A Thought Experiment on Friendship: Why Friendship?

This is Part 4 in a series on friendship (part 1, part 2, part 3). This final post serves to articulate why friendships are good and deserve a better place in the Church.

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival. ~ C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

So far in this series, I’ve first argued that it’s possible to love multiple people at once with the same intensity yet in a different, unique way. I argued that our relationships are less ranked than we believe them to be (1. Children 2. Spouse 3. Friend) and belong more in spheres where love of God and self is center and flowing out from that are those who are closest to you (children, spouses, best friends) all the way to acquaintances. Secondly, I argued that one of the main deterrents to having deeper friendships is our culture’s existential romantic dyadism where the romantic relationship is seen as the summum bonum (or highest good) of life and friendships (and other relationships for that matter) take the back seat.  I argue that we struggle to find language to describe deep friendships because our surrounding culture is pushing us to only see the highest expression of love in a romantic relationship. Thirdly, I answered some objections to my first post and argued that while love can be at the same intensity, because of finite resources like time, the expression of love might be different. I also argued why I believed that relationships face problems to begin with and competition begins.

Yet there’s still one large piece of the puzzle that’s missing. One could have read all of my posts up until this point and be convinced of all that I have said about relationships, yet still wonder, “Why bother with friendships?” Sure, Steve could love John and Caroline the same, but why should he? It’d be nice if he had a friend, but it’s not really necessary. Caroline can be his friend. He doesn’t need John.

In his book on love, C. S. Lewis remarks, “We admit of course that besides a wife and family a man needs a few ‘friends.’ But the very tone of the admission, and the sort of acquaintanceships which those who make it would describe as ‘friendships,’ show clearly that what they are talking about has very little to do with that Philia which Aristotle classified among the virtues or that Amicitia on which Cicero wrote a book. It is something quite marginal; not a main course in life’s banquet; a diversion; something that fills up the chinks of one’s time.”

In an ideal world it might be nice for Steve and John to be friends, but should Steve get too busy, his friendship with John becomes more of a diversion than an addition to his life.

In What Sense Are Friendships Unnecessary?

Sometimes when I speak to people about Paul’s beliefs on celibacy and marriage (1 Corinthians 7) and how he found celibacy to be a higher calling, I get a quick objection. “But everyone can’t be celibate! Lest we end up like the Shakers.”The conclusion is Erotic love becomes necessary in that it produces children for the future. Storgic love is in some ways also necessary to rear your children well. But Philic love, that love is really in no sense necessary. Echoing Lewis, John shouldn’t put too much effort into forming friendships because they have “no survival value.”

First, I have to say that there’s a bit of equivocation going on here. What’s necessary for survival isn’t erotic love, it’s procreation. In a secondary sense, rearing a child might be seen as necessary as well (although being a wolf-boy does have its perks). Erotic love, though, isn’t necessary to continue the human race. That too falls into Lewis’ category of philosophy or art. While one might (and should!) be able to make the argument that procreation and child-rearing is qualitatively enhanced by erotic love, ultimately it’s not seen as necessary for survival.

Secondly, do we really want to narrow everything down to what is necessary or unnecessary for survival? Should Steve decide to cut out his friendships because they’re “unnecessary for survival” he would inevitably have to greatly reduce his relationship with Caroline. Biblically, God isn’t interested in giving us the bare-bones of what’s necessary for survival. Christ came for us to “have life and have it abundantly.” We can thank Scripture for giving us a better image of what it means to love one’s spouse (and not simply treat them as objects to fulfill our own selfish desires), and we look to it to see how to deeply love our friends.

In What Sense Are They Necessary?

We can for sure live without sex. While our contemporary cultural ethos might argue that if you’re not having inordinate amounts of sex, you don’t have a high value1, the Christian tradition has always affirmed (at least before 1960) that sex has a purpose and a place, but it’s hardly the most intimate thing two people can do together, nor is it at all the highest good. Christianity has always affirmed the sacred worth of all human beings and the deep desire within one’s soul to love and to be loved. Christianity has, in fact, always affirmed that the deepest expression of love is one that is not genitally sexual (John 15:13). Something Christianity has not affirmed is that there is one soul-mate for us or one human being that can satisfy all of our needs.

At about this time, some Christians will get hyper-spiritual (and somewhat gnostic) with me and say, “Well, of course, God must be the ultimate satisfaction of our intimacy needs” advocating for some incredible, transcendant relationship with God that one was has ever been able to achieve — not even the prelapsarian Adam. When Adam was created and called very good, Yahweh still called his lack of another human being “not good.” Thus, he made Eve. Yet, God did not make Eve for Adam to simply be with and to satisfy his every need as they frolic through Eden narcissistically staring into each other’s eyes empowered by their love (cue: “living on a prayer“).

No. When we view the command to be fruitful and multiply given to Adam and Eve as a married couple, and we view the narrative of the Old and New Testaments about community and family (including Yahweh’s commands to care for the orphan and the widow — those outside the bět ‘āb,  Jesus’ statement that none will be married nor given in marriage after the final eschaton and Paul’s statements on celibacy), we see that Adam and Eve’s marriage vocation is not to be inwardly focused but outwardly focused. Yahweh didn’t say it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone, but rather it’s not good for humankind to be alone. Yahweh gave Adam and Eve the ability to procreate and reproduce to create a community where humans might love one another and none would be alone. God’s design is not for a bunch of individuals or dyads floating around. Rather his design is for a community, a church, a unified people.

Another question that perhaps needs to be answered is whether one can have more than one best friend. For that, we return to C.S. Lewis’s writings. He argues, “In each of my friends, there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself, I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facts. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specific Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald.”

In my own life, I have a handful of really close friends (best friends if you will) that all provide for different needs of mine. I have a best friend who let’s me talk for hours about nitty, gritty details of my life helping me to break apart and to digest problems that I’m wrestling through. I have a best friend who I get to go to the gym and bro out with and who makes fun of me when I say summum bonum or ordo salutis. I have a best friend who debates me and refines my theology pushing me and encouraging me to be more articulate. And I have a best friend who empathizes with me and listens to me when I’m freaking out.

Granted, all of my relationships with them aren’t limited to these things, but each one provides for a different need. Should I try to put too much pressure on those relationships and expect from them more than they can realistically provide for me (as humans are prone to do), it puts too much strain on our relationship and results in conflict. I shouldn’t expect them to be my one and only friend. At the same time, I benefit from their deep friendships with others (even if I’m not apart of it). I find watching sports boring, but two of my friends don’t. They get incredible joy in watching a game together. Even though I’m not part of it, I ultimately benefit from seeing both of their passions realized.

These best friends aren’t ranked. I don’t sit at home adjusting a list on my wall of who my best friends are in order (this isn’t MySpace after all). This is simply a recognition that with these handful of people, I am known and know them in an intimate way. It’s also not a permanent list. There could be relationships that enter into my close circle. Friendships also need not to be exclusive. In fact, according to Lewis, by wanting exclusivity in your friendships, you’re not getting more of your friend, you’re getting less.

At this point, I should also say that this illustration does not depend on one’s personality type either. There are those who might have more friends or less friends based on how they interact with others (not necessarily based on one’s introvert or extrovert status mind you). However, care should be taken not to use your personality type to rebut the argument. Simply because one may fall into a category known as extrovert doesn’t mean that he or she cannot have close friends and must only have a million acquaintances. Simply because one may fall into a category known as introvert doesn’t mean that he or she can only have one, and only one, best friend. A personality type is a useful tool to help understand oneself better but cannot be used to discard Lewis’ point.

How do we love each other?

It’s interesting to note that although Christians make it seem that God has commanded each of us as individual Christians to love everyone, that command is never mentioned in the Bible. In fact, any mention of ‘loving the world’ in Scripture is inherently negative. What God does command is to “love one another,” “love as I have loved [qualitative],” and “love one’s enemies.” Jesus is the only human being that ever had the ability to love all of the world because of his unique position as the Christ who would take away the sins of the world. We, however, are to love the world collectively, as the body of Christ, by individually loving those around us. We, as individual Christians who are living into the people that God has formed, are to do so by getting out of our little bubbles and forming deep friendships with the people in our lives.

Friendships, really, are how we love one another, our neighbors, our enemies and those in our immediate circles. We form deep friendships with those in proximity with us (neighbors), and even when they hurt us or we grow frustrated with them (or they become our enemies), we still love them as friends. God’s design is not for man and woman to be alone together in their little dyad, but rather for truly intimate relationships to exist for all. If a married man scorns friendships for his wife or a celibate man is discontent in his celibacy scorning friendships in exchange for his seeking a future wife, no one is taken care of and a man sins against his brothers and sisters.  Yet, when a married woman loves her husband and loves her children and loves her best friends or when a celibate woman loves her best friends, her best friends’ spouses, and her best friends’ children (or with interchanged genders), all are taken care of and we live into how God designed the body of Christ to be.

“In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have,” says Lewis.

Henri Nouwen, in his book Clowning in Rome, says simply, “We indeed need each other and are able to give each other much more than we often realize. Too long have we been burdened by fear and guilt, and too long have we denied each other the affection and closeness we rightly desire.” God created us to be in community with one another, to bear one another’s burdens, and to be a presence in their lives. We must begin to live into our role as friend. Those in our lives are not disposable companions with whom we talk about superficial nonsense before moving on to the next friend nor are they unnecessary additions to our lives that when we get busy or we don’t feel like loving them we can turn them aside. Friendships are indeed a beautiful sign of the inaugurated eschaton and are a high expression of love following beautifully Christ’s love for his disciples.

We as the Church have a responsibility to stand against the culture on this point as they degrade friendships in favor of a sinful worldview about intimacy and sex. I personally welcome criticism against the Church where those outside view our deep friendships as “unnatural,” “probably fake,” or even “homosexual.” I welcome the man or woman who calls out the healthy Christian friendship as being weird or overly intimate because it confirms for me, as it did for Lewis, that “those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend.” Christians should be the first to witness to what is possible in relationships when the power of the Holy Spirit equips us to love perfectly as our Heavenly Father loves perfectly.

1 It comes across ever so subtly in the “Oh are you not married yet?” “Who do you find attractive?” “You’re still a virgin?” etc. to say that one isn’t cool (i.e. has secular value).

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3 responses to “A Thought Experiment on Friendship: Why Friendship?

  1. Pingback: A Thought Experiment on Friendship: Who Do You Love More? | A Crown for Ashes·

  2. Pingback: A Thought Experiment on Friendship: How We Talk About Love | A Crown for Ashes·

  3. Pingback: A Thought Experiment on Friendship: The Particulars of Love | A Crown for Ashes·

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