It is good to be in Leeds and to spend time face-to-face with one of my dearest friends. Friendship is something I’ve thought and read a lot about since writing my Honours research project about women’s friendships and is a rich area for theological exploration. The best bit, of course, is the practice of friendship and my sabbatical has been very much shaped by the generosity of friends.
Last week I was with the Moot community sparking their conversation about friendship. We talked about how the ideas about what makes a good friendship have changed historically and about the potential for friendship to be radically transforming.
Aelred of Rievaulx (1109 – 67) wrote about a theology and spirituality of friendship that sums up some of what has the potential to be most radical about friendship when lived into fully. He believed the world had been created for friendship: that human beings were created equal for friendship, because friendship can only exist between equals. He believed in the transformative power of friendship: that friendship with those who were different to us and the love of friendship extended to enemies were hallmarks of those who seek to follow Christ. Aelred believed that friendship was divine love. In a reworking of 1 John 4:16 he wrote, “God is friendship… he that abides in friendship, abides in God, and God in him”
Human friendship, he believed, is the path to friendship with God: “Friend cleaving to friend in the spirit of Christ, is made with Christ but one heart and one soul”
It reminds me of a line from James K. Baxter’s Song to the Holy Spirit. “Lord, Holy Spirit, in the love of friends you are building a new house”
We had a lot of animated discussion at Moot about mutuality and reciprocity and whether they were necessary to friendship. [edited to add you can see some of that conversation at a Mootblog post here. ] Hegel called friendship “the concrete concept of freedom”, because between friends the law of reciprocity is invalidated. Carter Heyward writes about mutuality as “a way of being connected with one another in such a way that both, or all, of us are empowered – that is, spiritually called forth; emotionally feel able; politically are able to be ourselves at our best”. That’s a kind of mutuality that isn’t about loosing track of whose turn it is to pay for lunch or who has done the most favours for whom.
Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel suggests that friendship extended to our own bodies and to the earth could really change the way we live.
Of course there is also the model of Jesus as friend. The first time we find the word friend used about Jesus is in Luke chapter 7. “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” In John Chapter 15 the disciples are invited into a new relationship of friendship with God. It is not the only place that the idea of a relationship of friendship with God is discussed. Isaiah, for instance, portrays God as calling Abraham His friend (Isa. 41:8; cf. James 2:23). In addition, in a parable in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus likens God to our friend who, when asked persistently, gives us what we need (Luke 11:5-10).
I have learnt a lot about friendship from my friends. In experiences of trusting and being trustworthy, of listening and being listened to, of our enjoyment of our friends and their enjoyment of us – all the delights of friendship help us to grow in our capacity for friendship. And maybe as we grow in our capacity for friendship we grow more fully into the potential of the kingdom, or kin-dom Jesus proclaimed.
“Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter: whoever finds one has found a treasure. Faithful friends are beyond price; no amount can balance their worth. Faithful friends are life-saving medicine; and those who fear the Lord will find them” (Sirach 6: 14 – 16).