What’s in a Name
We’ve had some discussion, around here, about the significance of structures and doctrines when comparing religions, and whether they bear on questions of value and correctness. A quotation from Paul Vitz that Fr. John Kiley includes in his latest Rhode Island Catholic column contributes to the argument that I’ve been making:
Paul Vitz, a distinguished writer (who has become more distinguished by becoming a Catholic) observes, “To begin with, it should be clear that when people change the name for God, they have changed their religion. If a small group began to refer to God as ‘Zeus or Jupiter’ we would know that something non-Christian was going on. To reject God the Father as a name is to deny the basic Christian creeds. It is to deny the language of baptism, and of course to deny the entire theology of the Trinity upon which Christianity and its theology have been constructed. But we can get even more specific. Jesus himself gave us the terminology for referring to God as Father. He expressed himself in this language often, clearly and with emphasis in the Gospels, and it is obvious that the notion of God as Father is a major new theological contribution of Jesus himself. This means that to deny the language of God as Father is to repudiate Jesus and his message.”
We have a tendency to approach religion as a practical application of common sense when its role in society, and its necessary intellectual structure, necessarily go beyond the common. I’ve had arguments with family members over the obviousness of allowing substitute grain in the Eucharist for people who are allergic to wheat, and there are likely similar seemingly petty debates with which members of other sects and religions have experience. My point was that, although I couldn’t see a reason to insist on wheat, there are other factors involved the rule, including elusive divine inspiration, and that there is a process and a structure for honing all of those factors into doctrine.
Cultural mechanisms have a longer memory than individuals, so in cultural and religious matters, it is advisable to respect that which we’ve received from our ancestors. An individual Christian may not recall all of the reasons that Vitz lists for retaining the language of God the Father, and may in the future, forget the reasons that he or she found its dilution to be desirable. Subsequent generations will not recall the deep debates that went into such a shift, and will therefore follow the logic of the language that they’ve inherited.
One can imagine future theologians observing that their religions prefer gender-free designations for God and that Jesus specifically used masculine language for Him and therefore conclude that Jesus wasn’t speaking absolute Truth, but cultural biases that should be revised as necessary. (Actually, this argument may already be heard among liberal Christian sects.) With that conclusion, they’ll turn to other rock-hard doctrines of their faith and adjust them as desired, until the relationship to Jesus’ teachings is entirely aesthetic.
We’ve inherited a set of denotations and connotations for the word “father” that incorporates much more extensive a definition than we could hope to articulate. Within the culture, we just know what its key components are meant to be. Indeed, I’d suggest that Jesus’ characterization of God as such was partly meant to ensure that we retained a particular notion of fatherhood, just as it was meant to ensure a particular notion of God’s relationship with us.