My Church Won’t Let Me Call the Divine “Father” by Trelawney Grenfell-Muir


I had a startling experience in church recently. It was Father’s Day, and the pastor was talking about how “God is our heavenly Father.” For the first time in 17 years, that idea held some appeal to me. But no sooner did the thought enter my mind, then it was ripped away by the realization that my church will never allow me to symbolize the divine as a “father.”

I grew up with “God the Father” language saturating my churches. I also grew up with a rageful, unsafe, sometimes abusive father, who was also wonderful, empowering, and feminist in many ways. Seventeen years ago, I attended my first seminary lecture on the topic of Feminist Theology. That day changed my life, as did my exposure to feminist theology throughout seminary and at a queer Methodist congregation. My journey took me through more scholarship and liturgy, jobs as chaplain or as assistant pastor struggling to convince my communities that sexism matters, parenting young daughters who lament their own subconscious male divine programming, and finding a prophetic call to speak, write, and sing the Female Divine.

My father and I remained in a loving but sometimes conflictual relationship, and as he grew older and more infirm, his supportive pride in my feminism grew increasingly free and joyful. His long decline this past spring, and his death in hospice care, gave the two of us a sacred, priceless opportunity to heal whatever strife remained between us. When he journeyed on to become a beloved ancestor, what remained with me — what remains ever since — is a powerful, tangible connectedness with the ideal father I always wanted him to be. His ancestral presence in my life now is pure love, gentle wisdom, unconditional embrace, and joyful peace. As Tallessyn Grenfell-Lee described recently, my relationship with my beloved ancestors liberates, shapes, and heals my understanding of the divine.

So on Father’s Day, with this new, healed experience of paternal relationality, I suddenly found myself realizing that the idea of “father” as a symbol for the divine attracts me in new ways. My relationship with my father’s angelic, ancestral presence – full of the creative and wise best parts of his personality, and minus his wounded brokenness – allowed me to perceive how engaging with the divine through symbols of “father” could be beautiful! Powerful! Lovely! Healing!

But I instantly realized that when my church uses the symbol “Father” for the divine, it is not actually accessing true divine fatherliness at all. It is using an idol named “Father,” which represents something very different.  As Robert Neville might say, the symbol “Father” is broken.[1] The symbol “Father” has been used for so many centuries to mean “the entirety of the infinite divine” and “Conquering Warlord,” “Patriarchal Oppressor,” “Harsh Judge,” “Abusive Punisher,” “Authoritarian Dictator”… that “Father” has been destroyed as a life-giving symbol of truth and turned into an idol. Anytime we pretend that any one symbol for the infinite, unknowable divine can capture, define or represent the entire divine mystery, we commit idolatry.[2] Too much Christian tradition has lied about the divine, pretending the divine IS “Father” IS the divine, for too long; thus, that symbol has lost its ability to connect Christians with divine truth.

Unlike Mother’s Day, when some brave churches hesitantly say that our (male) “God” loves us “like a mother,” churches use “Father” all year long, to indicate the primary, defining divine identity.

There is also too much associated violent, patriarchal, monarchial, authoritarian baggage distorting the idol “Father. The moment I tried to engage with the symbol, the moment I reached out in my heart toward the lovely idea of the divine as a kind, wise heavenly Father… all the poison of 2000 years of patriarchal lies crashed in and swept away the tentative symbolic connection that had tried to bless me with divine healing paternal wisdom.

It’s hopeless. Even here in Eastern Massachusetts, very few churches have managed to liberate themselves from the chains of sexist language in worship. Progressive seminaries still use it. Online, even the most progressive Christian spaces are rife with sexist language. The Father is doomed… there’s no saving him. He’s crucified on the cross of patriarchal fear and brokenness, buried in idolatrous lies forever.

…Or is he? Can the Mother of Rebirth resurrect the Father from his patriarchal prison tomb?

As I have elsewhere written in more detail, when Jesus invited his followers to pray “Our Daddy,” he was not proclaiming the one symbol we all must use forever and ever, Amen.[3] How can we imagine Jesus to be so egoistic and narrow minded? No. Rather, Jesus was inviting us to understand that when we realize our current ways of symbolizing the divine are not working properly, or are causing harm, we must change. We must find new words, new symbols, new communal traditions with which to engage divine wisdom. Poor Jesus! How sad he must be to see his attempt to offer liberation end up being used as a tool of oppression and idolatry.

Perhaps the resurrection story can reach the symbol of “Father” after all. How? I do not know. My best guess is that if enough Christian churches and communities use far more female language and symbols than male for a good long while (without the toxicity of gender stereotypes, thank you — no nonsense about “feminine attributes are tenderness, nurturing.” Attributes are both male and female, and it is especially important to pair female symbols with stereotypically male attributes such as strength, and male symbols with stereotypically female attributes such as nurturing), then perhaps whenever we do use male symbols such as Brother, Grandfather, we can use them as true symbols rather than as idols. Perhaps if we dispense with all the violent[4] authoritarian baggage of Master, Ruler, King, Lord, Kingdom, etc, we will someday be able to engage with “Father” in healthy, liberating, truth-giving ways. Perhaps if we give ourselves enough to Mother, Sister, Grandmother, Womb, Vagina, Aunt, Daughter, Breast, Crone, Hag, Goddess… She will reach out through us to our patiently waiting, tender, gentle Father and say to him, “Come forth and live!”

 

[1] Neville, Robert C. The Truth of Broken Symbols. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

[2] Tillich, Paul. Theology of Culture, p53-67, c.f. Neville, Robert C. The Truth of Broken Symbols. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996., pxi n.

[3] Neville notes that Jesus, the Jewish reformer, saw that his community had gradually symbolized the divine as increasingly transcendent, such that they had lost touch with the truth of divine intimacy. He taught his disciples to pray to “Abba” in order to help his tradition find truths their current symbol traditions had lost. See Neville, Robert C. The Truth of Broken Symbols. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

[4] For theory behind of how sexist and hierarchical language and symbols are violent, see Galtung, Johan. Cultural Violence. Journal of Peace Research, 27(3) 1990, especially p 291.

 

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Categories: Christianity, Feminist Theology, Gender and Power, God-talk, Liturgy, Ritual, Sexism

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23 replies

  1. Your essay reminds me of my response to fresco of the baby Panagia (Mary) sitting on her father’s lap that I have seen many times in the church of Panagia Kera Kritsa in Crete. One part of me rejoices in the so little seen image of a father’s love for his daughter, but the other part of me cringes when I think of the prevalence of incest and what father-daughter “affection” has meant to so many little girls in our world.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The disease of sexism-misogyny-patriarchy can be so overwhelming it can feel as though there’s nothing anywhere that hasn’t been tainted, poisoned, or infected somehow.

      Like

  2. Wonderful article that I can relate to. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. In my estimation, you have a very unique, crisp and refreshing perspective and understanding. The question I oft ask myself is, how do we (I) express my own perspective without becoming what it is about Christianity (life) that I think is wrong- unbending and self proclaiming? The answer, I suppose, is not unique. In fact, Jesus told exactly how to do it. “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
    And let’s face it. love ISN’T always easy or fun.
    Thank you for you courage.

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    • Thank you. That’s beautifully expressed… I agree with you. Love can be very painful and confusing. Sometimes I wrestle with how long to stay in the UMC when there are churches around that use inclusive language. Discerning what “love” means can be tricky. Blessings on your journey.

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  4. You are onto something through your own story…I know this good ‘energy’ will spread like wildfire! Yes it is up to us the WOMBAN to secure her healthy relationship with ABBA and marry him off to the redeemed Jezebel! In this divine UNION the mind of Christ will love passionately and all our intimicy with men in heterosexual relationships can deliver a spirited encounter from the Land rich with Milk & Honey (wink wink)

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    • What a fascinating symbol-set you describe. I love your use of “womban”! And I agree that healthy sexuality is one of the many benefits of healing sexism and patriarchy.

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  5. Thanks Trelawney. Regards where you mention the “call to speak, write, and sing the Female Divine.” Happily I have found great joy in Zen and Eastern spirituality, via its profound love and respect for mother nature. A delightful poem by a 19th c. Buddhist nun named Rengetsu says:

    “Not a trace
    Of the thief
    But he left behind
    The peaceful stillness
    Of the Okazaki Hills.”

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  6. A pregnant subject – how do we use symbols to help understand and describe the Divine Mystery present among us? I think our “problems” start when we say: “God is a ….” instead of “God is like a …. ” and when we fail to realize that no one symbol or name we use is adequate to describe what we call “God”.
    Thank you Trelawney, for arousing my awareness of this today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Barbara. And I agree, the way we use grammar really can limit or expand… I suppose we humans inevitably crave certitude. And we say things poetically that get taken literally and distorted. You’ve got me thinking, too! Peace and blessings.

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  7. Your words speak the truth as I experience it ” there’s no saving him. He’s crucified on the cross of patriarchal fear and brokenness, buried in idolatrous lies forever.” We desperately need to develop more awareness around this most destructive archetype. It is only when we can truly let this noxious figure go that we might have a chance to access father as protector, caregiver etc.

    I was moved by your personal story with your father. My relationship with my dad was conflicted, abusive, but as i grew older I realized it was also a relationship also based on the capacity to love. After he died, I began a journey with this father that has been a caring presence in my life and one who genuinely shows up at times of great distress.

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    • Sara and Trelawney, it is so lovely to hear other daughters talk about their fraught relationships with their fathers when they were in the flesh, and the healed, loving relationships they have with them now that they are in spirit…I had the same thing happen to me after my father’s death and biological kin were so swift to psychologize it as “wishful thinking” and “denial”…my, it is only true strength and love that could create such a redeemed relationship! The death transition (can) open us up to so much more love and the wisdom of our soul.

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      • Wow. Thank you both for sharing your stories. I admit I was stunned when this happened to me. I had not expected it. But my Dad and I were very telepathically linked, so maybe that has something to do with it. As a traine scientist, I tend not to leap to supernatural ideas in general. But as a William James has made beautifully clear, we each have our own truth, based on our experiences. I bless and honor your journeys, and may you always feel your fathers’ love surround you. ❤️❤️

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  8. Thank you Trelawney

    I am researching the ways in which words to and for the divine influence our behaviour to each other and your insights are in accord with my understandings both of the current circumstances with the toxicity of the traditionally current words and of how to bring and make change. The community needs to construct new associations before the word ‘father’ can be helpfully used together – and that will take some time!

    I’m glad to know that your own relationship has found healing and that this has resourced your understanding of our lovely divine. May your experiences and reflections continue to be a source of blessing and hope – as well as illumination

    Margaret

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  9. Thank you for this. As a Christian pastor, I have been committed to using expansive language for the Divine. I myself struggle with both Father and Mother and find that I connect better with non-human imagery. In my own worship planning, I take a great deal of care about language, but I know that many of my colleagues don’t see the need to take the time to do this. I know the Church is trying to be better (in some places), but it seems that it’s awfully slow about it. We were talking about this when I was in seminary over 30 years ago.

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  10. Reblogged this on Proud Member of the Religious Left and commented:
    At first, I thought from the title that I was going to disagree with the author. But that was not the case at all. She clearly states the case for the need to pay attention to our language.

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