Friday, 19 March 2010

Does the Fatherhood of God matter?

We have recently listened to the parable of the Prodigal Son, as the Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Lent (Year C). The Gospel passage is Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 (you will need to scroll down to Chapter 15).

Thinking Faith, the Jesuit on-line journal, published The Prodigal Father - A Postmodern Homily, commenting on this parable. An original version of the article was published in New Blackfriars, from which I assume that it reflects a line of thought that is abroad in wider theological circles.

At a first reading, this article appears very plausible; it is only a careful reading that enables one to see - and critique - its methodological and theological content. At heart, I believe that it expresses a rejection of the idea of God as Father, a rejection that has serious implications.

Firstly, the questions of methodology. It is certainly the case that a parable from Scripture might speak to our present day situation in a way that has not been the case in the previous life of the Church, and so we might interpret it in a different way. This can be considered as a principle of development of doctrine, in the sense that John Henry Newman would intend, and the encounter of the parable with novel circumstances is something that he would see as prompting such a development. But such a development would be subject to judgement against the seven "notes of genuine development of an Idea" that are delineated in Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine: preservation of its type, continuity of its principle, a power of assimiliation, logical sequence, anticipation of its future, conservative action upon its past and a chronic vigour. When one reads the first paragraph of Desmond Ryan's article; recognises the methodological twist of the reference to "transactional analysis" in the fifth paragraph; and sees how the vertical/horizontal contrasting in the seventh and eighth paragraphs is presented to caricature different caring/cared for relationships; there is a question as to whether or not the methodology really does represent that of a development of doctrine with regard to the parable. There is not a preservation of type or conservative action upon its past in Desmond Ryan's understanding of the parable.

A second methodological question is very subtly hidden in the article. This is a question about the attitude that one holds towards the content of revelation. The attitude of faith is one of receptivity, of being open to receive what is given in Scripture and the life of the Church. This is not to deny the possibilities of development - see above - but it is to have a certain trust that what is received is genuinely of faith. The phrases (my emphasis added) "hence Christians have constructed this man as a model for God", "We need to push our way back into the story and leave this old moral behind" and "scripture must be reclaimable by all, even by the men and women of this age of suspicion" subtly betray the author's attitude of being closed towards what is received. This parable is received as a parable about the Fatherhood of God, and any development needs to respect that.

One needs to note that the "pathological" forms - priests infantilising their congregations, teachers ignoring the developmental needs of their children etc - cited by Desmond Ryan are not examples of dependent relationships that are normal. They are precisely "pathological" because a priest who does infantilise his congregation is not being a good priest (father), a teacher who ignores the needs of their children is not being a good teacher (father). These examples represent bad "fatherhood" as if it is normal "fatherhood". Most priests do not infantilise their congregations and most teachers do not ignore the needs of their pupils.

The rejection of the idea of dependence in relationships by Desmond Ryan is problematic.

As creatures, we have a fundamental dependence on God, and this is expressed by our recognising God as our Father. It is the acceptance of this dependence by the returning son which makes him a model for us; it is its rejection by the second son which leads the father in the parable to issue to him a call for conversion, a conversion that the first son has already experienced. This fatherhood is what we experience in the life of the Church - the ministry of the priest, of the bishop, of the teacher etc - when that is lived out to its best. This relationship of dependence to God is, at root, rejected by Desmond Ryan in favour self-reliance. It is a rejection of the Fatherhood of God.

There is, however, an interesting aspect of Desmond Ryan's article that I think is worthy of further development. There is the terribly ironic attack on the "dominance ... of fatherhood over brotherhood .." in the penultimate paragraph - which seems to miss the point that the relationship of brotherhood that is praised has its origins in the common relationship of fatherhood which is attacked. Desmond Ryan's opposition of vertical and horizontal is clearly false, based on the idea that fatherhood is purely vertical and does not give rise to the horizontal relationship. It is case of a Christian "both/and", not an "either/or". What would be interesting would be to develop a reading of the parable of the Prodigal Son in the light of the Old Testament sibling rivalries to which Desmond Ryan refers in his fourth paragraph. Both sons encounter a conversion to their Father, the first living it in his return home the second receiving it as a call from the Father to join the feast. Could something of this also be seen in the Old Testament stories?

No comments: