June 15, 2008

God the Father

Father's DayI've always liked Father's Day. It does not seem to be quite as hyped as Mother's Day, and I suppose I am somewhat more comfortable shopping for Father's Day gifts simply because I'm entering more familiar territory. On this Father's Day, I find myself thinking about a different sort of father figure, that of the Christian god. If Father's Day is an occasion for reflecting on the meaning of fatherhood, then it seems appropriate to ponder the supernatural father Christians have created for themselves.

In something of a departure from my usual focus, I'd like to consider the god of liberal to moderate Christians rather than that of the Christian extremists. Why? I suppose I find this god a bit more interesting in this context.
We can dispense so easily with the Christian extremists' god by pointing out that no god behaving in the way this one is depicted in the Christian bible deserves any sort of worship. This is an angry, cruel, and even jealous god. It is an infantile representation of the worst of the human psyche. Imagine an angry 2-year-old with unlimited power having a bad day.

In bringing us their god, Christian moderates minimize the importance of hell and essentially ignore the Old Testament and many parts of the New Testament. They are determined to give us a loving god who only sometimes finds it necessary to punish us. If we believe and try hard to lead good lives, they insist, we will be rewarded. Punishments such as hell are reserved for the worst of us. Theirs is held up as a fair god who behaves much like a nurturing parent.

While the god of Christian extremists resembles only the most psychopathic human father imaginable, the one worshiped by most moderate Christians is one we can relate to many human fathers. If we imagine a continuum of common parenting styles ranging from mostly strict on one end to mostly nurturant on the other, we can capture much of the variability we find in conceptions of the Christian god. Liberal Christians emphasize the nurturant god; conservative Christians identify with the strict god.

George Lakoff's excellent Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think demonstrates the link between an approach to parenting and where one falls on the political spectrum. He even lays the groundwork for applying the nurturant-strict continuum to conceptions of the Christian god.

We all know that there are many different kinds of fathers being celebrated today. Christians are fond of pointing out that there is great variability among them too. This seems to be the case. Perhaps there are as many conceptions of the Christian god as there are of our fathers.