The latest Mere Fidelity podcast has just gone online. Once again, I don’t take part, but Derek, Andrew, and Matt have some thought-provoking and some just generally provocative things to say in my absence. This week’s episode is on the subject of friendship, discussing Wesley Hill’s recent Christianity Today piece and Matt’s response on Mere Orthodoxy.
A few very brief remarks and questions:
1. I don’t think that the social and economic factors that shape our society’s practice of friendship really have been sufficiently explored by anyone in this discussion yet. The elevation of a companionate model of marriage has a lot to do with the current shape of society and the economy, which uproots us and atomizes society. Choosing a spouse has increasingly become about choosing the only person with whom you will have a close friendship for the rest of your life. For the married, this means bearing the immense weight of the majority of one’s partner’s need for human companionship (is it any wonder that marriages buckle under such pressure?). Those without such a life companion are frequently condemned to lonely lives as, outside of the nuclear family and sexual relationships, relatively few deep and meaningful social connections remain.
2. I think that we could benefit from more distinctions in our uses of terms. ‘Friendship’ is a word that includes many different sorts of relationship that we probably ought to distinguish. It appears to me that we have lost—or we lack—the words to speak of and models to understand many forms of relationship.
3. As a term ‘friendship’ describes a vast spectrum of different relationships. Reading Wesley’s article, I think that he slips between speaking of different forms of friendship, without highlighting that he is doing so. At some points he is speaking about contexts of thick and committed community, of mutual concern, involvement, interdependence, and the interweaving of lives—of having friends. At other points he is speaking about a vowed relationship with one other particular person—of having a friend. I think that these two discussions need to be distinguished more.
4. In looking to Scripture for models of friendship, I think that we should pay more attention to the ways in which the biblical models of friendship don’t fit in our society. Our pragmatism encourages us to rush to find models that we can use. However, closer reflection upon many of the biblical models will reveal that they really don’t fit tidily in our cultural context. As in debates about marriage and gender, we tend to approach the text looking for solutions to or pronouncements upon our individual relationship situations or needs, without attending to what the text exposes about the character of our larger social context. Many biblical models of relationship cannot be sustained in our context and this problem is less a matter of failure at the level of individual responsibility than structural issues on the social level.
5. Let’s take a closer look at some of the friendships and covenants that we find in Scripture. Ruth makes a vow to Naomi, but I don’t believe that the text supports the assumption that personal affection was the primary motivating factor here. The profound commitment and vow that Ruth made was probably more about a radical kinship commitment to her mother-in-law, rather than what we would think of as friendship. David and Jonathan’s friendship had an intense affective dimension. However, their covenant-making was more political in character. Jonathan removed his garments as the crown prince and gave them to David (1 Samuel 18:3-4), designating David as his replacement. Contrary to our typical assumptions, David and Jonathan weren’t the same age. If we pay attention to the text of 1 Samuel, it should be clear that David was only about twenty, while Jonathan was probably in his very late forties or early fifties. This wasn’t a relationship between peers, but a relationship closer to—yet different from—an adoption, where, through the crown prince’s initiative (cf. 1 Samuel 20:8), he chose a young man to take his place. In their later meeting in 1 Samuel 20, the balance of the relationship has changed. Now Jonathan asks David to make a covenant. The covenant is a dynastic covenant, not a covenant that David should be his best buddy, but that David and his dynasty should show kindness to Jonathan and his house (1 Samuel 20:14-16, 42).
Many of the ‘friends’ that we read of in Scripture are friends in a more political or governmental sense: they are allies or the king’s formally recognized closest advisors and supporters. In designating his disciples as his ‘friends’, Jesus alludes to something of this meaning too. That relationship also involves the sort of intense fictive brotherhood that we associate with those who have fought and shed blood alongside each other. In shedding his blood for his disciples, this sort of bond is established (the theme of the raising of Lazarus—the beloved disciple?—as the event precipitating the conspiracy leading to the cross in the Fourth Gospel is worth looking at here too).
6. With this biblical background in mind, I think that we must ask whether Scripture really provides support for the idea of vowed friendship. This is most definitely not to say that vowed friendship is wrong. However, it seems to me that in many respects the notion of vowed friendship, for which personal intimacy is the primary end, owes more to our current cultural situation than it does to Scripture. Just as marriage has increasingly become such a relationship as our broader social fabric had unravelled, so the unmarried also need some form of vowed commitment to shore a shared form of life up against this dissolution. We have few remaining strong given relationships, in which we truly belong to others—‘I love you because you are mine’—so we must create ones to fill the gap. This is a noble venture in many respects, but we should be clear that it is largely a compensatory measure, responding to deeper failures in the structure of society.
7. In focusing upon a vow of friendship made to a particular person, we should think about the phenomenon of vow-taking, duty, and commitment more generally within our society and the capacity of deeper vows and loyalties to evoke friendship, without the need for explicit vows. The profound bonds between soldiers arise from loyalty, often involving a vow, to their country and their shared struggle. It is within their fulfilment of these duties that they are knit together with their brothers in arms, without having to take extra vows along the way. Similar things could be said about monastic vows. These vows typically focus upon things beyond the monks’ relationships with each other. Monks can be drawn into close friendship as they are formed together in the same form of life, all ordered towards something greater than and beyond themselves—the service of God and the poor, study, prayer, etc.
One of the deep problems in our understanding of marriage today is that marriage vows have become about a shared narcissism, rather than about the service of something that transcends the couple’s emotional attachment to each other. The institution of marriage is ordered towards creating a new form of society together, within which children can be conceived and welcomed, a wider community served, holy lives lived, and which aims at something greater than individual fulfilment. The vows of marriage exist because marriage, by its very nature as a relationship involving the sexual union of a man and a woman, is ordered towards the creation of something that transcends itself. Having vows of friendship apart from an integral ordering to a greater end seems to me to fall into the same error as the diminished model of marriage in our society.
Rather than taking this route, I believe that the cause of friendship would better be served by attending to our other duties and the other vows that we make. Are we committed and bound to various forms of life that will form us in union with others? If we aren’t, this is where the friendship deficit most likely arises. Instead of vows of friendship, perhaps what we most need is to create common and committed forms of life beyond marriage. As we commit ourselves together to forms of life through which we serve something greater than ourselves we may find that profound kinships arise more naturally.
Anyway, those are some of my rough thoughts on the subject. Listen to the podcast here and hear what Derek, Matt, and Andrew have to say.