By William A. Barry, SJ
From A Friendship Like No Other: Experiencing God’s Amazing Embrace
What does God want in creating us? My stand is that what God wants is friendship.
To forestall immediate objections, let me say that I do not mean that God is lonely and therefore needs our friendship. This is a romantic and quite unorthodox notion that makes God ultimately unbelievable. No, I maintain that God—out of the abundance of divine relational life, not any need for us—desires humans into existence for the sake of friendship.
This thesis may sound strange, because it runs counter to much teaching about God. To be honest, I questioned it myself when I first began to think it through. Mind you, I have been writing about prayer as a personal relationship for many years, maintaining that God wants such a relationship with us, and I have used the analogy of a personal relationship between two people to describe the developing relationship between God and us. But the notion that God wants our friendship did not easily follow. Whenever it reared its head, I shrugged it off as a fancy not to be taken seriously. After all, I had been raised with the standard catechism answer: “God made me to know him and love him and serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next.” As far as I can remember, no one ever interpreted this as implying that God wants my friendship.
But over the past few years, as my own relationship with God has deepened and I have listened to people talk about how God relates to them, I have become convinced that the best analogy for the relationship God wants with us is friendship. I began to use this kind of language in talks and articles and found that it resonated with others. I hope that you will find similar resonance and will trust your experience more fully. I can think of nothing that would please me more than to hear that you, and many others, have come to find God “better than he’s made out to be,” as my Irish mother once put it. I believe that God would also be pleased.
See William Barry speak about friendship with God, and then continue reading this article below.
But in order for us to trust this experience of God as friend, we must move beyond our feelings of fear of God. The teaching that most older Christians received about God induced fear of God rather than the feelings invoked by the term friend. I still meet more people who fear God rather than feel warm and friendly toward God. Does the idea of friendship with God figure into your experience of religious teaching and worship? I suspect that it does not.
The idea, however, has an ancient heritage. It can be defended as orthodox, perhaps even as the best reading of the developing revelation of God contained in the Bible. I was encouraged to undertake this book, after a number of false starts, by reading Liz Carmichael’s Friendship: Interpreting Christian Love, a scholarly book that shows that there is an enduring tradition of identifying caritas (love or charity) with friendship, and thus defining God as friendship.
Two examples of this tradition cited by Carmichael will suffice. Aelred, the twelfth-century English Cistercian abbot of Rievaulx, developed his own variant of John’s “God is love” (1 John 4:16): “Shall I say . . . God is friendship?” A century later, Thomas Aquinas defined caritas as friendship with God. Both writers knew the text from the first letter of John in its Latin form: “Deus caritas est.”
This notion of friendship with God seems to have waxed and waned throughout history. It is possible that preachers and teachers of religion fear that embracing the idea of friendship with God may lead to effacing the mystery and awesomeness of God, and so they hesitate to talk about it. But I am convinced, as is Carmichael, that this is an idea whose time has come, and none too soon for the future of our world—as I hope will become clear as we proceed. For one thing, fear of God has closed off a closer relationship with God in many people I have met, and they seem drawn by the notion of friendship. For another, friendship with God leads to a wider and wider circle of friends as we realize that God’s desire for friendship includes all people.
As noted, much of our teaching about God has stressed fear of God. And why not? The psalmist writes: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). But the fear of the Lord extolled in the psalm is a far cry from the fear instilled by religious teaching, which leads people to keep their distance from God. The psalms surely were not written to keep people far from God, but just as bad news sells better than good in the media, so, too, hellfire and brimstone make for more compelling teaching and preaching. But God, I believe, is shortchanged by such teaching and preaching tactics, and so are we.
The emphasis on hellfire may have salutary effects on the spiritual life in the short haul, but it can be argued that the long-haul effects leave something to be desired, especially when the threats no longer seem to hold. Witness what happened to the practice, among Roman Catholics, of the sacrament of reconciliation (called confession prior to the Second Vatican Council): as soon as Catholics learned after Vatican II that they would not go to hell as easily as they had been taught and that confession was necessary only if they had committed serious sins, they drifted away from its use in huge numbers and have not returned, in spite of much hand-wringing on the part of bishops and priests and the real benefits that can come from a healthy use of this lovely rite. If fear is the principal factor used to enforce a religious practice, the practice will end when the fear is removed, and it will be difficult indeed to bring about its renewal.
Worse still, the emphasis on hellfire and brimstone gives God a bad name. One can read the Bible as a story of the progressive revelation of God—a God of compassion. Jesus’ use of the tender word Abba—“dear Father”—for God is the culmination of this progressive revelation.
The “fear of the Lord” that is the beginning of wisdom is a healthy realization of God’s awesomeness. God is fascinating and awe-inspiring, even terrifying, as the theologian Rudolf Otto put it. But suppose for a moment that God, who is Mystery itself—awesome, terrible, and unknowable—wants our friendship. Then the beginning of wisdom might be an acceptance of God’s offer, even though accepting it proves to be daunting, challenging, and even a bit frightening.
What I hope you will find in this book is an invitation to engage in a relationship of friendship with God and in a dialogue with me. In the book, I do not provide answers so much as make suggestions and ask you to either try a suggested approach or reflect on your own experience in light of my suggestions. I hope that this will help you become a friend of God; the book will not attain my purpose if all you get out of it are ideas.
In part 1 of the book, I will first examine human friendship as the best analogy for what God wants with us, and then I will offer some exercises to help you determine if the notion of friendship fits your relationship with God or to motivate you to try such a way of relating to God. In part 2, I will provide meditations on questions and issues that I have had to confront as I have reflected on the conviction that God wants my friendship. I hope that they will be helpful to you as you confront your own questions. Finally, in part 3, I will take up the questions of where we find God and how we distinguish the influence of God’s Spirit on our experience from other influences.
As we begin this spiritual journey together, let us pray this prayer of St. Anselm of Canterbury, which he made to God as he began one of his theological works, and which I used daily as I began writing this book:
Teach me to seek you,
and reveal yourself to me as I seek;
for unless you instruct me
I cannot seek you,
and unless you reveal yourself
I cannot find you.
Let me seek you in desiring you;
let me desire you in seeking you.
Let me find you in loving you;
let me love you in finding you.
Excerpt from A Friendship Like No Other: Experiencing God’s Amazing Embrace by William A. Barry, SJ.
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