Mark Vernon looks to the German and Greek philosophers for answers as to the nature of friendship and love and laments the current age, at least to an extent.  He points to Aristotle, “ the desire to be friends comes quickly, friendship does not.”

In his blog he points out that friendship, in spite of the abuse of the term, has a role it has never possessed.  Culture has torn down the fabric of the Church and family.  It has eliminated romance, the role of the state, and the idea of “brothers in arms.”  I may be reading a little more into this than should be, but I don’t think so.  Chivalry, in the broadest sense, is dead.

The ethos of the knight is long gone.  That ethos goes something like this:  through my father I honor all men, through the one I love I honor all women, through the King I honor the state and justice, and most importantly through God I honor the good, truth, and all creation.  The particular always gave definition to the archetypal.  The struggle for the knight was to do these things rightly and this formed the basis of a morality and a way of life.

The problem is the ethos is dead, but humans are not tepid creatures.  We have to replace the ethos, but without God and the particulars we have no starting point.  That is where this new emphasis on friendship is coming from, though we are butchering it in the process.

Vernon points to Aristotle and Plato.  The former thought there should be a very clear definition of the word.  Vernon asserts that this definition is “friendship is the place where you are loved in return.”  Plato would not have the definition be so closed up, saying friendship is the place of mutual striving and is more unconditional.  This definition opens up to a greater number of people but also poses more risks.

Now to address the problem and excitement of friendship from the Christian perspective….Here, it is  first useful to locate friendship.  C.S. Lewis does this well for us moderns by pointing back to the Greeks who had sharply defined notions of love of which friendship was one.  (Aristotle would have this more defined than most Christians laying out levels of reciprocity that include family and all those places of which virtue plays a role in relationship.)  Friendship  did not include beauty and spiritual truth per se, but it did point the way to the transcendent nature of agape and eros to which Greek philosophers gave warrant.  Of course the Greeks could also argue and become confused over the particular definitions of love and it is one of the very few places where modern Germanic languages may have an advantage. The Germanic confusion is no less real, but because it is is attached to a smaller vocabulary, therefore it is easier to excuse.

Because I have historically reserved the word love for companionship and family, this is sometimes a difficult place for me to locate friendship, though like all moderns I do understand friendship to be in this realm, even though it can weaken of the understanding of  love.  This has more to do with the large number of friends we collect, than the word itself.

How can Christian thought inform the modern mind on this?  I have said the problem with moderns (or post-moderns) is the lack of direction.  I have read a lot recently that blames the Kantian ethos, which we have inherited for this, but reading too much of that makes my head spin.  Besides even those who have drawn much from Kant find the need for definitions he does not own.


To start Christianity rightfully locates friendship in the realm of love.  This means that Christianity’s highest, though not most intense, notion of love (agape) can separate for us the general good will of all, from friendship.  This makes friendship  limited to a few and rightfully chastises the modern for drawing a parallel between acquaintances and friends.  The power here is that all are entitled to the highest form of love.  Therefore if a friend is a unique person, s/he still does not have privilege of exclusion.  In imitating Christ’s agape, we are as in love with the worst of sinners as we are to our companions and children.

This  means friendship can be rare and beautiful giving impact to a few, while not denying the great love of God to which a Christian is called to imitate.  It can be that place for unique persons on the Earth, without giving up what the Greeks saw as the transcendent nature of agape and eros. (For Christians, outside of the likes of Anders Nygren and KarlBarth, these terms represent transcendence and immanence.) Agape and eros rightfully understood can be that place which makes one different from others without denying others the greatest of love to which all are entitled or obliging them to the great intensity that belongs to the very smallest numbers.

With this should come great care in our use of the word love.  This is where we are harmed by the modern lack of direction and morality.  I  think few in the modern world seriously considers what is in to be charitable to all, civil to most, and friend to a few.  The Greek understanding of love would help quite a bit, though it does make our Germanic language very awkward.

This brings me back to the modern problem of friendship and the Christian answer.  If Lewis rightfully located friendship in the realm of love, he said we had to go back to the ancient Greek understanding of the word.  This made the nature of love hotly debated, especially in the mid 20th century when the modern mind was still being formed. Here  I am most familiar with Tillich and Nygren.  Each took a radically different approacs on the matter.  I find favor in Tillich and am willing to live with the beauty and confusion of caritas et eros.  I also cannot understand how Nygren separates Augustine and Luther on this matter, something Tillich would never do.  What I do respect of Nygren is that he makes agape a place of intense feeling to the point that, like creation, it can form something from nothing.  I do not agree with this, but I respect it and think it has great merit in the realm of ethics.  He may be right in wanting to hold radically onto Luther’s assertion that all merit comes from God, but it denies the human kernel of goodness that makes it possible for humans to truly love or makes one person distinct from the next.

Tillich had no such confusion.  He could somewhat understand Lewis, though he denied his understanding of love, more than he could come to terms with Nygren.  If friendship is truly located in the realm of love then it must on some level be both charity and passion.  It must therefore seek the good of the other while attaining a certain striving for beauty.  Lewis’ only weakness is that he separates too radically friendship from these realms by going back to the fact the Greek’s had an unique word for friendship.

At M’s funeral, Father called her life a love story and this is true.  On a certain level all friendship involves a sense of a certain state of being (en amour.)  Now in a language like French you cannot be in this state with the world, but you can be there with certain people and in no way diminish the love of God for all people.  That is the beauty of Christian friendship and its answer to the modern world.  I can preserve the greatest love for all while not diminishing that place of beauty and goodness that exists in the realm of the small society.

Here is where the strength of Tillich and Benedict XVI lies.  Friendship is not used in their definitions of love, but the way to rightfully love is pointed to in their thought and this must be what friendship is.  There is too much to unpack in Deus Caritas Est but it does get in a very potent way at love that does not separate agape from eros even as it does not succumb to an understanding of love that is “divine madness” even when addressing the intensity of sensual love.  It is also remarkably similar to Tillich’s understanding that any true love has elements of both.

Benedict’s strength is his affirmation of Nietzsche and Nygren and the subsequent criticism of their thought.  Their undue separation of agape and eros has caused society all types of sickness.  A personality like Kierkegaard may (or may not) be able to hold it together, but it leads to two extremes and society is inclined to take it to some not good places.

D.C.  Schindler’s (Villanova University) work “The Redemption of Eros” has Benedict chastising the commodification of love by separating too radically the two leading to a society that has to glorify the “madness” of love while denying its “divinity.’  Tillich goes so far as to say that the exclusion of either is the absence of love.  The likes of Nygren come too radically down on the side of agape and the modern mind on the side of eros.  This will always happen when you cleave the two apart.

This brings me back to the modern problem. Friendship cannot be only in the place of agape and eros and it cannot be need based.  If we need a separate word to get the two together than we should go back to the Greek understanding of its necessity, but not necessarily use its definition.

With this understanding Christianity can inform the modern mind.  It does this by saying on the most basic level God loves all people and this is grace in and of itself.  You are loved in spite of yourself.  With that acknowledged we are now free to see beauty in the next person.  When that is rightfully seen then we are free to be in the place of eros on the most basic level.  Eros then necessarily contains agape, at least for the human mind.  (For the mind of God agape contains eros in that God always sees creation as being good.)   At this point we are in the realm of friendship.   And with this friendship can exist in varying degrees as long as it retains the power of God’s love and human beauty.  For the Christian this means the belief in love always implies a belief in God and this would not be a bad starting point for the modern mind.



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