Fathers – Emotional Authority. Ambivalent Kindness. Preferred Evasion.

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NOTES on the Sunday address by Dr Francis Macnab, 5 July 2015.
By John Abbate.

 “I see the churches vastly confused in their understanding of the role of the father.”
 —Dr Francis Macnab

“I cry aloud to all fathers: ‘Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.’”
—Fyodor Dostoevsky

father and son

At the heart of our culture there are stories, both joyful and tragic, of the relationship between parents and their offspring, from history, mythology, religion and art. History records that the Roman emperor Nero shockingly murdered his own mother. In the Old Testament, Jacob’s favouritism of one son almost provoked the brothers to fratricide. While in the New Testament, “a new faith was born when Joseph took responsibility for Mary’s child and became a caring, listening protector…a new faith in a non-destructive, peace-loving world,” said Dr Macnab.

“We are more articulate at defining the role of the mother,” states Dr Macnab during the first half of his address. In the context of the “neglected wasteland of father psychology,” Dr Macnab outlines two major perspectives on the function of the father, both of which he is inclined to reject:

  1. The first perspective stems from the Freudian story of the family drama, which places the father and son in competition for the mother’s love. The mother plays an implausibly passive role here. (This situation would later be reversed by Freud’s disciples in the English-speaking world, who credited the mother almost exclusively with power over the psychological development of the child.)
  2. The second perspective emerges from the primitive religious impulse to install God as a substitute for the absent father (“God the Father”). For Dr Macnab, this is “both satisfactory and unsatisfactory.”

What does Dr Macnab say about the role of the father? “Has the father outlived his function,” he asks?

Five Functions of the Father

Dr Macnab draws attention to five functions of the father. He describes his list of five points as “just one slice” of all the possible things one might say about the role of the father today.

  1. Every child searches to identify with the father’s goodness, his generosity, and the continuity of the generations that the father represents. The first function of the father is to be the symbol for that identification. In the father’s absence, a substitute will appear to fill the void.
  2. The second function of the father is to identify the symbols of the father; to be a symbol of growth, of strength in the self, and of the colour that exists in the world. “Fathers can point their children to colour: the colour on the wall, the colour in the sky, the colour in music.”
  3. The third function of the father is to be a positive agent of life. “Fathers in particular can be emotionally dead,” said Dr Macnab, but a father can also bring a “flicker of life” into being.
  4. Fathers sometimes fail, are flawed; fathers can let themselves forget that “in spite of their failures, the flow of flourishing energy can come to consciousness again.” In the Old and New Testaments, the recovery of flourishing comes with the awareness of a “presence.” The fourth function of the father is to be present, and to awaken us to an understanding of the energy of flourishing.
  5. We admire the father who says, “Stand on my shoulders, and do a little better than I did.” The fifth function of the father is to convey this message to be better than the past.

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