I’m so sorry for not writing for so long! Thanks for your notes. It has been a complicated time, and I’m behind in my correspondence.
You bring up a very interesting issue.
Some of my friends in seminary say we shouldn’t pray the Lord’s Prayer, at least not in the way we always have, because it uses gender-exclusive language. What do you say?”
Well I say several things.
Our Father Who Art In Heaven
First, your friends are not actually charting new territory. The same issue was troubling many back when I was in seminary. And you can find ancient theologians dealing with the issue of gendered language for the Persons of the Trinity as long ago as the fourth century.
(See Gregory of Nazianzus’ “Theological Orations” where he acknowledges that the terms “Father” and “Son” bear with them the gendered meanings we know fundamentally from human relationships. He points out that the gendered implication is imprecise when it comes to the Godhead. He suggests that there is more precision in “Begetter” and “Begotten” but that the biblical words serve us better. They are certainly better at expressing personal and relational qualities. But I digress.)
Second, you need to start with listening deeply to your friends and the issues that give rise to the objection. Some, perhaps most, who struggle with this do so because of deeply wounding relationships with their own fathers. People’s wounds are not to be trifled with. Those who bear them may struggle with the church and its language of prayer all their lives — and that is really rotten for them. Be with them in their struggles.
Third, though, when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer, note with care the words that surround the term “Father.”
Before “Father” comes the crucial modifier “Our.” When Jesus told his followers that they could pray this, he was inviting them into his own relationship with God.
He was the only-begotten of God, the first and sole person who could claim God as his one-and-only father according to Matthew and Luke.
It is the same as when the risen Christ said he would ascend to “my father and your father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17, NIV). The relation that was his by nature became ours by adoption. This phrase expresses the gift that as Christians we become the children of God.
Who Art in Heaven
After “Father” comes the other crucial modifier, “in heaven.” This expresses the sense that the God who has adopted us is truly the living God, creator of heaven and earth. It tells us of God’s transcendence.
Though God has brought us into an intimate relation, that of a parent and a child, God is beyond our reach, beyond our control — and apart from the revelation in Christ, beyond even our knowing.
Theology is not experience writ large
All this to say, Jesus framed the word “Father” with two important terms. Both show that we are not dealing with the broken and wounded man, the guilty and sinful man who provided half our genetic material. We are not intended to look at the guy who abandoned us, or abused us, or even who loved us and raised us well, and project him onto God.
Avoiding that projection is hard spiritual and theological work. It is, however, the work we are all called to do. The opening phrase of the Lord’s prayer uses a gendered word, but it is not about God’s gender. It is about the relations between the Persons of the Trinity and the change salvation brings in our own relation to God.
And as with other parts of the Lord’s Prayer, looking at the modifiers brings us to the richness of its meaning.
Write soon. Be well.
Lenten Prayer Class
While we are on the topic of prayer, Lent is coming very soon. I’m aiming to offer my “Focus on Prayer” class for the third Lent in a row. It is a really fun way to help make Lent a time of spiritual renewal, exploring three classic approaches to Christian prayer.
We’ll be using three chapters of my book Kneeling with Giants, one Protestant, one Catholic, and one Orthodox. If you want me to email you when registration opens, click the button and get on the waiting list.