Sunday, June 19, 2011

Reimagining God the Father

Did the artist intend to show a gay Father God? God’s halo is a pink triangle, an LGBT symbol, in “Heavenly Father,” a stained glass window at St. Virgil Church, Morris Plains, NJ. Photo by Loci B. Lenar © 2010. 

Reimagining God the Father may lift the spirits of some LGBT people and our allies today (June 19), which happens to be both Father’s Day and Trinity Sunday.

Can God the Father be as gentle and caring as a mother? Is He like a gay father? Do LGBT people have unique ways of redefining fatherhood that can enlighten others? I have no definite answers, but I share the following resources on alternative and even queer ways to re-envision God the Father.

Today, on Father’s Day, I dare to consider the fatherhood of God again -- by reimagining what it means to be God the Father. I seek a Father God who is as warm and nurturing as a mother… or a gay father. Trinity Sunday is also a good time to re-evaluate God the Father because it celebrates the doctrine of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or, in inclusive terms, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit.)

Many people, myself included, have turned away from the traditionally masculine Father God who is cold, distant, strict and domineering. The concept of God the Father may be hopelessly poisoned for some people who were abused by fathers or father figures. I honor the need to find other images to build a loving relationship with the divine… and the need to find empowering new models of sacred fatherhood.

I came to spiritual maturity at a time when “God the Father” was a dirty word in my church. We needed liberation from the old male-dominated, top-down religion that oppressed women and LGBT people. We read feminist theologians such as Mary Daly, who wrote in Beyond God the Father, “If God is male, then male is God. The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination.”

At my church we took the offensive and cut out the Father God from our Bibles and hymnals. Instead we used “inclusive language.” Male words were replaced with neutral words, so “Father” became “Parent” or “Creator.” Once in a while we allowed “Father” to return, but only if He was balanced by “Mother.”

After more than a decade of inclusive language, I find myself intrigued by God the Father for several reasons. First, the genderless Creator God has begun to seem cold and distant too. Female images of God or Goddess aren’t enough for me. And there are still plenty of flesh-and-blood fathers in need of spiritual role models.

Then there’s Jesus, my inspiration in so many ways. He often spoke of God as his father. When he prayed he called God “Abba,” an intimate, affectionate Aramaic word that is more like “Daddy” than “Father.” His loving father-son connection with God encourages me to look for new ways of understanding God the Father in hopes of deepening my own relationship with God.

Along the way I found the following materials that reimagine God the Father:
Family photos of gay fathers with their children
New Hymn: Warm Father God
Ancient Hymn: Milk of Father God
Native American Father Spirit art
and queer visions from literature, art and theology.

Gay fathers
Gay fathers are on the forefront of redefining fatherhood. I hope that their photos here will inspire people to see God the Father in liberating new ways.

I had a terrible time finding images to illustrate a nurturing God the Father. It proved to me the need to “reimagine” fatherhood itself, regardless of religious beliefs about God the Father. Finally I remembered the family photos of some loving gay fathers who are friends of the Jesus in Love Blog. They are two different a gay couples that adopted children. I contacted them and both families agreed to share their photos here.

A South African family with two dads! Michael Worsnip, left, and Leon Putzier are the fathers of Gabriel, 7, and Joshua, 9. They adopted their sons at the ages of 3 months and 5 months respectively. Michael has posted the story of their adoption on his blog Hell’s Teeth, where he also writes about LGBT religious art and much more.

Father-son bonding with Michael Worsnip, Gabriel and Joshua.

An Iowa family with two dads! Jon Trouten, back center, and his husband Mark Holbrook with their sons D’Angelo and Leslie. They are adoptive parents of one son and legal guardians of the other son. Jon writes about family life at Jon’s Blog. Among my favorite posts are:

Coming out to my son (This will make you laugh.)
Mother’s Day when you have no mother

Hymn: Warm Father God
Gender stereotypes about God are broken in “Bring Many Names,” a hymn by Brian Wren, one of the world’s best known contemporary hymn writers. This verse presents a fresh view of God the Father:

Warm father God, hugging every child,
Feeling all the strains of human living,
Caring and forgiving, till we’re reconciled:
Hail and Hosanna, warm father God!

Bonus: Other verses shatter age and gender stereotypes by singing the praises of “strong mother God” and my personal favorite, “old, aching God.” Click here for all the lyrics. Click here to hear it on video.

“Bring Many Names” appears in many modern hymnals. Wren is the author of “Hymns for Today.”

Hymn: Milk of Father God
God the Father is explicitly male AND female in a second-century hymn. Check out this mind-blowing excerpt from Ode 19 of the Odes to Solomon:

A cup of milk was offered to me,
and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
The Son is the cup,
and the Father is He who was milked;
and the Holy Spirit is She who milked him;
Because His breasts were full,
and it was undesirable that His milk should be ineffectually released.
The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom,
and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father…
The womb of the Virgin took it,
and she received conception and gave birth.

This appears in The Earliest Christian Hymnbook: The Odes of Solomon, translated by James Charlesworth, or online at this link.

Native American Great Father

The Trinity
by Father John Giuliani
What if God the Father is Native American, Black, Asian or Latino? If the Creator is going to be an old man, I’d rather see him as dark-skinned sometimes.

I especially like the Native American visions of the Creator as the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka, Keeper of the Sky, and so on. Somehow they bring out a wiser, gentler side of the Father.

Father John Giuliani unites indigenous American and Christian imagery in “The Trinity,” shown here by permission The Great Father appears with a full headdress of falcon feathers in a halo of light. His open hands deliver the Son, a Christ figure who is a Sioux warrior. The Holy Spirit hovers between them in the form of a falcon, completing the Trinity. The Father, with his long, white hair flowing, seems androgynous and humble… a much-needed vision for our time.

Giuliani is known for creating Christian icons with Native American symbols, expanding the concept of holiness and honoring Native American Indians as the original spiritual presence on this land. His work is a prophetic sign celebrating the reconciliation of native and Christian peoples. Giuliani is also a Catholic priest and founder of the Benedictine Grange, a contemplative monastic community in Connecticut.

Charles Frizzell is another artist who does Native American spiritual art, including a Father-God figure called “Keeper of the Sky.” Click here and scroll down to see it on his website.

Father as Twin
In my “Jesus in Love” novels, Jesus starts out perceiving God the Father as an old man, but as Jesus ages they become identical. Here is an excerpt from Jesus in Love: At the Cross in which Jesus describes his prayer time in Gethsemane, shortly before his arrest:

“I raised my head and saw my Father sitting on a nearby log. When I was a child I thought He looked ancient and care-worn. He didn’t change, but I did. I had grown to look just like Him. We looked more like twins than a father and son. I went over and knelt at His feet. He steadied me with his kind gaze, then handed me the now-familiar gold cup….”

Queer Trinity?
The Trinity
by Douglas Blanchard
Jesus and God also appear to be the same age in “The Trinity” (at left) from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” by Douglas Blanchard.  Instead of Father and Son, they seem more like Lover and Beloved, which is another interpretation of the Trinity.  Click here for more about this painting.

The Trinity has inspired queer theologians to question God’s gender. The Holy Spirit is often presented as the female person of the Trinity, so that seems to make God into a transgender, omnigender or genderqueer -- not fitting the standard “male” and “female” duality. The following resources offer more queer theological reflections on the Trinity:

Celebrate the Feast of the (Queer) Holy Trinity at queeringthechurch.com

Gavin D’Costa’s chapter “The Queer Trinity” in Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body

The Queer God by Marcella Althaus-Reid.

The prayer formerly known as
“Our Father”
I close this reflection with a new version of the prayer that’s usually called the “Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father,” based on the first words of the standard translation. In inclusive language, we called it “the prayer that Jesus taught.” This refreshing version was written by Yvonne Aburrow (also known as Yewtree), a friend of the Jesus in Love Blog. She is a Unitarian and a Wiccan who blogs on spirituality at The Dance of the Elements.

O Genderless Engenderer,
Flame of life at the heart of all things,
Holy, holy, holy are your names.
Your republic of informed hearts is always within us and around us.
Your mysterious way unfolds before us
as matter and spirit dance together to create life.
May the finite tell its stories to the infinite
and may the infinite lend its everlasting peace to the finite.
May our hearts be open to forgiveness given and received,
and may we move accurately in harmony with all
and remain present in the now.
The republic of heaven on earth is all and each of us
reverberating with glory and power
in infinite space-time.
Amen.
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12 comments:

Trudie said...

This blog post is indeed so rich that I will enjoy visiting it over and over again to truly savor it -- like a wonderful banquet of savory dishes!

My first comment, though, will be on the topic of gay fathers. It is a bitter irony, I think, that many gay men are denied the blessing of fatherhood by dual sanctions: the cultural mode that usually grants custody in divorce cases to the female parent, and the refusal of adoption to gay males.

Interestingly, two of my earliest interactions in the gay community after moving to Atlanta involved these issues. The first was a man who by dint of great effort had succeeded in adopting a child from Latin America. The second was a couple we met and interacted with who were similar to us, in that he was gay and she was not. The difference was that she had known of his sexuality when they married, rather than discovering it later. However, there came a time when she wanted to call it quits.

She called and asked me if I would testify on her behalf at a custody hearing for their twelve-year-old daughter. I told her bluntly that from my personal observation, her husband was by far the more nurturing and therefore qualified parent, and if I testified, that would be my statement. Needless to say, I didn't hear from her again.

Terence Weldon said...

Thanks for this, Kitt. As a gay father myself, I take great exception to the traditional stereotypes of masculinity and fatherhood. While still married, temperament and the circumstances of my wife's chronic problems with depression combined to put me into many of the traditionally "female" roles, especially cooking and child care. Later, after the marriage broke down, for a while I lived as a single parent, where necessarily I took on all parental roles.

Later still, after settling down with a male partner, he became very much a second father to my two daughters (albeit only part-time, as they were again living with my wife and her brother). The effect on my two daughters is instructive.

Both have made explicit, to me and to others close to them, that they are convinced it was my input as father that kept them stable through the difficulties arising from their mother's sever mental health problems (including numerous suicide attempts,one very nearly completed). One of the two is explicit, thinking not only of me, but of my partner. In print, on-line, and in conversation, her attitude is simple. She belives that our example as parents provided her with better moral role models than many of her school mates had from their more traditional families. Of children with gay parents, her response is "lucky child". Of gay parents themselves, she says "I recommend them."

I know what I did to keep my girls stable and healthy in extremely difficult circumstances; what I went through when my in-laws tried to restrict my access to the girls on the grounds of the "immoral" impact my life would supposedly have on them; and I know the reality of what this impact in fact did have on them: today they are both superbly stable, successful professional women, in sound marriages, and excellent mothers themselves.

I get frankly enraged at any suggestion that we who are queer are somehow unsuited to parenting.

Sage said...

This is WONDERFUL Kitt! Last year at "The Whole World is a Single Flower" blog I did a 30 day series dedicated to Father's that began on Father's Day entitled "Dancing with My Father and Him Holding My Hand." That was an act of complete and pure love. I can feel that same kind of love here with this piece, which of course is a love that is beyond gender or any other way we could try to quantify it. Just wonderful. Thank you Kitt!

Yewtree said...

Thanks for this wonderful post, and thanks for including my prayer. I did another version later on called Mother Spirit (which did not start out as a version of the Prayer of Jesus but ended up that way as I wrote it).

I also love the hymns of Brian Wren, especially Name Unnamed.

Thanks to all the gay dads who have shared their stories in the post and in the comments - very moving. There's an excellent book by Malidoma Somé where he talks about gay parenting and how he feels it is really sad that many gay men are deprived of parenting, as in his (indigenous African) culture being gay and a parent is quite usual.

Jon said...

Thanks for sharing our story, Kitt! The entire blog article looks great.

Personally, I've never been a fan of demasculinizing (is that a word?) God. But I've also never liked efforts to ignored God's female imagery. We're all made in God's image and that means both female and male.

I'm also really glad that you shared "Bring Man Names". We sing it periodically at our church and I really enjoy it.

C.W.S. said...

Well. As one of the "cutters" that produced that long-ago hymnal (20 yrs back now) I will say that attitudes evolve over time; as George Rawson's 1835 hymn We limit not the truth of God puts it: For God has yet more light and truth to break forth from the Word. As those of us who made those decisions discuss them today, we are perhaps more inclined to see "Father" as one of God's many names which can be retained at times.

However, a truly inclusive form of worship that still retains our historic legacy of the hymnic literature will, of necessity, "demasculinize" God more often than not, simply because the Father-Son language is so predominant that it completely overwhelms the comparatively (very) few instances of God as Mother or female Spirit. This is why balance can be a good thing.

That said, the hymnal did include the unaltered Children of the heavenly Father and, of course, Bring many names, which was sung fairly often. Also, we both know people who, at the time, would have objected in the strongest possible terms if there had been much more Father language.

While some are looking for an occasional Father reference, we must remember that there are still others for whom that connection has been, as you say, hopelessly poisoned. And others who are fine with a God beyond gender. So it's a good thing that God is big enough to encompass all our perceptions (many now use the term "expansive language" rather than "inclusive") To turn to another hymm reference (sorry, I can't help it), see the final stanza of George Matheson's Gather us in, O Love that fillest all (1890):

Some seek a parent in the heav’ns above;
Some wish a human image to adore;
Some crave a spirit vast as life and love;
Within thy mansions we have all and more.

RevDan said...

Thanks for this blog...wonderful...beautiful...gorgeous images

I would strongly recommend "Families Like Mine: Children of Gay Parents tell it like it is" by Abigail Garner. It covers the whole range of experiences of children of GLBT parents.

I am the son of a gay man (sadly he died many years ago) and a straight mother. I loved and admired my father dearly, he was fun and loving, he loved his children in so many ways. That said when it came to some of the more basic nurturing elements he was not great. He was great with the fun stuff, but the rest he was not there for.

I think we need to be careful not to stereotype and make claims that just because some one is of a certain orientation that it some how makes them more caring and nurturing. In my expereince honesty is far more helpful. I recommend Abigail's book to you because it is written from the perspective of many children.

Thank you one again for an excellant post and for including Yvonne's beautiful prayer.

KittKatt said...

Trudie called this post “a wonderful banquet,” and the comments are definitely part of the feast. Thanks to all seven of your for your comments, and for all the additional resources that you recommend.

The idea of gay parenting struck a chord with many of you. Terry, my heart is moved by your personal story of a suicidal spouse, divorce, anti-gay in-laws, single parenting, gay parenting and finally triumph as your daughters matured into successful adults. I have “known” you as a friend over the Web for almost two years, but I did not know this part of your story, and I am honored that you shared it here.

Sage, your 30-day series on fathers sounds great. Thank you for guiding people to the “sacred masculine.”

Yewtree, thank you again for the prayer shared here, as well as for the link to the Mother Spirit version. I agree with the statement you made when you posted the “Genderless Engenderer” prayer: Everyone should write their own version of the prayer that Jesus taught. And why limit it to just one version per person? I see that you are one of many people who left comments affirming Brian Wren’s hymns.

Jon, thanks again to you, too, for sharing your family photo here. As far as “de-masculinizing” God, I agree with CWS that the father-son imagery can become too overwhelming and we have to work to create male-female balance sometimes.

CWS, it’s great to hear from long-time friend again! (That’s a friend from before the blogosphere.) I reread your post about Brian Wren at your Conjubilant With Song Blog in the process of preparing this post. I am truly glad to hear about the evolution of your thinking on inclusive language, and to learn that discussions on the subject continue today among “those of us who made those decisions.” This is the first time I’ve heard the term “expansive language.” I hope you can see that my attitude has evolved as well, hence my newfound interest in reimagining God the Father.

I don’t recall the hymnal including the unaltered Children of the heavenly Father -- but in my experience the Inclusive Language Hymnal was always a work in progress, and I did not sing from it in any “final” form. Wasn’t that hymn rewritten as “Children of the Rainbow Promise?” I love your closing reference to “O Love that fillest all.”

Rev. Dan, thanks for writing from the perspective of someone with a gay parent. You are right to warn against stereotyping making “claims that just because someone is of a certain orientation that it somehow makes them more caring and nurturing.” This was not my intention. I wanted to expand the images of good fathers, not reduce them to a single orientation. I stand by my claim that it was hard to find photos of fathers nurturing children. I do think the experience of men raising children without help from women may bring out some “motherly” qualities in men, as they must out of necessarily fulfill the roles traditionally done by both mother and father.

Trudie said...

Kitt, I think it is marvelous the way you brought this full circle in the discussion of nurturing parents and inclusive language. I agree that we need to continuously check out our stereotypes. In my personal family, I have three non-gay sons-in-law who are above average in the nurturing category. My own gay spouse is nurturing in some ways, but not in others; nurturing may be enhanced by some of the same character traits that play into sexual orientation, but love is love, and caring is a learned behavior that all of us can enhance by connecting in to the vast reservoir of LOVE! Wonderful discussion!

Sage said...

Great comments here. Thanks to all of you for your words!

D.M. SOLIS said...

Dear Kitt,

Fine essay. I hope you will develop it further. I think the great loving-kindness beyond all our stereotypes and all our conceivable forms would be honored by what you've written here and would challenge us to label even less, thus seeing less from our perspectives (more from each others' seeing, and from beyond each others'), that which cannot be named and cannot be seen to experience that which cannot be held but can be contained, that which IS so...much...More than images, labels, and names.

With great love,
Diane

KittKatt said...

One of my favorite quotes about God comes from the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching: “The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.” DM (Diane), you are so right to say that God is beyond all names. And yet we mortals can glimpse the divine through the various names. As the Bible says, “In the beginning was the Word…”