Child calls father to fatherhood: An interview

Yves De Maeseneer

You would expect that a religion that professes God as Father is blessed with a rich theology of fatherhood. Interviewed at the occasion of Father’s Day (in Belgium June 8), I have been facing a certain perplexity. What does it mean to be a father? Even our rich Leuven library was not of great help. I share this interview as an invitation to explore the topic further. 

Why do Christians call God Father?

"Jesus taught us to address God as ‘abba’, Aramaic for ‘papa’. As such we respond to the fundamental revelation that each of us is a child of God. In the New Testament stories, God speaks in a direct way only twice: at the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and at the transfiguration on Mount Tabor. On both occasions, God reveals Godself as Father, using a formula by which Jewish fathers acknowledged their children after birth.

"In Hebrew culture, a man recognized a child at the time when it was brought to him by taking the newborn on his knees and addressing it. You become father by receiving it. Hence, "thou art my beloved Son." (Mk 1:11) According to the Christian tradition, Jesus has opened the way for every human being to be adopted as a child of God.

Are you suggesting that all forms of paternity are fundamentally marked by an adoptive dimension?

"In many cultures, even today, giving birth is a women’s matter. Men typically wait for the child outside. Even if men are present, they experience that the difference between father and mother is the most palpable at birth: the father is standing next to his wife and therefore outside. Already in pregnancy there is a physical bond between mother and child which the father can never have. The relation between father and child is always marked by a distance, which only becomes proximity through word and gesture, when the father commits himself and says ‘You are my child’.'"

Paternity is a choice?

"You become father when you turn toward your child. While the first effort of a mother is to let the child go, the first act of the father is to turn toward it. It is an act in freedom and love, which I experienced as a vocation. The child calls the father to fatherhood."

What do children teach a father?

"Cynicism is a major challenge in our culture. Grown up men are expected to judge reality from a negative a priori. Children show that this cynicism is a lie. My children – now four and two years old – have taught me hope and joy. I think it is this talent for joy and hope, which made Jesus enjoin his disciples ‘to become like a child’.

Jesus also said, "whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me" (Lk 9:48).

"With this statement Jesus invites every Christian to live in the image and likeness of the Father by participating in God’s fatherhood. I think of Henri Nouwen’s famous meditations upon the parable of the prodigal son. After he had identified himself with the youngest ánd the eldest son, he finally discovered that all of us are challenged to become like the merciful father in our relationship with others."

Does the Gospel provide us with a more elaborate role model of the good father?

"No. Joseph is outshone by Mother Mary. Jesus, Peter, John, Paul,… none of them is mentioned as raising children. In the New Testament narratives, father figures are lacking. This lack of father talk is not so surprising – men rarely talk to each other about their fatherhood experiences. Our society has a rich offer of clubs, magazines and websites for moms, but paternity remains in the shade. Christian tradition and theology shares this lack of attention with our culture in general. A detailed reflection on what it means to be a father is still to be developed."

Is it different in the Hebrew Bible, the story of the Jewish patriarchs?

"The German Benedictine Anselm Grün considers the figure of Jacob as the archetypal father. This does not mean you'll learn much in Scripture about how he deals with his children. What you get, is the picture of an unsteady man. Contrary to his twin brother Esau, who is his father’s favorite, Jacob is more of a mama's boy. Yet it is this ‘fatherless’ figure, who has to go the difficult road to become a father. First we see how the young adult tries to become a man by making a career – not eschewing fraud. Crucial is that he has to leave home. Along the way he dreams a dream in which God blesses him with the promise "I'll be with you, wherever you go" (Gen. 28:15). To me this version of God’s name (YHWH) points to the core of fatherhood: the promise to always be there for your children. In this same dream God sent Jacob on his way. Paternity is both: to encourage your children to go into the world, while reassuring them of your assistance.

In fact Jacob really becomes father in the night wrestling with the angel (Gen 32:23-33). This struggle with the insecurities, anxieties and doubts that you experience as a father, Jacob does not win. He shall receive a blessing and an injury. Being a father is to find blessing in order to become a blessing for your children. But with that blessing comes the injury of powerlessness: as a father you do not have your life and that of your children in your hands. Significantly, the injury is at the hip, the place where a person in ancient times put his hand to make an oath. The wounded hip is symbol of weakness and fidelity alike. Fatherhood is about accepting frailty through promise.”

Is not the first duty of the father to establish the law?

"Oddly enough, that aspect is not made explicit in the story cycle of Israel’s patriarchs. Classical psychoanalysis would ascribe to the father the role of legislator, but at crucial moments in life fatherhood is rather about giving space and freedom. The tragedy of an authoritarian father figure is that he denies his children this space and trust. Empirical research among teenagers in our own time has shown that in many Western families it is rather the mother who is experienced as guaranteeing order – her strictness being most effective because it is typically combined with emotional warmth. Today’s father is often the one who plays with the kids and helps them explore the limits."

Children grow up. Fatherhood is also releasing?

"The father is left behind and has to let his children go. That too is an important aspect of the parable of the prodigal son. As at birth the father had to bridge a distance which is not there for the mother, he is also the parent who has to encourage the children to go and leave home. It seems often easier to let go for fathers than for mothers. The real challenge for fathers is rather not to distance themselves too much, and to keep on being there for their children.”

(English translation of an interview by Kris Somers, in the Catholic weekly Tertio, June 4, 2014. Read the complete file on paternity