Friendship After Christ

Andrew Sullivan points to an unenthusiastic review by Stuart Kelly of A. C. Grayling’s new book on friendship, which just arrived in my mailbox and which I’m looking forward to perusing. In particular, Sullivan highlights Kelly’s criticism that Grayling doesn’t give enough credence to the way Christianity changed the shape of the classical virtue of friendship:

Grayling being a notable anti-theist, it is no surprise that he treats Christian views of friendship as an opportunity to take a few pot-shots at some large fish in a particularly small barrel. By doing so, he misses the chance to comment on a radical difference. In Cicero, for example, there is a vexed discussion of whether or not it is possible to be a true friend to someone who holds different political or ethical beliefs. The idea of treating people as if they were friends already seems to me to be a more profound shift in the concept than Grayling admits. He may have some fun with the idea that the infinite, self-sufficient deity should require being chums with sinners, but it is at the expense of realising that in religious ethics there is the very openness that he wishes for in terms of contemporary secular friendship. He praises the notion that “children in kindergarten will be unconsciously friends with anyone at all, of any persuasion, background, colour, faith or political family”. That one might consciously choose to befriend despite difference seems to me to be a religious rather than a philosophical proposition. The “as if” (treating people as if they were friends) is a leap of faith, not a cold piece of ratiocination.

I still have unanswered questions about how this works out in the Christian tradition, particularly in a treatise like Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship which spends so much time describing the process of testing a potential friend before admitting him into your confidence. This part of the treatise is clearly influenced by Cicero, but Aelred’s emphasis on forgiveness and forbearance in friendship would seem to propel us beyond what we see in the ancient emphasis on “equality.” For Aelred, only a breach of trust is sufficient cause to think about terminating a friendship. What matters most is a cruciform love that continues to hope for renewed reciprocity, even when the friend, for a time, has become an enemy: “If the person you love harms you, love him still. If he be such that your friendship should be withdrawn, still never let your love be withdrawn. As much as you can, consider his welfare, respect his reputation, and, even if he has betrayed the secrets of your friendship, never betray his” (3.44). As Kelly notes, this amounts to treating the enemy as a friend, albeit not confiding one’s deepest secrets in him (sharing secrets being a sure mark, for Aelred, of the mutuality of true friendship).

If, in Aelred’s view, only a relationship with a fellow Christian can truly be called a “spiritual friendship,” that isn’t because I need a partner who occupies the same social status or socio-economic bracket as me. It’s because only a Christian can practice the kind of love that says, “Though challenged, though injured, though tossed into the flames, though nailed to a cross, a friend loves always” (1.24). Christianity introduces an indiscriminate kind of amicitia.

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