The Mystery of Divine Friendship

Aristotle claimed that God could not be a friend to man since there was too great a disproportion between their natures, and Plato claimed in the Republic that God keeps as far away from man as possible. What is a christian to make of these statements, given that Christianity consists essentially in the belief that God is a friend to man?

The denial of divine friendship was pious and reasonable. Friendship is hard enough among two individuals of the same nature, how much more so among those of diverse ones? We have a hard time being friends with people who we have thousands of things in common with. How could God and man even meet to be friends? The chasm between temporal and eternal existence is unfathomable. We don’t even know how ignorant we are of eternal realities.

It is true that given the revelation that God chose to become a friend to man, we might give arguments that it was fitting for him to do so. God is the highest good, and it is proper to the highest goodness to communicate itself to many. Similarly, man seeks the the highest truth by a divine impulse (nature) and so it was fitting for God to share his life with man. But neither of these arguments can be understood to mean that it would have been unreasonable or even unfitting for God not to share his life with man. To take a more extreme case: once God makes his triune nature known, we can see it involves a certain fittingness: God has the perfection of community within himself; God, the fullest act, is fully communicable etc. But this does not mean that it would have been reasonable to say that God was “three persons” before he revealed this truth. Piety would have dictated that we call the first cause and supreme actuality one person, if at all.

As soon as man forgets that the friendship of God and man is essentially mysterious, he starts imagining some aspect of himself that forced God to descend from the heavens. God must have somehow lacked  something that only man could provide. God must have wanted to be one with us so much because we were so wonderful and godlike, or else so much more experienced than God because of all our sufferings and pain, etc. All of this belittles and degrades the Incarnation. One of the most difficult things to understand about any act of God with respect to creation (whether creation or redemption, or the continuation of either act) is that such acts are absolutely magnanimous. Try though we might, we cannot ever discover any motive for the act on the part of God.  We will never be able to locate some good in creation or redemption that God would have lacked if he had chosen not to do either. As hard as it may be for us to understand, even the Incarnation gave no good to God that he lacked. The words of the Creed are to be taken in an absolute sense: For ourselves and for our salvation, he descended from heaven. Every other gift gives something to the giver, God’s gifts give something only to the receiver.

When we take a closer look at our inability to understand the divine magnanimity, it shows us that in fact the difficulty in understanding is entirely from our own end. All of our acts of giving and benevolence involve some perfection accruing to ourselves. With us, any act of virtue gives something to the one doing the act. But there is nothing in the idea of “giving” that involves “receiving something for the act”; just as there is nothing in the idea of “motor” that involves “being in motion”. Man can never be perfectly gratuitous.

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