The Radical Fatherhood of God

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Perhaps the chief contribution of St. Thérèse to the understanding of the Church is the radical understanding of the Fatherhood of God. I use "radical" in its etymological fullness. The Fatherhood of God is the Radix or root of how He wishes us to approach and understand him. This became clear to me while reading a passage of a book by Vernon Johnson titled Spiritual Childhood. I paraphrase the passage that affected me. Johnson wrote that when Jesus taught the disciples how to pray, he did not start with "Oh Invisible Creator of the Universe," "Oh King of all that is and ever will be," "Oh majesty ineluctable and unknowable by man." Rather He started with "Our Father."

We know this. We pray it every day. We pray it so much, in fact, that it has become threadbare and nearly meaningless. More than that, many of us have enough problems with the Earthly image of Father that having another Father isn't particularly appealing. And yet, this is how God wishes to be known first. He wants us to understand that He is our Father. He is the one who gives everything to protect us. He is the one who nurtures us and encourages us in the expression of His gifts to us. He delights in our triumphs, he sorrows in our failures and our rebellions. He chastises as all good fathers must do if they hope to help the child succeed in the world. Only the world He wants us to succeed in is not this material realm, but the world that comes next, for which this is the training ground.

Why does it matter that we understand God as Father first? Primarily because all other understanding stems from that. He is all of the other titles listed above and more, but all of that reality only makes sense when it is seen in light of the root understanding God as Father. In other words, God as King can be daunting, terrifying, unnerving. Approaching the throne-room of a king is not a prospect pleasing to most peasants. However, when that throne-room is Daddy's office, the prospect is much less daunting. Yes, He still commands our respect and our awe (the fear from which proceeds all wisdom) just as when we were very little children our fathers commanded our attention and respect and sometimes awe. But above all these other mingled emotions is our love. When God is Father first, our first reaction to Him is the seemingly limitless love that a child feels for his father and mother. That why Father is root. We are to approach Him as a "little child." Not as a rebellious teenager, not as a mature adult, but as a little child, one for whom trust has not been eroded away--one for whom love is still a reality. We need to return to the place when God dwells within and come out renewed, ready to love and to accept Our Father.

Thus, in Thérèse's little way, we must first understand and encounter God as father, and we must reify that. In other words, this is not an intellectual understanding or a game with words. The reason the family is so fundamentally important in the life of the Church is that it gives us both a glimpse of the life of the Trinity AND it gives us the experience to understand the truths of the Bible. Without experience of Father, it becomes very difficult to relate to God in the way He most desires. One of the great horrors of divorce is that often the rift in the family means that there is no real understanding for young children of the nature of Father.

God is Father first. He wants our love as Father. He wants our trust as Father. He wants our acceptance and unstinting love. He wants our unconditional love.

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All very true. Now if you can figure out how to fold in God is Son and God is Holy Spirit, I'd appreciate it.

And I don't mean to sound dismissive or to be treating your post too lightly. I think it's as hard as it is important for Catholics to be consciously Trinitarian. Obviously, relating to the Father as a Father is essential for this.

Dear Tom,

Thank you for the suggestion. I will have to think about it, but your suggestion caused about a million ideas to sprout in my head all at once; because once we understand God as Father, it seems that the Trinitarian sense falls out from that. But I could be wrong, and I haven't considered it carefully. So I will do so. Thank you again.



One way may be suggested by the Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes. Rev. Fiddes writes first about the Trinity,

"(I suggest that we should) think of the 'persons' in God as not simply formed by their relations, but as being the relations themselves. The relations do not simply make the hypostases what they are, but are themselves hypostatic. The term 'hypostasis' as used by the Church fathers indicates distinct identity and particularity of being, and so to equate relationships with hypostases is to affirm that the relationships are three identities in God and are more being-full than anything in created reality. This idea was already hinted at by Augustine when he declared that 'the names, Father and Son do not refer to the substance but to the relation, and the relation is no accident.'"

This means that "talk of the triune God changes from being a language of observation to one of participation, helping us to overcome the split between subject and object that has been a regrettable inheritance of Enlightenment rationalism. For of course it is not possible to visualise, paint or etch in glass three interweaving 'relationships' without any personal agents who exercise them. We cannot 'see', even in our mind's eye, three movements of being which are characterised by relationship. This kind of talk only makes sense in terms of our involvement in the network of relationships in which God happens."

This means that we encounter God as Father by addressing God as Father, but that address immediately places us within a movement of relationship: we approach God like the Son approaches the Father to participate in the Father's sending forth of the Son, which, in its depths and possibilities, is like the "movement of Spirit coming from a Father and breathed out into us through the Son."

The worth of addressing God as Father is that a Father - unlike an "invisible Creator" or even a "king" - cannot be understood outside of a movement of relationships. To be a Father, one simply needs a Son. Thus, God as Father cannot be understood abstractly, without a loving participation in this movement of relationships. God as Father must be Triune.


I've tended to see God more as Father than as Trinity, to my great detriment. Our pastor recently pointed this out: "unless you see God as a relational God, you will not understand that we are most human when we are relational, since we are made in the image and likeness of God".

Dear T.S.,

But you can't understand a relational God until you've got the pieces down right. And for a great many American men, God as Father poses a much greater difficulty than the othr two persons of the Trinity. It is my prayer that I do not create the same problem for Samuel that my father created for me.

Thus Therese internalizes the Trinity through reflection on the person of the Father. I'll get to that later. However, I think living with the notion of Father for a while is a good thing, and it still makes God a relational God, you just aren't talking about the relations within the God-head.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 17, 2003 7:58 AM.

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