By Victor Lee Austin
I am the author of Friendship: The Heart of Being Human, which aims to do a lot of things, one of which is to highlight the central role of friendship in Scripture. This is my thesis: God created us for friendship. Human beings are fully human when they are able to live with each other as friends. The fall is the loss of our ability to live with each other as friends. Jesus’ goal in taking on human flesh is to reestablish the possibility of friendship between us and God and friendship with each other. He accomplishes this goal on the cross.
If this is true, then there are implications for the shaping of parish life. The big implication is that if friendship can be understood as the point of the gospel, then the parish should be understood as the school of friendship. But can we be more specific about how that might be done? Here I offer eight thoughts:
1) Christian teaching needs to highlight friendship as a key to the narrative of salvation. This means, I believe, as a beginning, deciding as leaders of parishes (or in whatever circle of influence we have) to notice friendship in the biblical text and highlight it in preaching. It also means programming to encourage friendship and to teach, practically, how to develop, treasure, and foster friendship. This teaching is assisted by developing the critical ability to see how our culture (or cultures) understand and misunderstand, encourage and undermine, friendship. (Think of “Facebook friends.” Think of friendship as the consolation prize at a romantic break-up. These false thoughts insinuate themselves deeply and are wicked.)
2) We will need to teach how sin and finitude are related but different, and how each inhibits our ability to live in friendship. Practically speaking, the circle of our friends will be limited by the time we have and our location in space. The number of people we can be friends with is much smaller than the number of our brothers and sisters in Christ. This means also teaching about eschatological realities, how they can be at once “already and not yet.” Similarly, in this world we continue to live as sinners and that has its own impingement upon our ability to live in friendship with others. However, in the world to come, all the friends of Jesus will be friends with all the friends of Jesus. To teach about finitude, to take this eschatological truth, is for Christians to help each other be real about friendship — a key part of building friendship.
3) This involves giving at least as much attention to teaching about friendship, both theologically and practically, as we do to teaching about marriage. While God calls most people to marriage, he evidently does not call everyone to marriage, and he does call everyone to stretches of life in which they are not married. But God calls everyone to friendship for all of this life and into and through the life to come. The need for help in friendship is prima facie more universal than the need for help in marriage.
4) Parishes need to find their courage to teach about celibacy as a good thing, a positive thing that is not adequately grasped by the negative of “not having sexual relations.” We need this courage because, first, if we don’t secure friendship as a relationship that is intimate but not sexually intimate, then we will fail to guide people into friendship. If we want friendships to flourish, in the plural, they can’t be imitation marriages. (Note: Christians, from early times, have taken marriage to be a form of friendship. Yet marriage is not an adequate picture of friendship, because it is exclusive. Friendship always desires to be extended. God does not want to give you a a second spouse to add to your first—much less a third or fourth or fifth! But God always wants to give you new friends.) We also need this courage in order to shine a light upon a gospel alternative to the sexual mess that characterizes contemporary life around us.
5) Part of the truth about celibacy is that it reveals (more obviously than other modes of life) our need to have friendship with God. Consequently we need to teach what friendship with God is and how to enjoy it. Much Christian spirituality is about fostering relationship with God; let’s be sure to teach people that “relationship” with God is friendship. Remember that great hymn’s closing: our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend! I try to be concrete about this at the end of the book, but what I have written there is only a bare beginning of what needs to be done. (And to be personal, this is the most important part of my life.)
6) Friendship needs to inform our thinking about reconciliation in general and our thinking about our opponents in church life. Reconciliation is fully realized when we are able to live together as friends. When Jesus enjoins us to love our enemies he is, in effect, asking us to pray that our enemies become our friends.
7) The intimacy of friendship is the sharing of a common mind. It means knowing and understanding the friend from the inside. I may not agree with my friend, but I can understand how my friend is thinking. In John 15, on the eve of his death, Jesus points out that he has shared everything with his disciples — they have mutual understanding of one another — and that’s why he can call them friends.
8) God, who is always wanting to give us new friends, may be calling us, you, me, to develop friendship with people with whom, in fact, we fundamentally disagree about important gospel matters. This needs to happen in every parish. In any parish there will be disagreements. We should encourage and teach people how to be friends with the people they disagree with. We need to do that without suggesting that the issues of disagreement are unimportant. To teach true friendship is to teach how to be intimate in one’s thoughts, not hiding from one’s friend thoughts which disagree with the friend’s thoughts, but being open and vulnerable and as clear as you can be.
The task before us all is to advance friendship as the theme and substance of our Christian life together. Would it not be an exciting thing, if we were to be known as Christians who understood the parish as, above all else, the school of friendship?