Winter 1986, Vol. 38, pp. 361-368.

Mary Ann Fatula:
      Current Trends: On Calling God "Father"

Sr. Mary Ann, O.P., holds a doctorate in systematic theology from the Catholic University of America and chairs the Religious Studies Department of Ohio Dominican College.

"BECAUSE you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying, "Abba! Father" (Gal 4:6). For many contemporary readers, this passage expressing the trinitarian reality central to the Christian experience presents a problematic on two levels. The first difficulty and the one most easily addressed concerns the Christian community to whom these words are proclaimed. Women are daughters, not sons of God, and many of us have learned to adjust our language accordingly in order to affirm explicitly women's and men's equal dignity before God.

On the other hand, the second part of the passage touches upon a problem at a second, more complex level. People who have suffered neglect or abuse from men often refuse to employ masculine words and especially the name "Father" in referring to God. Even those who have been fathered in strong and tender ways and who have relationships of equality with respectful and caring men sometimes are reluctant to use male gender nouns or pronouns in referring to God because they feel that language of this kind fosters a second class status for women.


While some of us remain oblivious to these concerns, others of us bend over backwards to use inclusive language. Many of us accordingly edit the second part of the passage to read something like the following, "God has sent the Spirit of God's Child into our hearts crying out, "God" (or, "Abba, Father, Imma, Mother"). And precisely at this point, if we are honest, more than a few of us who are comfortable adjusting the first part of the passage to read, "Because you are sons and daughters," feel some discomfort and perhaps even dishonesty as we edit the second half of the passage.

Now there are those who would say that reluctance to edit all masculine references to God stems from sexism or from immature dependence on father figures. And while this may be the case in not a few instances, what I want to suggest here is that this discomfort may well come instead from an inarticulate intuition inspired by the Holy Spirit, an intuition into the very truth which Galatians proclaims. For the contemporary call to inclusive language in our prayer and talk about God surely raises issues which invite us to a reflection more profound and solutions less facile than we initially might have thought.

Certainly it is easier for us simply to cut out a problematic word like "father" rather than to do the hard work of uncovering its meaning in the experience of Jesus and its consequent significance for our own lives. Yet our own integrity calls us to this task. For being a Christian means nothing less than entering with our whole being into Jesus experience, allowing him to take hold of us, to claim us, and to make his experience our own: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). Following upon insights gained both from medieval mystics and modern feminists, much recent attention has been given to the profound way that God is our true mother. So it can serve only to broaden and deepen our perspective to reflect also on a question which perhaps has received little attention in light of our contemporary focus on inclusive language: can we grow to a deeper understanding and experience of God precisely as Jesus' Father, and therefore as our own Father as well? And if we can, why should we?


We human beings inevitably create "primal" words to symbolize a reality inseparable from our own meaning. Father is such a symbol, a word imbedded so deeply into our subconscious precisely because at the source of our existence and meaning there is for each one of us not only a mother but also and undeniably a father. Yet each of us needs a father not only as an initial physical origin but also as a father in fact, a person whose presence, love, and care for us continue in our lives. And although painful circumstances may rob us of this reality, some secret place within us knows that this deprivation is not how things ought to be, that we are intended to grow as persons through the enduring love and presence not only of a woman who is our mother but also of a man who is truly our father.

Undoubtedly, our own personal experience defines what the name "father" comes to mean to us. For some of us the very word cuts into our hearts and opens wounds of abandonment and betrayal, of absence and abuse and pain we would give anything not to have known. And for others of us, the name "father" evokes a sense of gladness and faithful presence, of unconditional love and unselfish giving, of memories that make us smile with gratitude.

But what did the word "father" mean to Jesus? It is true that the Hebrew Scriptures sometimes speak of God acting toward us like a gentle mother (Is. 49:14-15) or a tender father (Ps. 103:13-1; Hos. 11:1-4), but biblical scholars also point out that the sacred Hebrew word "Yahweh" signified a God so transcendent that no devout Jew would dare even to pronounce this name. All the more, then, no Jew would have dared to address God with the startling intimacy which springs spontaneously from the lips of Jesus himself: "Abba," "Papa," "Daddy." The Creator of the universe who dwells "in inaccessible light," whose name no one can speak, Jesus dares to call "Father."

Scholars like Jeremias (1) and Schillebeeckx (2) have shown that Jesus experience of God as "Abba" was so central to his personal meaning that it claimed and defined his entire identity. And in an amazing act of love Jesus gives to his disciples a gift so radical that its use will distinguish them as his own. This most intimate and personal name which Jesus alone used of God, "Abba, Father," is now to be the one by which they themselves are to commune with God as familiarly as a child snuggles close to its mothers breast or lies safe and secure in its fathers arms. Jesus invites his followers into such unreserved union with himself that his own experience of his Father's extraordinary closeness and care is to become their own: "When you pray, say 'Father' . . ." (Lk. 11:2).

Jesus thus takes a word of tender familiarity, a word little children used of their own fathers, and, applying it to the God who utterly surpasses the limitations of male gender, gives it a radically transcendent meaning. The name "Abba" for Jesus thus does not mean "man" nor any other created reality. What, then, does it mean? Here, precisely, is the heart of the matter: we do not yet know fully what "Abba" signifies, nor will we until heaven. There, the personal God whose intimacy with us can only be hinted at in the name "Abba" will be unveiled to us by the one whose home has forever been this Fathers heart: "No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known' (Jn. 1:18).

Although all human language stands dumb before the absolute mystery of God, not every name is necessarily as valuable as any other in attempting to speak of this mystery. The God of Jesus is certainly "Creator of the Universe" and "Source of All Being." But far more importantly -- and precisely because of all possible names Jesus himself has given us this one alone -- God is our "Father." In bequeathing his own name for God to us, Jesus does not take an ordinary household word and use it simply as a metaphor, as if to say, "God is like a father," just as God is also in some way like a shepherd and like a rock. No, it is God as "Abba" who defines the meaning of true fatherhood and motherhood and not the other way around, for the very best of human fathering and mothering gives only a minuscule hint of what it means that God is our Father.

This is why contemporary authors such as Diane Tennis(3) and Robert Hamerton-Kelly(4) rightly emphasize that Jesus use of the name "Father" for God, far from fostering the patriarchy which subjugates women to men, stands in fact as a radical critique of patriarchal systems. "Do not call anyone on earth your father. Only one is your father, the One in heaven" (Mt. 23:9).

As Hamerton-Kelly points out, in using the name "Father" for God, Jesus robs of its absolute power every institution which would compete with the supremacy of God. By the name "Father," Jesus thus aims a searing critique precisely at the patriarchy from whose power he intends to free his disciples. (5) Far from being a way to further male domination, the name "Father" for Jesus signifies the God whose love and tenderness call us into a family where equality and mutual respect are to reign. Our Father thus frees us from any claims made upon us that do not respect us as free persons and in Jesus calls us to an entirely new kind of family based not on the ties of kinship and fate but upon grace and freedom.(6)

The tragic irony is that this tender name for God which Jesus has given us has been "interpreted out of context to present a male god who secures the primacy of the male."(7) Precisely because this has been so, Hamerton-Kelly stresses our need to uncover what the name "Father" meant for Jesus in order to reclaim its saving significance for us today.


Diane Tennis complements the above biblical approach with a feminist perspective and asks what irreplaceable value there is for us as women in knowing God precisely as our Father. She shows that a great wound of our society is exactly the absence of loving and reliable fathers. And so we women learn to take upon ourselves "enormous responsibility for the world," assuming the duties of both mother and father in the sacrificial role of "Inexhaustible Earth Mother." To reject God as our Father is thus to imprison ourselves even more deeply in damaging stereotypical roles by relegating the capacity for tenderness and faithful care to women alone. In this way we tolerate irresponsibility and "let men off the hook."(8)

And although we need to recapture the profound way that God is also our true mother, Tennis points out the destructive implications for women ultimately if God is viewed only as mother. Even with their historical limitations -- limitations inherent in all that is human -- the Hebrew religion and Christianity itself opposed the depreciation of women fostered by nature religions in their worship of a mother goddess. While seeming to exalt women to the status of the divine, such religions in fact reduced her value to the fertility of her body. For this reason Tennis emphasizes that focus on "women's special nature . . . symbolized in Mother Goddess is dangerous to women," since this kind of focus reduces us to one stereotypical role instead of freeing us "for the fullest measure and complexity of our humanity."(9)

Tennis concludes that our need as women and men for a faithful and caring father is too deep and ineradicable a component of our human meaning simply to abandon this symbol for God. On the contrary, we need to free it from distortions linking it with domination by drinking in the truth the Scriptures proclaim to us.

For the Father of Jesus knows and loves each one of us so intimately that every single hair on our head is counted (Mt. 10:30). This is the Father who refuses to give up on us, who searches for us when we sin because his own heart feels such tenderness for us. He throws his arms around our neck and covers us with kisses in our very weakness; having found us he cries out that all of heaven and earth must celebrate because his lost child has been found, his dead child has come back to life (Lk. 15:18-23). This Father desires us to trust him without reserve and yearns to lavish his care upon us in our every need (Mt. 7:11; Lk. 11:13).

These and other Gospel passages can only hint at the unbelievable tenderness which Jesus unveils to us in the one he calls "Father." But by recovering precisely this content of Jesus' own experience, we can open ourselves to the Father's extraordinary tenderness in our own lives and at the same time, as Tennis points out, hold out a "critique of patriarchal domination and violence within a male symbol."(10) In this way the symbol itself can be used "to create a different human situation," a world in which women and men respect and relate to each other as equals.(11)


What are some practical implications we can draw from the above insights? First of all, certainly we need to become sensitive and respectful toward one another by using inclusive language in our reference to human persons. But this goal will not be served by abandoning or apologizing for the very name Jesus has given us for God. This means that our commitment to inclusive language entails also a commitment to what we might call "inclusive respect" among us. It is important for us not to dismiss automatically as chauvinists or reactionaries men and women who, while being sensitive to inclusive language in referring to the community, nevertheless continue to use masculine words for God. For their language usage may in fact come from considerable reflection on the problematic consequences of the alternatives, and in this way render a presently thankless but ultimately invaluable service to the whole community.

If we ourselves reflect on the alternatives to male gender words, options such as not using personal pronouns at all or saying "his/ her" in speaking of God, we discover difficulties arguably greater than those presented by simply using the masculine words in question. The first option, for example, does little to foster a sense of the triune God's supremely personal presence, while the second applies to God language we would consider an aberration if employed of a human person.

This first point leads us to a second, more fundamental implication. We can grow in "inclusive respect" for one another only if each of us has the courage to speak out of the truth within his or her own heart rather than from fear of others' displeasure. While some may find it impossible at this point in their lives to call God "Father," others of us must speak of the Father precisely in fidelity to our own experience of his intimate presence in our lives and prayer. If out of cowardice we fail to do so, we betray our own identity and hold back the gift we could be to our brothers and sisters in the community. And as we learn to speak from the truth within us, we cannot help learning also to truly listen and hear the truth within others.

Finally, our own prayer and reflection on the Scriptures will show us how we can convey a sense of the Father's healing presence even to those bereft of or embittered by their experience of a human father. Because the Father of Jesus transcends the content of all human fathering, the God to whom this symbol refers has the power to heal every wound of grief or bitterness we can suffer because of a human fathers absence or abuse. We can trust, therefore, that in our leading of prayer and speaking of God, there is an approach ultimately more healing than the short-term solution of deleting "Father" and substituting another word.

For as we allow the Father's tenderness to pervade our own lives, we will find that we can hardly refrain from speaking of this Father. And as we do so, we may well find that we ourselves, both women and men, can become a means of conveying this tenderness to those who would otherwise never have known the intimacy, mercy and healing waiting for us in the arms of the one Jesus has invited us to call "Abba, Father."

  1. Joachim Jeremias, "Abba," in Abba, Studien zur neutestamentlichen Theologie and Zeitgeschichte (Gtittingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1966).
  2. Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (New York: Seabury, 1979).
  3. Diane Tennis, Is God the Only Reliable Father? (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985).
  4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, God the Father: Theology and Patriarchy in the Teaching of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979).
  5. Ibid., p. 102.
  6. Ibid., p. 100.
  7. Ibid., p. 103. Hamerton-Kelly takes seriously Mary Daly's critique of patriarchal power (Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation [Boston: Beacon, 1973]), but instead of rejecting God as Father, he uncovers the freeing significance of the Father in Jesus experience.
  8. Tennis, p. 53.
  9. Ibid., p. 30.
  10. Ibid., p. 90. For this reason, Tennis also points out here the difference of her own approach with that of authors such as Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza (In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins [New York: Crossroad, 19831) who show that the "Father" signifies also the tenderness and warmth characteristic of a woman and mother. Tennis notes that such a perspective ultimately enhances the stereotype of woman as the only gender capable of such qualities and in this way again lets men "off the hook."
  11. Ibid., p. 22.