“Friending” God

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes between three kinds of friendships, namely, friendships of utility, pleasure, and the good. Each of these friendships is characterized by a common awareness of reciprocal goodwill between the parties involved and finds its basis in a corresponding love. Thus, friendships of utility and pleasure are those in which the participants view each other as useful or pleasant, and so enter into a relationship in order to derive personal benefits, while a perfect friendship occurs between two good and similarly virtuous people whose love is motivated by each person’s recognition of the goodness in the other.[1] Given, however, that Aristotle’s description of genuinely good friendships requires a measure of equality between both friends, it is not immediately obvious whether his account allows for Christian conceptions of friendship with God. In this essay, I argue that perfect friendship with God remains a coherent goal of the Christian life even within Aristotle’s framework because of the kenotic self-emptying of Christ’s humanity at the incarnation, which enables believers, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, to pray to God the Father from a position of intra-Trinitarian equality of virtue. Relating the believer’s acquisition of virtue through his or her engagement in contemplative prayer to an understanding of salvation as theosis, or the deification of the individual Christian, I further suggest that a believer’s ability to relate to God as to a second self is what marks a fully matured divine-human friendship.

For Aristotle, perfect friendships are restricted to virtuous persons who both desire and act out the good; he contrasts this rare class of people with “inferior” individuals, who maintain disharmonious opinions about the good, and the “wicked,” who are unable to love themselves because of their own wickedness. The reason for this restriction is that the characteristics of a genuinely good friendship derive from a person’s relationship with him- or herself. Just as, according to Aristotle, a good person wishes to continue his or her existence as a virtuous, rational being because the perception of one’s own virtue is itself pleasant, so good people enter into perfect friendships because they desire to view the goodness in the other. In such friendships, the participants relate to each other as to “another self;” that is, because their love for each other is akin to their love for themselves, both friends wish to develop an awareness of the other’s being by “living together and sharing in discussion and thought.” The participants in these genuinely good friendships further benefit insofar as their association allows the two friends to emulate the good attributes they perceive in each other.[2]

Whereas the term “equality,” when used with respect to justice, denotes that something is “proportionate to desert,” Aristotle identifies equality in friendships with equality of quantity, correctly noting that a friendship is likely to dissolve if a significant gap in, for instance, virtue or material wealth emerges between the parties involved. The precise point at which friendships break down is dependent on the particular circumstances of each case, with Aristotle suggesting that two people may remain friends despite being marginally unequal in their possession of virtue. However, when the discrepancy becomes such that the one friend is “very remote from the other, as God is remote from man, [the friendship] can no longer continue.” For this reason, although genuinely good friends wish for the benefit of each other, this wish must be limited to only those goods that, if acquired, would not prevent the two from continuing as friends; therefore, Aristotle argues, a friend ought not to desire that his or her second self be deified, since that good, being incompatible with human nature, would undermine the friendship if it were received.[3]

Though Christian theologians have formulated the doctrine in contradictory ways, kenotic Christology provides a useful framework for overcoming Aristotle’s concerns about divine-human friendships whilst nevertheless affirming the necessity for the participants in perfect friendships to be equal in virtue. Philippians 2:7 provides the basis for any discussion of kenosis. For the present purposes, however, I follow Sarah Coakley and the earlier seventeenth-century Giessen School in interpreting Paul’s discussion of Christ’s self-emptying as pertaining particularly to the humanity of the incarnate God-man: In his human nature, Jesus emptied himself of the desire to obtain characteristics like omnipotence, and thereby exposed himself to the vulnerabilities of anxiety and death, but retained the potential to exercise such attributes of the Godhead inasmuch as his humanity was united with divinity.[4] This understanding of the incarnation, which emphasizes Christ’s unwillingness to “grasp” divine power for his own ends, has the primary advantage of accounting for those gospel narratives that portray Jesus’s ministry as one of consistent submission to the guidance and purposes of the Triune God (e.g. Luke 4:1, 14; 5:17). In more practical terms, by drawing explicit attention to the potential for radical human vulnerability, illustrated by Jesus’s anguish in Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-46), to join cohesively with divinity, the understanding of kenosis adopted here identifies in the incarnation a model for how Christians might be friends with God without losing their humanity.

Believers emulate Jesus’s intra-Trinitarian dependence by adopting a posture of prayerful contemplation; that is, by submitting themselves to God they achieve union with the divine despite the limits and vulnerabilities imposed by their own finitude. In Christian discourse, the term for this union is theosis, with the incarnate God-man providing the clearest example thereof.[5] This view of salvation as the divinization of the individual follows from both Paul’s exhortations for Christians to imitate God (Eph 5:1) as well as Genesis’s vision of humanity as created in the imago Dei (Gen 1:26-27); specifically, the version of theosis adopted here suggests that, rather than being merely the avoidance of “conscious torment” in Hell,[6] the ultimate end of the Christian life is the unification of humanity and divinity within the individual such that he or she becomes indistinguishable from Christ in his or her desires, actions, and virtues. Whereas Aristotle maintained that deification was incompatible with human nature, and would, therefore, undermine human friendships, a doctrine of theosis informed by Christ’s incarnation recognizes that divinization represents the fullest expression of one’s humanity: People, as bearers of the divine image, adopt in prayer the posture of submission exemplified by Jesus and are thereby able to ascend to a position of Christ-like equality with God because they recognize through their contemplation of Christ that the virtues possessed by Jesus are present within themselves.[7]

The specific practices by which Christians engage in contemplative prayer are contingent on the peculiarities of each tradition; ultimately, however, the submission that such prayer is intended to yield consists of the believer’s willing abandonment of any ambitions to exercise domineering control over weaker parties.[8] Thus, in a manner analogous to the kenotic self-emptying of Christ’s human nature, a contemplative Christian aligns him- or herself with the divine mind such that God’s plans and intentions become indistinguishable from the believer’s own desires. To echo Paul’s phraseology, the Christian becomes of one mind with Christ by reflecting on the qualities of humility and love evidenced by Christ’s ministry (Eph 5:2; Phil 2:5), with prayer, like the cohabitation Aristotle argued was necessary for genuinely good human friendships,[9] being a principal means by which believers obtain insight into God’s consciousness.

Rather than adding to the inequalities Aristotle identified in divine-human relationships, however, the language of acquiring Christ’s mind underscores the Christian hope of obtaining equality with God in like fashion to the coequality between Jesus’s humanity and divinity that obtained despite the kenotic emptying of the former. Paul’s discussion in Rom 8 of the Holy Spirit’s interaction with the individual Christian is helpful here. In particular, his confusing inclusion of interwoven terms for God, Christ, and Spirit in vv. 9-11 highlights the interpenetration of each divine person within the Trinity, which, when coupled with Paul’s later treatment of the Spirit’s intercession during Christian prayer (vv. 26-27), supplies a profitable framework for understanding the believer’s relationship to the Godhead.

Of initial import for the present study is Paul’s equation of the Spirit dwelling within Christians with the “Spirit of God,” the “Spirit of Christ,” and the Holy Spirit in its own right (Rom 8:9-11); significantly, the apostle goes on to argue later in the chapter that, since Christians derive their life from communion with this Spirit, they ought, therefore, to align themselves with the desires and characteristics of the Spirit, an assertion that lends additional support to my use of kenosis as a model for the human dependence on God. The indwelling presence of triune divinity within the individual Christian further suggests that prayer ultimately consists of speech in the Spirit. That is, since the contemplative believer’s submission to God is such that his or her own thoughts and desires are indistinguishable from God’s own, his or her speech to God mimics the interaction that occurs within the Trinity itself; as Paul explains in Rom 8:15-17, 26-27, Christians, having the mind of the Son, speak to God the Father with the voice of the Holy Spirit living within them, such prayer being “reflexive” insofar as it is thus God as Spirit and Son speaking to himself as Father.[10] Prayer of this form, which is achieved by kenotic submission, is the means by which humans overcome the distance between themselves and God; in their submission, believers are able to directly access the Triune consciousness and view the goodness therein, while God, by incorporating Christians into the prayerful dynamics of the Trinity, desires friendship with people because he recognizes in believers the virtues of the Son himself.

The foregoing account suggests that Aristotle’s concerns about the potential inequalities between God and humans need not prevent Christians from seeking genuinely good friendships with God. As I argued here, the interpenetration of humanity and divinity suggested by the doctrine of theosis is grounded in Christ’s own kenosis, with the incarnation providing a counterexample to Aristotle’s claim that deification is ultimately incompatible with human nature. Rather, theosis indicates that, inasmuch as they both acquire the mind of Christ and unite themselves with divinity, believers are able to obtain the virtues of the Son of God without thereby destroying their humanity; when Christians interact with God, especially in prayer, they do so as Christ himself and therefore as persons with a quantity of virtue equal to that possessed by the Godhead. Perfect friendship as understood by Aristotle is possible within this account because both a person’s love for God and God’s love for humans are thus seen to be related to these figures’ love for themselves and their own virtues: The Christian recognizes and contemplates the qualities of Christ because they allow him or her to better perceive the virtues present within him- or herself, while God likewise reflects upon the goodness in people because in so doing he views the attributes of the incarnate Christ (cf. Matt 25:31-46).


Notes

[1] Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics,” in Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues, ed. Steven M. Cahn and Peter Markie, trans. W. D. Ross, 6th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 162–165.

[2] Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics,” 164–165, 168–169.

[3] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Harris Rackham, Wordsworth Classics of World Literature (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1996), 214–215.

[4] Sarah Coakley, “Kenōsis and Subversion: On the Repression of ‘Vulnerability’ in Christian Feminist Writings,” in Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), 17–18.

[5] Wendy Farley, Gathering Those Driven Away: A Theology of Incarnation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 171–172.

[6] To quote the language used in Article (5) of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada’s Statement of Faith (“Manual of The Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada 2016” [Toronto: The Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada, 2016], 5).

[7] Cf. Farley, Gathering Those Driven Away, chap. 8.

[8] Cf. Coakley, “Kenōsis and Subversion,” 32–39.

[9] See Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics,” 169.

[10] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), chap. 3.

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