What is Friendship *For*?

Today over at Catalyst, an online magazine for United Methodist seminarians, I’ve got an essay that tries to play with the idea that friendship isn’t for anything in particular. This idea has a pedigree in Christian reflection, and I’ve been wondering about it for years—wondering in what sense it is and isn’t true.

An excerpt:

One of the centermost doctrines of Christian faith is that God’s love in creation and redemption seeks no return from us in the form of a counter gift. God made the world for the hell of it, as Terry Eagleton once quipped, out of sheer exuberance and aesthetic delight. And God withheld nothing in the mission to save humanity, uniting himself to humanity indissolubly in the Incarnation and giving up his life in death, even the most ignominious and torturous sort of death, and pouring himself out in tongues of fire in Jerusalem at Pentecost. There was, as Eagleton says laconically, “nothing in it for him.” Nothing, that is, other than God’s desire to be in communion with us.

Perhaps this is at the heart of why Christians came to celebrate it. Friendship is a token or participation in that divine lavishness. When I travel overseas to visit a friend, spending more money than I have on plane fare and gifts that I’ve carefully selected in light of the little hobbies and secret interests of my friend that I am lucky enough to know about, I’m doing so not in order to guarantee a specific response or to meet a need. I’m doing these things, rather, because I like my friend, because I hope to go on knowing him and loving him for years to come, because his company gives me pleasure. In friendship, I’m not looking for my friend to achieve something on my behalf or award me with some hoped-for prize, nor am I looking to supply some lack in him. Rather, I’m looking to be in his presence because he is someone whose presence I enjoy. In these ways, among others, friendship is perhaps a vestige or aftershock of the kind of love God displays in Christ.

Over the phone recently, a friend said to me, “Why do you think Jesus said what he said to his disciples in the Gospel of John: ‘I do not call you servants any longer … but I have called you friends’?”

I hesitated, unsure of where he was going.

“Surely it’s because they’re not his underlings; they’re not doing anything for him. They’re his equals. They’re his fellows. He loves them because he loves them.”

You can read the whole thing here.

7 thoughts on “What is Friendship *For*?

    • Reality is based on unpalatable truths? Definitely. It also seems based on palatable, indeed lovely, truths.

      The works of mercy do not entail a return; friendship usually does.

      There seems to be room for both in this world.

    • It seems the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy are inadequate to define friendship. It reduces friendship to a transactional model; the individuals cannot be peers, one must always be the provider and the other the dependent; it’s inherently impersonal, as you don’t need to know or even like the person on whose behalf you perform a Work of Mercy. In all, it seems such a reductionist way of looking at friendship seems utterly contemptuous of the innate human desire to know and be known.

  1. I really enjoyed this, and I love how you mapped out some of the theological dimensions to friendship as a lived practice of loving between persons; the reference to your friend Heather, and her desire to re-create familial bonds of intimacy with her friends, is touching.

    I think you also set a fairly high bar on what friendship looks (or ought to look) like, and for Christian men like myself who can go weeks without seeing another friend, and I’ve not whiled hours away over wine discussing theology for quite some years, there’s a certain challenge in your theology of friendship.

    Friendship, I have found, is a commodity of time, labour, desire, and access; I have found it to be often disappointing (e.g. non-reciprocal efforts); and in my ‘old’ age (30), simply sharing a pint with someone in person is a consolation (I may be a little beastly to St. Aelred, but mea culpa!)

    So, my ‘criticism’, is that this theology of friendship would seem to be proposed behind Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’, where we can all agree on the clear merits and beauty of this Aelredian spirituality, but in practice I fear it’s a ‘lavishness’ that many won’t know, cannot know in their circumstances, and that most of us concretely encounter in exclusive (i.e. cohabiting) relationships proper, which of course this ethic and spirituality is (I believe) attempting to provide a modern alternative to.

    I honestly believe the stakes are too high for LGBT Christians, and especially in a time of massive economic inequality and austerity, to accept at this point a theology (or, ‘spirituality’) that would militate at all against cohabiting relationships and recourse to legal settlements (e.g. Civil Partnerships or even Marriage), and this isn’t because I disagree with a Side B ethic or the Aelredian spirituality (I’m a practicing Catholic), but because I know first-hand that were I not in my nearly ten-year relationship, I would probably be living at home and without the economic and intellectual freedom to sit here and engage with this admittedly very fine writing!

    So, there we go, and God bless your work Wes. X

  2. Wes,

    Thanks for this contribution. I read your piece several times. While I agree with the basic thesis, I’m uncomfortable with it for reasons that are hard to articulate.

    I struggled for some time with figuring out my sexuality. I knew that I was not heterosexual. I came out as gay (based on a binary process of elimination), but decided that that didn’t fit either. I eventually settled on the reality that I was asexual. I’m romantically interested in the opposite sex (in my case, women), but have no corresponding sexual interest.

    My journey has brought me into closer contact with other non-heterosexual guys, mainly gay guys. But I’ve struggled to develop friendships with these guys. In many cases, there seems to be a tacit expectation of romantic commitment in the friendship. So, I agree that the beauty of friendship is that it isn’t for anything in particular. Even so, for many gay guys–even those committed to sexual chastity–friendship often comes with the expectation of embodying certain same-sex romantic desires. I see nothing wrong with injecting such elements into friendship. It simply makes for a very different kind of friendship than one would enjoy otherwise. Because I can only envision a romantic relationship with a woman, I’ve found it hard to be friends with gay guys, including celibate Christian gay guys. I feel like I’m often being asked to give something I’m not in a position to give.

    On that note, I also think it’s worth talking about asexuality in the church. I think we asexuals are a lot more common than people believe otherwise. In my church context (PCA), I’ve encountered a similar resistance to what many gay people encounter. It strikes me that evangelicals aren’t just opposed to gay sex; rather, they’re opposed to any orientational disposition that seems to make marriage and family optional. Heck, I would even seemingly pass muster under the Burk-Lambert view of orientational sin. Yet somehow I doubt that I’d be too welcome in their church.

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