Theology

Fathers, Sons, and Mother Hens (Pt. 1 of 2)

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We believe in one God,
the Father…

A long, long time ago (before my finals… and midterms, for that matter…  I know, I know, a hiatus this long is simply unacceptable), I discussed the problems (and benefits) of the image of God as Father for those with various experiences with their parents.  But there’s another Father issue that may trip up some of you: the question of God’s gender.

Many people, when they hear God called “Father,” assume God is male.  For some people, God’s gender is of no consequence, but for others, thinking of God as a man is deeply problematic.  Some of us wonder why if God is good, he is called our Father, rather than our Mother, or even simply our Parent.  After all, men have traditionally been in power in our world, and they have sometimes misused that power.  God has more power than any of them—who’s to say he won’t misuse his power, as well?  And anyway, we want a God we can relate to and who can relate to us.  Can a “Father” really understand the experience of half the population?

If you’ve ever felt this way, I have good news for you today: the idea that God has a gender is a warped view of the Christian God, not based in the Bible or traditional Christian theology.  In contrast with other Ancient Near Eastern religions, the ancient Israelites did not (typically) attribute sexuality to YHWH.  (And I say typically because there were Israelites who worshipped foreign gods and goddesses in addition to YHWH, which may have colored their views of God’s gender… but this practice is condemned as idolatry in the Bible itself and not considered normative within monotheistic Judaism, despite its place in Israel’s story.)  Instead, gender seems to be part of the created order only—a category which God transcends.  That’s why unlike Zeus or Baal or other gods from the ancient world, YHWH needs no female consort.  Both men and women are said to be created in God’s image, and there is no room for considering one of them “closer” to reflecting God’s nature.

Furthermore, there are, in fact, many instances of female imagery for God throughout Scripture.  For example, the Bible contains metaphors in which God gives birth (Deut. 32:18; Is. 42:14; Is. 46:3-4) or a mother nursing (Num. 11:12, Is. 49:14-15).  Other imagery is based on women’s work and other experiences: A seamstress, a midwife, a woman in charge of a servant (Ps. 123:2), woman baking, a woman looking for a lost coin (Neh. 9:21; Ps. 22:9-10, 71:5; Is. 66:9; Mt. 13:33; Lk. 13:20-21; Lk. 15:8-10) all represent God.  Even Jesus, who had biological sex compared himself to a mother hen caring for her chicks (Mt. 25:37; Lk. 13:34).*

This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.

*For a more extended discussion of these passages and others containing female imagery for God, see Margo G. Houts, “Images of God as Female,” in The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Catherine Clark Kroeger & Mary J. Evans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002), 356-358.

Father Issues

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We believe in one God,
the Father…

The Father.  Everyone has a different reaction to that part.  Some of you have great relationships with your fathers, making it easy to imagine a loving Father God.  Others of you don’t see much of your father but know he loves you—yours is okay, but you wouldn’t mind an additional heavenly Dad.  Or maybe fathers aren’t really the sort of people you want to spend time around.  Perhaps your father has never seemed to “get” you, or maybe he just doesn’t seem to care.  Maybe you don’t get along with him very well.  Some of you have even experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse at the hands of your fathers.

Complicating matters, you may have multiple fathers—biological vs. adopted vs. step, or even two fathers who are gay partners.  You may live with an additional father figure—a grandfather or uncle, for example.  You might not even know your biological father because he left your family when you were young.  For a few of you, a paternity test has never proven his identity or he was an anonymous donor at a sperm bank.  Some of you feel no loss from not having a father because your mother(s), grandparents, or others have done such a fantastic job raising you.  On the other hand, some of you deeply miss your fathers, especially the few who have endured the untimely death of a dad.

In my own family tree, fatherhood has looked different in every generation.  My maternal grandmother’s biological father left when she was two, so her “Daddy” was her stepfather (and a very good one, thankfully).  My maternal grandfather had an abusive alcoholic for a father, but because he learned from his family’s mistakes, my mom ended up with an involved and loving dad.  My own dad was very emotionally abusive, but I now enjoy the chance to spend time with my father-in-law Mike, who has been a wise and caring father to my husband.

Your story is probably similar.  Dads are sometimes good and sometimes bad and usually a mix.  For some of you God as Father is an easy concept, maybe even desirable.  For others God as Father is confusing, uncomfortable, complicated, or even revolting.  Even when we know God is not supposed to be anything like our human fathers, it can be difficult for some of us to warm up to the “heavenly Father” idea.  If that’s you, I want to encourage you, that God is not upset at you for having difficulty trusting him in a father-ish way.

Whether God as father is just an awkward and confusing thought or a sharp sting demanding a journey of deeper healing, I believe God can handle your issues with his desire to be your Father.  I believe Jesus invites us into relationship with his Father, but with that invitation God offers his patience.  He knows your background and will be with you all the way as you open yourself up to him more and more, gradually learning to trust that he will be the good Father he promises.

On the other hand, those of you who feel great about God as Father—whether because of the merits or deficiencies of your experiences with other dads—have an opportunity to share his love with others.  When you care for those around you, including your own children one day (if you have them), remember how meaningful it is to be loved well.  Whether an adoptive or biological parent, a “spiritual” parent, an “auntie” or “uncle” to others in your community, an advocate for social justice, or just a true friend in times of need, we all have the power to communicate the God’s concern for others.  The way we share the love we have been shown may be just what someone else needs to hope that there really is a heavenly Father who cares for them, too.

This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.

One (Particular) God

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We believe in one God…

One of the things I have most appreciated about my academic study of religion is a newfound appreciation for Christianity’s Jewish background.  My first religion course in college was on Judaism, actually— “Early Judaism,” i.e. Judaism of the Second Temple period, that time after the exile and before 70 CE.  Of course, my college New Testament introduction and my later seminary courses also emphasized the stories of ancient Israel and the significance of this religious background for Jesus and his Jewish community.

In particular, I have found it fascinating to ponder the enormity of the Jewish commitment to monotheism.  In seminary I learned that some scholars believe Israel was originally henotheistic—worshipping only one god but accepting the potential existence of many.  Over time, they say, Israel increasingly emphasized that YHWH was not only the stronger god or the proper god to worship, but YHWH was indeed the only real deity.  The others were merely idols fashioned by human hands and imaginations.  Some more conservative Christians are disturbed to think about Israel potentially believing in other gods, but however things happened, Israel’s dedication to YHWH was radical in their polytheistic surroundings.

Many of us who grew up in a Western context find it enough to simply accept the existence of one God, so I appreciate Judaism’s emphasis on not only the number of gods but also the identity of the true God.  God has a name YHWH, typically translated “the LORD” or read by Jews as “Adonai.”  The character of this God matches what we might assume in some ways—but in some regards we may be surprised.

The Hebrew Scriptures always emphasize that YHWH is compassionate, forgiving, a lover of social justice, and a powerful force to be reckoned with, among other things.  Some passages actually explicitly or implicitly compare YHWH to other peoples’ gods.  For example, unlike Baal who doesn’t answer, YHWH never sleeps, always available to his people (1 King 18).  Unlike Marduk, YHWH didn’t make people to be his slaves but to be co-reigners over the earth (Gen. 1, as compared to the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish).  And in contrast with the sexual overtones of most religions, Judaism’s God transcended gender.

We who are Christians are also devoted to this one God who revealed himself as YHWH to Moses at the burning bush and rescued his people from slavery in Egypt.  This story is our heritage—with all of its rich descriptions of God’s character and actions and instruction for us.  When I say with the Nicene Creed that I believe in one God, I like to pause and remember that this is not just any abstract deity that I worship but a deeply personal God who has interacted with human beings throughout history.  And the better I get to know this God, the more I feel grateful that YHWH, in particular, is the one real deal.

This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.

We believe; I believe.

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Πιστεύομεν…
We believe…

So starts the Nicene Creed.  Or at least the version from the Council of Nicaea.  Some ancient liturgical versions instead began in the first-person singular: “I believe.”  Modern recitations of the creed vary, not only by denomination, but even by specific prayer book edition.  And I think I like that.

I like it because I believe emphasizing the we and the I both matter to the Christian faith.  John’s Gospel recounts Jesus praying that we would all be one, just as he is one with the God the Father.  Together we are called the body of Christ, reconciled through the cross not only to God but to each other, built up into a new temple for God.

At the same time, each individual part of the body is considered significant for what it brings to the whole.   Jesus also emphasized, like John the Baptist before him, that merely being born into a Jewish family and following Jewish law was not enough.  Instead, one’s own personal repentance from sin and humility before God was what counted, and on this basis, Gentiles, too, could be included in the community of God.

Today I think we tend to err on one side or the other.  Sometimes we over-emphasize the we.  We rest of the knowledge that we are decent people who grew up going to church rather than owning our faith for ourselves and committing our lives to God.  We consider ourselves part of the Christian group without experiencing the spiritual growth that leads to a meaningful, active faith.  We forget that we are held accountable for our actions and neglect to include Christian teaching as a meaningful part of our decision-making processes.  It is easy sometimes to take our identity as Christians for granted because of the people around us—to resist becoming true followers of Jesus because it’s easier to stand on the fringes of the flock, hoping that will be enough.

On the other hand, we sometimes over-emphasize the I.  We think it possible to remain independent Christians apart from the community of the church.  We surrender to the individualism of Western (esp. American) culture, deciding that your problems have little to do with me and that my life is none of your business.  At best, our privatized religion makes us feel an obligation to people close by, such as our family and friends.  But to see ourselves as part of the larger church or society?  That’s difficult.  Without this sense of connection, we don’t love our neighbors so well, don’t value commitments to others, and don’t appreciate the legacy of church history.  We also miss out on a powerful sense of unity that comes from worshiping in a truly “together” way—rather than worshipping alone, even when surrounded by others.

I like saying the creed as an “I,” and I like saying it as a “we.”  I think we need both—our own faith commitment and a meaningful faith community.  With only one or the other, I think we’re missing out on a crucial part of Christianity.

This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.

What is theology?

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When I was in high school, I wasn’t exposed to much discussion of theology. While I knew theology played an important role in certain events in history (e.g., the Reformation), the only significance of theology in my church experience was defining who was “in” and who was “out.” Any mention of theology focused on a narrow set of topics such as the divinity of Jesus, the pervasiveness of sin, and the importance of salvation by grace through faith and was used exclusively to determine who should be considered a “real Christian.” Of course, theology can be quite useful when it comes to putting boundaries around a group identity, but it is really about much more. In fact, I’ve come to think that theology should stretch to be about as big as God himself.

Michael Pahl, in his new book From Resurrection to New Creation: A First Journey in Christian Theology (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2010), defines theology this way (117):

theology, theological. From Greek theos, “God,” and logia, “rational discourse.” The doctrine of or teaching about the nature, person, and work of God or more generally about the totality of one’s religious beliefs; or, the discipline which studies God and/or religious beliefs.

Theology, then, is primarily about who God is and what God’s doing, but it is also about how our religious beliefs extend beyond God to other important areas of life.

I’ve come to see the proper realm of theology as anything which God might care about—if God’s personhood or work in the world touch it in any way, then it is an area deserving theological study and reflection.  The resurrection of Jesus, prayer, and the Bible might be some obvious topics, but some areas deserving our attention might initially appear entirely secular.  Can we discuss topics like poverty, music, the environment, literature, day care, vacations, or McDonald’s from a theological perspective?  I believe that we can.

Of course few academic theologians have spent much time on day care.  (But that doesn’t mean that none have or that more shouldn’t!)  What does academic theology typically cover?  It depends on the sort of theology.  Here are a few central areas of study:

Systematic theology tries to look at biblical teaching and Christian tradition as a whole and develop theology in a more organized (usually topical) fashion, often drawing heavily from philosophy.  It is sometimes called constructive theology, especially by those who feel traditional systematic theology has often forced theologians to try make theology less messy and complex for the sake of coherence.

Historical theology considers theology over time, with special attention to how Christian teaching has developed in various settings and how these theological developments have influenced the direction of the church.

Biblical theology explores the theology of specific biblical texts (the theology of Israel over time, the theology of Mark, the theology of Paul, etc.) without trying to harmonize the diverse emphases of their authors.

Practical theology focuses on the theology of church ministry (liturgy, pastoral care, evangelism, etc.).

I consider academic theology to be full of important information and tools for the church, making the study of theology through formal coursework, reading, and research quite valuable.  At the same time, just because pastors and professors with seminary degrees may have greater access to certain resources doesn’t mean that regular people shouldn’t be doing theology, too.

In fact, anyone with any thoughts on God whatsoever is, in a sense, doing theology.  While not everyone is called to academia, the whole church is called to the task of better understanding God and sharing him with others, making it important that all Christian communities aim to be gatherings of thoughtful theologians.

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