I was standing by the ocean when I heard a child’s shrill cry of distress. A toddler waddling incautiously at the edge of the surf had suddenly been knocked over by an unexpected wave. I ran over, picked her up, and carried her to land. She stood shaking and crying from the fright she had undergone. I knelt in front of her, put my hands on her arms, and tried to assure her that she was all right. A man came running quickly from farther up the beach. As he picked up his child, he said to me, “Thank you for your parenting.”
There is an adage that “you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” Obviously that’s true on a biological level. Nevertheless, we do choose to accept or to reject our genetic relatives. As we enter adult life, we either appreciate them and adopt their values and relate to them as friends, or we reject them and go in a different direction or some combination of both. And, on the other hand, we can choose to act as parents and children and siblings to others than our biological family.
A colleague told me about his college-age daughter who spent her junior year in Chile, and came back talking about her “Mom” and “Dad” in Santiago. My friend was not jealous; he did not feel slighted. He felt his fatherhood was not diminished by being shared with another, but was augmented by it. He was grateful and delighted that his child had found another father who loved her and helped her grow, and that she appreciated it and responded with love. This seems to happen quite frequently with exchange students, who really become part of the families they live with abroad. I experienced something similar in my younger life, when I spent many years away from home, and was “adopted” into other families. And on the other hand, although I have no children, I receive Father’s Day cards every year from former students, from children of friends, from people I have in some way “parented,” without taking them from their natural families.
There is good theological reason for the extension of our familial relations. St. Paul speaks of “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its name” or, perhaps more accurately, “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:15). But for Paul God is “Father” not only in being the source of all creation, but also in having “adopted” us as God’s children, who live by God’s own “spirit.” And if we have the same spirit as God, we must behave as God does, adopting others into our deepest relations of love.
The metaphor of fatherhood, of course, is not exclusive. Indo-European cultures commonly have a heavenly “father” god as their supreme deity (Dyeus Pitr = Zeus Pat r = Deus Pater = Jupiter). But the mythic patriarch is not the whole of divinity; he is complemented by G -m t r, Earth-Mother. Together they are “Nature.” But when Jews or Christians or Muslims or Hindus speak of God, they mean not merely the male principle or generator of the cosmos, nor its nurturing mother, but a being that transcends nature and the world. That transcendent being, as source and lover of the world, may be thought of as Father or Mother. (The Bhagavad-Gita extends the metaphor even farther, praying that God be to us “As a father to a son, as a friend to a friend, as a lover to a beloved” [XI:44]).
To think of God as our parent, and as the source of our parenting, has enormous implications. Those who are used to the metaphor may overlook the audacity of the claim it makes. The Qur’an puts it plainly: “The Jews and the Christians say, ‘We are the children of Allah, and his beloved.’ Say [to them], ‘Then why does He punish you for your sins? No, you are [only] human beings, His creatures’” (Surah 5:18).
To put it bluntly, if God is our father, why don’t we show it? We don’t choose to be created; but to have God as our parent is indeed a choice. It means choosing to have all others as our family; to be parents and children and siblings to each other, without limitation.