In the June term this year at the seminary where I teach, Trinity School for Ministry, I’ll be the instructor for a week-long intensive class on a Christian theology of friendship. I’m excited about this opportunity not least because I’m working on a book about friendship, and teaching a class on that theme will give me a chance to try out many of my ideas in group discussions and receive helpful feedback and criticism. (And vice versa: because I’ve been reading and writing so much on the theme, I expect I’ll be of more benefit to the students than I otherwise might have been. As Mark Noll has said, “There can be no good teaching without good scholarship.”)
My plan is to have the students read two books ahead of time, the first being Liz Carmichael’s Friendship: Interpreting Christian Love. Carmichael, who’s a chaplain, fellow, and tutor in theology at St. John’s College, Oxford, does a fine job of surveying the history of Christian thought on friendship, from Aelred of Rievaulx’s dialogue Spiritual Friendship to Jeremy Taylor’s misgivings about it to John Henry Newman’s writings on the topic. Alongside Carmichael’s historical (and warmly pastoral) book, I’m assigning Brother John of Taizé’s more overtly pastoral, edifying treatment, Friends in Christ: Paths to a New Understanding of the Church. This latter book will help us flesh out in practical terms what Carmichael puts in historical perspective, namely, the early Christian transplanting of Greco-Roman ideals of friendship into an ecclesial, siblings-in-Christ context. And during the class itself, we’ll spend a good bit of time working our way through Aelred of Rievaulx’s dialogue itself—attempting a “close reading,” as they say.
After the class concludes, the students’ main assignment will be to bring these historical and theological reflections to bear on a narrative of friendship. I’m giving them the choice of writing on Wallace Stegner’s gorgeous novel about a friendship between two married couples, Crossing to Safety, William Maxwell’s tragic novel about a friendship between two adolescent boys, The Folded Leaf, and Gail Caldwell’s memoir of friendship with her (now deceased) fellow writer Caroline Knapp, titled Let’s Take the Long Way Home.
I’ll report back after the class is over—full of many new insights, I’m sure.