In high school, I remember reading The Friendship Factor. I don’t remember much of it now, but in my 17 year old mind it was a good read. I know the writer, a Presbyterian minister, did not hide his Christian message and now very many years later as I think back on this, I have decided to see how much Scripture mentioned friendship. It turns out it is more than I imagined, but far short of what the West now makes of the thing. If we look at the example of Jesus, who had many friends, then the Bible makes a great deal of friendship and I think that must have been the point of The Friendship Factor, though like I said I really don’t remember much of what I read. Of course Jesus had fewer of those relationships that I can easily define so his friendships must have been quite important.
I am by no means a friendless person, but I do struggle occasionally with the term. I know what it means to be civil and compassionate, therefore what the Bible calls agape is no problem to understand, even if I often fail at it. I also get intimacy and family, which I am also very capable of failing at, but friendship, something I value and know to exist, is quite difficult to define.
I once told a friend (yes, I get the irony) I think I could be a Quaker (I was not being entirely serious, the theology doesn’t work for me.) I was met with an incredulous “You, the Society of Friends!” and some laughter. She was referring to my no small amount of pragmatic behavior and sternness, but I also knew that if I read between the lines it was because I could figure out the other types of relationships with considerably more ease than friendship. Granted I never denied myself the opportunity to make friends, but I never looked for it either. As such I never cared to define it. I allowed it to happen, but never really got at what the thing meant.
I am not alone here. I am like most men in this way. This is because for men a friend is someone you do things with (hiking, fishing, throwing darts, playing poker.) For women (and I remember The Friendship Factor being more complimentary of female friendships) a friend is someone you talk to and in so doing share yourself with. I can relate to both definitions, but more of the former and this in spite of the fact that I am someone who likes to talk.
After my friend’s remark, I sought to come to a definition of friendship. I wrote of it extensively in my journal and came to the conclusion friendship must be an individuated and emotive agape. It is still the best definition I can think of, but I do not know if it gets to the whole of the matter.
To pursue getting at the whole of the thing, I had taken to reading about what constitutes friendship. My reading centered on what I learned from Eric Klinenberg and John O’Donohue.
First I address Klinenberg. He is the author of a widely known work called Going Solo. It addresses the phenomenon of an increasingly affluent culture foregoing marriage and family in pursuit of independence. Klinenberg, who is married, makes a case for singleness saying that it may have added to society’s detriment through isolation, but has also contributed to its betterment with an increased emphasis on friendship and civic responsibility (I will say now that I do not entirely agree.) This brings me to believe that in a world that has devalued the family, friendship must be of vast importance. My statement here is not a value judgment, but an observation. Klinenberg points to the demographics of urban areas occupied by an ever increasing number of single households lived in by those who receive support from the workplace and social life. Absent the family, this demographic is increasingly turning to friendship for the support given to us in the past by our spouses as well as making societal obligation its concern rather than children. This is not the model my family adheres to or one I grew up with, but that does not make it either a good or bad thing. In fact, on the surface, my only reservation I have of this has been knowing in the past we have found that friend to which we “cleave” and with that we enter the world of uniting and expanding families. Besides I do not have to understand the entirety of the direction of the world and if this is where we are going, there must be at least some good in it. I also remind myself that even Jesus occupied the world of friendship more than family.
Next I turned my attention to John O’Donohue. He was an interesting one to say the least. He was a Catholic priest (he did not stay in the priesthood), studied at Tubingen, did his dissertation on Hegel, admired Meister Eckhart, and in 1997 published a book called Anam Cara , which made him a philosophical rock star of sorts. His book taken from the Celtic word for soul mate (or soul friend here as in the States as we do not equate mate with friend) addressed an ancient understanding of friendship that moved friendship into a realm of the deepest relating, so deep to touch the soul. I think that this understanding must have been what The Friendship Factor was getting at. In a world that is moving beyond the traditional support of family, O’Donohue could also be showing us how we can continue to have those deep individuated people in our lives that Klinenberg says are becoming those we love outside of marriage and family. Now this paragraph makes something of this very unique friendship in modern times, but it is a very old concept.
We have become familiar with it in the Celtic tradition, but I think the most viable example must be the disciples. Jesus calls the disciples his friends. Though the disciples called him teacher, I don’t think friendship is a bad word for their relationship. Jesus also came to define family as a type of friendship (Matthew 12:50) and this provides an ideal model for the world Klinenberg says we are increasingly inhabiting , all the more interesting when you consider Paul makes life among the community of believers superior to family. Granted I do not pretend the world mirrors this (far from it,) but the model is a good one for where we find ourselves. It also brings us to the place where we can see friendship for all the flourish we lend to it, without making it what it is not. The model is not without its issues and when I take this up again, I will address how history and sociology (at least how I view them) impacts it and if it is truly viable.