By Beth Newman
The other day my son was talking to me about the playground antics of a little girl named Candace. It was obvious that Candace was quite a live wire and that he found her extremely amusing. As the stunts she pulled off grew more outrageous, I asked whether the teacher hadn’t objected. “She’s not in my class; she’s on T.V.” was his response. In his imagination, the cartoon world was as real as the world of the school yard.
Of course, imaginary friends are a typical phenomenon of childhood, but increasingly it seems a fixture of the adult world as well. For instance, the beaming faces that read the news or traffic reports on television appear as real to us as the people across the street. They even use the language of “community” to describe the relationship between themselves (as well as their sponsors) and us. Perhaps they seem more real.
This is not surprising. Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon observed some years ago that we live in a society where “we are kept detached, strangers to one another as we go about fulfilling our needs and asserting our rights.”
This was brought home to me not long ago when our children wandered into a neighbor’s yard, eager to jump on their trampoline. When I asked the mother if it was OK, she responded, “Promise you will not sue me.”
Like this mother, all of us are easily caught up in cultural forces that tear us apart, detach us from commitments to persons and places and lead us to focus on “my rights” over yours. Our imaginations have become impoverished about what true friendship or neighborliness even looks like.
The church recognizes something of this. And it is common now to emphasize the “relational” nature of what the outsider/visitor/potential member will find within a particular congregation. And churches compete to proclaim themselves as more friendly or open or inviting than their competitors.
I wonder, though, whether we’ve done the hard work of discerning what true friendship means.
This is not a new challenge. The Greek philosopher Aristotle distinguished three kinds of friendship.
First, according to Aristotle, are friendships of usefulness. Persons are friends because of the “good they get out of it.” Examples would be business partners or neighbors who owned dogs and were friends because they “dog-sat” for each other.
Second are friendships of pleasure where people are friends because of the pleasure they get out of it. Examples of this kind would be friends who get together because they enjoy the same movies or hobby.
Are these really friendships, when it sounds as if you’re simply using the other for what you need or for pleasure? Aristotle’s answer would be “yes,” since these kinds of friendships do in fact bring people together. You know your neighbor, her name, the dog’s name and probably a lot more. You do an activity with someone else versus sitting alone in front of your T.V. You’re not strangers.
While counting these as friendship, Aristotle did say that “such friendships are easily dissolved … the affection ceases as soon as one partner is no longer pleasant or useful to the other.”
Therefore, Aristotle described a third, more binding friendship: a friendship of virtue where friends share a common vision of the good; the virtue each sees in the other brings friends together. Hence, Aristotle’s familiar quotation: “a friend is another self.” We choose friends based on what is most important.
Friendship is, of course, at the heart of Christian discipleship. In a well-known passage from John 15, Jesus says, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends….” Jesus continues, however, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”
It is this later point that distinguishes Aristotle’s Greek friendship from Christian friendship. As Augustine emphasized, we do not choose our friends, God does. It is not simply our virtue that draws us together. Rather, friends are brought together by God, a sign of God reaching into our lives and working on our behalf.
Augustine imagined ecclesial friendship as a school of Christian love. Such friendship is not turned inward. It is rather the place we learn the practices and virtues necessary to expand our lives, hearts and minds so that we can truly welcome the stranger.
In a world where we have increasingly become strangers to one another, let’s imagine the difference between being “friendly” and practicing friendship as a gift from God.