The following blog, the seventh in a series, is based on the writings of Sallie McFague in her book The Body of God: An Ecological Theology, (Fortress Press: Minneapolis), 1993. This series draws as well from another of Sallie McFague’s books, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis) 1987.
The first three blogs in the series described more traditional models of God and their limitations as fading bases for responding to care of creation. A transitional blog introduced the “Organic” model. The next three blogs are sketching Sallie McFague’s Organic model in more detail and their advantages in promoting redemptive responses to the climate crisis.
These “organic’ models are meant to describe God’s relationship with the world in ways that reach beyond traditional imaginations. Some of those traditional models have been less than helpful in enabling faithful responses to this climate crisis we are facing. If God lives “out there;” if God is so distinct from creation as to be disengaged or disinterested; if God acts in ways more consistent with masculine gender expectations of dominating, conquering, and judging; if God is really interested in saving souls and rescuing a chosen few from the suffering of life on earth…. then where is the commitment to respond to saving this planet and all its life forms? If, on the other hand, God my be understood in other ways, might we find a different Spirit for the care of creation?
Proposing the image of God as Friend, whose love is Philia, whose activity is Sustaining, and whose ethic is Companionship.
McFague begins with, and rejects, an Aristotelian understanding of friendship. “Where the partners must be equal, there is no possibility of friendship between human beings and God.” (Models, p. 158). Examples from Jesus would prove otherwise. Matthew 11:19 describes Jesus as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” John 15: 12-15 cites Jesus saying that his disciples are “no longer servants but friends.”
How then does the model of God as Friend work?
Whose love is Philia…
“A case must be made that the model is sufficiently important, sufficiently basic, to human existence to qualify as a potential candidate for imaging the God-world relationship.” (Models, 159).
She notes that “of all the human relationships [friendship] is the most free.” (Models, 159). That is, friendship is outside the bounds of duty, functioning or office. Friends choose to be together. There may be one-sided, utilitarian friendships that meet a need or provide a service but are not reciprocated. However true friendships begin because someone likes the person, allows that person to be themselves. There is a form of affection and respect. A friend is fun to be with, someone that is trusted. Friends are
referred to as “soul-mates” or “kindred spirits.” Friendship is simply delight in the presence of each other. (Models, 160). While close to eros, philia lacks the sexual dimension to the relationship.
God as friend appears in the descriptions by the mystics as great joy to be in the presence of God. Mystics practiced devotional exercises to achieve such closeness. This relationship is described as “the dance of the saved circling God in mutual attraction and joy.” (Dante, quoted in Models, 160)
C.S. Lewis was reluctant to use the image of God as Friend because it could be confusing because of its spiritual power. One would never believe God was truly their father. “Only a lunatic” would believe God was truly one’s lover. However, the symbol of Friend is so powerful that one could confuse the symbol for what it symbolized. (Lewis quoted in Models, in a footnote to p. 160).
Others criticize God’s love as philia because God has no favorites. More about that shortly.
“Friendship is the bonding of two by free choice in a reciprocal relationship… The basis of friendship is freedom. (Models, 162). The bonds of friendship are “freedom without duty or utility or desire”. There is the bond of trust, a bond of commitment. To sin against the relationship is betrayal, treason. “The betrayer is one who ‘acts the friend’ but opens the door from within to the enemy.” (Models 160).
“Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other, friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” (Models, 161) Acquaintances become friends by a common interest that is inward. They see things the same way; this is truth. They care about the truth the same way. This vision, more than a common activity, opens the friendship to the world. (Models, 163).
“Friendship between God and human beings in our time can be seen as focused on a common project: the salvation, the well-being, of the world.” (Models, 163).
Remember earlier, the criticism that God has no favorites. Remember too that in this evolutionary, ecological model the love of God is universal, not individual. So, God and the friend choose one another in joy, as friends, in the pursuit of great interest to both: the well-being of the world, that is, God’s body. And this common vision is not limited to two.
These friends now are not only numerous, they are different. They are not bound by race, class, gender, nationality, age, or creed. Individuality has its delights. Difference has is delights too. This friendship is most inclusive. Friends can even be friends with other forms of life! “We can be friends with any other.” (Models, 164)
“If God is the friend of the world, the one committed to it, who can be trusted never to betray it, who not only likes the world but has a vision for its well-being, then we as the special part of the body – the imago dei– are invited as friends of the Friend of the world to join in that vision and work for its fulfilment. God as lover of the world gave us the vision that God finds the world valuable and desires its wounds healed and its creatures free; God as friend asks us… to become associates in that work.” (Models, 165)
This love is neither elitist nor separatist. Rather, it is solidarity. This stresses that we are relational beings. We exist in a variety of positive connections. It includes the love of family, tribe, and nation, but also hospitality to the stranger. This love affirms we are not alone. Neither are we on our own. We do not belong to ourselves, nor are we left to ourselves. We embrace “mutuality, commitment, trust, common vision, and interdependence.”
This is a model of hope. God is with us, imminent in our world as our friend and co-worker, imminent in the fellowship of friends we call church. (Models, 167)
Whose activity is Sustaining…
“At the heart of the matter is joy at being together with others.” (Models, 167) Most religious traditions embody this in the importance of sharing food. Again, Jesus would be at table with outcasts (Matthew 11:19) This was shocking! Although it is what we deeply want. Imagine that we, of all people, are invited to the table to be friends of Jesus! (Models, 168)
This is what we want so desperately. Mother desires our existence. Our Lover finds us valuable. But our Friend likes us!
This is joy. This is companionship. Companionship means literally “together at bread.” (Models, 168)
God invites us to the table. That is one side of the table. God invites others also. That is the other side of the table. These are the strangers and the outcasts.
Friendship continues the work of Mother and Lover. “It is good that you exist.” “You are valuable beyond all imagination.” “Let us break bread in fellowship and joy.”
We have been saying that these models point to the reunification of all parts. This is salvation. Bridging separation, isolation, shunning. Entering into suffering with and for victims of estrangement.
From an evolutionary, ecological perspective, God’s love (Agape) is for all forms of life and protects the right of all forms of life to exist and to thrive. God’s love (Eros) stresses the value of all forms of life and God’s desire that all forms of life be fulfilled, whole and free. God’s sustaining love (Philia) underscores the joy of all forms of life as companions with one another and with the Source of life. (Models, 19)
God’s model of relationship with the world is a model of hope, defying despair. Again, we are not our own, nor on our own. This is Emmanuel, God with us, our companion, accompanying us in all joy and in all sorrow.
This Companion, with us and on our behalf, challenges those forces that resist our being, that build walls of discrimination, that deny our nourishment, that oppress some forms of life to the benefit of other forms of life ( Models, 169)
God as Friend/Companion restores immanence to those traditional models that emphasize transcendence. Transcendent models celebrate the ”in-spirited life” of Jesus and the “inspired” life of the disciples. But the Spirit cannot be seen. The spirit is: amorphous, vague and colorless;” it is “ethereal, shapeless, and vacant”. (Models, 170)
On the other hand, the Companion emphasizes the enduring, committed, immanent presence of God. Our culture still thinks in dualistic terms of spirit/body or mind/body. The Companion adds more to this.
Traditional models emphasize “individualistic, existentialist” understandings. “Salvation,” [they say] is essentially a relationship with God and the result of that relationship is the bestowal of the virtues of faith, love, wisdom, hope and other moral gifts.” (Models, 171) It is all about your personal Lord and Savior and a personal relationship with Jesus.
But there is little regard for community, cosmos, and the oppressive structure within life and society. (Models, 171)
“The understanding of salvation which is needed for our time must be inclusive of all human beings as well as other forms of life; salvation must be a joint project involving human responsibility for the world, and it must be long-term commitment to the fulfilment of life at physical, social, economic and political levels. God as Sustainer – as the very word suggests – is the One who endures, who bears the weight of
the world, working for its fulfilment, rejoicing and suffering with it permanently (emphasis my own). (Models, 171)
To respond in friendship is demanding. To choose God, who chooses us, means commitment in a trustworthy and persevering manner.
This is epitomized in the shared meal. (Models, 172) This is Jesus feeding thousands; the feast for the prodigal son; the last supper in the gospels. This is the agape feasts in the early church. This is the recognition of Jesus in the breaking of the bread on the road to Emmaus. Or Paul’s insistence on inclusiveness in the meals. Or the heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God.
This is joyful community, inclusive fellowship, attending to basic needs: food, shelter, warmth, clothing, companionship. There is a Celtic saying that “the one who bids me eat wishes me to live.” (Models, 172)
There is in this friendship the shared vision of the concrete fulfilment of all life. There is joyful abundance at all levels, for all beings. The shared meal is the metaphor of all that satisfies the body and delights the spirit. All are welcome, as invited by God.
The stranger, again, is welcome. One cannot always trust society to welcome, protect and provide for the stranger. Friendship reaches across the barriers of class, family, race, religion or politics. This is important because today’s host may become tomorrow’s stranger. Today’s stranger may become tomorrow’s host.
Whose ethic is Companionship
We traditionally speak of the fellowship of disciples and the followers of Jesus as the body of Christ. But this model is different. Not that the traditional model is wrong. This is not a corrective; it is different. The body of God is the world. The followers are “the community of friends” or “the fellowship of the friends of Jesus.” (Models 175)
This friendship “means choosing, freely and out of a sense of joy, to be friends of the world one likes and wishes to see fulfilled. It means being willing… to join in mutual responsibility with God and others for the well-being of this world.” (Models 175)
It is this common vision that creates this friendship and holds it together. God and human beings are friends of the world. This friendship is not limited to two, that is, God and the individual, but binds together all those united by love for the world.
This companionship overcomes xenophobia, the fear of those who are different, so prevalent in our current politics. We need not fear the stranger. We have no need for the aggressive patterns that mark territories and defend borders. Perhaps this was necessary for survival eons ago, assuring the superiority of various kinds of species. But McFague is writing in a time of the threat of nuclear war. We now are writing in an age of environmental extinction. In either case, such xenophobia is, in her words, “suicidal”. Dare we fear the stranger to the extent that we choose the end of all existence, including our own?
If we meet as strangers, we have no need to be enemies. The possibility – the necessity – exists that we become friends. We can move from the fear of others to the care for others. This is companionship, friendship, involving advocacy, partnership, solidarity. Political barriers become political bonding, seeking the mutual well-being of all. It is more than cold justice. This is the possibility of warmth and attachment. No longer content with what is merely legal, we purse what is fair. But that means
relinquishing special interests and preferential treatment.
The bond of the host-guest seated at the common table, expands into civic friendship. As it is said, “the city that forgets how to care for the stranger has forgotten how to care for itself.” (Models, 177)
“Once the door has been opened to the other, the different, the stranger one does not know, it has been opened to the world. All can become companions together” (Models, 178).
Solidarity, justice, advocacy, partnership emerge. Identifying with all others, companions advocate fighting for the just treatment of the world’s many forms of life. (Models 179) Companionship is possible because of the divine presence of God among us. God as Friend says we are not alone; we are not on our own. God our Friend is with us, in the joyful celebrations of the common table, as well as the sufferings of the strangers and wounded creatures among us. This Presence gives us courage and stamina for the work we have to do for the fulfilment of all life. The Presence gives us forgiveness for our failure to maintain the common vision. So, we pray for our Companion to support,
sustain, and comfort us.
We close with these words from Sallie McFague. “Intercessory prayer is the rite of friendship in which one hands over the friend to God. When we pray for our friend the earth, for whose future we fear, we hand it over not to the enemy but to the friend who is freely, joyfully, and permanently bonded to this, our beloved world. The model of God as friend defies despair.” (Models, 180)