Faith, Family, Spirituality, Systematic Theology

Theologically considering stay-at-home fatherhood

I am a stay-at-home dad of two boys, a 19-month old and an almost 3-month old.  This and this alone places me in the minority of couples with children.  These days, it seems, being a stay-at-home dad is not quite as rare as in the past, but people still throw out the “daddy day care” jokes from time to time.  These, I have no problem with.  The difficulty lies in the underlying sociological and theological accepting or rejecting of this new family model where the mother works and the father stays home.
Daddy and his two boys, one sleeping and the other saying “I don’t know!”

For example, one local church is very welcoming and has an excellent MOPS program – Mothers of Preschoolers.  When it comes to new mothers and mothers of young children, the church is right on top of whats going on.  When it comes to my role…well, things are not so easy.  I’m not one to push myself into a Mothers-only program, and the program really serves a lot of people quite well, so I just let it go.  I do make exceptions—like parking in the “new mom” parking space at the grocery store when my first boy was less than two months old!

In all seriousness, however, this new-found minority of being a stay-at-home dad is worth a theological consideration.

On the one hand, there is the matter of church services and offerings, which I mostly forgive.  Churches minister to their congregations’ needs.  If they are well-staffed and well-run, they minister well in various ways, including childcare, youth groups, adult formation classes, etc.  Otherwise, they offer what they can.  In this sense, churches often minister democratically to whichever groups are the biggest and seem to have the most need.  For example, an effective youth ministry can energize both parents and youth alike, whereas a “new parents” ministry speaks to only a small portion of the congregation.  To equate an individual church staff with a governmental body by demanding equal offerings to every possible group is unrealistic given the monies involved.  In short, churches can be forgiven!

Moving up the food chain to systematic theology, however, more subtleties are involved.  An individual church often makes choices based on the best intentions of the church staff, the pastor, the bishop, and many people in between.  Systematic theology helps to ground these decisions in foundational doctrines of faith wherein all can find solace.  For example, any good youth program will have some sort of community service aspect.  Why?  A solid systematic theologian could tie together the tradition of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, offer examples from Jesus’ life, bring in lines from St. Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, and many others, speak of natural theology and the call to selfless devotion to the good of others as a part of bringing God to humanity….but will likely just say something like, “because Jesus called us to serve the poor.”

But what does being a stay-at-home dad have to do with systematics?  For a short and compelling answer, I turn to liberation theology.  I find liberation theology to be a remarkable and many-faceted tool within theological methodology.  On the one hand, liberation theology has been chastised by official Roman pronouncements for, basically, bringing too much politics into theological thought.  Theology should be about God, these pronouncements read, not about changing a despotic regime.  This is an ongoing debate, and I’m not entering it today.

On the other hand, liberation theology has also come to represent a methodology for discovering a new way to see God from the eyes of an underrepresented portion of society.  For example, a liberation theology for the mentally and/or physically disabled could question why Jesus is always pictured as a perfectly functioning human being?  Why must the images of the crucifixion include Jesus with a perfect set of abs and well-toned arms and legs?  Must we conceive of Jesus as a perfect anatomical person in order to believe that he was (is) God?  What does this mean for our concept of the “image of God”?

Using liberation theology, one might question Jesus’ perfect hair
and well-toned back and arm muscles in this famous Dali painting.

From a mental disabilities point of view, how intelligent do we need Jesus to have been in order for him to be Divine?  We may say that we don’t equate intelligence with the image of God, but more often than not, this is commonly understood.  Are the mentally disabled simply a byproduct of faulty genes or God’s way of giving people opportunities to love?  What about their vision of God?  For example, I have a younger brother with Down Syndrome, now 13 years old, who can’t communicate well but who understands many things about the world.  How does my brother see God?  More specifically, does his vision of Jesus have Down Syndrome?  Is a Jesus with Down Syndrome any more “unreal” than a white Jesus with well-groomed flowing hair and perfect teeth?

Liberation theology pushes the theologian to speak theologically on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, the underrepresented–instead of the professional academics, the intelligent, or even the “average Joe.”  In this manner, one can somewhat speak of a liberative theology of stay-at-home fatherhood.

I cannot speak for all stay-at-home dads, but caring for small children daily does affect my vision of Jesus and the way I talk to God.  I see in Christ what I hope to be: strong but compassionate and tender towards my sons.  I feel the overwhelming concern and care when my boys are sick or in danger, and I can’t wait for them to be old enough to throw a ball around.  In my world, testosterone, football, cooking, and cleaning go hand-in-hand.  Academic achievements must sometimes find a backseat to singing “baa baa black sheep” 100 times on a car trip to the store.  My vision of Christ on the cross is not muscular and tough, but exhausted, full of love, and in pain.  I am ok with Jesus’ final gutteral “loud cry” of Mark 15:37, empathizing with having a lack of words to show the extent of one’s love and compassion for this world.  In my mind, this adds more depth to Jesus’ divinity than any of His miraculous healings.  His healings showed that he was divine–but his loud cry proves that he was also human: something, in my book, often passed over quietly–theologians (and parents of toddlers) must be ready and able to tell their students (or potty-training children) that even Jesus pooped!

So, there you have it, in its rawest form.  I don’t yet fully understand how a more strict definition of gender roles (as found in many Christian theologies) might have to bend in order to incorporate stay-at-home fatherhood, but I’m really ok with that for now.  Theology is often about experience and self-understanding as much as it is analytical reasoning and dense philosophical arguments.  Without faith and all the daily struggles and blessings that entails, theology is just words.

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About John Slattery

John is a doctoral student in Systematic Theology and History & Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame. He recently received his Master’s degree in Theology from Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, and, long ago, did his undergraduate work with the Jesuits at Georgetown University. His research interests lie in historical and systematic interactions between Christianity and contemporary science, including traditional theological and philosophical discussions of “faith and reason,” “natural philosophy,” and “natural theology.” He finds much strength in the theological value of liberation-related theological writings, especially in their ability to speak of classical systematic dialogues. In addition to all this, John is a proud father of three little ones and is kept from drifting too far into the clouds of academia by his amazing wife.

Discussion

5 thoughts on “Theologically considering stay-at-home fatherhood

  1. Thanks for this. I really enjoyed reading this.

    Posted by Katie | August 23, 2011, 12:57 pm
  2. John I really enjoyed your post, particularly the christological reflections you shared. The idea of love and compassion that goes beyond words, and yet is so deeply embodied, is powerful imagery for me.

    To add an ecclesiological perspective to your chistological musings, I think it can be easy in our consumer culture to think of the parish as a smorgasbord of services. From that point of view, it’s generous to describe stay at home fathers as a niche market that may not be served by the “superstore” of parish life.

    I imagine that in more than a few parishes, however, it was one or two lay women without “official” roles on the parish staff who came together and recognized that a support group for mothers would be helpful both socially and spiritually, an instinct that seems grounded in the baptismal call to mutual love and service. In other words, I think our ecclesiology encourages us to think not only of the services the parish offers but also how our own needs may awaken us to service of others both within and outside the parish.

    In the “service provider” model of parish life it seems to me that one cannot reasonably expect all consumer needs to be known, recognized, and met in each individual parish; but within the baptismal model of parish life it is more clearly the responsibility of all the baptized to express their own needs. It may be that in the process of expressing those needs a new ministry or parish group is formed. I’m not expecting everyone with a need to go out and start a parish group–just noting that becoming aware of our own needs can be a impetus for a new way of being in communion within others and empowering the “average lay person” to contribute actively to parish life.

    Posted by Amanda Osheim | August 23, 2011, 1:57 pm
    • Thanks for the response, Amanda. I like the verbiage of a baptismal model of parish life, and I certainly have felt an inclination to do something of my own accord. Its an odd juxtaposition of roles for me, from theologian to an underrepresented family group–from teacher to someone desiring solidarity in faith. Perhaps instead of looking for a group I could open my house one morning a week, via the church, to see if anyone would ever take up the offer.

      A baptismal model could work for something like this, but it strikes me as difficult in some circumstances. In my previous job as a youth minister, my boss was very resistant to me starting a weekly community service program (within a youth ministry setting), preferring it to rise “organically” from the parishioners and youth. To put it mildly, I disagreed. Who gets to decide what services to offer the parishioners and what to allow to rise organically from among the flock? How would salaried employees come into play in a baptismal model of ministry?

      I realize a single model does not encapsulate all options, and the modern parish is a complex thing…quite different from the small country church of old. One of my research goals in the future is to investigate how technology affects parish boundaries for certain age groups and what parishes might look like in the future–i.e., does proximity matter to a certain degree? If people go to different parishes specifically for certain services, how does this change how we look at an individual church or diocese?

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      Posted by John Slattery | August 24, 2011, 12:55 pm
  3. John, thanks for your reply! I completely agree that magical notions about an organic parish life are problematic to say the least. Very often we need someone to propose an idea or activity–such as community service–as essential to the community’s lived expression of faith. My perspective was simply that, in terms of ecclesiology, not all that is offered in the parish must be dependent upon a minister’s initiative. Otherwise I think we replace the idea that all the faithful are responsible and empowered to contribute to the Body of Christ with an emphasis on reception alone, which I see as a particular danger in a consumer culture.

    I would love to see what you do with technology’s affect on parish boundaries! I’ve been reading some of the publications from the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project, and have found them fascinating food for thought about the current–and future–situation of U.S parishes and ministry. So far I haven’t seen them refer specifically technology, but I think it’s an important question to consider.

    Posted by Amanda Osheim | August 24, 2011, 9:37 pm

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