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


The Beatific Vision through Blurry Eyes: Natural Childbirth and our Spiritual Condition

Julia Meszaros

Contemporary Western hospitals offer – and at times impose – an ever growing range of medical interventions to the labouring mother. These are sometimes life-saving. Yet they often also come with risks that should preclude unreflective usage. In light of this, a small but growing number of young parents and parents-to-be are rediscovering the beauty and the benefits of natural childbirth – that is, of seeking to allow one of human life’s most integral and mind-blowing events to take its natural course. Alongside certain health benefits, this rediscovery, I wish to suggest, is of direct significance from the perspective of theological anthropology. For natural childbirth can serve as a metaphor (and hence a training ground) for the spiritual life, as the great mystics of the Christian tradition have described it. The natural birth of a child ‘undoes’ us; it gives us a glimpse of the meaning of human suffering; and, by driving home to us our creatureliness, it places us before God.

Nativity  by William Blake

Nativity by William Blake

The birth of a child begins perhaps with excitement, perhaps with fear, but in any case with pain. At the beginning, one might still be oblivious of the extent to which this pain will gradually undo one of our most cherished dispositions – that of being in control, and of being able to withdraw from whatever threatens our autonomy. Even the pain seems, initially, to be what we want, what we have long been waiting for. In a sense, we still ‘possess’ our body. As labour progresses, however, our posture of self-control increasingly crumbles. What we begin to experience is something we have not signed up for at all. The indescribable scope of the pain that simply overcomes us is entirely unexpected and uninvited. We are faced with something we are sure we cannot shoulder. Like when reaching a new stage in the spiritual life, we want to run away, for the sake, it feels, of preserving our very life. (This is where, in an un-induced childbirth, the first medical intervention – the epidural – usually comes in).

In order to continue the process naturally there is, as any midwife will (in one form or another) confirm, only one strategy: to let go. To let go of being in command, to let go of the need to maintain a dignified appearance, to let go of our attachment to comfort and the picturesque, and above all, to let go of our human rationality, which tells us that it is impossible. Instead of fearing for our life, we are called to trustingly place our life in the hands of God. We may feel that we may not make it. More viscerally than ever before, we become aware that our life is not our own, that everything hinges on God’s will. To this we can now only surrender, humbly and hopefully.

Such a profound act of self-surrender does not in any way put an end to our suffering. Yet it brings with it an unknown peace that makes the suffering bearable, even as it gets greater still. And in allowing us to hand ourselves over to the present moment, it allows us to meet Christ crucified, there with us: fragile, aching, undone.

And just as we have entered into this fellowship most deeply – everything is miraculously made new! We are met by new, unknown life, and a sense, not merely of relief, but of an unknown, perfect bliss. In the matter of an instant, the pain that was is cast into oblivion and we are overcome by an unspeakable awe and love that extends to all the world, to the unknown creature before us, as much as to our spouse and companions, and the nurse who only just popped in to the room.

This, then, is how life comes into the world. In experiencing the birth of a child, we are blessed with a spiritual lesson. If we let ourselves in for it (and provided, of course, that we encounter no complications), we are given a glimpse of how and why to enter into the abyss. We are taught, almost by force, a self-surrender that is entirely antithetical to our worldly disposition, yet that allows us to meet Jesus, who has come so that we may have life (John 10:10). Indeed, in giving birth to a child we receive nothing less than a foretaste of the beatific vision.

All things being equal, then, the pain and labor of natural childbirth can be a spiritual blessing and resource. It teaches us that, with God, all is possible and that, from our suffering, new life can spring. For this reason alone, we must continue to aspire to and value natural childbirth. For, if we believe in life after death, then our positive experiences of suffering in the context of giving birth might give us hope also with regard to suffering in the context of approaching death. 

“Little Rock” and Religious Education

Johan Ardui & Pieter De Witte

Religious education seems problematic in our times. One of the reasons for this could be the alleged decrease of interest in religious matters in Europe and North America. It is possible, however, that the real challenge of religious education should be described in terms of theological anthropology. Education has often been related to the question of what it is to be and become human. If education is more than the acquisition of a set of skills that are useful for society’s smooth functioning, then it can only be defined as the formation of human beings. It is difficult to imagine education beyond the moulding of highly functional cogwheels in the production process without an explicit or implicit idea of what it is to be human, an idea about what is intrinsically (and not only functionally) valuable about human existence. The problem with religious education is that religious traditions have their own vague or more distinct anthropology. The challenge is how to reconcile (or rather: how to organize the clash between) anthropologies implied in contemporary educational practices and in religious traditions. One way this clash is visible in contemporary thinking about religious education is the call for more ‘relevant’ practices of religious education, with more emphasis on communication, identity formation and interreligious dialogue. This would prepare young people for their active participation in a pluralistic world. Sometimes it is felt, however, that such emphases prevent teachers from offering a comprehensive discussion of what religions have to say about human beings.


One way to start reflecting on this issue is to be inspired by some ideas of Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). Arendt was first of all a political thinker, but she also wrote on education. Her idea of political action converges with the dominant emphases (mentioned above) in large sections of the contemporary discourse on religious education (plurality and interaction between individuals). At the same time, Arendt’s view on education does not converge with the call for more politically relevant education. Quite to the contrary, Arendt believes that education will only prepare young people for a life in the polis if they are to a certain extent protected from the confusion and pressure of the public sphere. They first have to learn in a relatively untroubled atmosphere about the world and the way it is traditionally conceived. Only when education is to a certain extent ‘conservative’, children will later be able to change the world in unforeseeable ways. The paradoxality and sharpness of her ideas on education is perceptible in her essay on ‘Little Rock’.

The ‘Little Rock Crisis’ refers to the events in 1957 in a school in Arkansas. A group of African American students wanted to be enrolled in this all-white school and they met serious resistance. In the end the American government forced the group’s entrance into the school, even using military strength. Hannah Arendt wrote a challenging and even provocative essay on this issue. There is no doubt about Arendt’s support for racial desegregation. Yet, she questions the way education was used as a means to implement this desegregation.

Arendt writes:


“I think no one will find it easy to forget the photograph reproduced in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, showing a Negro girl, accompanied by a white friend of her father, walking away from school, persecuted and followed into bodily proximity by a jeering and grimacing mob of youngsters. The girl, obviously, was asked to be a hero–that is, something neither her absent father nor the equally absent representatives of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] felt called upon to be […] The picture looks like a fantastic caricature of progressive education which, by abolishing the authority of adults, implicitly denies their responsibility for the world in which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them into it. Have we now come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to change or improve the world? And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in the school yards?” (Hannah Arendt, Reflections on Little Rock)

Arendt’s point is clear. It is a highly dubious pedagogical procedure to pass on the problems adults cannot solve themselves to youngsters and children. Yet this is exactly what also happens today in our schools. Adults face the challenges of racial segregation, multiculturalism, inter-religious encounters, clashes between irreconcilable ideologies, political indifference, nationalism and many more. Often they are not able to settle such problems in the public sphere. What happens quite regularly is that such problems are more or less directly introduced in the classroom in order to prepare the future generation of citizens. Crucial skills and attitudes such as dialogue, tolerance and civic commitment are fostered for this purpose.

Arendt points out, in her Reflections on Little Rock as well as in her essay The Crisis in Education, that the result of this is undesirable in all respects. Adults do not assume their responsibility of dealing with these issues in the public sphere. Instead, they introduce the turmoil of politics in the place where newcomers should learn in relative serenity about the world. Adults live with the illusion that they are doing something about these challenges, while in fact they are excluding the possibility that the newcomers will ever be able to do something about them. For only the relative quiet of study and learning will allow young people to overcome the clichés and ideological catchphrases that dominate the public arena. Only when they are not exposed to the pressure of the life of the citizen will they be able to surmount banality and to really learn and think about realities like race, religion, culture, political history and national identity.

Perhaps Arendt’s reflections should inspire us in our thoughts on contemporary religious education. Many assumptions are at work in current discourses on religious education in a pluralistic world: “Religious education should be the place of interreligious dialogue”, “Religious education can help solving the problems related to religion in the public sphere”, or simply: “Religious education should foster religious tolerance”. Obvious as such assumptions may seem, they are highly questionable in a world where adults themselves do not succeed in speaking and acting thoughtfully when it comes to religion.

This post is an excerpt of a paper given at the workshop Politics of Love? Christliche Liebe als politische Herausforderung (org. Anthropos Research Group and Katholische Akademie Berlin), Berlin, 21-23 March 2013.

Dr. Johan Ardui teaches Catholic religion at the Teacher Training Program of the Limburg Catholic University College (LCUC, Belgium). Dr. Pieter De Witte is researcher at the LCUC and prison chaplain in the prison of Mechelen (Belgium). Both are involved in the research project (2012-2014) “A Plausible Course? In Search of a Teaching Methodology for Roman-Catholic Religion” at the LCUC.