Ok, fine, not quite, but verily we say unto thee: it’s been a really difficult time. Not least because the whole idea of doing a ‘Christian blog’ in the first place is actually rather confusing. We’ve struggled to come to terms with what that means and what our own ‘vision’ for it might look like. There have been lengthy Skype conferences, protracted written exchanges, numerous text messages going backwards & forwards, etc. We’ve even had a couple of spats (that’s right: spats!) as well as disagreements. We have - in no uncertain terms - wrestled with God having provoked us to run this blog.
It would now be all-too-easy to publish our next piece with nary a hint that anything’s been remiss. We do not want to do that. If this blog is truly our “friendship made public”, then it’s incumbent on us to show our workings. If in the process something of God’s goodness is displayed, or something worthwhile is said about what it means to run a ‘Christian blog’, then we’ll count that as an enormous boon. So grab a cup of tea and join us as we gaze at our navels / work it out together. Aaron’s up first with a great opening salvo.
Trust us, this should be worth your time...
"We speak as friends who are trying to be better friends to one another,
but who often don’t quite manage it..."
What is “theological friendship”? Why does it matter? In one very important sense, theological friendship is the reason the three of us started this blog (see here). The life of the theologian is impossible without the sustaining, God-given grace administered through sanctifying, uplifting, stimulating, challenging, encouraging, and – above all – faithful friendships. We need brothers and sisters around us regularly who share a kinship of what they believe about God, the world, and the reason they exist. Not, perhaps, univocal, monotonous agreement, but just enough to go to war together, and perhaps with enough disagreement to get the sharpening sparks flying (Prov. 27:17). We see this modelled in any theologian worth their salt.
A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.
We may think of Karl Barth’s five-mile treks across the Swiss fields to the neighbouring village of Leutenwil just to talk with his theological compatriot, Eduard Thurneysen; or Bonhoeffer’s relentless correspondence of prison letters to Eberhard Bethge; or even more foundationally, we might see those great biblical friendships of David and Jonathan, Barnabas and Paul, Paul and Timothy, Jesus and the twelve, Jesus and the three.
One of the vital ways friendship is forged – particularly theological friendship – is through the ancient art of conversation. In this digital age, we can no longer spare the time for a five-mile walk just for mere “talk”. We think of “talk” as a waste of time; the enemy of “action”, of “productivity”. Indeed, even a Skype conversation costing us nothing can seem difficult to fit in to our busy worlds of shifts, boxsets, surfing, tweeting, and skimming our way through countless pages and screens. It has become something of a much-ignored cliché that this generation, although we have more communicative options at our fingertips than any epoch in human history, is less in-contact with its fellow person than ever before. We have all been in coffee shops with people who – almost without realising – have drifted onto their phone’s email account, as though you had somehow disappeared. “I’m literally right here; I can see you not-listening!” But we have all done it; we have all thought that we can cram in another blog article whilst we’re on the phone to someone (whilst they are talking, of course, not us), and we have all felt the need to delay or postpone valuable catch-ups with close friends for want of “productivity”. If we happen to have idled away hours on meaningless amazon-surfing, it is usually those pesky “catch-ups” that are the first to be culled to make up for lost time. Indeed, it is a striking phenomenon that where some previous civilisations have seen sustaining relationships as the most important part of one’s life (the very last thing to be cut), our modern age of Self has thought of them as more or less dispensable, to be indulged only if they meet our needs, only if they do not threaten our personal productivity or gratification. To fight this evil, and to fight for our friendships is not only a social necessity (if the Proverbs are to be believed), it is actually a fight for our theology itself, which will be greatly impoverished without the crowd of living witnesses to supplement the dead ones we love to read about. After all, Calvin and Barth can’t answer you back anymore.
At The Long Defeat, we speak as friends who are trying to be better friends to one another, but who often don’t quite manage it. And we recognise that more is at stake than we realise. So, what are the foundations of a good theological friendship? What kind of stuff should it be made of? And how do we fight the evils that seek to choke it? What is at stake if we do lose this fight? Where do we often go wrong? Where do our hearts falter? And how can we can avoid pitfalls and do things better? These are the kinds of questions this conversation seeks to unravel. And I’ll let two wiser sages begin the proceedings…
"We may have started with that clarity of vision but in the first year alone we’ve found it tempting to betray that in the very 'doing' of this blog"
Calvin’s letters are quite often like that, pulsating with the presence of friendship. We obviously have many of Calvin’s letters in existence - some written because of a particular pastoral crisis, others are even addressed to monarchs. Among the more poignant examples is a letter to a certain mother, whose son had been recently martyred, over whom Calvin had had some influence. But it’s his letters to friends that often provide the most memorable - and, at times, entertaining - moments. Asking Francis Daniel (for example) if he could come and stay, promising to keep the inner chamber stocked with wine as payment. (He’d later write to Daniel, not for any special reason, other than to “play the gossip”!) Another to the recently bereaved Viret, offering him respite in Geneva following the death of his wife. There are even times when Calvin chastises his friends for not having replied to his messages. (A moment very strangely reminiscent of modern text etiquette…)
I suppose one of the advantages of familiarising oneself with Church history is realising that these theological ‘titans’ were so very human. Even down to the fact that they had mates who they would walk ages for, just to catch up and shoot the breeze. Or stock up on booze for, in the hope - one can only presume - of imbibing such pleasures in each other’s company, and at the shortest opportunity.
Consistent, therefore, with how God has made us as human beings as well as how He’s saved us as His people, we want our theological friendship to form the basis of The Long Defeat blog. So far, so good. All very Biblical and historical and stuff. Straightforward, even. Except, it’s not - it’s really not. We may have started with that clarity of vision but in the first year alone we’ve found it tempting to betray that in our praxis, in the very ‘doing’ of this blog.
"It was clear that the tail had begun to wag the dog and it was time to take a step back and reassess the whole business"
Aaron and I have both been very busy – often by the grace of God in pleasing directions, but nonetheless, in a way that has sometimes left little time to push forward a project like The Long Defeat. This left Nathan often speaking into the ether about new articles or collaborations. Of course, in part it was quite proper that other things (church work, PhDs, family etc) took priority over the blog. But as Aaron said above, part of the problem we digital natives often have is in imagining that we are busier than we actually are. Calvin may have been remarkably productive but he wrote all those letters to his friends alongside simultaneously constructing countless treatises and several weekly sermons. All whilst being the chief cleric of a city whose politics were heavily spiritualised. How much time did we fritter on Internet trivialities, then, rather than on writing to honour God?
Whilst that did indeed prove problematic, our egos pushing in the opposite direction resulted in a far greater crisis: feeling some need to produce material to create an Internet ideological empire. The reality of low productivity was unfortunate; the expectation of intense productivity was destructive. It was all too easy for viewing stats, retweets and “keeping up with the news” to dominate our planning for The Long Defeat. (As opposed to ensuring that it was the proper expression of a friendship centred on God.)
All of this was severely exacerbated by a factor beyond our control and no-one's fault: Nathan's long-term illness. As many of you know, Nathan has had a slipped disc for years, which combines with some other health issues to leave him in enormous pain (though – praise God – both medical and supernatural healing seem to be taking place as I write this in October 2015!). He has dealt with this manfully, and with as much courage and resilience as any of us could have mustered – but for a long time he was on an utterly awful cocktail of drugs, which shook him badly mentally and emotionally. He quite characteristically focusses on the (many) funny stories involved – late night delirious Amazon orders of cotton wool, for instance – but it certainly affected our friendship. Nathan couldn't always cope with social contact; Aaron and I blundered around, not knowing how to help. This allowed TLD to take an even greater prominence in our communications, which only made the two problems above – lack of time and size of ego – worse.
"So what is the antidote to this problem? For theological friends,
I think one answer is, simply, love."
Fine. But what can be done to make it better? And how are we to understand it, such that we might improve upon it?
Well, many things come to mind. And I’m tempted to be greedy and talk about them all here, but I probably ought to allow my friends to say something, too. And that’s also probably the best place to begin: the death of self, and the love of other. As Owen already mentioned, the ‘ego’ can be acutely destructive to the flourishing of theological friendship. It’s destructive to any kind of friendship, but in the world of thinking it bears a particularly nasty flavour. People who like to think like to think that their thinking protects them from the effects of their thinking; which is quite thoughtless. Thinking, if left to its own devices, can become a deeply self-interested affair, in which the quality and genius of one’s brain-journeys becomes a celebrated end in itself rather than employed for the good of others. We are so quick to want to show the world our mind’s discoveries and to receive their due praise as payment. Every theologian has struggled with this.
In the academic world, it’s particularly pernicious. At conferences, for example, in the background to many conversations is a small boy or girl who simply wants to be noticed, and will attempt to earn such notice by what they can apparently do with their mind, or achieve with their pen. Who’s the strongest, who’s the cleverest, who’s the funniest, who’s done the best homework – these are the silly insecurities we thought were left behind in the playground.
So what is the antidote to this problem? For theological friends, I think one answer is, simply, love. In contrast to the environment of self-protection and self-proclamation described above, there’s something just lovely about talking to someone where you know that whatever you say, they are already for you. You don’t need to impress them, they’re not lying in wait to criticise you, to jump on your faults, to look down their nose at you, nor are they looking left-and-right to see if there’s someone more advantageous to talk to. Theological friends are “all there” as Jim Eliot put it; they’re seeking out the good in what you’re saying and trying to help bring it out and build upon it; they’re straining to hear your strained words, however incoherent. Quite simply, they have faith in you and your thoughts. And such faith is life-giving. How different this is, also, to the theological “interactions” one often sees online. There is no sense of genuine collegiality, of brotherhood, of straining for the same goal, running the same race – it’s like people are a priori enemies trying to out-do one another, to trip each other up in the dark, to jump on what they’re not saying, to expose what they don’t know. Theological friends don’t do this. They sharpen, yes, but first and foremost they listen well in love; they incline their ears because they truly believe they can learn from one another. As noted, this really is easier said than done. Such friends don’t come easy, and don’t come cheap. They take investment, trust, loyalty, and risk; all of which are fruits of genuine love; all of which foster that wonderful conversational ‘place’ where friends can speak theology freely. Oh the joy of not worrying how your words are perceived, of not worrying how they will be twisted, but excitedly seeing where they might lead; oh the joy of theological friends!
"Friendship isn’t a peculiarly human invention but instead a derivative joy - derived, that is, from the way in which the Creator relates to his Creation"
We should expect a handful of things from theological friendship, as properly conceived. Aaron has already offered one good suggestion: TF sharpens but more specifically “listens well in love”. With that comes a freedom from the “rat-race” of scholarly progress.
To this I’ll add four more suggestions. First, TF is a demonstration of the divine economy. I alluded to this above in my first contribution to this piece. It is hardly insignificant that one of the ways in which God couches the broader story of salvation is indeed in terms of friendship.
I noted earlier how Jesus prior to his passion says to his disciples, “No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends” [John 15:15]. The Psalmist speaks of “the friendship of the LORD” [Ps 25:14], and the Torah notes how God conversed with Moses “as one speaks to a friend” [Exo 33:11].
Here we learn friendship isn’t a peculiarly human invention but instead a derivative joy - derived, that is, from the economy of God, the way in which the Creator relates to his Creation.
Third, TF is the recognition that true theology can only be done in fellowship. There’s that oft-quoted passage from Proverbs: “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” [Prov 27:17]. The implication is that there’s a ‘dullness’ that comes from isolation - and not just because we were created in the image of God to be men and women in community, together. [Gen 1:27]. However, there’s also a sense in Scripture that the theologian’s vocation must be collegial.
This is why, for example, Paul speaks about the whole Church at Corinth sharing the mind of Christ [1 Cor 2:16] - a concept he grounds all theological unity on - and why he tells the Ephesians to comprehend “with all the saints” the depths of divine revelation [Eph 3:18].
Good theology happens through fellowship. Such is to recognise God’s original intent, the way in which he created us to thrive & flourish in the company of another - and it’s how he designed his Church to work. It’s not that one can’t do theology as a lone ranger; it’s simply rather dull. In more ways than one.
And that (usually) changes everything.
"But what about you? You're not participating in a ludicrous blog like this,
founded as it is on theological friendship"
Theological friendship forced the three of us to take a sort of ‘sabbath’ break: from the blog; from our own aspirations; from even cooperating with one another in a professional context. That was an opportunity for love to correct ego and a chance for us to rebound upon first principles. It also encouraged us to spend some quality time simply talking to one another. Going forward, we hope to continue the good habits we've set up: weekly Skype sessions planned - no ‘project chat’ allowed - as well as a renewed emphasis on theological reasoning as the way we bless each other. In addition to this we’ve decided to shift the blog’s focus slightly so that it better represents the theological friendship we sought to highlight here, as opposed to permitting quite as many personal tangents. Hopefully you'll see this renewed focus bear fruit in the weeks and months to come.
But what about you? You're not participating in a ludicrous blog like this, founded as it is on theological friendship. You may be an academic theologian but you’re very possibly not.
Well, Christian friendships are centred around Christ. (To riff from Calvin: that which has not the salt of Christ on it has no savour for us.)
"We want you to join us at the table, equipped & enthused (by the grace of God) to seek out friendships forged in his name, so that we might see his kingdom advance"
You meant it for evil - but God meant it for good.
In closing, how could we possibly talk about theological friendship without mentioning God’s ongoing role in it? “Theologians” (those pesky things) like to call this “providence”. Talk of providence seems overbearing to many, who might prefer to go about the business of their friendships as though it were cowardly to appeal to God’s mighty hand. But the doctrine of providence is beautiful precisely because it is also brave. It grasps the nettle with both hands.
If it weren’t already clear, let’s just say that the last year has been difficult. This piece was opened with the suggestion that the Church “advances not at the hands of lone prophetic rangers, but through fortified & sustained friendships in the Name of Jesus”. And whilst that remains undoubtedly true, we are all – like everyone else – broken sinners. Theological Friendship is hard work. It’s messy, and sometimes even tedious to maintain. But our suggestion – our testimony – is that it can prove to be a blessed labour of love & forgiveness, a display of the very triune life of God, as well as a shared and sharpening joy!
This is the fruit of the providence of God, and it’s a glorious promise for all our friendships. An incredible, merciful, beautiful promise, that God works all things together for good for those who love him [Rom 8:28]. So yes, The Long Defeat hit a roadblock. Or twenty. But God was making straight lines out of crooked sticks. And where does that leave us now, as we look to get back on our horses and dust ourselves off? It actually leaves us where we always were: in the hands of a living, loving, gracious God. But perhaps we’re more aware of that than we were before.
With friends :)