In a recent post, Wesley Hill discusses the apparent tension between the Christian ideal of universal, unconditional love and the particularity of friendship, and cites Samuel Johnson’s worry that “All friendship is preferring the interest of a friend, to the neglect, or, perhaps, against the interest of others… Now Christianity recommends universal benevolence, to consider all men as our brethren; which is contrary to the virtue of friendship, as described by the ancient philosophers.”
I want to draw attention to a serious problem with Johnson’s understanding of Christian love.
God is the creator of everything, and is equally present in all places and all times. Yet Christians believe that He chose Abraham (and not any other person in the ancient world), and from Abraham’s descendants (through Isaac, but not through Ishmael, and through Jacob, but not Esau), He created for Himself a covenant people. Then, at a particular time, in a particular place, among this particular covenant people, He became a particular man, Jesus Christ. Moreover, Christians believe that Christ is the only way for any human being, in any time or place, to be saved and brought to final communion with God.
If this is true, then some people are born and die without ever even hearing about the way to God, without ever even having the possibility of living in a community that will teach them about God and help them to live out His calling. This is a stumbling block to many people: If God loves everybody equally, if He is the creator of all, why would some people have such an overwhelming disadvantage?
Indeed, if Johnson is right about friendship, then the Christian God Himself seems to fail spectacularly to live up to the Christian ideal of universal benevolence.
But more likely, there is something wrong with Johnson’s understanding of Christian love.
Theologians call this the scandal of particularity, because it seems that God favors some (His covenant people, those who have heard the Gospel) while neglecting others. But this apparent “scandal” is an integral part of the Gospel.
I will say more about this in a moment, but I think the issue will become clearer if I shift focus for a moment.
In his sixth letter, Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood on how to handle the virtue of charity growing up within the soul of the patient he is trying to guide toward damnation:
Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbors whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary. There is no good at all in inflaming his hatred of Germans if, at the same time, a pernicious habit of charity is growing up between him and his mother, his employer, and the man he meets in the train. Think of your man as a series of concentric circles, his will being the innermost, his intellect coming next, and finally his fantasy. You can hardly hope, at once, to exclude from all the circles everything that smells of the Enemy: but you must keep on shoving all the virtues outward till they are finally located in the circle of fantasy, and all the desirable quantities inward into the Will. It is only in so far as they reach the Will and are there embodied in habits that the virtues are really fatal to us. (I don’t, of course, mean what the patient mistakes for his will, the conscious fume and fret of resolutions and clenched teeth, but the real centre, what the Enemy calls the Heart.) All sorts of virtues painted in the fantasy or approved by the intellect or even, in some measure, loved and admired, will not keep a man from Our Father’s house: indeed they may make him more amusing when he gets there.
Screwtape identifies two related but different progressions: the first moves from a person’s circle of friends and family out to people in far off places; the second moves from a person’s will to their intellect to their fantasy. Screwtape wants charity to be pushed away from the friends and family the patient interacts with every day towards people far away, and away from the patient’s will and into their fantasies. From Screwtape’s perspective, generalized benevolence toward mankind at large is no great threat; charity towards those the patient encounters every day is a disaster.
John Henry Newman takes up a related theme in his Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 2, Sermon 5, on “Love of Relations and Friends.”
Newman begins by dwelling on the special relationship between Jesus and the beloved disciple, noting several of the ways that the beloved disciple enjoyed a more intimate connection with Christ than the other apostles.
Much might be said on this remarkable circumstance. I say remarkable, because it might be supposed that the Son of God Most High could not have loved one man more than another; or again, if so, that He would not have had only one friend, but, as being All-holy, He would have loved all men more or less, in proportion to their holiness. Yet we find our Saviour had a private friend; and this shows us, first, how entirely He was a man, as much as any of us, in His wants and feelings; and next, that there is nothing contrary to the spirit of the Gospel, nothing inconsistent with the fulness of Christian love, in having our affections directed in an especial way towards certain objects, towards those whom the circumstances of our past life, or some peculiarities of character, have endeared to us.
With regard to personal friendships, then, Newman’s argument begins simply by noting that Christ Himself had a particularly close relationship with the beloved disciple. Even if we say no more about why such personal friendships are good, Christ’s example places a very difficult burden on those, like Johnson, who would argue that such friendships are contrary to Christian love.
However, Newman does not want to claim just that personal friendships are permitted for Christians. He argues that they are an important school of virtue, in which the particular love for our friends enables us to learn charity for all. In making this argument, he presents (not surprisingly) a picture that is almost an exact photographic negative of Screwtape’s argument:
There have been men before now, who have supposed Christian love was so diffusive as not to admit of concentration upon individuals; so that we ought to love all men equally. And many there are, who, without bringing forward any theory, yet consider practically that the love of many is something superior to the love of one or two; and neglect the charities of private life, while busy in the schemes of an expansive benevolence, or of effecting a general union and conciliation among Christians. Now I shall here maintain, in opposition to such notions of Christian love, and with our Saviour’s pattern before me, that the best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us.
Both Screwtape and Newman recognize that charity, like other virtues, is grounded in habits. Screwtape wants to push it out to the periphery—to a person’s fantasy, to thoughts of people far away, so that benevolent thoughts remain disconnected with reality, while malice is cultivated in the will and directed to those nearby. Newman, on the other hand, recognizes that we must begin by cultivating the habit of charity for those nearby.
Now, let’s look at the calling of Abraham:
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves. (Genesis 12:1-3, emphasis added)
Abraham is invited into a unique relationship with God. Indeed, Abraham is one of only two Old Testament figures who are called friends of God (2 Chronicles 20:7, Isaiah 41:8, James 2:23). God calls Abraham and sets him apart to be the father of a nation that is set apart. And yet the purpose in all this is not for Abraham alone, but so that “by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”
Christ enters into history in a unique time and place, and calls just twelve men to be His apostles, whom He calls His friends (John 15:14-15), and even among the apostles, there is one, as Newman notes, who Jesus loved particularly. And why did the God of the Universe initiate this intimate friendship with a few men in Galilee 2,000 years ago?
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20)
Again, the apostles were invited into a unique friendship with Christ, but not just so that they could keep Him to themselves and celebrate their own special calling. They were given unique intimacy with Him so that they could offer it to all.
Christian love is not universal benevolence in any simple sense. The entire Christian story—from the calling of Abraham to the birth of Christ to the sending of the Apostles and into the present—is the story of how God’s desire that all people be reconciled to himself (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9) operates through the concrete particulars of human history.
Each of us has a particular calling, in a particular place, among particular people. But—though we do not understand in detail how this works in any individual case—our particular calling is always ultimately a way that God will bless all people through us. As both Lewis and Newman argue, our love for those who are closest to us is an integral part of this calling.
There are, of course, diseased forms of friendship which turn inward and do become a distraction or even an obstacle to God’s desire to love the entire world through each of us. But all of God’s good gifts can be abused. The solution to abused gifts is not to reject them, but to use them rightly.
This means, contra Johnson, that to truly understand the Gospel involves understanding how God works His universal plan through particulars—including particular friendships.