Sunday, January 27, 2013

God as Father

Monday is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas. This reminds me to share something from his compendium of Summa Theologica that helps to explain God as Father.

God is pure spirit and the Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear that He has no gender in paragraph 239, “We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God.” One might conclude that there is no particular reason to call God Father other than our own sexist bias. Why not say “Mother”, “Divine Parent”, “Great Spirit” or “The Big Man Upstairs”?

Whenever I hear some refer to God as “The Big Man Upstairs” there seems to be a strong correlation between that title and a deficient (or non-existent) relationship with God.

I’ve heard it said that the reason we should call God Father is simply because Jesus called Him Father and we should follow suit. I suppose this is a reason, but it leaves me uninspired. Inspiration (for me) comes from reading St. Thomas Aquinas, and of course, other theologians who help explain Aquinas.
Before getting to Aquinas we can first step into some High Christology from John’s Gospel where we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). We also read, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14). From here we can make some distinction between a word and an idea or a thought. Physical words are meant to express some other “thing”, idea or thought. The Word of God as described in John’s gospel is not a physical vibration from vocal cords formed by the mouth, tongue and lips; a thing of the air. We might say the Word of God is more like the “thought” of God.
We also should make a distinction between the thought and the thinker. If you were to think of yourself, you would have some imperfect image of yourself in your mind. If God were to contemplate Himself, there would be no deficiency in it; this would be a perfect thought or perfect image, or God himself. Going back to the beginning of John’s gospel, it can be helpful to use “thought” in place of “word”, so we would have, “In the beginning was the Thought, and the Thought was with God, and the Thought was God.”, “And the Thought became flesh (God incarnate), and dwelt among us,…”
What do these seemingly useless mental gymnastics have to do with St. Thomas? Chapter thirty-nine of his compendium of theology is entitled Relation of the Word to the Father. Aquinas relates a thought in the mind as a kind of offspring of the intellect when he says, “What is conceived in the intellect is a likeness of the thing understood and represents its species; and so it seems to be a sort of offspring of the intellect”. The intellect itself can resemble a mother, whose function is such that conception takes place in her. The thing thought about resembles a father since it acts on the intellect to make an offspring, which is the idea or thought.
Ø  An object, let’s say a bird, acts on the human intellect through sensory input from the sight, sound, smell, (taste?), and touch of a bird.

Ø  The bird flies away, but the idea of the bird conceived in the intellect remains as an imperfect image of the bird.

Ø  The image of the bird is a product (offspring if you will) of both the intellect and the bird itself.

Therefore, if the thing being thought of is God, it is God acting on the intellect resembling a father, so to speak. Now if God’s intellect were to contemplate and understand Himself, the thought conceived would be a perfect image of God better known to us as the second person of the trinity (the Word was God). Therefore, the thought, or the Word, or Jesus relates to God as a Son relates to a Father.

Although God has no gender, Father is the most reasonable term for us to use considering the logic above along with the kind of close family relationship God wants with us. The nature of God, the wisdom of the Church and St. Thomas Aquinas all come together to give us a whole new perspective on that modern-day phrase…“Who’s Your Daddy?”


  1. Interesting way of putting it! I never thought of that before!

    But the Lord has blessed me with knowledge of another reason for why we mere mortals call God "Father" and how the two sexes glorify Him in different ways: God's love for us is more like a father's love than a mother's love.

    A mother's love is invested, which is why she cares for her children--she can only have so many and so it's like caring for her own body. A father's love is gratuitous, because he's physically capable of having many more children. The same amount of love elicits different responses: "Aww, isn't that just like a mother?" "Wow, what a great father that man is!" God's love for us is definitely gratuitous.

    That being the case, men and boys glorify God in terms of His relationship to us, vertically. Women and girls glorify God in terms of the intimacy of the three Divine Persons, horizontally. Hmm...vertical + horizontal = Cross?

    But your way explains better why, given an alternative scenario in which there is nothing but God, the same God we know, the First and Second Persons of the Trinity would be called the Father and the Son instead of the "Mother" and the "Daughter". (After all, in that scenario, Jesus would not have a human nature, only Divinity.) So that helps me to appreciate it better! Thanks, and God bless!

  2. One aspect that has felt important to me is that just as the (judiciously employed, occasional) language of "Sophia" can emphasize the immanence of the Holy Spirit, the consistent and more central language of God the Father emphasizes the absolute transcendence of God. An archetypal image of a baby learning to walk is for the child to move from the mother's arms to the father's. As God is our transcendent telos, it seems appropriate to think of Him as the Father to Whom our stumbling Way of the Cross up out of the Darwinian logic of "mother nature" leads.

  3. Pair O' Dimes & Irenist,
    Thanks for the input. Amazing how many different ways one can contemplate God as Father. Like any mystery, it’s an invitation to the mind.