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. 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. 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. 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 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!”
 Neville, Robert C. The Truth of Broken Symbols. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.
 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.
 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.
 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.