Parenting and Providence

By Bonnie Rambob

Parents know things about God’s activity in the world.

“I am not interested in this phenomenon or that phenomenon,” Albert Einstein said early in his life’s work. “I want to know God’s thoughts—the rest are mere details.” As far as I know, Einstein never claimed to be a theologian, though his quest for “knowing God’s thoughts” is a theological enterprise. In his desire to “know God’s thoughts” Einstein developed world-changing theories of reality channeled through the university realms of mathematics and physics.

From a Christian theological perspective, I propose that we do not have to walk the halls of the university or even the seminary to say something about God. Though library bookshelves are full of theological expositions of God as intertwined with far-flung mysteries of the Universe, I’m with Christian feminist theologians such as Bonnie Miller-McLemore and others who call for exploration of the very earthy act of humans parenting human children, in all of parenting’s many expressions and forms, as both source and resource for doing theology.

Could God’s thoughts be accessible to the breast-feeding mother whose breasts and heart are swollen with nourishing love and food for her child? Could God’s care be akin to a father’s as he wrangles his toddler into her car seat at precisely the same moment she declares that she needs to go to the toilet? Could God’s emotions be known by the parent watching their child graduate high school with complicated tears of joy, grief, and hope dripping on their newly pressed shirt?

It is baffling to many feminist, process theologians, such as myself, that it has taken so long to begin at the beginning. From the very first formulations of Christian theology—let’s take the Nicene Creed for instance—theologians and worshippers alike affirmed God as Father/Parent, Jesus as God’s Son/Child incarnated by the Holy Spirit in partnership with Mary. Records of centuries-long debates on points of flesh-spirit, substance, and providence abound. Through it all, fundamental to the Western Christian description of God, traced back to Jesus himself, is the parent-child relationship. From its inception, the parent-child relationship triangulated with the invisible, spirit-God is embedded in the Christian theological framework. If God is parent-child-spirit, then the day-to-day activities of bringing up children must have a lot to say about the creature-accompanying activity of God in the world. The theological term for this God-activity is providence.

How can parenthood speak to providence? We could look for an answer to that question from within that simultaneous moment when the child and parent are born together. One makes the other. At the beginning, neither is ready for the unfurling future before them. No parent is prepared for the demands, joys, heartaches, and deep gratitude that lie ahead along the parenting journey. No newborn child is prepared to navigate the demands of physical survival, let alone the complexity of human relational life. Yet, here they are; these two interdependent lives facing an uncertain, undetermined future while, in most cases, supremely delighted in one another.

Those of us who have assumed traditional roles of parenting children, either by pregnancy and childbirth or adoption, are deeply affected by the beginning. We vividly remember how our hearts fluttered and our breath quickened that first time we took our child into our arms. In my case, I had just birthed my son, Julian, after 20 hours of birthing labor when I first heard the music of his newborn cry. It was throaty and fierce. Julian’s cry provided the second-part harmony to my sighs of relief that I had indeed come to the end of my labor. As he proclaimed his worldly arrival across the room, the nurse laid his curled body on my bare chest. His cry quieted into newborn grunts which I hear echoed in his breathing today when he concentrates his attention on something. I remember when he opened his eyes to the light for the first time. His gaze turned toward my face with serious contemplation, furrowing his brow. It is here that words fail. How do I describe that moment? Mothers, fathers, parents, how do you describe that moment for you?

These coming words are an inadequate description of the depth of feeling which rose to the surface in me. I remember looking into my newborn’s eyes, completely overtaken by a Love I could not quite reach until then. I saw in Julian’s eyes the presence of an embodied soul—holy and true. I remember the shiver that traveled down my spine, which I interpreted as the touch of Mother God. In that gaze between my son and me, as I felt the weight of his body on my chest, it was as if I had just eaten the fruit of a kind of yet-unrealized knowing. It was as if the mothers before me, including Mother Mary and my own mother, in partnership with God, reached out and tagged me. Now, you’re it. It is your turn to pick up the mantle of partnering with your child in his growing up as we partner with you in yours. I did not see a dove descend from the sky in the sacrament of becoming a parent, but I felt a God-presence that I had not experienced before and has not left me since.

What does that experience and so many other parenting experiences offer to discussions of God’s activity in the world? And why, when Christian God-talk was born with the image of God as parent-child-spirit, are we just beginning to ask that question?

Before we can harvest the fertile ground of the experience of parenting for theological insights, we must make room at the tables of theological thinkers for parents. In the United States, we use terms like “stay-at-home father/mother/parent” for those whose daily life includes the rhythm, chores, and blessings of childcare. The term is significant because it reinforces our collective social imagination that anything associated with childcare belongs “at-home.” One’s role as mother/father/parent is meant to be left “at-home” when one enters the workplace, places of learning, places of public discourse, and shamefully, places of theological engagement.

One important movement in correcting the situation is to blur the lines between the work-home dichotomy. Why should theology be a workplace, academic endeavor while child-raising belongs in the home? Why not bring “doing theology” into parenting activities at the same time as parent-theologians bring the full measure of scholarship coupled with parenting experience into academic and public theological discourse?

In this short essay, without delving into the important social and historical reasons for the workplace-household binary in the first place, I simply want to advocate for the depth and breadth of human parenthood to show up in theological conversations. Parenting experience should show up in those conversations within academic institutions and theology should be brought into all the other places parents find themselves—preschool fairs, sports games, labor and delivery rooms, playgrounds, and parking lots where young ones learn to ride a bike and drive a car. Along with joy, parenting inevitably holds deep grief to varying degrees in varying circumstances. The fraught, troubled, and mournful parenting experiences are deep wells for theological insights too.

As stated before, in Western Christian imagination, God is parent-child-spirit relationship. In a relational, process view of that Christian theology, it is only in the networked webs of relationships that we can “know” God. It is only in our multi-faceted, intersectional, overlapping webs of identity in relational partnership to each other person’s multi-layered identities, that God-activity breaks through into the material world. Who knows complex relational life better than human parents in relationship with human children?

Luke’s gospel records a story of teenage Jesus and his parents (Luke 2:41-51). Mary and Joseph thought Jesus was in the mix of their family’s group when they left Jerusalem following Passover celebrations. When they discovered he wasn’t with them, fear gripped Mary’s and Joseph’s hearts. There is no parent who does not know that feeling. Immediately, they left their traveling family tribe to return to Jerusalem in search of Jesus. When they discovered Jesus in the temple, after three days, his mother scolded him. Appropriate to his teenage process of development, Jesus deflected blame and said something about how they should have known where he would be. At the end of this ordeal, the Scripture says, “His mother treasured all these things in her heart.” Parent-theologians, let’s bring the treasures in our hearts out into the theological conversation that we might better know God.

Questions: Defining parenting broadly as any adult who is important in the life of a child, how has your parenting journey informed your understanding of God? Have you ever related to God as Father, Mother, and/or Parent? If so, how did imagining God in a parenting role impact your perception of God and God’s activity in your life and the world?

Bonnie Rambob, MDiv, is co-pastor at Parkside Community Church, Sacramento, California. She co-hosts the podcast, Irenicast, a progressive Christian podcast, and Haystacks, a podcast for former and fringe Seventh-day Adventists. Before becoming an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, Bonnie worked as a K-12 educator in various settings across the country. Her passions include thinking, writing, and teaching at the intersection of theology, parenting, children, and spirituality. Bonnie is a knitter, hiker, and mama of two young adult sons.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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