The Demise of the Good Father
by Rebecca Bynum (October 2011)
Until very recently, the role of father was one of great respect in our culture and the image of the good father was a source of societal integration or at least one of widespread social agreement. Mass entertainment, including movies and television, generally supported the idea that to aspire to being a good father, was something noble as well as commonplace and accessible. The father was loved, trusted and revered. The image of the good father was everywhere. On television we had Father Knows Best, My Three Sons, Make Room For Daddy, Leave It To Beaver, Bonanza and so on. In movies the quintessential good father was often played by Gregory Peck (The Yearling, To Kill a Mockingbird), but the good father was also found in Westerns (Van Heflin in Shane, Jimmy Stewart in Shenandoah). This began to change during the sixties when, in situation comedies on television, the father of the family became the butt of jokes (Archie Bunker) and this trend has continued ever since with a brief revival of the good father in the 1980s with The Cosby Show. All the while, the image of the bad father was becoming more commonplace (Married with Children) even if it was quite shocking at first (Christopher Walken in At Close Range).
Today, fathers, like priests, are automatically suspect. Casey Anthony was able to make an allegation of sexual abuse against her father (with no substantiating evidence) and was believed, at least to some extent, by the jury during her murder trial because suspicion of fathers is at an all time high. From Oprah Winfrey’s repressed memories to Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss to crime dramas in which the innocent-seeming father is often revealed to be the villain, all these images combine to undermine our trust in fathers. Underneath all this is the loss of faith in the ultimate Father, God, and a loss of trust in God’s fatherly nature which was once taken as self-evident. God-knowing souls throughout the ages have repeatedly confirmed that God is not simply like a father, but acts consistently as a father, a good father, even a perfect father in the lives of the faithful.
Common religious understanding allows that the Heavenly Father bids his children to come to him and provides everything needful for us to do so in complete freedom. I think it is safe to say that coercion has no part in our understanding of the divine plan; and in fact, the existence of forced conformity in any belief system may be seen as evidence of its falsity. In truth, we are free at every stage to accept or reject the Father’s leading, in all or in part, to roam away or to return. Every moral decision we make either advances or retards our progress. Human beings may indulge in acts of coercion or forcing conformity on their brethren, but the divine being never does this. The good father respects the free will of his children for the value of our love for him lies in the very freedom of its bestowal. Love is reduced to nothing if it is not freely given.
It is fashionable today to cite the very fact of our freedom as proof of God’s malevolence. (And if God is malevolent, then it becomes incumbent on us to reject him.) The thinking goes that if God loved us, he would not allow the natural outworking that often results from our own free choosing – cruelty, violence, destruction and death. The fact that God allows evil to temporarily flourish, does not mean he creates evil unless our philosophy rejects the idea of free will. For in order to save us from ourselves, the Father would be forced to remove our free will which is the very purpose of our creation, the very thing which makes us valuable and which makes life valuable to us. The fact that God allows the temporary manifestation of evil as the natural result of human freedom, does not mean God is evil.
The question then becomes, would there be value inherent in the life of a will-less computer-minded robot whose value is found only in its function as a cog in the wheel of divine will? An example of this thinking is found in Islam where a man’s value is measured by his conformity to, and function within, the Islamic system. The individual human being has no intrinsic value in himself = the individual is sacrficed to the system. In Islam, Allah may be described as a king or a judge, but he cannot be described as a father, much less a good father.
Faith is rightly defined as trust in God. Implicit in this is not only the idea that God is good, but that God is knowable. One cannot develop trust in an unknowable being. Faith may also be defined as having the belief in one’s own ability to know God. If a person doesn’t believe he can know God, he can have no relationship with God and can therefore never develop faith in God. In Islam God is defined as thoroughly transcendent and unknowable, therefore Islam itself cannot properly be defined as a “faith” in the Western sense of the word.
Faith is the knowledge that God is a father who is properly trusted by his children to lead them from darkness to light, from unknowing animal fear to the peace and security which comes with accepting divine love and trusting in the Father’s goodness, and trusting that his truth, beauty and goodness may be known through experience. Speaking of faith, reason and the Islamic position that God is unknowable, Pope Benedict XVI said:
“In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God's voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God's freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions. As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which - as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated - unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language. God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, "transcends" knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is, again to quote Paul, “worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason.” (cf. Rom 12:1).
By constructing an impenetrable wall between man and God, Islam does not increase the divinity of God, but rather dissevers God from his nature (Truth, Beauty and Goodness) and from the reality of man’s experience of God, thus enabling the substitution of the dead law of Islam for the individual experience of God’s love and the individual discovery of his will as greater than our own.
That image of the good father has been a major source of societal integration in the West and yet that image has all but disappeared in the modern world. With what, then, will it be replaced?
 Speech at the University of Regensburg Germany, September 12, 2006.
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