The suggestion that some kind of deep friendship can exist between man and God - to say nothing of the idea that the formation of such a friendship should serve as a primary spiritual motivation in mortal life - is enough to set most Christians' heads spinning. Concepts like divine friendship are immediately treated with suspicion and are often imputed as occult speculations involving some form of esotericism or, worse, Gnosticism.
Objections to the possibility and viability of divine friendship in Christianity stems from complex theological misinterpretations concerning the nature man, the nature of God, and the nature of the possible and potential relationships the two can form, both in this world and beyond. A blog post is a poor venue through which to explicate the details of these misinterpretations; so, in the interest of brevity I will reduce the matter to the following: divine friendship is only possible if Christianity is considered a personal, dynamic, and active religion rather than an abstract, passive, and static religion.
In Slavery and Freedom, Nikolai Berdyaev elaborates on this point in the following manner (emphasis added):
This is the God-likeness of man; but the other side of this God-likeness is the man-likeness of God. This is true anthropomorphism, not false. For this reason, alone a meeting between man and God is possible - a relation between man and God. . . Man is personality because God is personality and vice versa. But personality presupposes the existence of its other. It has a relation not only to the One, but also to the many. How can this be in the case of the personality of God? Personality is an existential center and in it is a capacity to feel sorrow and joy. There is no such thing as personality if there is no capacity for suffering. The conventional theology of the text books denies the suffering of God. This appears to it to be a degradation of the majesty of God; in God there is no movement; God is actus purus.
But such an understanding of God is taken not so much from the biblical revelation as from the philosophy of Aristotle. If God is personality and not the Absolute, if He is not only essentia but also existensia, if there is revealed in Him a personal relation to the other, to the many, then suffering is inherent in Him, and there is a tragic principle in Him. Otherwise God is not a personality, but an abstract idea or a being such as conceived by the Eleatic philosophers. The son of God suffers not only as Man, but also as God. There are not only human, but also divine passions. God shares in the suffering of men. God yearns for His other, for responsive love.
William Arkle expresses a similar line of thinking about God and divine friendship in his In Equation of Being - notes on the nature of love:
It is, therefore, better that we begin to strive towards the ideal of becoming companionable to our Creator, which is the only possible desire of a God who is truly perfect in love, than that we strive to please Him in some less mature way, which is easier for us to achieve and understand, but which may still become a barrier to our response to His real nature. In the end, we are going to do nothing but disappoint and hurt Him if we do not search into the sweetest and most beautiful depths of His nature. We may even find that, rather than being a difficult and very long term thing to achieve, this change in attitude is both simple and natural to us, and with the help of our brothers and sisters, can be reinforced and made strong in us quite quickly; within a life time, or even a few years.
This attitude is, itself, the kingdom of heaven. The king will remain the king, even though as we said previously, He would be the first to be glad if one of His Friends became wiser than Himself. In this respect we must always bear in mind that our Creators position is one of supreme responsibility and not one He takes up in order to be in any way superior to us. So let us try and free ourselves from all those human aberrations that we carry around with us in the world, and let us then try to visualise the nature of a Being who is very friendly, approachable and yet deeply wise; who never stops growing and learning, even so; and let us try to be like Him. When we worship Him, let us ask ourselves if He really wants to be worshipped, or whether He really wants to be loved and befriended. Does God Himself worship anything, and if so, what is it? If we discover that God ‘gives worth’ or worship to the same qualities that we do, we may discover that we are not so far from being His companions as we thought.
It would be reasonable to suppose that if our Creator is trying to give us all the most valuable things that He possesses in His spirit, then these are qualities which He feels to be most worthwhile. If they are worthwhile to Him, then our God is, in a sense, worshipping these qualities Himself. He is adoring them as we are. We can then understand that we may reach towards an attitude that is giving worth and adoration to the beautiful and valuable things of the Divine Nature in the same way that our God is. In such a case, the adoration of the Divine qualities is one thing, and the love of the Person of God is another. But since our God expresses so many of these qualities in His ‘Personality’, we have tended to confuse the situation. We can adore the relatively abstract quality of many forms of beauty, but we can not make friends with them. We can adore many forms of Divine Ability, but not be able to make friends with them. But we can make friends with the Person of God who is trying to channel as much of the Divine Absolute Nature as He can, through, what is to Him, the focus of His Personality. If he had not taken upon Himself this limitation of Personality, there would be no personal form of the expression of love in creation. And we have seen that it is precisely at the personal end of the love spectrum that our God is harvesting His friends, and these are the chief reasons for His whole creative endeavour.
We should feel the possibility that our love and friendship matters to our God; for if He is the very wise person who we consider Him to be, then we must look carefully at the nature of such wisdom.
Both Berdyaev and Arkle recognize only subjects can form friendships. Consequently, neither thinker regards God as an abstract idea or impersonal diety. Instead, both Berdyaev and Arkle acknowledge the divine personality of God. Furthermore, they also see the existence of this divine personality within man. Thus, the communion between man and God is a communion of personalities - of subject meeting and befriending subject. Furthermore, the yearning for this communion is a two-way street; that is, God yearns for the friendship of man as much as man yearns for the friendship of God.
Does this mean all Christians need to do is declare God their "buddy" and then return to living in the same manner they had lived before the declaration? Not exactly. On the one hand, the formation of divine friendship requires a deep, inner realization of one's own latent divine spark, what Arkle refers as the real or divine self, and Berdyaev cites as personality. On the other hand, divine friendship also involves the understanding that we truly are made in God's image - that the divine is a personal being (or beings in Arkle's case).
Far from being esoteric or Gnostic in origin, the personal aspect of Christianity reflects the core teachings of the Gospels and is embodied in the life of Jesus, but it entails a dramatic shift in how we currently think and understand ourselves, the world, and God. This dramatic shift does not rely on mystery rituals, intensive spiritual training, or other abstract 'esoteric' means. On the contrary, it relies on a primarily personal esoteric realization of our true nature and the true nature of God. This personal esoteric realization is less about discovering a hidden, inner mystery than it is about rediscovering a simple yet neglected fact. Most importantly, this realization would view the friendship and communion of these two natures through love as something desirable and achievable.
Thus, the call of divine friendship espoused by Berdyaev and Arkle is not so much a new form of Christianity as it is the call for a more authentic and dynamic Christianity based on the personal and fueled by love.
Note added: To explore Berdyaev and Arkle further, I highly recommend the following online resources:
berdyaev.com maintained by Fr. Stephen Janos, a profilic translator of Berdyaev's works.
William Arkle Blog maintained by Dr. Bruce Charlton, who also wrote an introduction for the latest edition of Arkle's A Geography of Consciousness.