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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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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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The Wisdom of Hobbits, Wizards and Lions: Part 3: On the Road

The Road Home

The Road Home (Photo credit: keeva999)

“Life is a journey” is one cliché all of us have heard many times. Equally true, but not heard nearly as often, is the saying that “life is a story.” In his book, “On the Shoulders of Hobbits,” Professor Louis Markos uses these two truths to frame his exploration of virtues as they are found in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

In the first four chapters of the book, Markos takes these journeys and stories and places them right in the middle of where they so often take place: The Road. Anyone who has read “The Lord of the Rings” knows that it is one of the greatest road epics ever written. In this it has much in common with such legendary works as Homer’s The Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy, even Huckleberry Finn. “The Chronicles of Narnia,” while not a single tale of a long journey, contains many shorter stories involving all sorts of journeys, some intentional and some not. But long or short, all trips involve four parts: the lure or the call, the response to that call, the dangers and events encountered and finally, the end.

It doesn’t take much to lure us to the highways. We have a built-in restlessness that disposes us to go exploring, though some are easier to persuade than others. In Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” Bilbo, as the author points out, is downright resistant to any idea of leaving his comfortable Hobbit-hole or his beloved Shire, though Gandalf and a boisterous band of dwarves prove to be very persuasive. Shasta, in Lewis’ “The Horse and His Boy,” also resists the call of the road, but out of fear rather than love of comfort. Whether hesitant or enthusiastic, everyone feels the pull of the journey.

In medieval times travelers weren’t tourists in the sense we use the word today. They were merchants, soldiers, nobles or pilgrims and their journeys weren’t taken frivolously. Travel wasn’t as easy or safe as it is today. Good roads weren’t common, there were no planes, trains or automobiles, and there was a good deal of danger involved in leaving home. Taking to the road was literally an adventure in the truest sense of the word. The reason to go had to be a good one. In the ancient Hero tales there was usually a distinct “call” that the hero had to respond to. Gandalf called Bilbo and Frodo. In the Judeo-Christian scriptures, God called Abraham and Moses to grand journeys. But what about the common person?

If you’re alive, you’re on a journey. You weren’t called to it so much as thrust into it. You’re on the Road, and you have to face the challenges and dangers you’ll encounter along the way. Oh, there will be good things that happen on the trip too, things that Tolkien called “eucatastrophes”, those exhilarating moments when some disastrous event that seemed unavoidable is suddenly eclipsed by a surprising good outcome. But by their very nature, eucatastrophes can’t be planned or counted on. So what’s a traveler to do?

As in the great stories, so in life; one keeps on going. There is help, however. In Lewis’ “The Silver Chair,” Aslan the great Lion instructs Jill to memorize four Signs that will help her on her quest. “Remember, remember, remember the Signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night.” If that sounds familiar, it is because it was patterned after Deuteronomy 6:7 and 11:19 where God is instructing His people in preparation for their journey. God has given all of us Signs, or directions, in His Word. From the Ten Commandments, to the Mosaic Law, to the Sermon on the Mount, God provides us with instructions on how to travel the Road of life.

There’s something else we need to remember about the Road. As Markos puts it: “In The Lord of the Rings, the Road is more than a path: it is a character.” In other words, it is a living, active participant in our journeys. The way we interact with the Road tells us a lot about our view of life. Do we carefully observe the events in our path and try to understand what’s happening? Or do we push forward without a thought, trying to force the Road to bend to our will? Though the comparison isn’t drawn directly in the book, this idea of the Road as a character brings to mind the concept of divine Providence, of God’s careful guidance of our lives. This belief in a living Road is critical to our journeys. We must never lose that belief and fall into a “postmodern, existential nihilism that says that there is neither beginning nor end, that we are all adrift in a world without Purpose, Direction, or Call.”

Eventually, the end of the Road arrives and for our life’s journey that means death. Markos reminds us of Pope John Paul II’s observation that we are living in a culture of death today. The issues of abortion and euthanasia, the unrelenting violence in films, television, music and art, all point to a darkness creeping over our civilization. And though we may seem to welcome it, our society has a very bad case of thanatophobia: a primal fear of death. We obsess about health, spending billions of dollars on diet and exercise and medicine, all to trick ourselves into believing that we can be immortal through our own efforts, that our journey never has to end. But it does. The purpose of the journey is not to keep traveling, but to grow and arrive at the place the Lord of the Road has been leading us to. And thus:

We bring our years to an end,

as it were a tale that is told.     (Psalm 90:9, from the Book of Common Prayer)

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2013 in Book Review

 

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The Circle of Life Is a Grind

That there is a cyclical aspect to existence can’t be denied. Day into night into day. Winter,

English: Botticelli, Scenes from the Life of M...

English: Botticelli, Scenes from the Life of Moses (detail 2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spring,Summer,Fall. Birth, life and death. It’s the “Circle of Life” and it’s been glorified in children’s movies and other places over the years. But a circle is a closed figure, with no beginning and no end and if you’re inside the circle you are basically in a prison.

In Thomas Cahill’s book, “The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels,” ( Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday, 1998) he shows us how the Western mind escaped from this prison.

The primeval human’s religion and worldview were so different from what we experience today that it’s very difficult for us to imagine how they saw their lives and world. The great wheel of life and death was truly a grinding wheel. There was no past, present or future as we view it, only an endless cycle. Every event has happened, is happening now and will happen again.

Further, there was no sense of the individual for humans at that time. There was only the “world of groups, tribes, and nations, in which all identity and validation comes only from solidarity with a larger entity.” There were no dreams of a better life for you or your family, only the class or archetypal group you were born into.

To the modern mind this is nearly incomprehensible. Haven’t humans always seen the world the way we see it? How could it be viewed any other way? But what is even more amazing is how our modern worldview came into being out of the mind-numbing repetition and the soul-nullifying class systems of the ancient world. According to Cahill, we can thank the Jews for our escape.

After a short course on the ancient Sumerian civilization, Cahill dives into the Old Testament to show us what these “gifts” are and how they came about. In particular, he focuses on the stories of Abraham, Moses and David. I won’t try to detail all the gifts he brings to light, but I will highlight the ones that he emphasizes.

It begins with Abraham, whose life would have been just fine had he remained within the circle of life and his own family group. But he hears the voice of God, promising him “something new, something better, something yet to happen, something – in the future.” Not only will Abraham become a father in his old age, but God will make of him a great nation. All he has to do is “go forth” into the unknown. So he does, right out of cyclical time and into linear time. Time now contains past, present and future and we now have the idea of history.

With Moses came new gifts, one of which changes religion forever. Ancient religions were not about spirituality. Far from it. Cahill describes them as “impersonal manipulation by means of ritual prescriptions.” Christian author Eugene Peterson characterizes these rituals as “impersonal, nonrelational, acquisitive religious technologies.” It was all about using the gods to get what you wanted. The gods really didn’t care that much about man, but they controlled things that man wanted, things like rain to ensure good crops, fertility for large families and plentiful herds, strength and good fortune for war and the blessings of good health. Man initiated his rituals to obtain these things. But the God of Abraham and Moses is different. He is the One who initiates contact with man.

In Moses’ case, God grabbed his attention via a burning bush that wasn’t consumed. When Moses turns aside to see this wonder, God begins speaking to him. Suddenly, religion isn’t only about manipulation anymore. God has initiated a relationship with man and He and Moses enter into an actual conversation. The Holy one invites Moses to take off his shoes and tells Moses His name. Then comes the part Moses wants nothing to do with: God has a job for him. He is to go back into Egypt and lead the people of Israel out of slavery. This endeavor leads to a close, personal relationship between God and man, an amazing and somewhat terrifying gift. It also leads to another gift, one of the greatest of all, the concept of liberation and freedom.

With David comes another gift, one that we moderns think of as self-evident: the sense of self, theof our interior life, our individual identity. This is something not found in ancient literature. But it is abundant in the book of Psalms. According to Cahill, “The Psalms, some of which were undoubtedly written in the tenth century (BC) by David himself, are a treasure trove of personal emotions from poets acutely attuned to their inner states.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. Cahill sums it up this way: “We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact - new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews.”

And they are the gifts of God.

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2013 in Book Review

 

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So, How’s Your Soil?

It is possible to read the Bible from a number of different angles and for various purposes without dealing with God as God has revealed himself . . .

To put it bluntly, not everyone who gets interested in the Bible and even gets excited about the Bible wants to get involved with God.

Eugene H. Peterson, “Eat This Book,” Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2006

Take a look at Mark 4: 3 – 9.

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2013 in Quotations

 

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The Immense Journey

The Immense Journey

That is the title of one of my all-time favorite books. Written by the eminent anthropologist, Loren Eiseley, and published in 1957, it is the story of life, from its unknown origins in the dim past to its present state. Being an anthropologist, Eiseley focuses most of his attention on the evolution of Man.

I first read this book almost 20 years ago, and was riveted by Eiseley’s writing. I’m not normally a science geek, although I do find it interesting. But reading “The Immense Journey” was a revelation. He was that rarity, a poet-scientist, who could explain the path of life and evolution without making it tedious and mechanical. Indeed, he mainly rejected the easy, mechanistic explanations of how Man evolved to become what he is today.

Too many of today’s scientists, particularly evolutionary biologists, see everything concerning life as mechanism. Completely absent from their worldview are any purpose or meaning. Many times, the soulless prose of these scientists reflects their vision. Not so Loren Eiseley. He saw mystery not just in Man, but in all of life, and that sense of “owl-eyed wonder” (his words) illuminated his writing.

I quoted one of my favorite passages from this book a couple of Sundays back, but I want to share another of this author’s marvelous descriptions of wonder:

. . . but more delicate, elusive, quicker than the fins in water, is that mysterious principle known as “organization,” which leaves all other mysteries concerned with life stale and insignificant by comparison. For that without organization life does not persist is obvious. Yet this organization itself is not strictly the product of life, nor of selection. Like some dark and passing shadow within matter, it cups out the eyes’ small windows or spaces the notes of a meadow lark’s song in the interior of a  mottled egg. That principle – I am beginning to suspect – was there before the living in the deeps of water.

By all accounts Eiseley was a not a religious man in any traditional sense of the word. Yet he was no enemy of religion either. He was comfortable using religious imagery when it was called for, as in this quote from the editors’ preface to this edition of the book:

 . . . whether we speak of a God come down to earth or a man inspired toward God and betrayed upon a cross, the dream was great, and shook the world like a storm. I believe in Christ in every man who dies to contribute to a life beyond his life. I believe in Christ in all who defend the individual from the iron boot of the extending collective state . . .

Do yourself a favor. Read this book.

 

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Authors, Favorite Books, Ideas

 

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“Ye Shall Be As Gods”

The Tree of Knowledge, painting by Lucas Crana...

The Tree of Knowledge, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Communists are that part of mankind which has recovered the power to live or die – to bear witness – for its faith. And it is a simple, rational faith that inspires men to live or die for it.

It is not new. It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision. Other ages have had great visions. They have always been different versions of the same vision: the vision of God and man’s relationship to God. The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.

Whitaker Chambers, from “Witness”

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2012 in Quotations

 

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