“…the human animal lives by friendship…”

We do not live by building ever more secure fences of possessions around ourselves, but by giving to others space to live. This is to give life to others. The human animal, human society, flourishes, not to the extent that it possesses riches, but to the extent that we give life to each other, to the extent that we imitate the creativity of God. Of course, as creatures we can only imitate it from a distance, We cannot act, as God does, for no benefit to ourselves. But we can live (either more or less) by the free gift we make to others. It is a question of which direction we are aiming for.

All this is just the platitude that the human animal lives by friendship and that human society perishes without it. But to aim at riches is to go away sorrowful because they are, in the end, corrosive of friendship. To aim at poverty, on the other hand, is to build friendship. And to aim at poverty, to grow up by living in friendship, is to imitate the life-giving poverty of God, to be godlike. The gospel does not tell us to have no possessions. It tells us to aim at poverty, to move towards it, and certainly not to aim at riches. We cannot serve both God and riches. There is something bizarre about the present popularity of the word ‘market’ as a metaphor for human society. Markets are surely a good and necessary part of living together, as are law courts and lavatories. But not of these are a useful model for what human society essentially is. Personal friendship is such a model. I am not saying that society should consist of nothing but personal friendships, for this is a greater friendship that belongs to our community in Christ. But personal friendship is an illuminating image or metaphor for a human living which would be an imitation or reflection of God’s creative poverty. The cares and insecurity of Mark’s rich man sent him away in sorrow. By contrast, to aim at poverty is to be given the joy by which we live in the Spirit – not only in this life but in eternity.

-Herbert McCabe in a sermon titled “Poverty and God,” collected in God, Christ and Us (2003). It might seem that McCabe is glorifying poverty but he dispels this earlier in the sermon. I’m interested in how he connects the aim toward poverty (in the pattern of Christ) with the priority of personal friendships for Christian people. I hope to preach a short series about friendship – a topic we Protestant people seem to neglect – and McCabe has been helpful a couple of times as I begin preparing.

3 thoughts on ““…the human animal lives by friendship…”

  1. “… we Protestant people seem to neglect ”
    We certainly do neglect this. God designed the gathering believers are not to “forsake” as “considering how they can spur one another on to love and good works” and “encourage one another”. This is a highly relational, friendship intensive dynamic. This is systemically purged from our gatherings with the insertion of pulpits and pews for one way communication. There is no functional friendship here – just the opposite. The God we serve is never a one-way communication God. We should also never be a one-way communication people. There are 58 instructions for one another relationship and none for one-way.

    Herbert’s “human animal” does not help since this seems quite confusing. This demeans man to a lower form of creature to add human to animal. Do we ever refer to animal humans? I realize many academics view humans as essentially evolved animals. Such an assumption shows men professing themselves to be wise have become fools.

  2. I think Shane Claiborne has written much on this point. I vaguely remember him making the argument that our living arrangements in western society (single family homes and such) have severely curtailed our ability to live together and develop authentic community.

    I couldn’t help but wonder if that is a factor in making short-term overseas mission trips so compelling for western world Christians. I also can’t help but think that this is the reason people complain about the difficulty in finding authentic community in church. It is not the liturgy or structure of the church that is at issue, but rather,the entire order of western life. I can’t help but think that if one were to place a typical western protestant church with identical liturgy in a region where life is naturally more communal, you will find the exact opposite result in terms of community building and the interdependence of the congregation.

    I know riches and community are not inherently at odds, but self-sufficiency seems to breed isolation. In contrast then, poverty must more naturally breed interdependence.

  3. This is an important part of gathering as a community. Sadly, it is an important function of the Church that has been forgotten in order to appeal to drawing people in and moving bodies in and out of the building on Saturday nights and Sundays. It is also a very large reason people leave the Church and, sometimes, walk away from following Christ. I see the Church reinforce a “networking” mindset towards friendship; growing business partners and establishing a new market place. This inherently injects the wrong foundation for friendship, which ultimately sacrifices authentic connections that foster mutually committed and encouraging friendships. The Church must be careful not to create an anomic society of Jesus followers.

    I pray that you are prayerfully directed by the soft voice of God.

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