Sunday, April 18, 2004

A Father to the fatherless

Freud is famous for having treated God as a father-figure. Now, at one level, this was hardly a novel discovery. For Freud, as a Jew, was naturally familiar with the fatherhood of God.

Freud, however, turned things around. For Freud regarded God as a projection of our earthly fathers. And, again, this is true enough—in a twisted sort of way. But it views the matter through the wrong end of the telescope. The truth is not so much that God is a father-figure, but that our earthly fathers are god-like figures.

Freud also regarded monotheism as a projection of our father-fixation. Once more, this is a half-truth. At that level, it would be more accurate to say that atheism is a projection of our disenchanted father-fixation.

Our fathers after the flesh are models, not only of manhood, but of Godhood. To a young son, Dad is omnipotent and omniscient. We ask him all our questions, and he knows all the answers, for he is all-wise. He knows how to do things we can’t do. And he has the wherewithal to do them. He can take us anywhere. He has a plan and provision for our lives. He defends us from danger and delivers us from evil. He makes a promise and keeps his word. He lays down the law and exacts judgment on our transgressions; while extending a hand of mercy and forgiveness to a contrite spirit. Ideally, he begets us, inspires faith, justifies us in his sight, sanctifies us by the law, and preserves us from harm. He is a prophet, priest, and king—as our teacher, mediator, lawgiver and guardian.

But like a false religion, a father can fail in either of two opposing directions—by being too immanent or too transcendent. There is, on the one hand, the deistic father, passive and impassive or preoccupied with his own endeavors. On the other hand, there is the pantheistic father, meddling and overmastering, whose children are a vicarious appendage of his own ambitions.

This, in turn, is apt to foster sons who are either insubordinate or insecure. Some sons retain their childish adoration. For others, though, there often comes the great disillusionment. They discover that dear old dad was cheating on Mom or cutting corners with Uncle Sam. At that point the son becomes bitter, disrespectful, and impious.

Most vices are natural virtues either taken to an unnatural extreme or bent over backwards. When a son hits the teenager years, he should begin to transfer his adulation from his fleshly father to his heavenly Father. If we continue to hold our earthly fathers to a god-like standard, then they will inevitably dash our expectations, and our disappointment may well spill over into the religious sphere. As Paul Vitz has documented in his book on The Faith of the Fatherless, most all of the leading infidels of history never bonded with their fathers.

Men need to remember the function of a father in the economy of God. Fathers are divine role-models. But they are finite and fallen role-models. And it is easier on us to make allowance for the failings of our earthly fathers once we adjust our sights and learn to see them as fellow men rather than demigods. That is the real rite of passage.

But in the revelation of Scripture we see the ideal Father and the ideal Son. And, in this one case, the ideal merges with the real.

The relation between the earthly and the heavenly is like an actor who plays a heroic role. An actor may have none of the personal qualities of Gen. George Patton. And fans are sometimes crushed when their favorite actor acts out of character in his private life. Some actors are also better in the role than others. But by playing the part of Patton, he introduces Patton to the audience. It is not quite the same thing as coming face-to-face with the real man, but it brings him a little closer to us.

Our earthly fathers have been cast in a starring role. And, frankly, they’re overparted. But that’s okay, because they are just understudies for the real hero; and the stand-in can bow out when the hero takes center stage. For our earthly fathers prepare us for our family reunion with the Heavenly Father, after whom every earthly father is named (Eph 3:14-15).

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