Patrick Deneen has written beautifully about the obviousness of motherhood, and the hiddenness of fatherhood. He observes a distinction between becoming a biological and an ontological father—both are acts, as he puts it, of "embodied faith and embodied reason." What a fecund observation to help us contemplate fatherhood.
I can remember the exact moment when that distinction became evident to me. When we were preparing for the birth of our son, at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, England, I did not doubt that the child being born was my own. Not one of us has been born without a biological father, and I knew that I was about to become one. I had as much certitude about this as I had that England was an island. But what I was not certain about, nor prepared for, was what came next. Suddenly, it was not an idea, or a sonogram, or a heartbeat, or even the feel of a foot pushing against the soft pulled flesh of his mother. Suddenly, the lightning fast presence of a beautifully formed human being was before me; not as a category, or an idea, or a possibility, but as a person whose presence poured over me. It was like the dawning of a new horizon, or a new aspect of the horizon I had always known, but not understood.
His eyes were wide open, and if he could see, I believe that my face was the first one he saw in this ebullient and miraculous world. At that moment, the midwives asked me to cut the cord. I declined not because I was squeamish, but because I was now in awe of something more ontologically present to me: my son.
They cut the cord, swaddled him, and settled him into my arms. I had seen illuminated on the big screen all those stock birthing room scenes, so I was reasonably certain that they would put him into his mother's arms, at least initially. I thought there would be some continuation of the distance, that the hidden nature of my biological fatherhood would be extendable by the more obvious physical bond to his mother. But there was no differential, no slow transition, no easing into it. All of the sudden, something like an ontological conversion had taken place in a flash. I spontaneously began to sing a nursery tune that I remembered my grandfather singing. He was a revelation to me. A potency hidden in biology, a possibility, an idea, was now actually personal and real.
It is a story that my wife likes to recount partly because the singing itself was a sign of the joy we both felt, but it was also a sign that something had been born in me too. The singing was the sign that I was not only a biological father, but that I had become an ontological father as well. This had changed not my nature but who I was as a person. Suddenly I was not merely an external cause of the goodness of this life, but had entered into communion with him, and this revealed to me that fatherhood was not simply something that could be given, but also something to be received from another. I have always made my way as a father out of this fundamental and joyful discovery.
Sadly, not every biological father has this experience. There is a genuine crisis of fatherhood in this country. The depressing data shows that fatherlessness has dramatically risen over the past few decades. Biological fathers remain "hidden" at such an alarming rate, one wonders if there might be some new incentive program encouraging them to do so. The fatherhood crisis is exacerbated by a cultural mindset that detaches sex from the generation of human beings, and detaches biological fatherhood from ontological fatherhood in the process. And if we push back to Lockean political principles, as Deneen has also noted, we can see that it has been exacerbated by a political culture that might be against even the very idea of fatherhood as a threat to democracy. For Locke, fathers were only required—indeed, marriage itself was only required—for "the dependency period." Locke’s voluntarism shows marriage not as a life-long sacramental bond of a man and a woman open to the creation of new life, but as a temporary contract, a view of marriage which can be easily dissolved provided that the children can “provide for themselves.” (The Second Treatise of Government, sect. 82) In this sense, the rising tide of fatherlessness in America might be a perfectly logical consequence of a view of marriage that Christians have been only too happy to support in their accommodation to liberalism. Fathers have become optional today partially due to this Lockean legacy.
And yet, I am haunted by an even deeper crisis that must at least exacerbate, and may even be a root cause of the fatherhood crisis: a loss of an embodied faith and an embodied understanding of God as Father. As St. Thomas Aquinas taught, it is not from human fathers that we understand what it means for God to be Father, but it is from the revelation of God as Father that our understanding of fatherhood is elevated and perfected. Is it so impossible to think that a modern vision of God as Deus Absconditus has, inversely, defected and devolved our understanding of fatherhood?
In Charles Taylor's extravagantly illustrated account of why it has become difficult to believe in God, A Secular Age, he calls the Reformation a "disenchantment engine." Martin Luther had famously rejected every attempt of human reason to know God. Despite the teaching of the Apostle Paul, who said that the invisible God could be known by the things that were made, Luther stressed the unknowability of God through things made. The god of the philosophers is always a fabricated God of our own making. Since only God can reveal God, Luther severed the ancient dynamic between Athens and Jerusalem.
For many, the "disenchantment engine" at first made "optional" but then broke the relation between God and creation, as well as the complementary relation between faith and reason. Sometimes this "break" is blamed on nominalism, the view that universals (invisible things) cannot really be known as anything other than fabricated relations between particular, visible, made things. How did this happen? For the nominalists that trained Luther, God’s intellect was unknowable. And since God's will perfectly expressed his intellect, it was argued that his ways were inscrutable. This made it possible for later thinkers—against the backdrop of the Black Death and other natural disasters—to think about God’s actions in a capricious way. Instead of understanding God’s actions as fitting the goodness of his nature (as Aquinas argued), it became possible to think of God as an inscrutable and unknowable sovereign, as one who does not necessarily act in accordance with his nature, but may act solely upon his mysterious will. Fear of this inscrutable God made it easier for some thinkers to descend further into what Taylor calls "providential Deism."
Taylor rightly sees in this descent to “providential Deism” the eclipse of transcendent purpose, the erasure of supernatural grace in an immanent frame, the denial of mystery, and the refusal of a participationist understanding of our relation to God. No longer are we humans called to become "partakers of the divine nature," or elevated by grace to become adopted sons and daughters of God. Now God has become the Deus Absconditus that has created the world and simultaneously orphaned it. Taylor argues that these shifts, among many others, are responsible for why it is more difficult to believe in God now than it was prior to the Reformation. These shifts have not only made it difficult to know God as Father, but have also made it difficult for us to recognize the nature of human fatherhood in anything other than the basically nominalist and voluntarist modes of providential Deism. That is at least one of the important reasons why Locke's view of fatherhood becomes possible, and why liberal cultures that slavishly follow this trajectory will continue to want to hide the fathers. The antidote is the revelation of the Father’s love for the Son.