Father knows best (sometimes)

June 16, 2011

In the play "Freud's Last Session," an imaginary meeting between the terminally ill Sigmund Freud and a young, vigorous C.S. Lewis occurs just before Freud's suicide in September 1939. At one point in the play, these two intellectual giants discuss their difficult relationships with their emotionally detached fathers. Freud's father was an impoverished wool merchant, while Lewis' father was a successful lawyer. Lewis turns the psychoanalytic tables on Freud when he suggests that Freud's hatred of his father might be the root cause of his atheism and distrust of a patriarchal God.

The fathers of Freud and Lewis were a far cry from the idealized father figure in "Father Knows Best," the television show launched in 1954 featuring Robert Young as Tim Warren, head of the Warren Family who brought home the bacon and offered sage advice whenever one of his children had a problem. This was the perfect man for women and children in a patriarchal society; a man who could work hard all day to provide for the family and then come home and meet their emotional and spiritual needs as a kind, wise, gentle father and loving husband.

Alas, over the past few decades we've learned that the shoes of this father were not easily filled offstage. The pressures of earning a living did not always make dad a warm and fuzzy character around the house. And when things didn't go so well for the family finances, the father who was supposed to know best easily turned into the whipping boy. Some men didn't feel called to the ministry of providing and turned to fulfilling but low-paying, low-status jobs in art, music, writing, and hands-on work in the outdoors. And even when men have managed to attain this ideal, they haven't made headline news for doing it. On the other hand, stories of fathers behaving badly receive extensive media attention, from Charlie Sheen to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

However, stories about misbehaving men are nothing new. Rivalry, violence, rape, incest, cannibalism, and war were all in a day's work for the father figures of Greek mythology. Cronus castrated his father Uranus, replaced him as the ruler of the universe, and then ate his own children. Zeus, the youngest son of Cronus and Rhea, managed to avoid being eaten thanks to his mother's intervention, and eventually liberated his siblings from his father's stomach so they could team up and banish Cronus and the Titans and take over the universe. Zeus' sons by his wife and sister Hera were Ares, the destructive god of war and bloodlust, and Hephaestus, the vengeful god of technology and volcanoes.

The Old Testament, written during the same period as Greek mythology, also presents many stories of human fathers and sons behaving badly. Deception, anger, vengeance, thievery, lust, adultery, greed, and jealousy show up repeatedly in stories about the patriarchs, the 20 male ancestor-figures between Abraham and Adam, the first man. As one Education for Ministry student put it, "For goodness' sakes, didn't the people who wrote all this down know that they were writing the Holy Scriptures?"

While the Old Testament's view of God is multi-faceted, it allots plenty of space to divine wrath and vengeance. But the "chesed" or loving-kindness of God is presented as well. Jesus emphasized this "chesed" quality of God: God is love, and prefers compassion and mercy to sacrifice.

Jesus was loud and clear on this point: God has both masculine, left-brained qualities in God the father as well as feminine, right-brained qualities in God the Holy Spirit. Even so, Christianity adopted a patriarchal approach to liturgy and institutional affairs over 1700 years ago that continues to this day. He/his language for God, the disproportionate number of male bishops, the pay disparity between male and female clergy, and the prevalence of the "father knows best" congregational model are examples of how this legacy affects the Episcopal Church today.

As church membership has declined over the past 40 years, American society has spoken loud and clear also: church is on the outs as a source of spiritual nourishment, especially for younger Americans. Perhaps our patriarchal ways have become a golden calf that pushes others away from God and our congregations.

Is the idolatry of male power in a patriarchal society preventing us from seeing the Trinity more clearly -- and receiving the wisdom and aid of the Holy Spirit? Do we grieve the Holy Spirit, as Paul warned us not to do in Ephesians 4:30-31:

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.

Father doesn't always know best. Sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn't. He's only human, after all. Sometimes mother knows best. No one person is the only source of grace in a family, congregation, diocese, business, or society -- and no one person should shoulder all the blame for failures. Let's give father a break and put our heads (left brains and right brains) together and find new ways to welcome the Holy Spirit and satisfy the spiritual hunger of our times!

Related Topics: