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Are Christians Crazy to Call God Their Friend?

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Claiming friendship with God is a good way to get mocked by the “wise” of the world. But it is a central claim of Christianity. How do we make sense of it?


Cy: Is friendship with God really possible? Philosophy professor John Cuddeback next.

Hello, and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. Sometimes in apologetics we might spend much of our time explaining and defending the controversial aspects of Christian life, and can maybe not get around to explaining and defending the most beautiful teachings of Christ and His Church, and those might be the very ones that people need. Today, we take a look at some of what Christianity has to say about friendship, particularly friendship with God. It’s a vast topic, and one that is really essential to any explanation of the Christian faith.

To help us do that, we welcome Christendom College philosophy professor John A. Cuddeback. Dr. Cuddeback is a graduate of Christendom College and of Catholic University of America, where he earned his PhD. He’s the author of True Friendship: When Virtue Becomes Happiness, from Epic Publishing, and he’s the founder and curator of the Bacon From Acorns website, which aims through philosophy to help people to live more human, happier lives. You can now find his work, as well, at life-craft.org.

Professor John Cuddeback, thanks for being with us.

John: Great to be with you today.

Cy: We’re going to talk about friendship. You think a lot about friendship.

John: I should do it a little better, but I think about it a lot.

Cy: That’s probably the case with all of us, imitation of Christ being the key there, and you wanted to share with us from John’s Gospel some of what Christ Himself has to say and has to give as an example to us about friendship.

John: I do. I’m a philosopher, and so I don’t purport to be a theologian, but I love, as a philosopher, bringing good philosophy, ancient wisdom, natural wisdom to help us understand our faith better, and in the area of friendship is where that particularly bears great fruit.

Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas then comments on Aristotle and draws him out, teaches us a lot about what friendship is, the different kinds of friendship. I remember how exciting it was for me when studying that then to come to the 15th Chapter of the Gospel of St. John in the Last Supper discourse where Our Lord very significantly says to His disciples, “I call you friends.” The context shows what an amazingly rich understanding He has of friendship, of course.

The thing that was so exciting for me was “Oh my goodness, what I’m seeing here in the philosophical and theological tradition about friendship, even just from a natural perspective, is obviously so much at play here.” That can help us understand better what Our Lord was saying, and then Our Lord’s words then can help us look back at friendship in general and understand it better.

Cy: It’s the thing, I suppose, that… Friendship is easy for even the untrained person, or the person without any technical philosophy or anything like that, to see as a good. It’s something we just absolutely… We’re so made for friendship that we don’t even question whether that’s a good.

John: Right. Of course, Our Lord clearly knows then He’s saying something that’s going to be extremely exciting to us when He offers, as it were, His friendship. At the same time, it’s one of those things that’s immediately appealing and we immediately have some sense of what it means, but at the same time there’s always so much more there, and it’s worth our taking the opportunity to stop and say, “Okay, what really is this?”

That’s what I love to do in any case with friendship, to step back again and say, “All right, we all know there’s a difference between true friendship and other things that we more loosely call friendship, but what is that difference?” and then to dig into what that really looks like when it’s being truly, successfully enacted. Anything that we can do along those lines is going to, again, help us in a symbiotic relationship here with what the Gospel is saying, back and forth. It will help us understand better what friendship is. It will help us understand better what exactly Our Lord is calling us to.

Cy: When Christ, who is the Lord, who is the Second Person of the Trinity, who is a divine person, invites us into friendship, is He using friendship as an analogy for the relationship, or is that really… I say this in part because He’s so far superior to us. Is it just analogous, this use of the word friendship, or is it actual real friendship-

John: Great question. It brings us to the heart of the matter. I think the answer is it’s real, in the proper sense of the term. There’s going to be an analogousity there too. Anything where you’re talking with God, there’s going to be an aspect that makes it have a real difference with creatures. But at the same time, there is a real sameness.

The heart of the matter, of course, is in the nature of friendship. As Aristotle said so well, “Friendship is living one life together,” and so it’s really sharing in life, what it means to be alive. Aristotle says that true friends, whatever it is that their life is most about, most lived in, it is in that, that most of all they will share with one another.

Aristotle himself sets the context for understanding what’s going on here in the Gospel so well when he says, “Can a human being be friends with God?” Aristotle explicitly asked this question, and it’s very dramatic because the answer he gives is very much to the point. I like to say it’s a true answer, given what he knows. He says, “Given the nature of friendship, the answer is no, because you can’t share one life with God.”

As you noted, Cy, in asking the question, God is so far distant. Friendship always means a proximity, a closeness, a presence, a sharing, and especially a mutual communication. So if God is at such a distance that we are not really present mutually to one another, mutually, as it were, interested and aware of one another’s lives, then whatever the relationship is, it’s not going to be one of true friendship.

Cy: All right. Where do you go to John’s Gospel to get what you want to get at?

John: Go to the 15th Chapter, and you all know the Last Supper discourse. Chapter 15 is the one that begins with “I am the vine.” I’m going to go ahead and jump to Verse Eight. Why don’t we go ahead and read these lines out loud? Then we can look at them piece by piece if we want to, starting at Verse Eight.

Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples. As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you. Continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in His love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.

Now, Verse 12. This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go forth and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, He may give it you.

There’s a lot going on in there.

Cy: It is.

John: Isn’t there?

Cy: Yeah. Right.

John: Of course, the culmination was in Verse 14 there, “Ye are my friends,” but followed with that amazing little if clause, “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.” I was looking at what the fathers of the Church say in explanation of this. It’s not that we should think… We can start here. It’s not that we should think that doing what God commands us earns His friendship. “Well, if you want to be my friends, you have to do what I command you, then I’ll let you in.” No, it’s more the other way around. Doing what God commands is a sign of our friendship.

It’s all gift. It’s all from Him having chosen us. That’s that other beautiful aspect here. It’s “I’ve chosen you. I have loved you first and called you into this relationship.”

There’s a number of different things that are going on here. The one that I particularly want to focus our attention on here first is the aspect of comparing a friend with a servant, so at the 15th Verse, “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.” It’s that line that most brings to my mind what Aristotle has to say about friendship, of how it is fundamentally in sharing life, and particularly how to… One great point. Aristotle says, “How do human persons share life with one another?” Human persons most of all share their life by sharing their minds, by sharing their minds and hearts, but in communication, in discussion and in conversation.

Cy: Yes. Right. So the servant here, the master of the servant doesn’t share the mind with the servant, just says, “Do this. Do that.” The key here is He’s sharing in just that way, in self-revelation, in giving what He’s got.

John: Exactly. This is such a jaw-dropper when we think… “For all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.” The intensity of the sharing, particularly given that we’re talking about a divine person. Here is the Christian difference. Look what comes together here. We have a natural… Again, the pagans had this understanding of man is made for friendship. We want to live in close presence. We want to share life with those that we love.

Here we now have God Himself… This is not God being any less God. He is still, in a sense, that much above us, but even given that, He is going to share the Second Person of the Trinity, having become man, so that He becomes closer to us, says that He is going to share with us “all that I have heard from my Father.”

It’s such an amazing moment to say, all right, Aristotle was so right in his understanding about what friendship is. It’s in this most intimate of shared lives. Because of that, how could one even dare to think that you’d be friends with God? So the only one that could solve this problem, of course, is God Himself.

Cy: And He has.

John: And He has.

Cy: In Christ. Yeah.

John: Yes. We never could have initiated this. We never could have expected it, but He… That’s why, in so many ways, I just think this is at the heart of Christ revealing to us what He has made us for, what He wants with and for us, to draw us in so close in this giving and take of conversation, of speech and in hearing. I love how His words there give the image of His close relationship to the Father, as it were, His ear turns towards the Father, and then His turning towards us asking us to give Him our ear.

Cy: In listening to you talk about it, it strikes me that this idea of intimate friendship with God is in many ways the solution to the conundrum that we get here on… People will call and ask of one of the apologists, “Well, if God can save someone who’s not Christian, why should I go around trying to make other people Christians?” There’s a way in which it’s like, well, they’re probably not going to go to hell, or they might not go to hell, so that without that anxiety about damnation, there seems to be so little reason to share Christianity. But when you turn it to this and say, “Well, what Christ is offering is intimate friendship with God and eternal intimate friendship with God,” it overcomes, I think, that, I don’t know, complacency, that Christian complacency we have.

John: Absolutely. We shouldn’t forget, we want people to come to this… Of course, the long view, what’s most important is eternal salvation, but at the same time, don’t we want for people, as much as we can contribute, to bring them as soon as possible to that for which they were made? Our Lord is reaching out to them. Of course, He’s made clear He needs us to be involved in bringing His words to people, but in the great and mysterious divine providence here, He uses us as instruments to bring His message, His communication. Ultimately, He wants friendship with them. Isn’t it astounding to think sometimes you and I can have been a poor instrument and bring another person into this relationship? Isn’t that a great reason for evangelization?

Cy: Yeah. Right. Exactly.

John: “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love.” This aspect is focusing our attention on another beautiful aspect of Aristotle’s understanding. The way that Aristotle put it is “Friends have the same likes and dislikes.” Friends have the same likes and dislikes. They’re going to live the same kind of life. Their heart is in the same place. They live in the same ways. They value the same things. Well, aren’t the Commandments how God shares with us, in a sense, where His heart is? And we align ourselves with that.

St. Thomas Aquinas, in explaining this, wonderfully says… He connects this aspect of friends have the same likes and dislikes; this is the key angle from which to understand why God so much wants us to follow the Commandments. I think for apologetical purposes, so many people have the sense of “Why is God insisting that we jump through these hoops? Why do I have to do that? Can’t we all just kind of get along? Can’t God just invite me in, regardless of anything else?” God loves us no matter what, but He’s inviting us to an intimate relationship, which means we need to be able to be with Him, as it were. This is where, again, I just go back to the line friends have the same likes and dislikes. If we’re going to be in that intimacy with Him, we have to be in alignment with Him, as it were.

Cy: Because everything that He likes, so to speak, is the perfect good. He can’t modify His likes to accommodate us because that would mean making an imperfection in Himself, and it wouldn’t be to the good of anyone. He’s not just being bossy. He actually loves the perfect good for us.

John: Exactly. The extent that we grow in that way, becoming more like Him, we then share more with Him. Living the Commandments is precisely that. It’s, as it were, a way of literally being like and with Him.

Cy: What we’re offering then in offering the Christian faith to others is intimate friendship with God. There’s a certain way in which you almost see, when you hear this, that He says, “All things that I have heard from my Father I have made known unto you,” I don’t experience that. I don’t experience that it has all been made known to me, so-

John: This is why I love going every now and then to a great book that St. Thomas Aquinas put together called the Catena Aurea, which means the Golden Chain. I highly recommend it. It has all of… For each part of the Gospel, he takes the various commentaries of the fathers of the Church, and he puts them all together and he strings them together.

In looking at that on this, he says one of the fathers points out, “Well, wait a second, has He actually made known to us everything He’s heard?” It is explained the way we need to take that is that’s partially promissory. It’s partially what’s coming. In other words, the full revelation isn’t happened. What he’s saying is this is where Our Lord’s heart is. Our Lord is saying, “This is what I am doing, this is what I want to do, and this is what I’m going to continually draw you more into, coming to its ultimate fruition in heaven.”

Cy: It also strikes me that when you… You emphasized briefly, and I wonder if you would, before we have to conclude, explore this a little more, the priority of God’s action here, that He has to love us first in order for us to be able to love, because that, it seems to me, is the antidote to another modern problem, not the problem of being lukewarm evangelists, but the problem of thinking we can… I guess, the Pelagianism of the modern ethic.

John: Yes. Perfect. It’s so important to not take this point as “I need to run out there and keep the Commandments so that I win God’s love.” God’s love is always the origin. God’s love is truly the origin of absolutely everything that is. I know we’ve heard this before, but just as we move to our closing, let’s just really think about for a moment, God eternally loves Himself. The way He is and exists in His all-perfect being is perfectly lovable. In creation He loves into existence ways of imitating Him, ways of being like Him. This is such a beautiful way of seeing reality is always better than we’ve yet recognized. God’s love is what gives being, what gives order, what gives form to absolutely everything.

Now coming more specifically to this, every good in our life is brought about by God’s love. He offers us this relationship. St. Augustine, in commenting on this, he points out, “You don’t see it as that God saw how good you are and then he said, ‘Oh, boy, I really love that.'” He, in a sense, saw how good He wants to make you, how good you can be, and He loves you into this goodness. He literally loves you into becoming yourself.

I love to think… This is so astounding. God shares that power somewhat with us. In other words, when we then, having received His love, we turn and we love others, our love can have a, dare I say it, kind of creative power as a participation in God’s love of bringing out the good in others. When I look at you and I love you, I’m participating in God’s love for you in helping you become who you are. Point this in a way of seeing evangelization. We would have said this phrase anyway, but think of it more precisely, bringing God’s love to other people so that, as it were, can come to the fruition of making them be who God wants them to be.

Cy: I just feel like I could just keep going on this for hours and hours. We’re out of time, but it’s a mine, isn’t it? You follow the vein, and it goes deeper and deeper into the mystery of God’s love for us.

John: It’s all gift. It’s all a gift.

Cy: Professor John Cuddeback has been our guest. He is a professor of philosophy at Christendom College. You can find him at baconfromacorns.com, or you can go to the new website, life-craft.org. Especially for our men listeners, I’ll ask you to check out what Professor Cuddeback does. Lots and lots there that’s helpful for you, and he has lots of new material on the role of a man, basically, in marriage, the title for a man being the head of the household, not in some overbearing way or anything like that, but in a way that can help you understand your role in the economy of God’s love for your family.

Right now, he’s offering an online webinar titled Man of the Household. You can get a $25 coupon to get $25 off of it if you go to Catholic Answers and you put in the code CA25… Excuse me, if you go to his website and you put in the code CA25 there.

I really want to recommend that to you because there is a way in which… This is something I get so much from you. I’m a subscriber to Bacon From Acorns and all that. Modern life is so grinding down of the soul in many ways, and it seems to me that your work is trying to help people rediscover, not the soul separate from the body, but a way to be in the world that gives life to the soul, that allows God to give life to the soul.

John: Well, I’m honored. Thank you, Cy.

Cy: Thank you. Thank you very, very much. Again, the websites are baconfromacorns.com, or you can go to life-craft.org. If you want to get that $25 off for the Man of the Household online webinar, you just put in the code CA25.

Thanks for joining us again on Catholic Answers Focus. One important way you can support our work is by giving us a rating or review. Please take a moment to give us a five-star rating at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll see you next time right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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