Film and Book Reviews

In-depth study takes high view of friendship

BookChristian Friendship: Engaging the Tradition, Transforming the Culture by John P. Bequette (Cascade Books, 2019)

By Graeme Garrett

September 16 2019Friends matter. What would joy mean, without friends to rejoice with? Or sorrow, without friends alongside to care? Can real understanding flourish, without friends to talk with? Could I know who I am, without friends who belong to my past, enliven my present and imagine my future? I think not. So, a book that promises to explore friendship and examine how friendship might transform culture is of immediate interest to me.

John P. Bequette is an American Catholic theologian. He has a high view of friendship. It is, he argues, “the apogee of culture, because friendship embodies human relationality in its purest and most noble form.” (p.4). The cultivation of friendship in our current western context, he believes, is a much needed counter-balance to a technological society increasingly dominated by computers, consumerism and the relentless drive for material wealth.

The book is primarily concerned with Christian friendship; that is, with friendship understood in Christian theology and practised in Christian communities. Early in the book, Bequette gives detailed attention to friendship lived and understood beyond (and before) Christianity. But, as the story develops, one has the feeling that the author quietly believes that friendship in the deepest and fullest meaning of the word is possible only in the context of faith (and friendship) with God.

Bequette takes an historical approach to his subject, dividing his investigation into four familiar frames of reference: friendship in Classical Antiquity (Plato to Cicero); friendship in Christian Antiquity (the Gospel of John to Augustine); friendship in the Middle Ages (Benedict to Thomas Aquinas); and friendship in the Renaissance (Petrarch to Thomas More). He sets out to examine the work of individual writers, taken in chronological order, who produced significant expositions of friendship in their time; expositions that have remained influential down to our own generation.

This yields a fascinating and informative – if somewhat breathtaking – ride through the ruminations of 16 powerful minds, each reflecting on their experience of friendship and its significance for personal, public and religious life. It’s a pity that the authorities cited are without exception male. In an exploration into a phenomenon as deeply significant to human life as friends, which runs across almost 2000 years, it seems strange (not to say unfriendly!) to ignore the views of half the human race. To be sure, in the period under discussion patriarchy dominated. But what did Hildegard of Bingen, say, or Julian of Norwich, or Hadewijch of Antwerp think about their friends? It would be more than interesting to know.

Graeco-Roman literature lies in the background of almost all serious meditation on friendship from antiquity to our own day. To Aristotle, we owe the famous classification of friends into three types: friendship of utility (where the relationship is joined for the sake of pursuing some common end); friendship of pleasure (where friends engage in recreations that are mutually satisfying); and friendship based on the love of the moral good. The third type, for Aristotle, is friendship proper, where each person “wishes good to the other, not for the sake of pleasure or utility, but simply for the sake of the other”. (p. 22) To Cicero, we owe a classic definition: “Friendship is nothing else than an accord in all things, human and divine, conjoined with mutual goodwill and affection.” (p. 27) A true friend regards his or her friend as an alter ego, “another self”, and seeks the wellbeing of that other, even to the point of dying for the friend (cf. Jesus’ saying in John 15.13).

These classical qualities of friendship were all integrated into Christian tradition, with this transforming qualification: that friendship now becomes “rooted in and fulfilled in Christ”. (p. 121). Bequette traces such transformation through monastic and orthodox theological traditions, uncovering along the way some powerful and challenging insights. One example must suffice. In a brilliant discussion of friendship by Erasmus (1466-1536), the classic adage, that “friends possess all things in common”, takes on a supernatural dimension; indeed, it presses us towards a foundation in the Trinity itself. Christ gave to the world the rule of love, which implies:

that joined in friendship with Christ and bound to Him by the same force that unites Him with the Father and imitating as far as we can that perfect communion by which He and the Father are one, we also become one with Him and … are made one spirit and one flesh in God, so that by right of friendship all that is His is shared with us and all that is ours is shared with Him. (p. 112)

For Erasmus, the mystery of the love between the persons of the Trinity not only transforms friendship, “but actually reveals its most profound meaning” (p. 112).

A high view of friendship indeed!

From this point in Renaissance history, our book leaps forward almost five centuries to the present, and the author offers some brief concluding reflections on the contemporary cultural implications of friendship. This (for me) was the most problematic part of the text. Three controversial issues are taken up: homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia. In what seems an astonishing application of all we have learned thus far, Bequette concludes that Christian friendship “cannot condone homosexual behaviour” (p. 123), that “abortion and contraception both stem from a ‘hedonistic mentality’ that is unwilling to accept basic responsibility in regard to sex” (p. 124), and that euthanasia is an expression “of a profound breakdown of human relationship”. (p. 125). This bare summary cannot engage the arguments the author brings to bear in reaching these conclusions. For this, readers must consult the text itself. But after all that has been said about love, respect, devotion and honour as marks of genuine friendship across the ages, might one not argue more persuasively for precisely the reverse conclusions?

That said, the gift of this book is its historical analysis. The contentious ending is, basically, an appendix; you can take it or leave it without much damage to that primary offering.

Graeme Garrett is a retired Anglican priest, a theologian and member of the adjunct staff of Trinity College Theological School.

For another exploration of the theme of friendship and how it contributes to theological thought and discipleship, see his essay “Friendship, Faith, and Theology”, in Resurrection & Responsibility: Essays on Theology, Scripture, and Ethics in Honor of Thorwald Lorenzen, eds. Keith D. Dyer & David J. Neville.