[I wrote this for a recent Unitarian Unviersalist Christian Fellowship online newsletter. – VW]
One of the most ridiculous accusations sneered at Christians is that we are so intellectually and emotionally weak as to need an “imaginary friend” in God or Jesus. I have heard this expressed by dedicated atheists and even Unitarian Universalist Humanists and I must admit it always makes me think rather less well of the person making the accusation. I want to say in Sophie Tucker tones, “What’s it TO YA if someone has an imaginary friend?” I had one myself when I was a little girl. Her name was NANCY DOG and I would draw pictures of her with freckles and whiskers and pigtails that looked strangely like beagle ears. I palled around with Nancy Dog, my invisible hybrid canine-human companion, for awhile until I lost interest in her, but she was a nice companion for a season in my life when I was often left out of neighborhood kid and cousin playtimes because I whined a lot and wasn’t yet able to tie my own shoelaces.
I can tie my own shoelaces now.
If someone’s God-concept includes a sense of the divine Almighty as a friend, that seems pretty benign to me, unless God is the kind of friend who encourages you to go ahead and have that affair with your hot co-worker because you only live once, or the kind of friend who seems addicted to crisis and never texts you back because they’re OMG SO BUSY CAN’T TALK BUT I NEED TO BORROW $200 JUST FOR THE WEEK CAN I DROP BY LATR WAIT NO JUST PAYPAL LOVE YOU XOXOXOXOXOXO
There is a quote often attributed to Emerson that reminds us that a person will worship something, have no doubt of that. Whether or not Uncle Waldo actually wrote this, I believe it. As a corollary to this idea, I am also pretty sure that everyone has invisible friends but are often not aware that they do. I have known people with some nasty and abusive invisible friends, so what is the harm, really, of settling God in there as a loving, supportive presence to counteract some of the toxic voices within? Not everyone can afford years of therapy or a retreat at Kripalu or the Omega Institute to develop worthy imaginary friends of the soul.
As for the “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” crowd, I personally find it a wonderful thing to have a friend in common with millions of people across the world and down throughout thousands of years of history. Sure, lots of those people were hateful, power-crazed sadists and miscreants, but I’m afraid the evidence is in that evil and viciousness is a consequence of human nature, not of heartfelt devotion to the most troublesome Jew to come out of Nazareth.
Jesus is actually a demanding friend, too, in case the scoffers don’t know. He is not all hugs and approval and pithy one-liners. He is actually confrontational and insistent about why you’re not doing more, and he is way worse about money than your moocher friend. Just because Jesus’ friends mostly ignore his advice doesn’t make him the bad friend in the equation.
As for “imaginary,” I don’t see it as a pejorative. My father died when I was seventeen and I often recall him to my memory; does that make me weak and irrational? When the anti-imaginary critics see a large, extended family having dinner and telling stories about Grandma Who Passed, do they snicker at them for wasting their time in such flights of fancy? I am sorry for anti-imagination people. What a cruel and dull worldview that is.
What is going on when people are gathered in the memory of their imaginary friend Jesus or in the memory of their (now alive only in imagination) Grandma? Something very similar, actually. Grandma loved those people, and because she loved them, they belong to her — and through their connection to her they belong in some way to each other.
It’s the same thing with Mr. Jesus. He is not a religious Tinkerbell we resurrect by clapping hard enough when her light goes out at the matinee of “Peter Pan.” He was a person who, as the story has come down to us, extended love, compassion and care to all of us and promised to be around in spirit for anyone who wanted or needed him to be. “I am definitely with you always, until the end of time,” is a very cool and generous offer Jesus made, and a lot of us are taking him up on it. He also said that if even a few people who love him want to hang out together and wish he could be there, he would be there.
Relationships are not subject to scientific equations, nor are our weird inner lives. Love is the magic that makes it possible. If you kiss your child goodbye before going on a business trip and tell her that you’ll be with her no matter how far away you are, love is the magic that will make that true for your kid. If you both have wi-fi connection and a computer or phone, you can FaceTime or Skype to be together in real time. For Christians, Scripture and memory are the technology that connect us with Jesus in real time.
In Hebrews 11:1, it says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” On the days when all that I can see fills me with dismay and hopelessness, I am grateful for the love, memory and tradition that connects me to Jesus and to the community of his other friends and followers. There is nothing imaginary about that.