(It seemed apropos to renew this post today)
Catholic scholar Paul Griffiths once delivered a lovely lecture on friendship, and it was beautifully done; the speaker’s remarks were clear, and effective, and structured, like a Scholastic disquisition ought to be- definitions and procedures clearly delineated, the relevant distinctions made, categories bounded. He was going on about whom Christians might be friends with, and how. To his great credit (I think), Griffiths made one of the distinctions that I go nuts over; when prodded by a beautiful question about the depths of the human heart and the paradigm of the outpouring of Jesus, he gestured to the difference between the nature of ontologically functional friendship (we find people who look the same, act the same, and talk the same to be our friends, as though we had been configured for one another) against the more juridical nature of love (it seems to be that we attribute worth freely to the strangers whom we desire for God’s sake, compensating for their defects by bearing their burdens, teaching them to speak our language, calling things that are not as though they were, so that we might find a place to dwell in God, in them).
But when our speaker described reciprocity and symbiotic status- blending as necessary for friendship, I think that he was thinking more about transactive covenants all along; he must have been. He spoke of equity and a kind of calculation in our friendships of a certain kind, but it seems to me that there is something much more spontaneous about Christian friendship. Timid Abraham is called the friend of God long before God endows the little guy with the means to enter into symbolically equitable covenant with the Creator of the universe. The same is true for the ridiculous David. God Incarnate, with the cattle on a thousand hills, calls His friends from the social and economic situations of the illiterate fisherman and the wily tax collector. He, in unapproachable light, is the friend of sinners. Heck, I think God may have called even me to be His friend. Perhaps it is because Christian friendship is constituted by the one, ever intermediate, and truly free Personal God that Christian friendship cannot be construed in terms of equitable exchange and moderated growth. After all, it’s the gorgeous hint of utterly attractive and unpredictable holiness that the baptized ultimately desire and are drawn to in one another. It’s the wild and crazy Holy Spirit who stirs our hearts to reach out to whomever He likes. It is Him whom in all these we love.
If what we believe about the Christian life is true, then each of us has got a Christ-shaped dent within, on which a slow simmering fire is set both to burn and to throw sparks into the slow simmering fires of other hearts, a colloquy not so much of moderated conversation, but of inevitable warmth, and wind, and light. Even in his own measured discussion about the difference between the proper enjoyment of God and the loving use of people, with careful regard as to when, and how, mode and manner, Augustine catches his breath: “moreover, love itself, which binds men together in the bond of unity, (has) means of pouring soul into soul, and, as it were, mingling them one with another.” (De Doctrina Christiana Preface vi.) …Thus, I’ve always thought that the gist of Jesus’ response to The Relevant Query was that we should not ask “what is the correct method for evaluating who my neighbor is?” but rather, “how fast can I get to him?”
If this is so, Christian friendship is (it sounds trite) pure gift, particularly in its inequitable freedom. I’m thinking of the communion of saints as a model. We are never alone; Scripture says that the members of the church triumphant watch us rather like star-struck fans, (Hebrews somewhere) eagerly waiting for our reunion with everything that they’ve got- how long, Lord? (Revelation somewhere). We may have very little to do with them. And yet they, with the holy angels, are given to us; and it is by them, through Christ our Lord, that we are ever watched and heard and waited for. There is nothing of equity in this arrangement; we are little people mysteriously mucking through a vale of tears, they are heroes and martyrs who can see the face of God; we are delighted with our current loves and losses and perhaps we don’t spare a thought for loving those invisible strangers who have gone before, though they rejoice to attend to us. This too is the love of God- who did not spare His own Son, and, in freely giving us all things, calls us to fellowship in the perfectly inequitable community of His friends.