While perusing the Hallmark aisles in search of a Father’s Day card, it’s unlikely you’ll find any of the following sentiments among the golf-loving, beer-chugging clichés pinned on today’s fathers:
Dad – thanks for answering a call from God!
To the World’s Greatest Grandpa: You’ve shown me how to follow my vocation.
Congrats Dad, on finding where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet!
The calling to fatherhood is an underexplored area of the theology of vocation. While feminist theologians have explored the vocation of the mother in light of shifting societal trends and the resulting renegotiation of women’s identities, less has been said about men’s calling to be parents.
One oft-quoted statement on the subject comes from Martin Luther’s “Sermon on the Estate of Marriage” (1522):
“Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool, though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith, my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. Those who sneer at him and see only the task but not the faith are ridiculing God with all his creatures, as the biggest fool on earth.”
Yet the calling to be a father in our contemporary context is much more complex than simply diapering a baby as an act of Christian service.
Today’s dads face their own renegotiations of the work-family dynamic as society expects fathers to be increasingly involved as active partners. What it means “to father” is evolving beyond traditional definitions of the one-time act of conception. The number of “stay at home dads” has more than doubled over the last decade. Life expectancy for men is rising, allowing today’s grandfathers and great-grandfathers to redefine their relationships with younger generations.
Within these changes, what does it means to be called to father? Do we view fatherhood as a relation, an obligation, or a vocation?
It matters greatly whether fatherhood is understood as primarily a relationship or a responsibility, or whether it could also be considered a calling – from God, for the people of God, supported by the community of the church. The example from Martin Luther’s sermon sought to elevate the station of fatherhood: to claim that a father could be called by God even within the dirty work that accompanied the raising of children.
But what would it mean to be called to fatherhood as a part of one’s identity in adulthood? What would it mean to bless, celebrate and support the vocations of fathers within the context of the Christian community gathered in worship each Sunday?
The Collegeville Institute Seminar on Vocation across the Lifespan recently met to discuss the elder years. As part of our discussion we noted the lack of literature on grandparenting as a vocation. Addressing underexplored intersections of calling and the lifespan – for example, what it means to become a father or grandfather and live out this relationship over a lifetime – offers opportunities to think in new ways about the influence of gender and cultural context on the lived expression of vocation.
Father’s Day cards too often limit themselves to the clichés and deprecating humor with which fathers are depicted in our culture. But the holiday can also offer a timely prompt to reflect on the men whose call to father have shaped our own callings in significant ways.
What can we celebrate from our culture’s understanding of fatherhood? What do we challenge or critique?
Image: Dryer,Kate. Happy Fatherhood. Available from: Flickr Commons.