Wednesday, September 07, 2011

God The Father

Soon, I'll be a dad for the second time. I've been a father for two years now, and I find myself returning with great frequency to the image of God as father. Being a father changes the way you see God, and the way you see God's love.

But it doesn't change everyone the same way.

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I recently took a road trip with a group of friends from college. The timing of the trip was a little tricky. Because our second child is due here any day, we wanted to go as early as possible. But one of the guys, Brendan, had recently had a kid, and, as any parent knows, you don't want to leave shortly after having a baby. So basically we wanted to go as late as possible. Like I said, the planning was tricky. Eventually we were able to find a time that worked, and I'm immensely glad we did. It was an amazing trip, though a little overfull with long overnight drives.

One of those night drives had Brendan and I taking over duties as driver and navigator, and, as might be expected, our conversation turned to fatherhood. It was invigorating to talk to the new dad. It was a great reminder of what it was like to have a newborn at home, discovering the world along with your child, marveling at each basic function: "Look at him grab my finger!" "Wow, he's able to hold up his head!" "Ooh! That's a good poop!"

As we were talking, Brendan mentioned that he too had revisited the concept of God as Father, which he suddenly found had a lot more meaning. Both of us had thought it to be a fairly routine image of God, when we came to it from the perspective of the child. We knew fathers loved their children, we just didn't understand how unconditionally - and how spontaneous - that love could truly be. But switching over to the father perspective gave us new insights. Fatherly love is special. It isn't prompted by any action or motivated by a cause. It just pours out. Fatherly love for a child occurs because the child occurs. It turns out that God as father isn't a routine image after all. It's profound.

I think a lot of truths about God's love are caught up in this revelation. God loves us unconditionally. God loves us spontaneously. God doesn't love us because we do something, He loves us because we exist. There's some depth here. Only after becoming a dad did I really start to uncover that depth.

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Uncovering the depth of fatherly love doesn't necessitate becoming closer to God. Another friend of mine, Tim, seems to have had a very different experience. Tim was a fairly devout Christian, regularly attending churches, studying Scripture and other religious texts, decorating his office with reminders of his faith - the whole kit and caboodle. Tim was the kind of man who, despite a general skepticism in all other matters, trusted God. He trusted God's choices and he trusted God's plan.

And then he became a father. Tim, as I said, isn't the kind of person who trusts the world. He's acutely aware of the bad things that can happen to people, the bad choices people can make, and the ways that those choices can derail a life - or worse. He feared - as all fathers do - that something bad might happen to his son. Thus, Tim found himself confronting the classic theological Problem of Evil. How can God be good and loving if he allows bad things to happen? Tim's question was even more refined. In our conversations he said that he was willing to set aside natural disasters and other such elements; his question was how can God be good if he allows people to do bad things? That is, how can God be good if he gives us free will?

Tim came to think that protecting those we love from harm is more important than letting them choose to make a bad or dangerous decision. God chose free will. Tim chose protection. It was a philosophical disagreement with God. That disagreement has led to some considerable changes in Tim's life. He's very much the same person - and as a practicing Buddhist, still a person of faith - but he has rejected God on philosophical grounds. He no longer is willing to trust God's choice.

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Becoming a father had a significant religious effect in our lives. For Brendan and myself it prompted a deeper understanding of God's love. For Tim, that same love led to a profound disagreement with The Almighty. But despite the different outcomes, I think the roots are buried in the same ground.

Brendan and I came to a deeper understanding with God because we fundamentally agreed with his choice. But that doesn't mean we don't feel the tension presented by the problem of evil. If anything bad ever happened to our children, we would both exist in a world beyond grief. Now that I am a father I certainly feel the evil in the world more intensely then I did before, and specifically I worry for my son's sake. I get what Tim feels.

Likewise, Tim felt that same new depth of love that Brendan and I experienced. Tim's love for his son - which parallels God's love for us - prompted a different conclusion than the one God chose, but he's still a person of faith who actively seeks to make the world a more peaceful and stable place, wherein people - including his son - can safely seek out their own choices. He disagrees with God, but that doesn't mean he doesn't see the merit on the other side.

I think that's what this post boils down to: being a father enables a depth of understanding that doesn't exist before that experience. I have a truer connection to God's love, now that I am a dad. At the same time, I have a deeper appreciation for the seriousness of the problem of evil. There's a tension there that being a dad allows me to access in a unique way.

Yes, on an academic level anyone can assess the problem of evil and the merits of God's choice to allow freewill. But becoming a parent enables a more intimate window into the mind of God. I understand God's love in a way I never did before. I understand the threat of evil in a way I never did before. And, in a way I never did before, I understand how profound God's resolution of that tension is. Like Tim, I don't know that I would make the same choice that God did. But, unlike Tim, I'm willing to trust God, and I'm glad he was strong enough to give us free will.

Soon the stream of people gets wider
Then it becomes a river