A Christian Perspective on Interreligious Friendship

Miroslav Volf
Ryan McAnnally-Linz

We come to the question of interfaith (or ‘interreligious’) friendship as Christian theologians addressing a significant and puzzling theological issue.[1] But for us and for many whom we have known, this question is not abstract or speculative (in the way a detractor might pejoratively call a question ‘merely theological’). Rather, it is pointedly concrete and deeply personal. It has to do with the stuff of everyday life, social and spiritual, with one of the most abiding and enriching relationships human beings can have.

Both of us grew up and continue to live in multi-ethnic, multi-religious contexts—from the towns of Central Europe and the Balkans to the urban sprawl of Los Angeles and the post-industrial social fractures of New Haven and the surrounding Connecticut shoreline. In all of these places, there are those whose circles of friends extend beyond their co-religionists to embrace religious others. Such interfaith friendships generate questions that friendships between members of the same faith do not raise. They appear, as it were, questionable. Among Christians, the questions posed to these friendships might include: Do interfaith friendships put the Christians’ faithfulness or theological orthodoxy at risk? Do they offer any goods that distinguish them from friendships with other Christians? Should a Christian try to convert her friends from other traditions to her faith? How deep can a friendship go if the friends do not share a vision of the ultimate end of life?

The task before us is in this paper is to offer a Christian account of what to make of these apparently questionable relationships. Ought Christians to shy away from interfaith friendships, or do they perhaps hold unique possibilities for Christian faith?

What do we mean by friendship?

In everyday usage today the word ‘friend’ can carry a wide array of meanings. If we were to extend our gaze backward in history and outward across cultures, ‘friend’ and ‘friendship’ (and the myriad words that would be translated into English using these terms) would name innumerable concrete social relations. So, what do we mean by friendship for the purposes of this paper? Who counts as a friend?[2]

We can say right from the start that what we have in mind is not friendship in the Facebook sense of a ‘friend’, which can include everyone from close family members to primary school acquaintances and beyond. The friendships that interest us presently are relationships that one could not feasibly have with hundreds or thousands of people.[3] That said, we do not want to restrict our focus to only the most intimate of personal relationships. To do so would dramatically (and, we think, unhelpfully) reduce the number of real-world relationships addressed in this discussion of interfaith friendship. The friendships we have in mind require the commitment of time and extended communication. They involve open communication and are not restricted to a certain facet of life (e.g., ‘office friends’). And, in concert with the roots of the English word ‘friend’ (from the Proto-Germanic frijôjan, ‘to love’),[4] they are marked by affection. While this rough description hardly constitutes a technical definition, it should be sufficient to suggest the sort of relationships that concern us as we consider the possibility and value of interfaith friendships from a Christian perspective.

An Overview

Much of the Christian tradition, as we will illustrate below, has been either explicitly or implicitly skeptical—or even hostile—towards friendships between Christians and members of other faiths. A great deal of this skepticism, we suggest, is connected with the legacy that the Christian faith took on from the classical philosophical tradition and its accounts of friendship. The combination of classical influences and particular interpretations of certain Christian sources leads easily to the rejection of the possibility of friendship between people of different faiths. There are, however, strong reasons drawn from within the Christian tradition to adopt a different attitude toward interfaith friendships—an attitude of openness to their unique goods. Central among these is the recognition that for Christian faith, difference, even deep difference, is not necessarily an obstacle to friendship. Abraham, a human being, is called a “friend of God” (James 2:23); and Jesus, God incarnate, calls not only loyal disciples (John 15:15) but also his betrayer (Matt 26:50) “friend.”[5] If friendship can occur across such great divides, how much more must we recognize its possibility among people of different faiths? Such is the argument that we will elaborate below.

Friendship in the Classical Tradition and Christianity

It is widely recognized that Christian thought on friendship arose in dialogue with the classical philosophical tradition, especially the works of Aristotle and Cicero. From the New Testament writers to the 12th century British Cistercian abbot Aelred of Rievaulx and beyond, Christian thinkers adopted and accepted, adapted and rejected elements of the non-Christian Greco-Roman heritage. A brief overview of this tradition and patristic and medieval Christian interactions with it will help draw out some of the most salient issues for a Christian theological discussion of interfaith friendship.[6]

Aristotle devotes two books of the Nichomachean Ethics to the subject of friendship.[7] He considers friendship to be closely linked with love. He identifies three reasons for loving, distinguished by three objects of love, namely, the useful, the pleasant, and the good (8.2). These three reasons for loving correspond to three kinds of friendship: friendships based on utility, on pleasure, and on goodness (8.3). Aristotle values the last of these more highly than the other two. It is, he says, “perfect,” and suggests that the first two sorts of relationship must be considered friendship only by analogy (8.4). Friendship based on goodness can exist only between good men,[8] and it includes the mutual pleasure that the good receive from their relationship to other good men (8.3). Its goal is the fostering of the virtue of each of the parties involved. Based on love of the good as such, it seeks the good as such. Thus, for Aristotle, true friendship is teleological. It aims at the realization of the good. Such an understanding of friendship was highly influential in the development of Christian thought on the subject.

Cicero’s dialogue De amicitia is perhaps the only classical text that can rival Aristotle for influence on Christian thought about friendship, especially in the West. Presented as a dialogue in which Quintus Mucius Scaevola and Gaius Fannius urge their father-in-law, Gaius Laelius, to expound on the topic of friendship with reference to the recent death of his friend Scipio the Younger, De amicitia develops an account of friendship based on and limited by virtue. Cicero’s discussion of friendship includes numerous resonances with Aristotle’s, including the idea that “friendship cannot exist except between good men” (5.18).[9]

The two chief emphases of Cicero’s account of friendship are agreement (consensio) and affection (caritas). His highly influential summary definition of friendship is “an accord in all things, human and divine, conjoined with mutual goodwill and affection” (6.20, emphasis added).[10] Reflecting on his friendship with Scipio, Laelius extols the “most complete agreement” they enjoyed “in policy, in pursuits, and in opinions,” which, he says, is “that wherein lies the whole essence of friendship” (4.15).[11] Not surprisingly, given his emphasis on agreement and affection, the trope of the friend as a second self (alter ego) features in Cicero’s dialogue. “He who looks upon a true friend,” Laelius remarks, “looks, as it were, upon a sort of image of himself. Wherefore friends, though absent, are at hand; though in need, yet abound; though weak, are strong; and … though dead, are yet alive” (7.23).[12]

Certain themes in classical accounts of friendship (some present in Cicero and Aristotle and some not) are found in Christian scriptures as well. These include the ideal of friends holding property in common, the importance of frank speech in friendships and the willingness to sacrifice for a friend. Pythagoras is generally credited with originating the opinion that “the property of friends is common.”[13] In addition to the clear resonance of Acts 2:44 and 4:32 with this theme,[14] John Fitzgerald argues that Paul adopts and alludes to the theme of commonality throughout his letter to the Philippians, which is littered with the word koinonia (‘commonality’, ‘partnership’; compare Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 8.12) and the prefix syn (‘with’).[15] Plutarch’s How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend (Moralia I.4) typifies the concern with frank speech. Certain New Testament scholars have suggested that Paul’s rhetoric bears the marks of an understanding of friendship that sharply distinguishes friends from flatterers and emphasizes that friends must tell hard truths.[16] Finally, Jesus’ saying that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13) bears a strong likeness to the Greco-Roman theme of a friend being willing to give one’s life for a friend.[17]

Aelred of Rievaulx

In order to illustrate the influence of classical discussions of friendship on Christian reflection on the subject, we turn now to a brief discussion of Aelred of Rievaulx’s dialogue On Spiritual Friendship (De spiritali amicitia).[18] The work is an eloquent ode to the centrality of friendship in the spiritual life and its importance for the monastic vocation. It is also a clear example of the impact of classical accounts of friendship on Christian thought.

Aelred begins by adopting Cicero’s definition: “Friendship is agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity” (1.11, quoting Cicero, De amicitia 6.20). He then, like Aristotle, distinguishes between three types of friendship.[19] His categories, however, are expressed in a decidedly Christian vocabulary. The first, ‘carnal’ friendship, is “created by a conspiracy in vice.” The second, ‘worldly’ friendship, is “enkindled by hope of gain.” And the third, ‘spiritual’ friendship, is “cemented among the righteous by a likeness of lifestyles and interests” (1.38). Aelred also maintains a teleological view of friendship. True friendship, spiritual friendship, is “a step toward the love and knowledge of God” (2.18). It leads to friendship with Christ (2.20-21). Again in continuity with Aristotle and Cicero, Aelred restricts the highest form of friendship to “the righteous” (1.38). Indeed, he holds that spiritual friendship can “be consummated only among the perfect” (2.38). As in Aristotle, the lower forms of friendship only improperly merit the name.

Aelred’s Christianization of his classical sources is clear in the following remark: “What statement about friendship can be more sublime, more true, more valuable than this? It has been proved that friendship must begin in Christ, continue with Christ, and be perfected by Christ” (1.10). For Aelred, Christ is not only the focus of true friendship but also the most important agent in it.

Augustine and Martianus

Much traditional Christian thought about friendship, including Aelred, leaves the question of interfaith friendship unaddressed.[20] In the works of St. Augustine, however, we find a strident rejection of friendship not only between Christians and non-Christians, but also between non-Christians themselves.[21] Perhaps the clearest encapsulation of Augustine’s stance on the issue is his Epistola 258 to a man named Martianus, whom Augustine had known before his conversion to Christianity and who had recently converted and was considering baptism.[22]

Augustine organizes his letter as a reflection on Cicero’s definition of friendship (agreement in things divine and human with good will and charity). At first, Augustine suggests that in their past (pre-Christian) relationship he and Martianus had at least agreed on human things and related to one another in good will and love (1). He then, however, subverts this suggestion. Since both he and Martianus are now Christians, Augustine suggests that “there is no longer any disagreement about things human between us since we weigh them by the knowledge of things divine in order that we may not give them more weight than, with strict justice, their limitations demand” (2). It is only in correct apprehension of divine things, he argues, that friends can find true agreement on human things, “for one who holds things divine in contempt necessarily evaluates things human otherwise than he should” (2). Thus, Martianus and Augustine had not been even partial or deficient friends before their mutual agreement on things divine in Christian faith. Indeed, Augustine had not even been his own friend before his conversion, for in ‘loving iniquity’ he had hated his own soul (3).[23] After reaching this conclusion, Augustine returns to the theme of the Ciceronian definition of friendship and interprets it in light of the double love commandment of Matthew 22 (and parallels) (4). He concludes by urging Martianus to become a candidate for baptism and thus cement his entry into the church (5).

To summarize Augustine’s account of his relationship with Martianus: the two could not be friends when Augustine had converted to Christianity but Martianus had not, nor even when both were pagans. Their friendship only became possible when the two had both adopted the Christian faith. Generalizing from this case, we can suggest that Augustine excludes the possibility of true friendship not only between Christians and non-Christians, but between non-Christians themselves.[24]

Potential Christian Obstacles to Interfaith Friendship

Augustine is representative of a trajectory in Christian thought that is, explicitly or implicitly, either hostile to, suspicious of, or dismissive of friendships between Christians and non-Christians.[25] Augustine’s reasoning, at least as displayed in the letter to Martianus, takes the Ciceronian requirement of agreement on things human and divine and puts a spin on it by clearly prioritizing the latter and making it the condition of the possibility of the former. This is not, however, the only line of reasoning that might lead Christians to be wary of interfaith friendships. Only some of these reasons are related to Christian engagement with classical thought on friendship; others have specifically Christian roots.

As discussed above, classical accounts of friendship and Christian theological accounts influenced by them often highlight the teleological character of true friendship. Friendship has a goal, and friends are bound together by sharing that goal. Indeed, many of these accounts emphasize that this shared goal is an ultimate goal, whether it be the virtuous/happy life in Aristotle, the attainment of the beatific vision in Thomas Aquinas (ST I-II, qq. 1-5), or some other end. Teleological theories of friendship of this sort raise a host of questions for Christian reflection on the possibility of interfaith friendship. Can friends of different faiths share an ultimate goal? If not, can they achieve only a deficient sort of friendship? Can shared proximate goals – perhaps arising from overlapping values – provide grounding for a meaningful friendship? Should we perhaps reject a teleological view of friendship based on a shared goal in order to make room for interfaith friendship?

Those accounts of friendship which, following Aristotle and Cicero, conceive of the friend as an alter ego raise this problem in an especially acute form. How could a friend of another faith be similar enough to me to be a second self? Doesn’t friendship of this sort require, as Cicero said, “agreement in all things divine and human”?

One might also suggest that the valuation of frank speech in friendship brings with it a problem for interfaith friendships of a less philosophical and more practical sort. If the Christian in an interfaith friendship held the view that her non-Christian friend, by virtue of being non-Christian, was deeply mistaken about the deepest realities of the world, she might be under the obligation to speak frankly to her friend in the hopes of changing the friend’s views. Indeed, might she not be required to do so relentlessly, given the gravity of her friend’s errors? And wouldn’t such frank speech become tiresome and abrasive to her friend?

In addition to these potential objections to interfaith friendship, which are linked to features of classical thinking about friendship, some specifically Christian concerns suggest other reasons to be skeptical of interfaith friendships. For example, the Second Epistle of John takes what appears to be a very hard line on social interaction with those who do not share the writer’s teaching on Christ: “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist! Be on your guard, so that you do not lose what we have worked for, but may receive a full reward. Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. Do not receive into your house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching; for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person” (2 Jn 7-11). While commentators suggest that the author of the epistle is concerned with a particular group teaching a Christology in opposition to the author’s (e.g., a proto-gnosticism or docetism),[26] the final verse in this passage would seem to apply to anyone who does not profess the Incarnation. Would that not be a scriptural injunction against interfaith friendships?

The Christian commitment to mission also presents potential challenges to an account of interfaith friendship. This missional impulse has a grounding in the scriptural ‘Great Commission’ of Matthew 28. Jesus, having risen, commands his disciples to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mt 28: 19-20). It is also rooted deeply in the logic of Christian faith. If Christians understand themselves to have received the good news (see 1 Cor 15:1), then they will be those who proclaim the good news (e.g., Acts 8:12, 16:10). Love for others will impel them to share what they have received in the hope that others, too, can receive it and flourish.[27] What bearing, then, does Christianity’s missional character have on interfaith friendships? Must Christians in such friendships aim for the conversion of their friends?[28] It might be objected that such an aim undermines friendship by tending to make the friend an object of condescending charity or patronizing correction.

Yet another potential objection to interfaith friendship could be raised not from the specifics of classical or Christian views of friendship, but from the supposed character of religious identities. Those for whom Christianity is in great part definitive of their identity might find the possibility of friendship with a religious other to threaten the coherence and integrity of that identity.

To summarize, there would appear to be a rather strong prima facie case against supporting interfaith friendships. The objections include:

The problem of teleology. If friends must share an ultimate aim and if different religions entail different ultimate aims, then interfaith friendship is impossible.

The problem of the friend as alter ego. If the friend is an alter ego, the difference between people of different faiths will rule out friendship between them, since they will be insufficiently alike to serve as “other selves” for one another.

The problem of evangelism (and frank speech). The missional impulse of Christian faith and the requirement that friends speak frankly to one another will orient interfaith friendship partly toward conversion.

The problem of 2 John 10-11. This scriptural passage seems clearly to rule out friendship with non-Christians.

The problem of identity. Friendship with the religious other threatens the integrity of the self.

It is our view that the various philosophical and theological obstacles to a positive account of interfaith friendship that we have outlined are not insurmountable. While some of them do identify challenges that will be more pronounced in interfaith friendships than in intra-religious ones, none of them is strong enough to rule out interfaith friendship. We turn now to the elaboration of a Christian view of interfaith friendships that recognizes them as not only acceptable but enriching. In the process, we will address the obstacles raised above and show that they do not provide sufficient reasons for Christians to be wary of interfaith friendships.

Friendship with the Other

In raising the potential objections to interfaith friendship above, we have focused on the classical tradition and the Christian reflection that it influenced. For Christians, there is another stream that can nourish our understanding of friendship—a stream that does not figure prominently in the classical tradition but finds its sources in the Christian scriptures. This stream has been largely neglected in the centuries-long reflection of Christians on friendship, including friendship with non-Christians. Three tributaries to that stream are important. First, Abraham is described in the Scripture as a friend of God (James 2:23). Thus, strict equality is not a necessary condition of friendship; those differing markedly in power, knowledge, and virtue can still be described in some significant sense as friends.[29] Second, in the gospels Jesus is called a friend of publicans and sinners (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:24).[30] He spent time with them, he ate with them, and they sought him out (e.g., Mark 2:16; Luke 15:1-2). Thus, there can be friendship among those who differ in virtue, and whose lives are not in fact oriented toward the same goal. Third, the greatest love, Jesus said, is to give one’s life for friends (John 15:13). That same love he showed to all people. Though his ultimate self-sacrifice on their behalf does not make them yet into his friends, it has bearing on the scope of possible friendships.[31] Keeping these three points in mind, let us attend to the objections noted above and then look at the goods that may come from interfaith friendship.

Countering the Objections


One objection was that to be a friend is to share in a common goal, often the ultimate goal. Assuming that adherents of different faiths understand their ultimate ends differently, they cannot, on this account, be friends. But to recognize that ultimate goals differ is not to say that they differ in all respects and are utterly incompatible. For instance, it is possible to say that Muslims and Christians have the same ultimate goal—that they worship the same God—and yet that they have different understandings of that God.[32] As friends, they would then pursue partly different ultimate goals. Such differing but overlapping understandings of the ultimate telos of life can yield a surprising number of overlapping proximate, provisional goals. For example, Christian and Muslim friends could share the goal of resisting pressures in contemporary societies to orient our lives toward the pursuit of mere pleasure.[33] Or, to use a historical example (see below for a fuller discussion), the Hindu Mohandas Gandhi and the Christian Charles Andrew could both come passionately to support non-violent resistance against racial injustice in South Africa and imperial power in India. They had a deeply affectionate friendship and shared a mission, but they explained the reasons for that mission differently (Gandhi based his thought on the Indian concept of ahimsa [non-violence], while Andrews drew on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount) and they held divergent conceptions of the ultimate end of their lives.[34] Gandhi’s and Andrew’s theologies did not overlap to a great extent, but their overlapping proximate ends supported a friendship that not only was deeply meaningful to the two of them but also bore great fruit for the world. To exclude the relationship between Gandhi and Andrews from the category of friendship simply because their shared aim was ‘merely’ provisional strikes us as excessively strict and ill-attuned to the true goodness of ‘provisional’ goods.

Witness and frankness of speech.

The closely linked objections stemming from the importance of frankness of speech and the Christian evangelical impulse can be dealt with together. Some Christian advocates of interfaith friendship will be inclined either to deny deep differences between faiths and thereby minimize the importance of evangelism or, while recognizing that differences between faiths are real and deep, to assert that evangelism is the only way they can relate to friends of other faiths. We are willing to take neither of these paths. Different faiths are just that—different. Their differences include divergent truth claims and sometimes contrasting ways of life. And the Christian faith is intrinsically a faith that seeks to be shared. Nevertheless, the combination of religious differences and the missional character of Christianity does not doom interfaith friendships involving Christians. It does not turn interfaith friendships into a sort of ‘evangelism by other means’.

Consider, first, the view that interfaith friendships ought not to include witness. This outlook misses fundamental dynamics of both faith and friendship. Religious faiths are often matters of central significance to their adherents—precisely the sort of matter that would incline someone to share about it with her friends. Christian faith, specifically, has strong internal dynamics (some of which we mentioned above) that urge believers to share their faith. Friendship, for its part, inherently includes both desiring the good for one’s friend and mutual sharing. Consequently, for most Christians at least, interfaith friendship will involve the desire that one’s friend share in the way of life that one finds so good. This desire will motivate witnessing in the context of that friendship.

But how, the objector might retort, is the other supposed to respond to one’s witness? Would it not feel like an unwelcome attempt at changing who she is? This, we think, depends in great part on how one witnesses to a friend. Indeed, it seems to us that the bonds of affection in friendship will shape one’s way of witnessing—make it respectful, considerate, and loving. The value of the friendship militates against any sort of witnessing that will be deeply disrespectful and harmful of the other. We would suggest that Christians ought to take how they would witness to a friend to be paradigmatic of how they should witness in general.

In addition to the shaping of witness that we would expect from friendships, Christian witness in general is normed by Jesus’ command: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12). Applied to witness, this command entails, first, that Christians witness only if they are prepared to be witnessed to. In the context of interfaith friendship, this means that Christians ought to respect whatever types of witness their friends’ faiths lead them to enact. The Golden Rule should also regulate Christians’ way of witnessing to their friends. Christians must witness in the manner that they would want their friends to witness to them.[35] The same would apply to frank speech within interfaith friendships. It ought to be governed by love and the norm of reciprocity, such that interfaith friendships would not be at risk of devolving into an incessant appeal that the friend change her faith.

2 John.

Yet another objection to interfaith friendship came from the Christian scriptures themselves (2 John 7-11). To address this objection, we must begin by noting that the criterion which 2 John puts forward is “that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (v. 7). 2 John points the reader to the fleshly, human life of Jesus as the test of true teaching. For Christians, the canonical gospels are the authoritative accounts of that life. Given a canonical perspective, we can therefore read 2 John 7 as an injunction to take the character of Jesus as portrayed in the gospels as normative. That character—the character of Jesus who “has come in the flesh”—evinces a striking openness to cultural, ethnic, social, and religious others. The Jesus to whom 2 John points its reader is the same one who, in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), radicalizes the category of the neighbor by making it about one’s stance toward others, rather than a status that others inherently have or do not have. It is the Jesus who engages in religious conversation across gender, ethnic, and religious divisions with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:1-42. It is the Jesus who, as we have already noted above, welcomed tax collectors and sinners. This Jesus, it seems to us, warrants a strong Christian appreciation of interfaith friendship. We would, then, take 2 John’s apparent suspicions as a hyperbolic warning to Christians of the importance of holding fast to the incarnation.[36]


The final objection to interfaith friendship that we considered above—namely, that friendship with a religious other might threaten identities based on Christian faith—is based on a misunderstanding of identity. Our identities are not stable, self-contained vessels based on sameness and protected by solid boundaries; nor ought they be. Rather, they are predicated on “connection, difference, heterogeneity.… We are who we are not because we are separate from others who are next to us, but because we are both separate and connected, distinct and related; the boundaries that mark our identities are both barriers and bridges.”[37] Our identities are and ought to be shaped in and through interaction with concrete others in all their difference from us. To exclude the other—and this includes the religious other—from our selves is a distortion of appropriate human identity. Such distortion is, in Christian terms, sin.[38]

Thus, when one looks at the Christian message as a whole, the objections to interfaith friendship raised above are not sufficiently strong to warrant hostility toward interfaith friendship from a Christian perspective. The deep goods that interfaith friendships can yield, on the other hand, warrant a welcoming openness toward such friendships.

The Goods of Interfaith Friendships

Interfaith friendships can give rise to at least three distinct but inter-related goods that intra-faith friendships are less suited to produce.

Interfaith friendships can give us a better, fairer understanding of other faiths through interaction with their concrete instantiations in the lives of our friends. Interfaith friendships, that is, can help us avoid prejudice, which as injustice is a form of un-love and therefore, from a Christian perspective, to be avoided.

Interfaith friendships can lead us to a clearer and enriched understanding of our own faith.

Interfaith friendships can develop our ability to authentically articulate our faith to others.

It is worth considering these goods in greater detail.

The first value of interfaith friendships is that the special knowledge of another faith that they offer can reduce the likelihood that the Christian will judge that faith according to caricatures or stereotypes. Such judgments are in fact prejudices and, therefore, are unjust. We hold that “the best way to fight prejudice is by knowledge—not just knowledge of people’s beliefs and practices, but knowledge of their feelings and hopes, their injuries and triumphs as well.”[39] While they certainly involve beliefs and values and rites—the kinds of things that can be captured, more or less, in a textbook—faiths at their core are intimately bound up with specific ways of life. Consequently, there are numerous facets of a faith that we can only see in that faith as lived. We cannot really know a faith unless we know it in the intricacies of its instantiation in individuals’ lives. Since friendships (of the sort we are considering in this paper) involve sustained, affectionate interaction over time and across a variety of life-contexts, they are precisely the sort of relationship that is apt to yield knowledge of a faith as a way of life. Our friends concretely embody their faiths, and our concrete, bodily interactions with them give us insights into what those faiths look like in the day-to-day world.

The acquisition of such knowledge, of course, is by no means straightforward. It requires something like the “double vision” advocated in Exclusion and Embrace, i.e., endeavoring to see the world from the location of the other and not only one’s own.[40] Double vision as we use the term does not seek some hypothetical (and unobtainable) objective ‘view from nowhere’. It is, rather, an imaginative act that aims to view the other, the self, and the world as the other sees them. As an imaginative act, double vision is challenging and requires the cultivation of certain dispositions and skills in order for us to practice it properly.

The complicated dynamics of the type of interpersonal knowledge for which we need double vision—the type that minimizes the injustice of prejudice—include not just the parties involved but also their images of themselves and each other (not to mention God!). The outworking of these dynamics takes time to move from prejudices and misconceptions to closer approximations of the truth.[41] All the more reason that the temporally extended, communicative, affectionate relations of friendship are particularly well-suited for the flourishing of knowledge that overcomes prejudice.

The second value of interfaith friendships—a clearer and enriched understanding of our own faith—is related to the dynamics of difference and self-knowledge. In this regard, we can treat interfaith friendships as in some respects continuous with intra-religious friendships. The friend is other than the self and yet is not excluded from the self. Our relationship to our friends, whether of the same or a different faith, is one of both similarity and difference. The challenge and the special value of interfaith friendships is that by definition the difference involved in them reaches down to some of our deepest convictions, intuitions about the world, values, and practices. The sustained encounter with difference implied in a friendship provides an opportunity to come to a better grasp of these convictions, intuitions, values, and practices. Relationship with a friend of another faith—a friend who concretely instantiates and confronts us with these deep differences—can move us to examine them in ways that we would not were we to have friendships only with people who shared them with us. At its best, this examination can lead to needed deepening of commitment and reform.

The first way friendships with people of other faiths can deepen the self-understanding of Christians is by providing a new vantage point from which Christians can view themselves. Moments of self-doubt and confusion aside, we tend to be rather familiar to ourselves. So, too, our faiths. Since we live with our faiths day-by-day, often over the course of many years, they can easily become somewhat taken-for-granted, indeed, rather normal. To non-Christian friends, however, many features of this faith are likely to appear strange, in need of explanation. By seeing our own faith through the eyes of our friend who does not share it (a species of the “double vision” we referenced above), we can see it in a new light, from a new angle, and we will often find truths about it of which we had previously been unaware.

The second way friendships with people of other faiths can deepen the self-understanding of Christians is through the discovery of wisdom in the faith of the other. Christianity has a long history of adopting and adapting vocabulary and concepts from non-Christians. Consider, for example, Christianity’s appropriation of the spiritual treasures of Judaism. With only minor modifications, for instance, the Christian Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible. Precisely these texts made up the sacred scriptures of the early Christians. Even once it became clear that Christianity and Judaism were distinct faiths, Christians did not reject the scriptures of Israel.[42] Consider also Christianity’s early encounter with Greek language and culture, which entailed its (mostly unintentional) reception of Greek wisdom.[43] A rich vocabulary of faith comes to the theology and everyday liturgical life of Christians from the Greek philosophical tradition (even if major philosophical terms have been partly transformed when appropriated).[44] Indeed, every time the gospel has been translated into another language and taken root and flowered in a new cultural environment, the Christian faith has received, as well as given, wisdom.[45] Something similar can happen every time we have a deep friendship with a person of another faith. David Burrell has eloquently described this dynamic as “triangulation through friendship.” He writes: “What interfaith friendships seem to offer is a way of allowing the faith of others … to interact with our own faith commitment to draw out dimensions of our faith response that the shadow side of our tradition may have blocked. This is far from a simple ‘complementarity’ approach, wherein one tradition makes up what is lacking in the other. It rather represents a process whereby triangulating from another tradition—not abstractly but through friendships—allows us to activate the critical dimensions of our own tradition, so clarifying what we may have obscured in the revelation we have received.”[46] Friendships, we would point out, are exceptionally fruitful contexts in which Christians can encounter wisdom in another faith for precisely the same reasons that friendships help fight prejudicial views of other faiths (see above).[47]

The third value that is particular to friendships with people of other faiths (or no organized faith) is closely related to the deepening of Christian self-understanding that these relationships can engender. It is the honing of the Christian’s ability to give “an account of the hope that is in [her]” (1 Pet 3:15). The fundamental Christian impetus to witness suggests that this ability is an important facet of Christian life. As in the case of a deepened self-understanding through encounter with the religious other, the context of a friendship—a sustained, affectionate relationship—is particularly apt to produce the fruit of improved ability to articulate one’s faith. If one has friends only from one’s own faith, one is prone to lapse into the use of jargon and mutually accepted but relatively unexamined answers to difficult questions. Friends of other faiths, on the other hand, will tend not to understand buzzwords and to ask questions that expose the places where our views need to be more rigorously thought out.[48]

An Exemplary Interfaith Friendship

Before concluding, we would like to reflect briefly on one historical instance of an interfaith friendship involving a Christian that illustrates both a number of the goods that we have identified and the overcoming of some of the obstacles we have discussed.

The decades-long friendship between Mohandas Gandhi and the Anglican missionary Charles Freer Andrews was deeply meaningful for both men, as well as significant for social justice movements in both South Africa and India in the first half of the twentieth century.[49] Andrews supported a great many of Gandhi’s campaigns in the ways that he could, and the two provided mutual personal support during the many trials they encountered. Their writings and the correspondence between them witnesses to a rich relationship that exhibits the great goods of interfaith friendships.

Andrews held tight to the specificity of his Christian faith, but he allowed his friendship with Gandhi to cast new light on that faith, to deepen his understanding of it. In 1924, Gandhi undertook a twenty-one day fast in protest of Hindu-Muslim violence and the repressive British response to it. Andrews accompanied Gandhi during the fast. Reflecting on one evening late in the fast, he wrote: “My gaze turned back to the frail, wasted, tortured spirit on the terrace by my side [i.e., Gandhi], bearing the sins and sorrows of his people. With a rush of emotion there came to memory the passage from the Book of Lamentations—‘Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold and see, if there is any sorrow like unto my sorrow.’ And in that hour of vision I knew more deeply, in my own personal life, the meaning of the cross.”[50]

Andrews was remarkable among Christian missionaries to India for his rejection of stereotyped and distortedly negative views of the Hindu and Muslim faiths of its people. While he studied Eastern religions before travelling to India and had a great appreciation for the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu sacred writings, Andrews emphasized the understanding he gained of the faiths of South Asia from his friendships with practitioners of them such as Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, and Abdul Ghaffar Khan. For his part, Gandhi privileged his friendship with Andrews as a source for understanding the heart of Christian faith.[51] Thus, they exemplified the way of knowing through friendship that we advocated above.

One of the most striking features about Gandhi and Andrews’s friendship is the degree to which it not only survived but flourished through frank speech. Each felt free to challenge the other, often using the other’s own tradition to do so. Gandhi characterized Andrews’ manner of discourse when the two disagreed as “love speaking to love, not arguing.”[52] The durability of their friendship in the face of frank disagreement is nowhere clearer than on the question of witness and conversion.

Gandhi rejected the possibility of religious conversion, advocating that members of all faiths be willing to adopt the truth of others without changing faiths. Andrews, on the other hand, held (rightly, on our understanding of Christian faith) that conversion must be a possibility. He believed that authentic Christian faith must share itself, but that it must do so non-coercively: “Christ is to me the unique way whereby I have come to God and have found God and I cannot help telling others about it wherever I can do so without compulsion or undue influence.” He also expected his friends of other faiths (including Gandhi and the Muslim leader Abdul Ghaffar Kahn) to make known their faith.[53]

Nevertheless, precisely at this point of disagreement (i.e., the question of witness), Gandhi held out Andrews as an example for other Christians to follow. Speaking at the Calcutta YMCA in 1925, Gandhi said, “If I want a pattern of the ideal missionary, I should instance C. F. Andrews.”[54] Even given his conviction that Andrews was deeply mistaken about the properness of religious conversion as the result of witness, Gandhi found Andrews way of witnessing to be unsurpassed.


If our arguments for why Christians ought to welcome and cherish friendships with adherents of other faiths are correct, several practical consequences follow:

1. Interfaith friendships must not ignore the friends’ faiths or flatten out the differences between them if they are to yield their rich goods. In certain contexts, even discussing religion among people of different faiths can seem to be in bad taste. This aversion to talking about faith is part of a broader hesitancy to bring into focus any subject that highlights deep differences among friends. The implicit worry is that such differences threaten friendship. They drive friends apart, the thinking goes, whereas those things that are similar between friends bring them together. The goods of interfaith friendship that we have identified, however, depend on recognizing and exploring difference as something that is not inimical to friendship. Interfaith friendships built entirely around commonalities—shared work, shared politics, shared pastimes, etc.—will not yield these goods. It is true that differences can separate friends. But they do not have to. Given the great goods of interfaith friendships—goods that depend on open exchange about difference—we can say that Christians ought to seek to be the sort of friends who do not fear difference and who do not check their faith (or ask their friends to check their faiths) at the door of friendship.

2. Christian education should emphasize personal contact with members of other faiths and intentionally create spaces for the sort of informal interaction that can foster friendships. For the reasons we have indicated above, doing so will promote not only better knowledge of other faiths, but also better education of Christians about Christianity. Educational initiatives of this sort include, for example, sacred text readings such as those that certain mosques, churches, and synagogues in the United States and United Kingdom are practicing, in which Muslims and Christians read and discuss one another’s scriptures together.[55] Such efforts will fall short of their potential, however, if they do not create space for the formation of friendships, which extend beyond the bounds of official church or school activities.

3. Christians should welcome both shared projects with people of other faiths aimed at provisional goals and the friendships that are likely to grow out of such projects. As the friendship between Gandhi and Andrews illustrates, working toward a common (even if non-ultimate) goal is apt to foster friendships that eventually go deeper than mere cooperation.

4. The cultivation of interfaith friendships must not be a mere tactic in evangelization. The relationship between friendship and witness is much more nuanced than that between a means and an end. Christian missions organizations that promote conversion-through-friendship tactics not only do a disservice to the rich goods of interfaith friendships themselves, but also fail to live up to Jesus’ command of reciprocity (Matt 7:12). Moreover, the instrumentalization of interfaith friendships by some is likely to increase the barriers to the formation of authentic friendships by others. How is a prospective friend to know whether she is being ‘cultivated’ as a potential convert? While not ruling out that some Christians’ friends from other faiths will come to Christian faith, Christians should disavow the practice of using friendship as an evangelical tool.

*   *   *

Reflecting on the value of friendship, John Chrysostom, the fourth-century archbishop of Constantinople, remarked:

In good truth, a friend is more to be longed for than the light; I speak of a genuine one. And wonder not: for it is better for us that the sun should be extinguished, than that we should be deprived for friends; better to live in darkness than to be without friends.… Many who see the sun are in darkness, but they can never be even in tribulation, who abound in friends.[56]

Chrysostom goes on to explain that he is speaking about “spiritual friends” and “friends according to Christ.” Our argument has been that not only friends who are fellow Christians are of such great value to the Christian life. Indeed, given that interfaith friendships can help overcome Christians’ prejudiced views of religious others, can deepen Christians’ understandings of their own faith in Christ, and can shape Christians into better witnesses to that faith, we might say that in a certain sense, interfaith friendships at their best are “spiritual” and, from a Christian perspective, friendships “according to Christ.”

Friendships like the one between Charles Andrews and Mohandas Gandhi suggest the power of such interfaith friendships. These friendships deepen our understanding of other faiths and shed light on our own convictions. In this era of global migrations and increasing contact between people of different faiths, for Christians to rule out friendships with people of other faiths would be a grave mistake. It would be to miss out on powerful relationships that can promote human flourishing and produce abundant spiritual fruit.


[1] We write as academically trained theologians working, we believe, within the broad stream of the historical Christian tradition, but given the breadth of that stream, a note indicating our particular locations within the tradition is in order. Miroslav, is a member of the Episcopal Church but has been reared on deep spirituality of his saintly Pentecostal parents and nanny and his faith was shaped by experiences of marginality in the communist Yugoslavia and violent ethno-religious conflicts in the aftermath of its dissolution. Ryan comes from (and remains in) certain ecumenically inclined currents within North American evangelicalism and has been profoundly impacted by the questions posed by various Latin American instantiations of Christian faith.

As will become clear through the near absence of sources from the Eastern Christian theological traditions, our social locations within the Church have left us considerably more knowledgeable about the Latin stream of theology, especially in the post-patristic period, than about others. It is possible that the traditional obstacles to interfaith friendship that we discuss apply much less or not at all to theological traditions other than the Western Latin one. We would venture the claim, however, that Christians rooted in those traditions ought to find the theological resources we identify for interfaith friendships amenable.

[2] The practice of distinguishing different senses of friendship has a long tradition that goes back, in Western thought, at least to Aristotle. It usually includes the valuation of one type of friendship over others, sometimes even categorizing certain types of friendship as only analogously or improperly designated as such. (Aristotle says: “Friendship in the primary and proper sense is between good men in virtue of their goodness, whereas the rest are friendships only by analogy.” [Nichomachean Ethics 8.4]) We are not particularly interested in saying what should or should not properly be called friendship, but it is still useful to define more or less what we have in mind when we say ‘friendship’ in this paper.

[3] That is to say that as we use the term in this paper, friendship is a ‘special relationship’, a relationship that one cannot have with everybody at once. We might distinguish between the attitude or stance of ‘friendliness’ and the concrete relationship of ‘friendship’ and say that one could be ‘friendly’ towards everyone, but one cannot be everyone’s friend. Our usage contrasts with that of Anantanand Rambachan’s Hindu account of interfaith friendships. Rambachan argues that in the Bhagavadgita friendship terminology is extended to include all beings. ^CITATION OF ANANT’s PAPER.^

[4] A similar etymological relationship is found in Greek (φίλος/φιλέω) and Latin (amicus/amare).

[5] An objection might be raised at this point: might there not be more than a hint of irony when Jesus addresses Judas as ‘friend’ at the moment of his betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane? We would suggest reading the passage instead as Jesus’ continued offer of friendship to Judas even in the face of the latter’s decidedly unfriendly act of betrayal.

[6] This is an opportune point at which to mention what will for some be a conspicuous absence in our essay, namely, the voices of women from the Christian tradition. A truly thorough Christian account of interfaith friendship would engage the rich recent feminist theological literature on friendship, as well as (social-)historical research on the friendships between women that have gone unnoted in the masculinist-inflected theological mainstream and contemporary instances of women’s interfaith friendships. We lament our inability to have done so ourselves (due to space limitations and our, perhaps culpable, lack of expertise), and we eagerly extend the invitation to others to help fill this gap in and provide critical correctives to our work.

Mary E. Hunt’s Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship (New York: Crossroad, 1991) is one of the early exemplars of this literature. See also, among many others, Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, 10th anniversary ed. (New York: Crossroad, 2002), especially pp. 144-45 and 210-35; and remarks spread throughout Johnson’s Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints (New York: Continuum, 1998).

[7] The discussion of friendship is appropriate to ethics, he says, because friendship “is a kind of virtue, or implies virtue” (8.1). Quotations from the Nichomachean Ethics will use the translation of J. A. K. Thomson as revised by Hugh Tredennick.

[8] Aristotle’s masculinist account of virtue and the good life excludes women from this highest form of friendship.

[9] Nisi in bonis amicitiam esse non posse.

[10] Est enim amicitia nihil aliud nisi omnium divinarum humanarumque rerum cum benevolentia et caritate consensio.

[11] Id in quo omnis vis est amicitiae, voluntatum studiorum sententiarum summa consensio.

[12] Verum etiam amicum qui intuetur, tamquam exemplar aliquod intuetur sui. Quocirca et absentes adsunt et egentes abundant et imbecilli valent et … mortui vivunt.

Among patristic Christian thinkers, the fourth-century bishop and theologian John Chrysostom refers to the friend as “another self” in the second of his Homilies on First Thessalonians.

[13] Diogenes Laertius (Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 8.8) cite the historian Timaeus of Tauromenium as attributing this saying to Pythagoras. Porphyry (Life of Pythagoras 33) agrees with the attribution but does not cite Timaeus.

[14] “All who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44); “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). Chrysostom echoes this theme in Homily II on First Thessalonians: “This is friendship, that a man should not consider his goods his own, but his neighbor’s, that his possessions belong to another; that he should be as careful of his friend’s soul, as of his own; and the friend likewise.”

[15] John T. Fitzgerald, “Christian Friendship: John, Paul, and the Philippians,” Interpretation 61 (2007): 293-94.

[16] See the volume Friendship, Flattery, and Frankness of Speech: Studies on Friendship in the New Testament World, ed. John T. Fitzgerald (Leiden: Brill, 1996).

[17] For instances of the theme of self-sacrifice for the friend, see Plato, Symposium 179B; Seneca, Ep. 6.2, 9.10. Gail O’Day suggests that in casting Jesus’ death as laying down his life for his friends, John highlights a distinction between Jesus and Greco-Roman philosophers. Namely, “Jesus did what the philosophers only talked about” (“Jesus as Friend in the Gospel of John,” Interpretation 58 [2004]: 150).

[18] Available in English translation: Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, trans. Lawrence C. Bracland (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010).

By choosing to focus on Aelred, we have left unmentioned by far the most famous Christian adapter of classical thought on friendship, Thomas Aquinas. As with any subject in Thomas’s thought, enough has been written on his views about friendship to make an ink manufacturer or two fabulously wealthy. We note just a couple of entrants into the fray. L. Gregory Jones (“The Theological Transformation of Aristotelian Friendship in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas,” The New Scholasticism 61 [1987]: 373-99) argues that Thomas’s theological debts to Aristotle limit his ability to give a truly adequate Christian account of friendship, namely, one that makes sense of friendship with God. Denys Turner, however, suggests that Thomas’s theological transformation of Aristotle is much more thorough and successful than Jones makes it out to be. See his chapter “Friendship and Grace,” in Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013). Jean Porter (“De ordine caritatis: Charity, Friendship, and Justice in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae,” The Thomist 53 [1989]: 197-214) and David M. Gallagher (“Desire for Beatitude and Love of Friendship in Thomas Aquinas,” Mediaeval Studies 58 [1996]: 1-47) bring analyses of Thomas’s account of friendship to bear on interpretations of other facets of his doctrine of love.

In our judgment, Thomas does not entirely avoid the obstacles to interfaith friendship that we identify in the theological tradition.

[19] Aelred would not have known Aristotle’s works directly, since he lived just before their reintroduction to the Latin West. His work, however, is marked by many features that we can recognize as influenced by a strain of thinking about friendship of which Aristotle is the exemplar. For the purposes of this essay, comparison with Aristotle will be illuminating.

[20] This is likely due in some part to the fact that the heyday of philosophical and theological emphasis on friendship took place in an era of minimal contact between European Christians and members of other faiths.

[21] Scholars debate the question of Augustine’s stance toward the relation of the classical tradition of friendship (amicitia) to intra-Christian relationships. Interpreters such as Brian McGuire (Friendship and Community: The Monastic Experience 350-1250 [Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1988], 47-57, 87-90), Carolinne White (Christian Friendship in the Fourth Century [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992], 218-23), and James McEvoy (“‘Anima Una et Cor Unum’: Friendship and Spiritual Unity in Augustine,” Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale 53 [1986]: 80-91) maintain that Augustine advocated a Christianized version of classical amicitia. C. Stephen Jaeger, on the other hand, argues that Augustine strives to replace the (pagan) ideal of amicitia with the (Christian) ideal of caritas (“Friendship of Mutual Perfecting in Augustine’s Confessions and the Failure of Classical amicitia,” in Friendship in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age, ed. Albrecht Classen and Marilyn Sandidge, 185-200 [New York: de Gruyter, 2010]).

[22] Quoted from the English translation by Roland Teske (Hyde Park, NY: New City, 2005). Suggestions of Augustine’s hostility toward friendship with and among those outside the Christian faith can also be found in Confessions 4.3-4 and 6.4.

[23] Augustine quotes Ps. 11:5 [10:6] as saying “But one who loves iniquity hates his own soul” (Qui autem diligit iniquitatem, odit animam suam). This translation disagrees with the more accurate rendering of the Hebrew in the Vulgate, which reads “impium autem et diligentem iniquitatem odit anima eius” (“But his [God’s] soul hates the impious one and the one who loves iniquity”).

[24] It is, of course, remarkably risky to generalize from any text of Augustine’s to “Augustine’s view” on a subject. To get a sense of Augustine’s thought about friendship more broadly, one would have to take account of such texts as Confessions 4.4.7-4.19.14 and City of God 19.1-9, written several decades apart in quite different styles and for quite different purposes than the letter to Martianus.

[25] A more recent Christian account of friendship that does not appear to have room for interfaith friendships is Paul Wadell’s Friendship and the Moral Life (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989). Waddell claims that “There is no such thing as friendship simply, friendship pried free of a tradition, because every friendship is a relationship in which persons with and through one another try to achieve that tradition’s good” (72). Wadell’s is a highly teleological view of friendship, and he does not seem to leave open the possibility of a friendship embedded in two traditions. His claim that “in the Christian account [note the definite article the], genuine friendship love demands a mutual preference for God” clearly implies that non-Christians (at least those who do not have a ‘preference’ for God) and Christians cannot share “genuine” friendship.

[26] See, for example, Raymond Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible 30 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982), 55ff.

[27] On the reasons why Christians must share wisdom with others, see Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011), 103ff .

[28] The question of witness and conversion is especially pronounced for Christians compared to members of certain other religious traditions. In her paper for this volume, Eleanor Nesbitt notes the contrast between Christianity and Sikhism in this regard. ^CROSS REFERENCE FOR NESBITT ARTICLE IN THIS VOLUME.^

[29] It could be argued that generalizing from the case of Abraham as a friend of God to inter-human friendships is invalid because the chasm-spanning friendship between Abraham and God was the miraculous work of a God for whom “all things are possible” (Matt 19:26). Friendship across such a chasm is not, as such, possible. It is only possible because God can (and does) transcend that chasm. But even if we grant (1) that friendship between God and humans occurs only through the miraculous power of God and (2) that differences between human beings are in need of some bridging or transcending in the way that the difference between God and humans is, we can still make the inference from the occurrence of friendship between God and humans to the possibility of friendship between humans differing in power, knowledge, or virtue. All the objection has done is show that God must be the one who makes such friendships possible. Our thanks to Awet Andemicael for her probing questions on this point.

The claim that strict equality is not necessary in friendship does not preclude the possibility that some sort of equality is inherent in friendship. It might be, for instance, that friendship presupposes that the friends treat each other as equal in one or another respect. In a different vein, Thomas Aquinas argues that humans become friends of God precisely through God in some sense making God and humans equals through the incarnation and the operation of grace. (See Turner, Thomas Aquinas, 145-68). We doubt, however, that the equality that God establishes here would meet Aristotle’s standards for the sort of equality that makes friendship between humans a real possibility. Moreover, in relations between humans, one cannot make another equal in virtue in the same way that God perfect humans through grace.

[30] This description of Jesus appears in Jesus’ report of charges leveled by “this generation” against him and John the Baptist, who is accused of having a demon (Matt 11:16-19; Luke 7:31-34). It might seem, therefore, that it should be rejected, just as Jesus presumably intends for us to reject the accusation that John was possessed. But Jesus’ response suggests otherwise. He says, in the Matthean version, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Matt 11:19b), and in the Lucan account, “Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Luke 7:35). It is the behavior of John and Jesus that “vindicates” wisdom. In John’s case, such vindication would rule out demon possession. But in the case of Jesus, his very practices of spending time with and taking table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners (i.e., his friendly behavior toward social outsiders who were held to be his moral inferiors) are what vindicate wisdom.

[31] Against the possible objection that the Johannine understanding of friendship unequivocally excludes those outside the right-believing Christian community and so Jesus’s words in John 15 cannot do the work we ask them to do, we would employ the same method of canonical interpretation that we use in addressing the 2 John objection to interfaith friendship below.

[32] See Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011).

[33] See Volf, Allah, 214-18.

[34] See the edited volume of much of their correspondence, Gandhi and Charlie, ed. David McI. Gracie (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1989).

[35] For a proposal that these norms should guide witness in Christian-Muslim relations, see Volf, Allah, 209-13.

[36] Our thanks to Matt Croasmun and Todd Kennedy for their insights regarding this passage.

[37] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 66.

[38] See Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 62ff. On sin as the distortion of proper human identities, see David H. Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 423.

[39] Volf, Allah, 203.

[40] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 250-53.

[41] See Volf, Allah, 203-7, for a fuller discussion of these dynamics.

[42] Hence, the condemnation of Marcion. Of course, in adopting Israel’s scriptures, Christians related to them differently than did Jews. Moreover, many Christians over the course of history have evinced an unfortunate tendency to relegate those scriptures to secondary status in their canons. The fact remains, however, that even when they saw themselves as distinct from Jews, Christians accepted the Hebrew scriptures as wisdom given to the people of Israel.

[43] See Werner W. Jaeger, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia (Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press, 1961); Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993).

[44] On this transformation, see, for example, John D. Zizioulas, “The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: The Significance of the Cappadocian Contribution,” in Trinitarian Theology Today: Essays on Divine Being and Act, ed. Christoph Schwöbel, 44-60 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1995). On the more general phenomenon of give and take in the process of inculturation, see Chibueze Udeani, Inculturation as Dialogue: Igbo Culture and the Message of Christ (New York: Rodopi, 2007), 130ff.

[45] Such has been the practice. But how can Christians, who believe that all wisdom resides in and emanates from Jesus Christ, justify their reception of the wisdom of others? The answer lies in the Christian faith’s understanding of Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word of God through whom “all things came into being” and who is “the light of all people” (Jn 1:3–4). Echoing the text of John’s Gospel, early church father Justin Martyr described the wisdom of Greek philosophers as “parts of the Word” and “seeds of truth.”[45] If Christ is the light, as Johannine writings emphasize, then all light is Christ’s light, whether it is found in the Christian church or outside it.

But don’t Christians already have the light in its entirety? Why should they accept anything from others? Even if there are ‘seeds’ of the wisdom of Christ outside of Christian faith, would the role of Christians not be merely to point those out and show that they are precisely seeds of the wisdom of Christ? There are several reasons that this does not follow.

First, there is a depth and breadth to Christ that remain always unplumbed by his followers. The Christian theological traditions have held that God and, therefore, Christ are beyond the comprehension of believers, not just because humans are finite creatures and God is the infinite creator, but because humans are all driven by their own needs and proclivities and shaped by the particular situations in which they live. Second, contexts (and the challenges they pose) change. The wisdom that particular Christians bring into a context may not provide an obvious way to address its challenges. On occasion, they will think of themselves as wise, when they are in fact foolish. In such cases, Christians can (and often should) receive a prophetic challenge from non-Christians (especially their friends) that alters their convictions and practices so as to address more adequately the problems of the day.

This proposal is somewhat akin to Paul Tillich’s idea of “reverse prophetism.” (Systematic Theology [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951-63], 3:214.) With regard to Christians learning from Muslims, in Allah: A Christian Response (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011), I write the following: “Each faith has a repertoire of beliefs and practices (David Martin, Secularization. Towards a Revised General Theory [Hants: Ashate Publishing Company, 2005], 142-144). At a given time or place, a faith will foreground some themes in its repertoire and background others. Currently, for instance, ‘submission to God,’ Islam’s central theme, is not a favorite ‘melody’ of many Christians in the West; it runs counter to Western egalitarian cultural sensibilities. But it’s an essential and oft ‘performed’ part of the historic Christian repertoire. After all, Christians believe that God is the sovereign Lord. It would be fully legitimate, and maybe even desirable, for Christians in the West, partly nudged by Muslims, to re-discovered “submission to God” as a key dimension of spirituality” (197). We believe interfaith friendships are an ideal context in which such ‘nudging’ could take place. (For a previous version of the material in this note, see Volf, A Public Faith, 112-13.)

[46] David B. Burrell, “Interfaith Perspectives on Reconciliation,” in The Politics of Past Evil: Religion, Reconciliation, and the Dilemmas of Transitional Justice, ed. Daniel Philpott (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 123.

[47] There are, of course, certain guidelines for how wisdom from a friend of another faith should reform a Christian’s convictions and practices. First and foremost, it must accord with the scriptural narratives about Christ. (See David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 905-21, for a cogent account of the centrality of canonical narrative descriptions of Jesus for Christian talk about God, creation, and the relations between the two.) To have one’s convictions and practices reshaped so as not to resonate with these narratives and so as no longer to accept them as normative is in an important sense to leave the Christian faith.

[48] There is something of analogy here with the academic theologian or member of a religious bureaucracy who is challenged by interaction with lay members of his or her own faith.

[49] Anantanand Rambachan’s paper for this volume is structured in great part around an examination of the friendship between Gandhi and Andrews from a Hindu perspective. We encourage the reader to compare the two treatments of this friendship.

[50] Quoted in Gandhi and Charlie, 125.

[51] See Gandhi and Charlie, 166.

[52] Quoted in Gandhi and Charlie, 98.

[53] See Gandhi and Charlie, 180-82.

[54] Quoted in Gandhi and Charlie, 175.

[55] These sacred text readings are in many cases a grassroots, non-academic counterpart to the ‘scriptural reasoning’ movement that originated in academic contexts and is advocated by scholars such as Peter Ochs and David Ford.

[56] John Chrysostom, Homily II on First Thessalonians.