Podcast: On Friendship

Mere FidelityThe 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.

You can also follow the podcast on iTunes, or using this RSS feed.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Culture, Podcasts, Sex and Sexuality, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Podcast: On Friendship

  1. Andrew says:

    Given the length of 1 Samuel, could you briefly outline the key arguments for this assertion:

    “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.”

    Mostly curious re Jonathan’s age. I buy that he’s at least half a decade to a decade older than David – in that he’s leading military raids while David is still earning his stripes as a shepherd. But you’re suggesting over a generation difference.

  2. Chuck says:

    Fascinating thoughts.

    One thing I find slightly uncomfortable about vowed friendships is the implicit agreement it makes with the idea that marriage is the model against which all other relationships must be measured (and found suitably wanting). While one purpose of the vowed friendship proposal may be to set up a friendship model which can withstand the comparison, I think the concept, whatever its actual merits or drawbacks, is doomed to failure. I think that anyone who travels in conservative evangelical circles, at least in North America, can see just how important marriage and children often are to evangelicalism’s identity. Appropriating some aspect of marriage — the vow — would possibly, perhaps likely, be seen as a violation possessing at least a hint of some form of intimate same-sex relationship. Perhaps I’m being too pessimistic.

    What I think needs to be understood on both sides is that marriage and friendship are different things and that need not imply a deficiency on either side. Friendship does not need to be like marriage. Marriage, while it involves friendship in some ways, does not need to consume friendship as an institution, if I may use that word. To me, this is a manifestation of our unease about the stability of marriage in contemporary society, particularly Christian society. Lacking confidence in the ability of marriage to hold its own among the variety of human social interactions, we allow or force it to take on more meaning and privilege than it once would have. It’s difficult for me to imagine that anyone of my parents’ generation ever spoke of marrying their best friend or felt the need to. It is a symptom of our insecurity that marriage must consume everything else.

    Something I have wondered about for quite some time is whether our increasing familiarity with and openness to homosexuality has, in fact, made same-sex friendships, particularly male friendships, more difficult to initiate and sustain. As was mentioned in the podcast, depictions of very close friendships in the literature of yesteryear seem quite foreign to us today and indeed in some cultures heterosexual men openly engage in levels of physical contact that would be unthinkable in the West. My suspicion is that our sophistication, our “knowingness”, about homosexuality has made us overly sensitive to any hint of its manifestations. However accepting we may be of homosexuality, I doubt that most heterosexual men are indifferent to being perceived as gay and thus play it safe by keeping other men at a distance. The desire for deep friendship could be misinterpreted as a play for something else.

    While I appreciate your examination of scriptural examples of friendship, I would ask if you think that Scripture must have the final word on friendship, period? In other words, is in conceivable that social conditions today are such that we must make our own way? Not to suggest that we should contravene any explicit biblical directives, but should we expect that we may look in vain for biblical answers to all our interpersonal needs today?

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Chuck.

      I am quite open to the possibility that we will need to improvize forms of relationship that are without precedent in the Scriptures.

      • Chris E says:

        Or most of the models of relationship in Scripture could be descriptive rather than prescriptive, and therefore looking directly at Scripture for models of friendship could be a rather perilous enterprise anyway.

      • Thanks for commenting, Chris.

        I don’t believe that the models of friendship in Scripture are prescriptive. However, I am not sure that ‘descriptive’ really does justice to some of them either. They are culturally rooted forms of rich human sociality. As such, I believe that they showcase ends to which to aspire, without presenting us with cultural forms that we should slavishly recreate.

        This could be compared to the way that an actor might regard a masterful performance of a particular role. The performance isn’t prescriptive—there are other ways of performing the role and just to copy that performance would be to miss the point—but nor is it just descriptive—it shows us the sort of results that we aspire to achieve in our own ‘performances’. Our society generally lacks a deep web of human sociality and, despite vast cultural differences, we can learn lessons from societies that have such a web, even while recognizing that their particular form of sociality would not work in our contexts.

      • Chris E says:

        “They are culturally rooted forms of rich human sociality. As such, I believe that they showcase ends to which to aspire”

        There is no necessary connection between the first sentence and your second sentence. There are plenty of culturally rooted forms of human sociality – rich or otherwise – in existence, especially within more traditional cultures. Similarly there are plenty of analogues to the relationships we see in Scripture in the historical cultures of the time.

        “I am quite open to the possibility that we will need to improvize forms of relationship that are without precedent in the Scriptures.”

        So in that context this looks to be either obviously untrue or banal.

      • Thanks for the response.

        Surely rich human sociality is an end to which to aspire. We can learn from contexts where these ends are achieved in some manner.

        There are definitely other analogues to the relationships in Scripture in other cultures of the time. We should learn from those too. However, certain scriptural examples can have a special status, as the canonical text puts them forward as theologically significant (e.g. the relationship between Jesus and his disciples) or as praiseworthy examples of committed relationships (e.g. Naomi and Ruth or David and Jonathan). For instance, while we should imitate other faithful Christians, a character like Paul is given a particular exemplary status in Scripture that no Christian who isn’t mentioned in Scripture has.

        And that statement is neither obviously untrue or banal. It is a recognition that Scripture, while it may present us with culturally rooted praiseworthy examples of relationships and the virtues associated with them, or with theologically significant relationships, does not comprehend in these all of the variegated forms that human sociality can take, especially in a society that has a far more complex form, as ours does.

    • Nathaniel says:

      “Appropriating some aspect of marriage — the vow — would possibly, perhaps likely, be seen as a violation possessing at least a hint of some form of intimate same-sex relationship. Perhaps I’m being too pessimistic.”

      Not pessimistic at all – you are being realistic. It is unfortunate but, as a gay man myself, I have faced animus from people in the churches who would likely see my taking a vow of celibate companionship to another guy as an attack on their own marriage vow because I am subhuman and anything related to me is ruined by extension of being touched by my subhumanity. Unfortunate but it is what it is.

      I do agree with the last bit of what you say. Friendships and relationships are evolving as human beings chance from how we were before. That is not necessarily bad either.

  3. Pingback: Are “Vowed Friendships” Really What We Need? | Spiritual Friendship

  4. Paul Baxter says:

    I fear I’m going to ramble a bit here. I should probably begin by saying that I’ve thought to one degree or another about all of your points, save the one about the Jonathan-David age difference. Thanks for pointing that out.

    I can recall exactly two periods in my life when I felt like I had sufficient friendships in my life. One was during my undergraduate career when I was surrounded by a fairly small community and saw the same people every day. I still had loneliness from time to time, but I always felt I had friends. The social transition from that environment to what came after it was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve aced in life. That only positive thing I can think of to come out of that was some reflection on exactly the topic of how our social arrangements are NOT conducive to making/maintaining/experiencing friendship.

    The second period was an odd but pleasant situation. When I moved to North Carolina in 1996, by chance I fell in with a group of young and single people at my church who were very socially active, to the extent that I would often see those people three or four times in a week. We had social gatherings VERY frequently. A good deal of this was driven by one woman in particular who would make the effort to place lots of phone calls inviting people to whatever we had going on. Unfortunately that gradually tailed off as people transitioned, many of them moving away. I transitioned as well, getting married and then moving to a town about thirty miles from where we went to church, which eventually led to us leaving that church to join one in our current town.

    So, roughly speaking, from the ages of 17-45 I’ve had about five years where I felt like I was surrounded by friends, or felt happy with the quantity and quality of friendships in life.

    I would LOVE to see more attention to that topic. I’ve read just a bit of communitarian literature, and they seem to be the only folks who find this problem worthy of attention. I think people are insane to underestimate how enormous a problem it is that so many people live with severe social deficiency. I can only speculate on how it must contribute to things like crime and mental illness, to say nothing of general happiness.

    I’ll refrain from rambling (at this time) about some of the specific causes, though I’m sure you and I would agree on most of those.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Paul.

      I am not an especially social person (I have been described as reclusive by persons close to me), although I am not antisocial. However, even though my social urges are fairly minimal, I have often sensed a dearth of significant and committed friendships in my life. If I didn’t live with other persons whose company I regularly enjoy, I suspect that I would feel this much more keenly.

      This is an extremely important subject and we need to pay more attention to it, as you say. I am very thankful that Wesley Hill has a book coming out on friendship and am hoping that it gives a much greater profile to this conversation.

      • Chuck says:

        I would love to hear your analysis of how we got here. That is, how did we get to a place where some people, perhaps many, experience such a deep lack of true friendship? And is it likely that we can change our culture into one which values and encourages such relationships?

      • Perhaps I will post on the subject at some point. However, it would have to be a very long post to offer a meaningful answer to those questions!

      • Chuck says:

        I’ll be waiting. 🙂

      • Matt Petersen says:

        Me too. Maybe you could suggest readings?

      • Paul Baxter says:

        For those curious about readings, I can give a few places to start, though all of mine are specifically American. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is wonderful as a descriptive account of the gradual decline of involvement in community activities of all sorts. Habits of the Heart (Bellah, et al) does some nice work in exploring some of the attitudes at work back in the early 1980’s and I think should still be considered an important resource on how individualism works in real life.

        The role of technology I think is important in the discussion, and I really doubt any bit of technology is more important to this discussion than the automobile. I don’t have a book to recommend specifically on the car and social life, but Lewis Mumford’s The Urban Prospect from 1968 shows at least one person thinking hard about how to minimize the impact of automobile traffic on city life. It’s unfortunate that no one paid him much attention. The role of television was explored quite well by Neil Postman, though his focus was more on the way media affect habits of thought in general rather than on how they affect our social life. Still, Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves To Death are essential readings to my mind.

        I would love to hear other recommendations myself.

      • Matt Petersen says:

        Anything by Albert Borgmann. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life is, I believe, the most thorough.

      • A post Alastair called very long would have to be voluminous indeed.

  5. Michelle says:

    I am curious. How many of us has experienced or is experiencing a friendship like no other. A friendship with the same sex that is indescribable. We talk about marriage and the vows, but what about true friendship? I have a friend that is one that we have connected souls. We have everything in this friendship minus the lust and physical attraction, yet there is an attraction to an extent. When you have such a deep connection….. not sure where I am going with this.

  6. quinnjones2 says:

    I find it interesting to consider so many thoughts on friendship!
    My focus tends to be on being a friend, rather than on having friends – people are not possessions. I find it hard to think of friendship in terms of any legally binding transaction, or any transaction at all, really. It’s about giving freely and receiving thankfully.
    The following verse is important to me:
    ‘Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.’
    John 15:13
    What does it mean to lay down one’s life for one’s friends? I have devoted much prayer to this and have some thoughts about it, but friendship is a big, big, subject and I need to devote much more prayer and thought to it.
    It’s good to see this subject being explored here.

    • Thanks for the comment!

      I think that ‘having’ in this sense is more about patterns of belonging than patterns of possession. It is the sort of bond that the Bible describes as ‘I am his and he is mine’, referring to a deep intertwining of lives and profound mutual concern and involvement.

      • Matt Petersen says:

        I’d appreciate more on the difference between belong, in “We have few remaining strong given relationships, in which we truly belong to others” and (which I take to be very different) “That cart belongs to me”. (I want to be able to say things like you did, but I very definitely don’t want to accidentally say “Women should belong to (=be property of) men.” or some other terrible, but similar, claims.)

        But that would also require a huge post. 😛

      • Yes, that would require a huge post! However, the most basic thing to observe is that, in cases of belonging in the sense that I am speaking of, the belonging is mutual.

      • Chuck says:

        Is it not possible that we may be overthinking the meaning of “have” in this context? Surely to say “I have a friend” is not to suggest in any way actual possession. It is merely the English idiom for expressing a relationship between people. I’m not sure it necessarily penetrates any deeper than that. We all must work within the bounds of our language. Often we work with the terms already at hand, not coining new words when old words can make due in new ways. Of course, I’m open to other explanations.

  7. quinnjones2 says:

    Thank you, Alastair! That makes sense to me. I think your phrase ‘a deep intertwining of lives and profound mutual concern and involvement’ defines Christian friendship well.
    It describes what already exists in a good Christian friendship, rather than attempting to suggest ‘requirements’ of friendship, which, sadly, seems to be a factor of some friendships, even amongst Christians!

  8. quinnjones2 says:

    Matt and Chuck – I have just read your most recent posts, and your reply, Alastair. The words ‘have’ and ‘belong’ have different areas of meaning but they also have some overlap in that they both contain a sense of ownership/possession. However, ‘belong’ has the extra sense of ‘having a place’ e.g. ‘The cutlery belongs in that drawer’. In friendship this sense of belonging applies, I think – we have a place in each others’ hearts, minds and lives. There is mutuality, as Alastair said. I find this really interesting, but will say no more here, as this would ‘require a huge post!’, to quote Alastair again 🙂

    • Matt Petersen says:

      Yes. I agree. I’m worried about being misunderstood, and needing to make careful distinctions to avoid misunderstanding.

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