Justin Taylor has a lovely post here summarizing what we might learn about Christian friendship from the correspondence of Esther Edwards Burr (1732-1758), Jonathan Edwards’ daughter and Aaron Burr’s mother, with her friend Sarah Prince.
Modern readers are sometimes taken aback by the way in which same-sex friendships were described with passionate expression usually reserved for lovers. Our fear of homoerotic overtones has almost entirely muted this sort of language today. But it was common in Puritan New England and continued at least into the late nineteenth century, applying not only to friendships between women but also friendships between men.
For example, Esther describes how excited she would become at the arrival of a new letter from her friend: “I could not help weeping for joy to hear once more from my dear, very dear Fidelia. . . . I broke it open with [as] much eagerness as ever a fond lover imbraced the dearest joy and dlight of his soul” (March 7, 1755).
She felt similarly after having read the letter itself: “Every Letter I have from you raises my esteem of you and increases my love to you—their is the very soul of a friend in all you write—You cant think how those private papers make me long to see you” (Letter No. 21, April 16, 1756).
Esther even wonders at times if her love for Sarah is bordering on idolatry, becoming too attached to things of this earth: “As you say, I believe tis true that I love you too much, that is I am too fond of you, but I cant esteem and value too greatly, that is sertain—Consider my friend how rare a thing tis to meet with such a friend as I have in my Fidelia—Who would not value and prize such a friendship above gold, or honour, or any thing that the World can afford? . . . I am trying to be weaned from you my dear, and all other dear friends, but for the present it seems vain—I seem more attached to ‘em than ever— . . .” (June 4, 1755). She sees friendship as one of life’s greatest earthly goods, though less than God.
In the class I taught on friendship last week, we discussed that last point at length—whether friendship needs to be seen as potentially competitive with divine love. Certainly we all know instances in which it has been. (I’m reading Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder right now, so I’m very conscious of this theme.) But most of us in the class wanted to move toward the place where Bonhoeffer arrives in his prison letters and see friendship as made better by love of God, and vice versa:
God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts—not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. One of these contrapuntal themes (which have their own complete independence but yet related to the cantus firmus) is earthly affection. Even in the Bible we have the Song of Songs; and really one can imagine no more ardent, passionate, sensual love than is portrayed there… It’s a good thing that that book is in the Bible, in face of all those who believe that the restraint of passion is Christian (where is there such restraint in the Old Testament?). Where the cantus firmus is clear and plain, the counterpoint can be developed to its limits. The two are ‘undivided and yet distinct’, in the words of the Chalcedonian Definition, like Christ in his divine and human natures. May not the attraction and importance of polyphony in music consist in its being a musical reflection of this Christological fact and therefore of our vita christiana?
Bonhoeffer is here addressing the potential conflict between romantic love and love of God, but I think what he says can be easily transposed into a discussion of friendship.