Theology, Community, and Friendship

This is a guest blog written by Jonathan Totty.

Christian theology is a dialogue through the ages among mostly friends and sometimes enemies. However, the best and longest lasting theological perspectives were among friends. Would we have the works of Irenaeus, and dare I say the canon, if not for his friend and mentor Polycarp? How would we understand the Trinity apart from the friendship of Gregory Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea? Of course, there are great antagonistic relationships in Church history as well. Augustine and Pelagius come to mind. However, Augustine was not at his best arguing with Pelagius, and perhaps he was at his worst. Thus, in my opinion, it is a fact of history that theology is best suited for friendly and critical discussion. 

Theology coincides with friendship because of what we are doing when we are doing theology. Bernard Lonergan, in Method and Theologyconceived theology as executed through eight separate, and distinct, yet interrelated specializations. For Lonergan, research, interpretation, history, dialectic, foundations, doctrine, systematics, and communications are the specialized academic practices in which theology happens. Because, in this present day and age, very few if any theologians are able to master all eight specialties, collegiality among specialistsis necessary. Friendship, however, bears more fruit than mere collegiality. Moreover, though theology occurs within each of the eight specialties, for Lonergan it is only with communications “that theological reflection bears fruit.” The hard and tedious work of research and interpretation illuminates forgotten texts lost amongst the myriad of ancient papyri and renders obscure and hidden material accessible. Historians contextualize information and the process of dialectics accepts some interpretations and histories while eschewing others. Then foundations, doctrine, and systematics seek out and clarify meaning as it impacts moral and religious belief. Then, and only after much hard work by many individuals can meaning be communicated. I consider Lonergan’s description and explanation of how theology is done to be a description of not only the theological community but of Christ’s community the church. 

Lonergan says, “The Christian church is the community that results from the outer communication of Christ’s message and from the inner gift of God’s love.” Christian community happens when Christians accept the love of God as definitive of a way of life and then selflessly communicates the love of God, which is the message of Christ, to the world. A community constituted by anything other than God’s love is in truth constituted by an ideology which serves some at the expense of others. For example, modern forms of capitalism serve those willing to participate in systemic and institutionalized greed at the expense of immigrants deemed “illegal aliens,” those who consciously refuse to participate in evil, and God’s creation. However, a community defined by the love of God knows no strangers, but only those who have not experienced or acknowledged God’s love working in their lives. Consequently, the Christian community also accepts creation as a divine gift given because of God’s great love. 

Therefore, in defining a Christian community, I also defined Christian friendship. Christian friendship acknowledges the other not as one to fear but as a gift of God’s love. Communication is possible only in the context of God’s love and friendship is possible only in the context of communication. According to Lonergan, “Through communication there is constituted community and, conversely, community constitutes and perfects itself through communication.” The Christian community as the proper location and source of the communication of Christian theology is predicated upon the robust theological friendships developed within the community. The theology of church is effective when communicated through these friendships. 

Personally, the friendships I developed with both my teachers and peers continue to sustain my theological reflection of God’s love in my life. Without those friendships, I would not be a theologian.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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