For my money, one of best things about being Christian is being able to call the God of the universe ‘Our Father’. Yet it’s also one of the most incredible. Not very long ago the former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, referred to God as ‘He or She’. And many people would sympathise with this. The literary critic Terry Eagleton, for example, declares that God ‘cannot literally be the Father of Jesus Christ, since he does not have testicles’ (On Evil, pp 126-127).
Now, Christians have always recognised that a word like ‘Father’ can’t mean exactly the same thing when applied to the Creator as it does when applied to us. Jesus himself highlighted this. He taught us to pray to ‘Our Father in heaven‘ and assured us that God is much better and far more reliable than any human father.
So what do we mean when we call God ‘Father’? And what gives us the right to lay claim to such an incredible intimacy?
Of course, some people don’t regard it all that intimate or special a thing. For them, God is a ‘father’ — indeed, the father of everyone — because we are all brothers and sisters (owing each other some minimum moral obligation as family members). On this view, God is sort of like Santa Claus. He says you’ll only receive his gifts if you’ve been ‘nice’, but it’s obvious he doesn’t really mean it — everyone always gets the gifts anyway!
Others react against this by restricting God’s fatherhood to a particular group. They insist, for example, that only Christians have the right to call God ‘Father’ — or perhaps only some subset of Christians (for when you start down this road, how do you know when to stop?). On this view, God is someone to cut a deal with: we bring our spiritual pedigree or record of achievement to the table and get his ‘gifts’ in exchange.
But our approach to God’s fatherhood must pay more attention to the New Testament story of Jesus, where we discover what kind of Father God is at the same time as we discover who is entitled to claim such an incredible intimacy…