of the Black and Caspian Seas, a good way north of the Middle East. Yet languages traceable to there saw God (or a god) as Father: the chief Roman god, Jupiter, got his name ultimately from a PIE term dyaus-pater, “god father” (or father god).
So why “father” god? The PIE word for god, dyaus (which also led to Latin deus and Greek Zeus), itself comes from a root meaning “to shine”, and was even a root of the words for “sky” and “day” — so in other words, you’d think it might be natural to suppose that the word for “god” may have started as some kind of reference to the sun as a god. But hold on: there was a different word for the actual sun itself, so even if the literal sun was an inspiration for seeing deity in the heavens, the thought behind dyaus, god, seems to have been something more abstract — that is, perhaps aiming to express a sense of deity beyond the mere physical sun we see in the sky: recognizing the sun, and the daylight it gives in its course through the sky, as perhaps some sort of reflection or expression of a greater power beyond. In later philosophical or spiritual terms, we might put it as a Light greater than the sun in the sky.
So still, why “father”? Since the sky, with its sunlight and rain, as it were embraces Earth and helps give life which Earth produces, it’s not hard to see how that pairing would inevitably suggest the metaphor of “Father Sky” and “Mother Earth” to many peoples. If that sounds maybe a little silly, or even embarrassing, to you, please don’t write it off so quickly; our culture makes it easy for us to do that. Western cultures have historically tended to sniff at ancient, “pagan” religion as just some sort of ignorant stumbling in the dark — but in fact, any belief system starts from an honest best attempt, the most intelligent reasoning, to make sense of the world around you. (It’s not as if ancient peoples sat around a campfire when they were bored, going, “Hey, let’s make up some laughably ignorant stuff, and get people to believe it!”) All religion, in fact, seems to derive from a basic sense that there is something, some force, at work in the universe beyond ourselves, and beyond what we can see. (It’s mainly in what we call more “sophisticated” cultures that we sit around our modern campfires going, “Hey, let’s pretend there’s nothing beyond ourselves or beyond what we can see!”)
So, then what — God only as some cosmic bed partner to Mother Earth? Well, not exactly. It’s true that, as time went on, various cultures (though not all of them) elaborated on their understanding of deity to ascribe all sorts of colorful humanlike traits to God (or the gods), so that for example by the time of classical Greece you had a whole subculture and literature devoted to describing how Zeus, or another deity, engaged in wild, frat-boy-like escapades involving some hapless human or other, or could get peeved over practically nothing and cause all kinds of misery here on Earth. (So maybe it’s no wonder, then, that Greece is one of the places where we first read of philosophies that mostly rolled their eyes at the very concept of the gods: it’s not like most notions of deity, in that culture, were anything that thinking people could take seriously. More recently, religious misrepresentations of God have led to things like Monty Python’s spot-on skewering of the Anglican church.) If you peel back the layers of colorful later additions, though, like coats of paint on a house, you get back to the earlier sense of the divine as watching over, caring for, providing for all life on Earth.
Much as a father does for loved ones in his care. That’s why God as Father. Now, at the same time, I know most readers will realize that a lot of the male-oriented expressions in the Bible come from the male-oriented (and male-dominated) cultures that it was written in — and I’m sure you are also aware that, male language used for God notwithstanding, the Bible regularly pierces through those cultural assumptions to depict God as having distinctly female, motherlike attributes as well. So from a biblical perspective, the concept presented of God as Father really is meant very much to convey, at the same time, God as Mother. When Genesis describes humankind as being created “in God’s image”, the direct context is male and female together (Gen 1.26-27) — so the direct implication, from that almost earliest scene in Scripture, is that it is both female and male characteristics that reflect something of the person of God; the Divine has the protective, nurturing care of both Mother and Father.
God isn’t sexist. When the Bible refers to him as “he”, it’s understood that it also includes “she”, because the Divine transcends all our notions of gender. (In fact, if the biblical languages had a personal pronoun that transcended gender, it’s likely they would have tended to refer to God that way, even though it’s inevitable that their male-dominated societies would have colored those references as well; likewise for English or any other modern language — we just don’t have a personal pronoun that gets beyond gender, and “it” is impersonal. So we often settle for just one of the two available, even though “she” often loses out in our still male-dominated society. I tend to use “he” only for lack of another suitable pronoun for God, and because many readers will be familiar with that; though if I refer to her as “she”, don’t be surprised.) When Scripture refers to God as Father, it really is understood that it also means Mother.
Really, what that imagery is getting at — as we saw earlier anyway — is God the divine as watching over, caring for, providing for. Mostly it’s parents who do that, in the human world; but if you were raised and cared for by someone other than your natural parents, then that is also the image and sense that God wants to convey. God may be Aunt, or Uncle; or Big Sister or Brother who took you in when there was no one else; or anyone else who genuinely provided the care to watch over you. And if there was no one really like that in your life — then God longs to be the first. In countless ways we often don’t suspect, he has been caring for us anyway — with life and breath, giving heartbeats and hope, sometimes against the odds. But one thing God always wants us to grow sure of — Mother, Father, Brother, Aunt, whoever, has always loved you and wants you to know that heart of love beats for you day and night.
Ancient peoples saw the heavens provide warming sunlight, refreshing rain, and the breath of wind to give life to Earth; probably from the time that subtle evolutionary change shaped anatomically modern humans into the human souls that we would recognize today if we spoke with them — from the time we could be spoken of as made “in God’s image” — people sensed there was Someone caring for them, for Earth, far beyond what they could see in the skies. They understood the love of mother and father; they may have sensed that something similar, far greater, nurtured and cared for all life.
That’s why God as Father. As Mother. As endless love for you, as endless as the night heavens spreading to infinity, as the warm earth beneath holding you in her bosom. May they wrap you in that love every night, with that love as a lullaby in your heart as you go to sleep. Sleep well, child, you are forever cared for.
(Post submitted by Featured Blogger, Roger Smith, who also blogs at Roger’s Shrubbery)
About TCL Blog
We’re not about Dogma here. We’re just Christians who think the political and Christian right-wing have their priorities wrong.
Charles Toy is the founding member of The Christian Left. We're sure you will enjoy his passion as well as his wit. Guest bloggers featured often.