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Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Theology of Friendship

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church http://www.stjohnsashfield.org.au, Ashfield, New South Wales. Illustrates Jesus’ description of himself “I am the Good Shepherd” (from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 11). This version of the image shows the detail of his face. The memorial window is also captioned: “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Wright. Died 6th November, 1932. Aged 70 Yrs.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My last post was on the theological virtues as expounded in Louis Markos’ book, “On the Shoulders of Hobbits.” Of course he covered the familiar trio of faith, hope and love, but then he threw in a fourth one: friendship. That one had me scratching my head a bit. I can agree that friendship is a virtue, but a theological virtue? Then I started thinking about it.

Darn, I hate when that happens!

A little research, a little scripture reading and it started to make sense. In fact, friendship fits in perfectly with faith, hope and love. Before I go into how this all works together, let’s take a look at friendship in general, and in the eyes of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in particular.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Lewis or Tolkien not only knows the two were close friends, but they were also members of a group of friends who called themselves the Inklings. This group, which also included Charles Williams and Lewis’ brother Warren, would regularly gather to discuss various topics and to read some of their works in progress. Lewis thought so highly of friendship that he once wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves that “friendship is the greatest of worldly goods. Certainly to me it is the chief happiness of life. If I had a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I shd. say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.’ ” ( I got that quote from a marvelous book titled “The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life,” by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. If you are a Lewis fan you have to read this book.)

As for Tolkien, I don’t know if he ever wrote directly about friendship but its place in his heart is obvious by its place in his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. Truly the central, driving force of this epic is a series of friendships, anchored by Frodo and Sam. Of course Merry and Pippin’s bond is practically as strong and their adventures when separated from the Fellowship provide wonderful examples of why friendship can rightly be called a virtue. Then there’s the relationship between Gimli and Legolas, proving that even seeming enemies can develop strong friendships.

So what is this thing called friendship? Markos quotes Lewis describing it as “that luminous, tranquil, rational world of relationships freely chosen.” Further, many ancient people looked upon friendship as the most human of all relationships, in some cases more important than family. I’ve heard it said that friends are the family you choose. A friend is not just someone you hang out with at the mall or go to the movies with. A friend is a person you willingly cast your lot with, extend loyalty to, and stand behind with a steadfast spirit. There is a type of affection that goes with it, but it isn’t of the overtly emotional variety. Friendship is as common as an ordinary day, and as wondrous as the night sky.

Friendship is also a key theme in the Bible, though often overlooked. Many times God related to His chosen ones as friends. God refers to Abraham as “my friend” (Isaiah 41: 8). Exodus 33:11 tells us that ” the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” And Psalm 25:14 states that “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant.” When you stop to think about it, it’s rather amazing that God, the creator of heaven and earth, would willingly relate to humans as friends. But how can this work?

First off, we have to define what friendship means, especially in relation to God and Jesus. I hear a lot about having a “personal relationship” with Jesus these days, but exactly what do people mean by this? I have a hunch that it means different things to different people since “personal relationship” is such a vague expression. People these days like “vague” because it gives them the wiggle room to define things any way they want at their convenience. But I think Jesus had something a bit more specific in mind. As a matter of fact, he tells us exactly what kind of relationship he expects in John’s gospel: “You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15: 14,15, ESV).

Friendship is the model Jesus would have us follow. This makes perfect sense since friendship is an excellent channel for the practice of the agape type of love that is referenced so often in the New Testament. This is the love of willing sacrifice and self-giving. It involves steadfast loyalty and support even during the hard times. Especially during the hard times. And while there may be an emotional component that goes along with it, it isn’t of the butterflies-in-the-stomach variety that can vanish so quickly. Together friendship and agape love form bonds that are meant to last a long time. Maybe into eternity.

Put all this together and it seems almost obvious that friendship is truly a theological virtue. Further, it is one that is familiar to all of us. Can we use our existing friendships as models of relating to God? In many cases, yes. We can also learn by reading about great friendships, like the ones in The Lord of the Rings and other great works of literature. Examples abound all around us. We just need to look, pay attention, and practice being God’s friends.

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Posted by on August 25, 2013 in Book Review, Favorite Books, Ideas

 

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Citizens or Subjects?

English: SAN DIEGO (July 2, 2010) Service memb...

English: SAN DIEGO (July 2, 2010) Service members recite the oath of citizenship during a naturalization ceremony on the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum. Three hundred service members from 51 countries became U.S. citizens during the ceremony sponsored by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. Evans/Released) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most Americans, I fear, do not know or appreciate the fact that citizenship is the primary political office under a constitutional government. In a republic, the citizens are the ruling class. . .

I am sorry to say that most Americans think of themselves as the subjects of government and regard the administrators in public office as their rulers, instead of thinking of themselves as the ruling class and public officials as their servants – the instrumentalities for carrying out their will.

– Mortimer J. Adler, from “We Hold These Truths,” (Collier Books, 1987)

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2013 in Quotations

 

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The Wisdom of Hobbits, Wizards and Lions: Part 5: The Theological Virtues

English: Cross, anchor, and heart for Faith, H...

English: Cross, anchor, and heart for Faith, Hope and Charity(=Love). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Faith, Hope and Love.

Saint Paul wrote about these over and over, perhaps most famously in 1 Corinthians 13: “So faith, hope, love abide, these three:” (1 Cor. 13:13 RSV.) Do Christians really understand what it means to treat these things as virtues, as things to practice and live by? I’m afraid many would consider “faith” to be merely the Christian faith, and “hope” in the sense that, “I sure hope this is all true!” As for “love,” well, just exactly how are we supposed to love those people we don’t even like?

In his great book, “On the Shoulders of Hobbits: the Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis,” Professor Louis Markos goes over these and more in the section titled “The Theological Virtues.” He also gives us a bonus by¬† adding “friendship” to the mix. At first I wasn’t sure about this being a theological virtue, but now I think I may understand and I’ll try to explain further along.

Louis Markos is an English professor, so he views faith and hope, like the other virtues, through the lens of literature. More generally he analyzes them via the form of story. Given that the biblical message of salvation is told in a series of stories, this makes perfect sense. Faith and hope are well suited to this format and what better stories to frame them in than the tales of Tolkien and Lewis?

First off, we must understand that faith and hope go together. As Markos quotes from Hebrews, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for. . . ” (11:1.) One needs the other to be fully understood and to work the way they were meant to. Together.

In The Lord of the Rings, the characters and events are driven forward toward some unknown but grand conclusion, as is the case in most of the great stories of literature. Here, the quest is to deliver the One Ring to Mordor and destroy it in Mount Doom. This quest has been foretold in ancient prophecy which most of the main players are aware of. Yet they are not certain of the exact outcome nor the circumstances that will lead to it, only that the prophecy promises a resolution. So the Fellowship moves ahead, trusting in the promise and believing the resolution will be just. Except for poor Boromir, who never had full faith in the promise. He tries to take matters into his own hands, with disastrous consequences.

Markos rightly points out that faith is more than just a virtue; it is a way of looking at the world that allows us to live with assurance and confidence. When faith is lived, we can see that the world is actually a place full of meaning and that there is an active providence that guides events according to a transcendent plan we can only glimpse. To live in faith is to trust that the universe has meaning and purpose. That today’s world has lost this view of life is undoubtedly behind many of the problems we face.

If faith is the way to look at this universe, hope is what we are looking toward. It is the Happy Ending that we look forward to even though we may not see the way to it clearly. Markos likens it to a term Tolkien coined in his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories.” The eucatastrophe is “the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’.” To live in hope is to live in expectation of this joyous turn even if the circumstances are less than promising.

Next comes love and love is the greatest of the three theological virtues. Just ask St. Paul. I was so happy to see professor Markos use the word charity, from the Latin “caritas,” to describe how love is used by Paul in the famous love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13. Charity is the word used in the King James Bible, and is a fitting translation of the Greek agape. Unfortunately, many Christians, including some theologians, think of love as that warm fuzzy feeling accompanied by Disney animated birds flying around one’s head. Nope. The love Paul speaks of is more an act of will than an emotion. It involves self-sacrifice and a “movement out of narcissism,” as Markos puts it. He rightly describes it as the most active of the three virtues. Faith and hope can change a person, but love can change a person and the world around them.

It is this agape love that plays the central role in true friendship and lifts it to the level of a virtue. Indeed, real friendship acts as a model of this love and helps us learn to apply it. There are so many things to say about this that I am going to do a separate post on the theological “virtue” of friendship. Markos has hit on something important here and I want to do it justice. Until then, think about your important friendships and how they reflect what love should be.

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2013 in Book Review

 

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