My Friend God
By Anne L. C. Runehov
God and human beings in a friendship relationship in the world.
Jesus said, “I no longer call you servants, because 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 15:15). At a conference, many years ago, the theologian Celia Deane-Drummond argued that the purpose of a relationship between God, the world, and human beings is friendship. She argued that “Jesus is the Wisdom of God,” and suggested that the relationship between God, the world, and human beings should be understood in terms of friendship.
It is easy to understand a friendship relationship between human beings and Jesus. After all, he came to us as a little human baby. He walked beside people, ate, and drank with them, discussed things with his group of disciples, was angry with the market traders in the temple, slept in a boat, and much more. He was a real person in the sense we understand. He laughed, was angry, cried, and sang, as we do. The question is whether human beings can also have such a relationship with God Almighty? Aquinas thought that a friendship needs to be based on similarities, and that God and humans are infinitely unlike each other. So, what would a friendship between God and humans be like? What would be needed to form a friendship with God Almighty?
Everyone knows what friendship means until you really ask the question. And there are, of course, many types of friendship. Differences in types of friendships may exist because there are so many cultures, and because individuals also have different expectations and understandings of what is involved in a friendship.
I found it interesting to look at the characteristics of friendship. Wikipedia lists the following characteristics: “affection, kindness, love, virtue, sympathy, empathy, honesty, altruism, loyalty, generosity, forgiveness, mutual understanding and compassion, enjoying each other’s company, trust, and the ability to remain oneself, to express one’s feelings to others, and make mistakes without fear of judgement from the friend.”
However, true friendship also implies daring to rebuke a friend when he or she does, or is about to do, something foolish or careless. That needs courage because offering rebuke might risk a valued friendship. But a true friend will take the risk in order to prevent their friend from being harmed.
How can these characteristics of human friendships be applied to friendship with God? Friendship happens between persons. Although it is easy to understand that Jesus was a person during his time on earth, can we also say that God is a person? The Lord’s Prayer begins by addressing God as Father: “Our Father in heaven.” And God has a name in the Old Testament—Yahweh. In both Old and New Testaments, we are to think of God as holy, special, and perhaps apart, or separate from us, as in “holy is your name.” In the Bible, God is also portrayed as a judge, judging the good and the wicked. For many people today, God is still seen as the judge, or a father that they fear, reigning from above, who has everything under control and who sees everything. This is a God who is hard and demands full obedience. For me, this was the God of my grandparents, and it was this view of God that caused my father to become a radical atheist. It is indeed difficult to see such a God as a friend. As noted above, one characteristic of friendship is that one is not afraid of a friend’s judgement.
Of course, not everyone sees God in a negative light. To see God as a “heavenly person” is not always a frightening or scary thing. Many people consider God as a loving person to whom they can talk and pray, and whom they can admire and praise. Seeing God as a person can help us imagine a relationship with God in a way that is natural and normal. People can imagine themselves as being God’s “friend.”
But what if we do not simply need to imagine God being our friend? What if God really is our friend? A friend in the here and now? In one sense, God cannot be a person as we understand a person to be. God is beyond time and space and does not have a body as humans do. A person can only exist within the creation, whereas God exists both within and beyond the world as we know it.
How then to understand God as a Friend, our very best friend?
My colleague, Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, a philosopher of religion, argues that God is not a person but does possess “personhood.” Following this idea, I think that human personhood is the most significant way in which humans are like God. And friendship is an important feature of personhood.
The way I see it is that God created human beings in God’s own image, the “imago Dei,” as it is known, and that therefore human beings resemble God in their personhood because it is derived from God. Another colleague, Charlene Burns, suggests that the personhood of God is the relationship in which God can express and experience a deep feeling for creation. This means that we can speak of God in terms of personal relationship, in that God loves, shows mercy, forgives, cares, is compassionate, is empathetic, and so on. In this way, God is our Friend. There is a further implication, of course, that, as we saw at the beginning, a true friend will rebuke and caution if needed. Let me illustrate this with a personal experience.
When I was young, I was a “searcher.” I had my faith in God but was looking for answers and ways to understand God. Across from my apartment there was a lovely Catholic church, which I visited nearly every day. I would stand before the statue of Jesus, light a candle, and pray. I would also go regularly to what I called “Little Lourdes,” to make a pilgrimage. I had holy water from this Little Lourdes, which I used to sanctify my apartment, my car, and anything else that seemed important. But I was not a Catholic in the Catholic sense. Even though I had been born into the Catholic system and had been given all the necessary Catholic sacraments, I did not like or accept the Vatican rules of the time, especially those concerning women. I believed in God, but I was a searcher, and I was curious about other branches of the Christian faith.
One day, I was contacted by members of the Church of Scientology. The way they talked sounded interesting. The word “science” attracted me, and I was curious. They invited me to an evening meeting. This was in the mid-80s and the internet had not yet been invented, so I wasn’t able to google it. I decided then that I could at least listen and find out more. That evening, I went to start my car, but repeatedly, it would not start. This was a BMW that had never let me down! OK, then, I could not go to the meeting. I had a feeling that I was not meant to go, but I ignored it and blamed my car. The next day, before calling the garage to fix my car, I tried it again, and it started immediately! It was then that I truly realized that God had prevented me from going to the meeting. This church was not for me. During the years since then I have had several such experiences and I love them. They convince me that God is my Friend, for real!
Human beings resemble God in their personhood and relationships with others. From this, it follows that the longer and more closely people have lived with God, the more their personality will come to mirror the divine qualities we see in friendship. Just think about people who have lived closely together for many years, and who have shared everything, and become a mirror image for each other. Perhaps this is the real meaning of being in the image of God (imago Dei), to more and more mirror God’s divine characteristics, not least that of friendship, and to share it in our world. By being God’s friends, we can help to fulfil God’s mission to care for creation.
The next question is how a friendship with God can be expressed and sustained? Where and how can humans meet with God? The experience with my car already made it clear to me it can be in the “here and now.” But what about a more theological or philosophical explanation?
Here I find Nicolaus Cusanus helpful. He was a fifteenth century German cardinal who was also a philosopher and a scientist. He liked to harmonize opposites. So, for example, God and creation are such opposites. The divine against the worldly. Perfection against imperfection. Infinite against finite. However, while Aquinas did not think it was possible to have a friendship between opposites, Cusanus solved the problem by suggesting that God and the world are not separate authorities. For Cusanus, there was merely a structural tension between them. He thought of the world as God becoming visible, and that the world is a likeness of God. The world is God presented as a multitude of real things, but the real things are representations of God. The birds and the trees, the flowers and the sky, the moon, and the sun all represent God. Human beings are also God’s likenesses, but they are even more “like God,” because they are in God’s “image.” Cusanus called them Deus secundus, second to God.
Because of the personhood which God and humans both share, the world is the place where God and humans meet. We see God through real things (like my car not starting), and people can recognize God through rational things (for example, to show that I should not attend that meeting). The world is the place where God can be revealed to people. Having a friendship with God also means that the world and human beings are continuously changing. This is obvious if we think about what friendship means as humans. In our own relationships and friendships, not only has the world changed from when we were children to what it is like now as young adults, or older people, but it has changed in what different people have meant to each other. This implies change on different levels. So it is with God. Interacting with God in friendship is not a static thing, but it is very dynamic. With God as a Friend, the world is always becoming and moving forwards because the friendship between God and humans is “in the world.”
Questions: Do you find the idea of God having personhood as a way of relating to humans as a friend attractive? Why or why not?
Anne L. C. Runehov earned her Associate Professor and Dr. Theol. Philosophy of Religion degrees from the Uppsala University. She is a member of the board of The Structure of Crediton, University of Graz, Austria, and a member of the board of ESSSAT. Her monographs are Sacred or Neural? (2007), and The Human Being, the World and God (2015). She is the EiC of the Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions, (2013).She is co-editor for the ESSSAT book series Issues in Science and Religion.She received the 2006 ESSSAT research prize.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.