To say God must be the father of all people, you’ll need something stronger than the idea of fatherhood to get there. After all, we are mothers and brothers, teachers and preachers, customers and consumers — but we aren’t everything to everyone.
We have different kinds of relationships, and these relationships vary in scope. When we talk about God's relationship to the world, we have to keep kind and scope in mind. It’s important to think about these things because what we think about God’s relationship to the world helps explain what we expect from God himself.
Let's consider two questions about God’s relationship to the world.
- First, what kind of relationship does God have with people? Is it judicial? Familial? Economic? Communal? If that sounds complicated, it gets worse: These four categories are not mutually exclusive, so God can relate to the world (or parts of the world) in more than one way.
- Second, what’s the scope of God’s relationship to the world? God may have one kind of relationship with all people or only with some people. Or perhaps God has one kind of relationship with all people, but another kind of relationship with only some.
Relationships and Justice
First, what kind of relationship does God have with the world? This question is important! You tell me what kind of relationship you think God has with the world, and I’ll tell you what you think about the justice of God.
If God relates to humanity as a judge, God must punish wrongdoing. Desert, impartiality, and the rule of law will be appropriate categories for thinking about God’s activities and intentions. Justice will mean punishing and rewarding people appropriately — if God relates to the world as a judge.
If God is a father, then preferential, faithful, and self-sacrificial love becomes appropriate, and even expected. Justice will then be God’s faithful commitment to his children — if God relates to the world as a father.
If you think of God as a purveyor of opportunities — for salvation, for example— then an economic model may explain God’s relationship to the world. Justice will focus on whether or not people have the same opportunities, and what opportunity really means — if God is the one who brings opportunity.
Finally, if God is a participant in humanity’s collective action, politics may offer the best framework for understanding God’s relationship to the world. Justice will then be about whether or not inequalities should exist, and on what grounds — if God is the world’s best politician.
So what kind of relationship we think God has with the world explains what we expect from God’s justice.
Scope and Equality
I said there were two questions. Here’s the second one: What’s the scope of God’s relationship to the world?
The most fundamental question here is whether God relates to everyone in the same way. If God chooses to relate to everyone in the same way — or if he must do so — then God has a loving relationship with some people only if he has a loving relationship with all people.
Perhaps that’s not quite true. You may think God loves all people but some do not love him in return. Regardless, if you think God must at least try to love everyone, then you’re still making a strong claim about the scope of God’s love. It’s potentially universal, even if it is practically limited by human free will.
By contrast, if God can (and perhaps does) relate to different people differently, then we need to say something about why such differences in scope are appropriate. These two questions are related. The question of scope cannot be divorced from the question of equality, which is itself answered by appealing to the kind of relationship God has with people.
Consider the following yes or no question: Must God be a father to all people for him to be a father to anyone at all? If the answer is no, then the question of scope is related to the question of equality in the following way: God does not have to be the father of all (scope) because being a father (relationship kind) means extending preferential love to one’s own children. There’s nothing about being a father that requires being a father to everyone.
By contrast, if you say yes, then you are handling the question differently: God must be a father to all people (scope) — perhaps you’ll say — because God must give certain opportunities to everyone. If that’s the claim, then it’s fair to ask what kind of relationship justifies this appeal to universal opportunities. We previously placed opportunity under economics. Perhaps you disagree. But, wherever you place opportunity, notice the shift: To say God must be the father of all people, you’ll need something stronger than the idea of fatherhood to get there.
In conclusion, we can characterize God’s relationships with people by talking about the kinds of relationships God has and by exploring the scope of those relationships. Kind and scope can be considered individually, but they can also be taken together; they interact in interesting ways.