Friendship is fundamental

Alastair Roberts has a great post responding to Ben Myers’ post on the Virgin of Vladimir. Alastair takes issue with Myers’ suggestion that this icon (and Orthodox theology more generally) shows us that:

the fundamental human relationship is not that of man and woman (Karl Barth) or husband and wife (John Paul II), but of mother and child.

Alastair argues that, while the mother and child relationship clearly has a central place in the biblical narrative, so do other relationships, especially in the Old Testament: father/son, brother/brother, husband/wife. However, when we move into the New Testament, these relationships of kinship largely fall away. Instead, in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament:

The central relationship is that of friendship, a relational bond that can be stronger than that of brotherhood, the love of which can be more wonderful than the love of a man for a woman. Sexual difference, generational difference, and blood relationship are no longer prominent factors determining the character of interpersonal bonds.

As Alastair shows, this then answers the suggestion that Jesus could not have entered fully into human existence because he never married or fathered children – because what Jesus did do was to embody a relationship “that speaks beyond all of these roles and can transform them”: that is, friendship.

Jesus’ life also shows how friendship is no trivial affability:

Jesus had an unparalleled capacity to give himself to other people in a manner that brought freedom, health, life, comfort, forgiveness, and joy. People wanted to be with Jesus.

Jesus’ model of friendship “broke boundaries between the sexes, and between social insiders and outsiders”, and created a realm in which “we are all equals and contemporaries”. The mission of the church is to continue living out the friendship of Christ, and extending that model of friendship into existing “kinship” bonds – and thus transforming them. For example, it is through friendship that marriage and parenthood can lose their patriarchal character:

The Christian faith has had no small influence in encouraging the idea of companionate marriage, making friendship a core ideal for marriage partners. Whatever else it ought to be, marriage should be a place of profound friendship between the sexes. Parents should also seek deep and lasting friendships with their children.

This understanding should also transform the church’s approach to “single” people:

‘Single’ people are consistently defined in terms of what they lack, or fail to participate in (single, abstinent, etc.), but celibacy is an especial form of the ministry of friendship. The celibate person is freed to practice a form of friendship in which he gives of himself freely to many others, without in any way binding them to himself.

A renewed attention to friendship as the fundamental relationship within the church would also help us escape from “our incessant focus upon the categories of marriage, singleness, and sexuality”. We easily forget that “the Bible really has hardly anything to say about what we call sexuality”, and a more “thoroughgoing theology of friendship” would help us remember this:

A Church that spoke far more about friendship than sexuality, for instance, would have a far more challenging message to present to a sex-obsessed age. A Church that unapologetically proclaimed that a celibate person embodied perfect humanity, and carefully articulated the consequences of this belief, would strike at the heart of some of the greatest idols of our age. The fact that this is seldom done is perhaps evidence of the fact that we are also enthralled by them.

I don’t that this would resolve the debates about sexuality in the church, but it would at least relativise them. The questions of whether faithful, monogamous, same-sex sexual relationships are consistent with Christian discipleship and ministry, and of whether the church should recognise same-sex marriages (or other forms of “covenanted relationship”), would remain pressing ones. But it would at least no longer be a debate of “gay and lesbian people are being excluded from the most fundamental form of human relationship” versus “allowing gay and lesbian people to marry will undermine the most fundamental form of human relationship”.

It would also give the church something useful and positive to talk about while that debate shakes itself out.

How to develop this theology of friendship? I think we can make a start by contemplating the Vladimir icon – and seeing it as an image not only of maternal love, but of friendship. As Alastair puts it (developing a suggestion I made in passing on Twitter):

what it portrays is not merely or primarily the human maternal relationship between Jesus and his mother, but the raising of that bond into the eternal bond of friendship that exists between them. The icon is a representation of an intimate connection between two persons that transcends all earthly bonds. Mother and child are completely given over to each other, yet in a manner in which the wonder of Mary’s maternity is revealed as the manifestation of a much greater bond between the two, whose depths even it cannot fathom, and in the eternal aspect of whose unwavering mutuality, even it must retreat from view.

Our desire should then be to be drawn into that same “eternal bond of friendship” that can, in Christ, be ours in all our relationships.

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