Friendship: Loss and Gain

The confusion and contradictory statements emanating from Wheaton College over same sex attraction some weeks ago provoked the Ref Pack into revisiting a topic which Aimee and I have written on before: the cheapening and loss of the category of friendship.  That episode airs today.  Listeners who hang on to the bitter end will get the added bonus of hearing the Mad Woman’s manic laughter emanating from the attic.

Friendship has been devalued over recent years, even within the Christian world.  The term itself has been debased by its application to the most superficial of contacts on social media; the brand-building focus of Big Eva has blurred the concepts of friend and camp follower/customer; and the rampant sexualisation of all interpersonal relationships via the widespread reception of Freudian psychology and the pornification of pop culture has meant that the concepts (and indeed the very vocabularies) of intimacy and sex are virtually inseparable.  

Recovery of a rich concept of non-sexual friendship might well be helpful in current debates over identity.  For example, what does it mean to say that one is a gay Christian?  If it means that one feels no sexual attraction to somebody of the opposite sex and finds it easier to make deep, lasting relationships of a non-sexual nature with people of the same sex, then it seems unnecessary and indeed unhelpful to adopt the language of secular identity politics – particularly language which is so morally contentious – as a self-description.  Friendship would seem to cover the matter quite adequately. It also avoids granting any hint of decisive legitimacy to the categories of contemporary secular identity politics.   If Paul refused to ascribe fundamental significance to the identity categories of his day – slave, free, citizen, non-citizen – then we should be careful that we do not do so either, even as pastoral sensitivity requires we deal lovingly and carefully with people as individuals with individual histories and struggles.  

Perhaps most important of all from a pastoral perspective, rehabilitating the category of friendship will help us avoid the temptation of privileging the celibacy of one section of the single Christian population over another. The underlying values of Christian hero-worship have often aped those of the hero-worship of the wider culture, from the asceticism of Athanasius’s Life of Anthony onwards.  That is a most unhelpful tendency and seems to be manifesting itself at this time in the matter of sexuality, making those who identify as celibate gay Christians into particularly heroic figures. As one unmarried Christian woman friend said to me recently: ‘Why all the special applause for celibate "gay" Christians?  I am single and "straight".  I am celibate because that is simply what single Christians are meant to be.  Yes, I am often lonely.  Yes, I am at times sexually frustrated.  But nobody lionises me or my situation as I seek to be obedient.’  

Friendship has, of course, changed in its meaning over the years.  The idea of a friend as somebody who is simply there to provide enjoyable company is not a universal concept. Friendship as existing mainly for pleasurable company, emotional support, and good conversation would have been unknown to Aristotle, one of the earliest theorists of friendship.  Friendship for him had to have a purpose, a telos, beyond the immediate pleasure of the relationship itself.

But this is to start down a rather dry pathway.  When we think about friendship, it is surely like humour: one can explain it and thereby ironically lose the whole point even as one grasps the mechanics of how it works.  Or one can set theory aside and see friendship in action, feel its power, and know its dynamics in a much deeper way. This is where history can be helpful.  History provides some fascinating examples of friendships of various kinds.   Augustine and Alypius.   Luther and Melanchthon. Boswell and Johnson.  Wordsworth and Coleridge.  Shelley and Byron.  Tolkien and Lewis.  Reading their lives, seeing their friendships in action, is far more instructive than a dozen books of theory.

Recently, intrigued by Wes Hill’s booklist for 2014, I obtained a copy of Marvin R. O’Connell’s marvelous narrative history of the Oxford Movement, The Oxford Conspirators.  As well as being a first-rate analysis of one of the most famous and influential responses to the social and political changes which swept Europe in the nineteenth century, it is also a detailed examination of the friendship of Newman, Pusey, and Keble.   United by respect for each other, mutual affection, a shared ethos, and a definite ecclesiastical program, they stood shoulder to shoulder for over a decade until they ultimately went their separate ways as their ecclesiastical and theological convictions moved in different directions.  Read as a history of friendship, marked by (to invert a Newman phrase) gain and loss, it is a moving story. It is a melancholy reminder to us of how much we have lost in a world where ‘friend’ more often means somebody I have never met who has merely linked to me on the web than somebody whose face and whose voice and whose actual presence cause my heart to leap with pleasure. 

In the meantime, the podcast happily remains a fun hobby among three friends.  We would always rather spend more time doing and demonstrating friendship in practice than writing or chatting about it in theory.