The Lavishness of Friendship and a World Beyond Vows

Wesley Hill’s Christianity Today cover story on friendship is now available, and it deserves consideration. The title they gave the online version is terribly misleading, but I’m told (by the author) that the title inside is much more reflective of the piece: “’Til Death Do Us Part: Why Now More Than Ever, We Need to Recover a Rich Vision of Lifelong Friendship.”

Wesley argues—rightly—that evangelicals need to build stronger and more enduring ties of friendship, and that one path toward this would be to recover the “historic Christian practice of vowed friendships.” While he floats the idea of public ceremonies, he recognizes that it is unlikely such rites will take hold anytime soon.

I want to stress how strongly I agree with Wesley’s premise: many of us have very thin understandings of friendship and its importance, and evangelicals absolutely need to disestablish marriage as the only legitimate form of ‘serious’ relationship available to congregants. I’ve written about that before. But while I’m intrigued by Wesley’s suggestion of adoption liturgical rites for non-marital vows, I remain mildly unconvinced by his case. Indeed, I worry that in promoting vows of friendship he actually obscures the marvelous form of love which friendship in its purest form embodies.

Perhaps the way in to my worries is through his deployment of Lewis. Lewis doesn’t come off well in the essay for his claim that friendship is “disembodied,” such that it is an “affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds.” Against that, Wesley suggests that we do not need “disinterested, disembodied camaraderie, in which we keep distance from one anothers’ hearts and stories.” But Lewis grants that our ‘hearts and stories’ are present within a friendship: they are simply not friendship’s substance. As he writes in the bit preceding what Wesley quotes:

In a circle of true Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares twopence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history. Of course you will get to know about most of these in the end. But casually. They will come out bit by bit, to furnish an illustration or an analogy, to serve as pegs for an anecdote; never for their own sake. That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts.

Being freed from our contexts is not the same as keeping distance from our “hearts and stories.” Rather, it means recognizing that our contexts, our histories, our biographies are not finally determinative for who we might be. Our narrative is not our destiny, in other words, nor is our union because of the details of our stories. Exploring such histories may be a proximate cause for our gathering together, to be sure, but in its paradigmatic form friendship is not finally determined by them. If that which originally drew us were to somehow fade away, on Lewis’ view the friendship could and should endure. Such friendship is—and I note this with some argument given the thrust of Wesley’s piece—more permanent and universal than the contingencies which make up our respective lives.

Even so, there is no question that for Lewis the friend must “prove himself an ally when an alliance becomes necessary.” When the need arises, friends do what friends do. But for Lewis, friendship is oriented away from such dependencies: as he so elegantly puts it, “The mark of perfect Friendship is not that help will be given when the pinch comes (of course it will) but that, having been given, it makes no difference at all.” It has a free and lavish quality, which not every bond among us does. Yes, it’s easiest to conceive of Lewis “with J.R.R. Tolkien or Owen Barfield, discussing some scrap of Old English literature over a pint at the pub.” But his closest friend was his brother Warnie, from whom he was nearly inseparable, and their relationship transversed a variety of forms and settings.

My point here is not simply an attempt to rescue a bit of Lewis that sounds strange to our ears. (Okay, yes, yes that is my point. Are you happy?) Instead, I think that Lewis’ account actually illuminates the heart of friendship in a way that Wesley’s essay obscures. On Lewis’ view, friendship is a form of life free of obligations. But that is not to say that it is a form of life free of entanglements in the lives of others, or a life free of being bothered by the intrusions of living, or a life free to spurn each other at will. Rather, on Lewis’ view, the fulfillment of such needs are transposed into another key: it is not need and duty which governs a friendship, but the supererogatory grace of charity which transcends the responsibilities we have toward one another because of our shared humanity.

To put the point differently: it’s possible to think that friendships do not have or need vows because they are a lesser form of union, and that the lack of public recognition is tied to their weakness. It is also possible, though, that explicit vows and promises create obligations, and that friendship moves us into a realm beyond these. The high point of the Gospels, in my opinion, is the moment when Jesus tells his disciples that they are no longer disciples, but that they are now friends. I’m not prepared to speak of the obligations on God which exist because of the covenant established with man in creation: but it is clear that even if there were obligations, they could not possibly include that. Nor does it seem right to me that such a moment could generate obligations the ways that vows unquestionably do: what duty could bind Jesus’ friendship with us? What obligation might provide the shape to the unmerited gift of his grace? To be friends with God is to participate in a form of charity which is not incompatible with vows per se—lest we deny marriages any form of participation in it as well—but the vow-less, obligation-free character of friendship illuminates the unrestrained nature of charity in a way that a life mediated by vows and promises might not.

While Wesley wants (again, rightly) more forms of relationship to be honored and recognized within the church, he seems to blur the distinctions between marriage and friendship in striving for that. While friendship aims at permanence, because it aims at the permanent things, marital vows inaugurate obligations to permanence. To collapse those together leaves the church with fewer forms of life which witness to the manifold glory of the charity of God, not more, and may in fact inhibit the kind of restoration of friendship to its proper place that both he and I are eager to see.

  • Joseph Rhea

    Matt, thanks for highlighting (and continuing the conversation began by) Hill’s article! I read it yesterday, and thought it was really worth attention. I too agree that modern Christians devalue friendship against other forms of relationship; and while I haven’t read The Four Loves, Hill’s rendering of Lewis’ points seemed so distasteful that I figured that couldn’t be all that Lewis had to say on friendship.
    I agree with you, too, that the far extreme of solemnizing friendships with ritual vows seems to miss something in the nature of friendship; to collapse it into a marriage-type relationship or even a Church-type relationship (marked by baptism and communion). There is, and it seems there ought to be, something different about the relationship between friends.
    I’ve begun to think about this subject, too, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the similarities and differences between friendship and the New Testament idea of koinonia (I’d like to say “community,” but few Christian words have been defined so often and so variously into uselessness). NT fellowship doesn’t seem to have been solemnized on a level lower than the churchwide rituals of baptism and communion; and, if we look at various expressions of it in Acts 2, Galatians 6, Hebrews 10, etc., it looks a lot like robust concepts of friendship.
    Equating friendship with koinonia would necessarily render friendship between Christians and non-Christians problematic; but if we’re okay laying one over the other to a large part, that could help us recover a thick idea of friendship without it needing to be ritualized or marked with vows.

    • Joseph,

      I haven’t done nearly as much work on friendship as Wes has (his next book is on the theme, and I’m very eager for it to come out), but I wonder about equating “NT fellowship” even with “friendship” per se. The fellowship of the saints is a peculiar kind of community, which may have much in common with friendship but may not be identical with it. However, I need to do much more thinking about this relationship before I say too much.

      Matt

  • Greg Herr

    Recommended:
    Friendship and the Moral Life by Paul J. Wadell

  • RobD

    Given that this was a rather minor point in Hill’s piece, I wonder why you’ve focused on that to the exclusion of his more major points. I daresay that you’ve devoted more far words to criticizing Hill than he devotes to his critique of Lewis’s disembodied view of friendship.

    Hill’s stronger points relate to his criticisms of the Freudian views of marriage and family life that seem to predominate in evangelical circles, e.g., the inward-facing nuclear family.

    • Huh. Apparently, noting that I agree with Hill on those points (and have written almost identical things–see my first book) wasn’t enough for me to come off as overly critical to you. However, I’m *very* surprised that you think it was a “rather minor point.” It seems to me like the commendation of vows as a possibility is *the* point of the piece. Simply as a matter of counting, “vow” shows up in one form or another 10 times throughout the piece and “promise” shows up two more times. One entire section has its course set by this sentence: “Some might say, at this point, that it’s just as well we’ve consigned these intimate, vowed forms of Christian friendship to the rubbish heap of history.” And in the final paragraph we get this: “It wasn’t an exchange of vows between a friend and me-at least not directly. But it was as close to that as
      I might hope for today.”

      So I don’t know what you’re reading, but his point about ‘vows’ seems pretty embedded in the entire piece.

      Matt

  • Nathanael

    It is probably worth pointing out that friendship in the Greco-Roman world of the NT period did involve social and person obligations for all involved. Hill is a NT prof so I’m willing to wager that he is aware of this and that it has influenced his thinking on the topic. The point is certainly worth debating but I do think it is noteworthy that Lewis’s idea of friendship as without formal obligations is not the only way of seeing the matter, historically speaking.

    • I don’t think I presented Lewis’s thought as the *only* way to think about friendship: merely as a way of thinking about friendship that illumines something about it that adding vows obscures. I am even happy to grant that friendship introduces obligations: there are ‘covenants among men,’ to use Paul Ramsey’s term, which exist without our consenting to them. But even so, making vows would change the nature of the obligations, and it’s not obvious to me that friendship *as friendship* is constituted simply by those obligations.

      I’d note that I think Lewis’s view is a perfect distillation of his Christian neo-Platonism. That worries some people, but not me.

      Best,

      Matt

      • Matthew Parker

        Having read most of Wes’ writings over the last year or so as well as the writings of the other contributors to Spirtirual Friendship and also being a single person like Wes, I think it’s important to note that a single person and a married person are likely going to have different views on friendship. I think most people would agree that, once married, a person’s spouse is, or at least should be, the primary relationship in that person’s life. A single person’s primary relationship is most commonly, I believe, a friend. So for me, Wes’ idea of considering adding some sort of covenantal element to the friendship is a way of elevating it, not to the level of marriage, but to something above the lesser friendships and acquaintances in one’s life, as a way of expressing that this relationship, so primary and important to the single person, is also important to the married friend. What I would really desire out of a convenantal friendship is the promise that, while it obviously won’t be the deciding factor, my friend will at least give a thought to me when making larger life decisions that will affect this relationship that is, for me, of significant importance.

        • John

          Amen Matt. My thoughts exactly

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  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Any means of encouraging friendships in my life would be helpful, so thanks for your thinking and writing in this area. If I can say this without jeopardizing our fleeting “friendship,” I tried to look up where Jesus said we were no longer disciples but friends–no results at biblegateway in numerous versions because it is “no longer call you SERVANTS, … but call you friends.” Uh, and the reason is apparently because they do what he says: “You are my friends if you do what I command you”–a pretty big IF, so it may be a high point of the Gospels but it comes with a caveat.

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  • John

    Matthew,

    Honestly, the reasons you give for *not* solemnizing friendship smack of an unwillingness to elevate the idea of friendship above the “lesser relationship” status society seems to say it warrants today. I’m not suggesting we need vows for friendship but something really does need to be done in the Church to redefine the concept, at the very least for its members. Those who are gay or same-sex attracted, and others who have taken on the burden/blessing of celibacy deserve at least this much.