True Religion and the Fatherhood of God
As I hold my newborn son in my arms for the first time, in that moment the cosmos to me has suddenly shrunk: it has cast aside its expansiveness, its magnitude, and now sits at about 7 lbs, 6oz and 20in in length.
Fatherhood did not begin for me in that moment, however. I had tried my best to cultivate a relationship with Brendan up to that day. But my wife Kelly had a distinct advantage. They had been literally inseparable every moment for the last nine months. They had shared every meal. They shared experiences, emotions, hormones even! Yes, she had an undeniable advantage, and no one can ever be for him what she is in the same way she is: Mom.
Yet I have come to discover, and I still find it somewhat surreal, that I do have an unique place in Brendan’s life, and he in mine. And I now have a new relation to Kelly through my relationship with Brendan as well.
Dad is a support for both Mom and baby. When Mom needs a rest — as all moms do — Dad stands at the ready. Additionally, in our case Mom has her own business and needs to be able to meet clients sans baby from time to time. So Brendan and I play and go for walks, and yes, sometimes we break down and watch cartoons too (only the good ones though, of course). Dad is a place of security and comfort, second to Mom in some ways, but not for that inessential.
A whole set of responsibilities and expectations suddenly came upon me when I first held Brendan in my arms, when the world for a moment disposed of its greatness, or rather, invested all its wonder and mystery into this little child for me. As it turns out, though I have yet to earn one of those “#1 Dad” mugs and have my bad days as well as my good ones, I have found myself surprisingly capable of rising to the challenge. And I have found first-hand the necessity of a father both for a child and for a mother.
I write this essay in reflection upon our national celebration of “Father’s Day.” Yet for many this is not a happy day. For reasons beyond their control, the man whose duty it is to be uniquely overcome with love and joy at their births and a loving support for them throughout their lives is not now able to be fully present for them, whether through death, divorce, distance, or any other reason, not all of which are always due to moral failings of either parent. Yet the man from whom they ought to derive an unique sense of security, comfort, provision, and self-confidence is not there, leaving this need of the human heart unfulfilled and leaving them confused, restless, and afraid. A society such as ours, which as Patrick Deneen put it last week has embraced a “conspiracy of silence” as the number of these fatherless continues to grow — putting mothers and children at an economic, educational, and emotional disadvantage — desperately needs men who are willing and able to heed the vocation of fatherhood today.
According to St. James, “Religion clean and undefiled to the God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their suffering — to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). This he puts in contrast to “vain religion” that is self-deceptive and characterized by an uncontrolled tongue (1:26). The constant here is a recurring theme of deeds over words. In particular, he singles out those who lack a father-figure in their lives, whether as a counterpart to the role of mother (widows) or as an actual parent (orphans), linking this, furthermore, with the Fatherhood of God. C.C. Pecknold recently suggested that “a loss of an embodied faith and an embodied understanding of God as Father” may be one of the root causes of our crisis of fatherhood today. It is my conviction that St. James would agree.
St. James describes this religion that is acceptable to God the Father as being fathers to these fatherless. There is an assumption here that his readers already address God as “Father.” One can very easily see the Sermon on the Mount in the background in the rest of his Epistle in general, and I would suggest that he presumes his readers, as part of their daily spiritual practice, would be regularly praying the prayer given to them by the Lord himself: the “Our Father.”
In fact, we can confirm this by looking to the early Church. In the Didache, an early second-century summary of the teaching of the twelve Apostles, Christians are commanded to pray “as the Lord commanded in his Gospel,” i.e. the “Our Father,” “three times a day” (8.2-3). Among other things, Christians are a people who ought to daily be calling upon God as “Our Father.” And according to St. James, our religious devotion ought to shape us into people who care for the fatherless among us.
As the “house of God” the Father (1 Timothy 3:15), the Church is and ought to be a home for the fatherless, beginning very simply with Christians’ daily practice of praying the “Our Father.” In it we ask, through the “Spirit of adoption” (Romans 8:15) dwelling within us by virtue of our baptisms, not only for my daily bread, but for “our daily bread” — the provision of us all. We were all spiritual orphans and widows once, descended from human fathers whose lives had been unnaturally cut short by death. Yet now we call the living God “Our Father.”
More than a spiritual orphanage, the Church is the home for which we all yearn, and God the Father is the father our hearts all desperately want and need. While we were still a long way off from him, he ran to us, embraced us, and welcomed us as his children, providing in a more perfect way the security and comfort that only a father can provide. We are to him more precious than all the world and all the glory of heaven, to the extent that he sent his own, natural Son, Jesus Christ, to save us from our misery and take it upon himself.
I am reminded of the fictional description of a great saint, “Sarah Smith,” by George MacDonald in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce: “Every young man or boy that met her became her son — even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.” Ought not the same be true of every Christian man? Should not all those they meet, without feeling belittled, become to them their sons and daughters? In this way the God-given potential for fatherhood, given to every man in the likeness of God the Father himself, is made actual both in them and for “orphans and widows in their suffering.” In this our religion becomes truly “clean and undefiled,” and from this our society might hope again to see and experience with renewed beauty the essential value of fathers for us all.