The Great Father in Christianity
Most religions have a God who expresses the father archetype. From Dyaus Pita (literally “sky father”) of Vedic Hinduism, Zeus as “Father of the gods” in the Greek pantheon to “Shangdi”, the supreme God worshiped in ancient China, there was a tendency for the Father God to be associated with the sky (as complementary to the Earth Mother) and with Kingship and the masculine role in creation.
Exploration of the archetypal father God has largely focused on the world’s largest religion, Christianity, where “The Father” forms the central figure in the Christian Trinity. Jesus’ constant use of this archetypal image shifted the way his disciples and listeners thought about God. Although not unknown in Judaic thought, the image of God as Father was perhaps a little too familiar for the contemporary religious leaders of Jesus’ time.
In Christianity the father is foremost the giver of life and he who gives us life is numinous to us. But he is not a remote creator – for the father’s children carry his likeness. Conceived in desire by the father, our own longings are given birth. This giving of life is both personal and yet cosmic: being itself grants us life and like a father nurtures us and usually protects us; so the Christian idea of the Father can offer us on opportunity to be comfortably surrounded by this fatherly sustaining energy not just as an removed force but personally.
One of the dangers of the Father archetype is that God becomes identified with what Freud called our superego; a combination of conscience and an internalised pressure to conform to social norms. If this identification is made then faith can easily slip into a kind of internal oppression. The primary emotion in relation to the father-superego is guilt.This is often unbalanced as the enforcement of society’s norms and morals is only one part of the role of the father in our lives.
Inherent in this patriarchal sense of the father is the role of the church. When the church, or its priestly representative chooses to identify itself with the father and particularly with the superego, the religious institution can easily become oppressive.
Although the archetypes provide a basic structure to the psyche so that all images of God as father have much in common, they are colored and given further shape by the individual’s experience of and beliefs about the particular archetype. So one person can have an image of a harsh and judgmental father-God while another a generous and forgiving father god same essential archetype but two very different outcomes for the individual. So it is not just enough to say that Christ gave his disciples the icon of the father as God but also to note that he included a strong flavour of the type of father he had in mind. Hence any Christian archetype of God is going to be complexly an interaction of Jesus descriptions of the father overlayed on their own experience of the father. Other factors that make up their picture of the divine father will be the weight they put on the different view of Yahweh, Lord of hosts, from the Old Testament and that of the Christian tradition that they belong to.
The Father’s love
Many Christian hymns are written to honour the Father’s love. As any human father will attest ( I am a father of two) this love is experienced as a desire for our children to flourish.There can be a freedom in this father’s love. Jung suggested that it was the father who mediated the outer world to us and the mother who mediated our inner world and some research has suggested that the father is instrumental in the development of the ego as separate from the mother.
The father is often associated with the sky and spirit, the mother with the earth, body and nature.
Leaving and returning to the Father
The irony of the archetype of the Father is that in order to gain individual maturity, we have to separate from our fathers. This is particularly true for adolescents who are involved in finding their own identity separate to that of their parents. For many years I worked as a chaplain in a secondary school and experienced first hand the difficulty of presenting God only as a father figure when the major task of the teenagers is really leaving the father to find themselves. Joseph Campbell has pointed out that the first step in the hero’s journey, which all young adults must take to find their place in the world, is leaving parents and home. This is intensified for Christians when added to it is an image of Christ as the sacrificial and obedient son who is always about doing his father’s business. The psychic message to teenagers is often – do not leave home – sacrifice yourself and stay enmeshed. Better to emphasize that the Christ story is actually one of a son who left his father’s home in heaven to find his way in the world of men and taught that “unless a man hate his father and mother, he cannot be my disciple”, even if this is a message helicopter parents do not want to hear. All this points out that sometimes we do not need to change the archetypes but rather the archetypal story we tell about them to ourselves.
Yet a good father gives his child psychic space to develop, realizing that it is often obtained with violent wrenching if not. One of the most powerful stories Jesus told about the Father God was the story of the prodigal son. In order to gain adulthood, we have to leave the Father as a child. Yet we may return to him with an adult relationship. At the end of this separation is the realisation that I am my father’s child.