This summer I’m doing a sermon series on the Apostle’s Creed, drawing from Justo L. Gonzalez‘s book The Apostles’ Creed for Today, in an attempt to help the Creed make sense to our contemporary views. Some parts will be reconciled, some parts may have to be left out. But hopefully you’ll never read the Apostle’s Creed the same way again!
In both the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, they begin with similar words:
- I believe in God the Father,
- Our Father, who art in heaven.
In both these prayers, they both right out of the gate affirm God as father.
For some of us, this is a comforting image, God as a nurturing parent, who is strong and willing to save God’s children. But for others, a patriarchal God whose gender represents violence and authoritarianism…this is a troubling image indeed.
Today, many do not recite that section of the creed like we skip the parts in Methodist hymns that we don’t like…like acting like we are coughing when reciting blood language or military hymns. The image of God as male is too broken, too hurtful: the male God has legitimized man as the head of families and has neglected the talents of women in the parish.
Is this first line of the Apostle’s Creed reconcilable? We must see why it was written that way to find out.
We think of Fathers as loving and close to us. My lay leader a few weeks ago preached about fathers who are dedicated to their families. The example was Joseph, who even though his young bride was pregnant with a child not his own, he stayed with her. We think of Fathers, at least stereotypically, as loving and close to us.
This would be a foreign concept to the writers of the Creed.
In the Roman Empire, the father was the paterfamilias, the master and distant figure to his children. Children and slaves alike were not “close” to their paterfamilias. It was more like a kingdom where the father rules all, all children bow to him, he could kill his own children or offer them the reins of the family. The paterfamilias ruled all. In fact, fathers did not touch their children, give them hugs, but would only touch them to render punishment, or to pass on the family on their deathbed to their successor.
So the image of father was not loving, but of power and authority. When they spoke of God as Father, the image is not one of love and closeness, but of power and authority. God the Father is the paterfamilias more powerful than all other paterfamiliases. “He” is the pater-paterfamilias, the father above all other fathers, with more earthly authority than the highest of other families.
In feminist theology, we subvert the image of God as Father. To show aspects of God as mother. But we see here that the image of God as father was already subversive and counter-cultural. By the naming of God as Father, early Christians affirmed the power of God and limited the power and authority of earthly fathers.
Matt 23:9, and call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven.
By using the Creed in this way, the people were saying good news to those who suffer under paterfamiliases. Paterfamiliases no longer held total power over you, you unloved son, you daughter soon to be sold as property, you slave, you spouse. There is a stronger father to whom you are a child. And this father has authority over all the earth!
This was subversive and dangerous! If a Christian said this in the Roman Empire, they would be effectively saying “I now belong to another household” which may lead to earthly wrath! Jesus says as much in the Gospel of Matthew. He says he has come to set son against father, daughter against mother. If a son becomes Christian in a pagan household, there would be wrath, punishment, even death at the hands of the family’s very father!
We can now see this Creedal section in a new light. Perhaps the Creed isn’t endorsing God to be male, but is saying this: you can be part of a new family that isn’t part of a bloodline. You who suffer under a paterfamilias can become part of God’s family. In short, by declaring God to be Father, the Creed was subverting Fatherhood as it was then understood…claimed a higher father than the bloodline of the paterfamilias. Creedal compilers used the term “God the Father” to empower and embolden the underprivileged to draw closer to God, even if it meant they were cast out of their earthly families.
So, what are we to do with this image? Certainly Feminist theology can accept an originally subversive father God, right? Well…no.
- God’s power is depicted as analogous to the power-over structure that paterfamiliases enjoy. This type of hierarchical power does not sit well with feminist and especially process viewpoints of God.
- In worship.hacks, we are sensitive to language and images of God. Even if the Father language for God was meant to subvert and to challenge, it is still gendered language for God without a proper balance. No matter the intent and the history, the effect is always to present God as male. Which is problematic.
These concerns, even against the possible intent of the writers of the Creed, render it a difficult line to manage in the context of Worship.
What’s the worship.hack? Perhaps the hack here is to do what the Creed compilers did: affirm an image of God that fills the hole in your life. “God the Father” was placed in juxtaposition to the powerful paterfamiliases. Perhaps then we can replace “God the Father” with “God the Mother” who tenderly cares for you even when your own mother has failed you. Or “God the Creator” who makes all things for the good…even you. Or “God the Coach” who affirms your contributions even from the bench.
If you feel comfortable, while in the worship service, say a different role in place of “Father” if that’s what empowers you. That’s what the Creedal writers did, and it’s OK for you to do so as well. People may yell at you and say by changing the words of the Creed you aren’t really reciting it. Just tell them you are “hacking Christianity” and they will understand. Maybe. 🙂
The hack here is to re-claim the original intent behind the Creed and translate it for today, not to throw it out completely. That’s what we’re gonna be doing in this sporadic summer series, and I hope you enjoy the next several ones too.
Thoughts? Comments are welcome and first-time visitors are welcome too!