Hallowed Be Thy Name

THESE ARE TOUGH TIMES TO BE A FAther. The media are full of stories about abusive fathers, fatherless children and deadbeat dads -- and about New Fathers who are trying to do better. But in general this is an age when fathers get little respect, and you don't have to look farther than the biggest father figure of them all, God.

Consider: fundamentalist and evangelical Christians fixate on God's son. It is Jesus who must be experienced if you are to be saved. Pentecostal Christians cherish the power of the Holy Spirit. When Catholics look for a model of Christian perfection, they find it in Mary. In their determination to be ""inclusive,'' many mainline Protestants are busily excising all mention of a paternal deity from hymns and prayer books. New Age Jewsare edging toward the use of ""Yah'' for the ineffable name of the Lord, partly as an effort to wipe out any lingering association with the masculine gender. Only among the Mormons, who believe that all humans were begotten in heaven as God's own ""spirit children,'' is the Father recognized for his paternity. How can God the Father compete with a divine Son, a perfect Virgin Mother and the anti-patriarchal Spirit of the Times?

Even the Scriptures are cool to God as Father. In the Hebrew Bible, God is most often addressed as ""the Holy One,'' ""King'' or ""Lord.'' Except in some of the Psalms, he is rarely referred to as ""Father.'' An observation from the Jerusalem Talmud puts it wryly. Why is it, one rabbi asks, that ""when Israel is not in trouble, [the Israelites] do not say, "Thou art our father.' But only when they come into trouble do they seek Thee.''

Jesus, of course, addressed all his prayers to his heavenly ""Father'' and taught his disciples to do the same. He even called him ""Abba,'' a term of intimacy that means something like ""daddy'' in Aramaic. But as an essayist pointed out more than 20 years ago in The American Scholar, the New Testament (like most Western literature) is written from the son's point of view. It is his story that is told, his divinity that is celebrated. In Christian art, it is Jesus and his mother who are most often depicted. When the Father is shown at all, he almost always shares the scene with Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the other figures of the Trinity. Early Christians saw him as a young man, much like his son; later Christian art reduced his presence to a single hand reaching down from a cloud, and by the 15th century he had become a bearded old man, sometimes outfitted like a Renaissance pope. Michelangelo's powerful Creator on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is a singular image of a vigorous God the Father, but one that feminists like Sister Elizabeth Johnson, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, find all too ""androcentric'' for contemporary sensibilities.

Jesus enjoined his followers to ""be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.'' But in any religious scheme, it is hard to imagine the creator of the universe as paterfamilias. To Muslims, Allah is the all-powerful and the all-merciful, but ""Father'' is not among his 99 names. In the complex family systems of Hindu gods and goddesses, Brahma is the creator. But in all of India, there is only a handful of temples in his name, whereas the sonlike avatars Vishnu, Krishna and Rama have thousands of temples devoted to their worship. In Buddhism, there is no creator. But it is noteworthy that in the story of the Buddha, Prince Siddhartha deserts his wife before he attains enlightenment.

What's more, none of the central human figures in world religions is a notably good father. Abraham tossed one son out and nearly sacrificed the other. Jesus was celibate. Mohammed had many wives and children, but his central role for Muslims is as prophet and messenger of God. Similarly, the Hindu avatars of the gods are renowned as accomplished lovers, but responsible fatherhood is not their most cherished characteristic.

_B_Gender trap:_b_ Most Christians and Jews still pray to God as Father. But not for long, if feminist theologians have their way. In the nation's elite divinity schools, students are taught to mind their metaphors: God the Father is out, unless coupled with God the Mother. ""She Who Is'' is Elizabeth Johnson's preferred phrase; others talk simply of ""Godself'' to avoid the gender trap altogether. Few theologians these days seem to want a God who takes charge, assumes responsibility, fights for his children, makes demands, risks rebuffs, punishes as well as forgives. In a word, a Father.

So, on Sunday, Father's Day, skip the tie. Say a prayer, or lift a glass, to God the Father.

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