Friendship as Strengthening of Christian Identity
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them fall down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:912)
Friendship has been seen important and essential for human development since the ancient world. Cicero, who played a similar role for the Romans to that of Aristotle as the great philosopher of friendship for the Greeks, considers friendship as the best gift which the gods have given people with the exception of wisdom. Friendship has been increasingly important in our mobile modern society. Sociological studies show that young people’s forming their self identity largely depend on the affirmation of their peers, rather than their parents. Friendship is the central concern of them before they get married, even throughout their lives for those who have no partners. For Christians, our identities are rooted in the love of the Trinitarian God. Two great commandments the love of God and the love of our neighbours can not be separated. “Without God’s love we cannot discover who we are. Without the love and friendship of human companions we become less than we are.” Thus, friendship in Christ can be strengthening of Christian identity.
In this paper, I will present the thesis from three perspectives: the nature of friendship , the relationship between friendship and self, and the transforming friendship with the Trinitarian God and others. In the first part, the definition, necessity, and categories of friendship, the tension between friendship as a preferential and reciprocal love and agape as a universal and unconditional love, and the characteristics of friendship, which may be most relevant with self identity freedom, trust, openness, and fidelity will be discussed. In the second part, issues of the center role of communication, a friend as another self, friendship as a reflection of identity, naming as a special gift giving in friendship, and the relationship between friendship and family another significant contributor to personal identity will be addressed. The friendship with the Trinitarian God, spiritual friendship and direction, and the spirituality of friendship will be discussed in the last part of the paper.
1. The Nature of Friendship
The notions of friendship have been discussed from philosophers of the ancient world. In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle proposes that one needs the companion of friends to be good and happy, and friendship is the soil of virtue and is “one of the most indispensable requirements of life” (V III.i.1). Cicero has a well known definition of friendship in his work De Amicitia: “Friendship is agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity” (VI.20). With Aristotle and Cicero, Augustine was also convinced the importance of friendship friendship as the highest expression of a person’s social nature and also the foundation for any society. Aelred proposes a Christian elaboration of Cicero’s notion of friendship on his work Spiritual Friendship. He notes that friendship “should begin in Christ, be maintained according to Christ, and have its end and value referred to Christ” (I.8). He believes friendship is a kind of affectionate love of the soul which seeks to enjoy an object (I.19). Furthermore, friends are mutual guardians of each other’s soul (I.20).
Human beings are meant to have some kinds of relationships with others by nature, but the depth and significance varies according to the degree of their relationship. Aristotle distinguishes three degrees of friendship: friendship of utility, friendship of pleasure, and friendship of virtue. In the first type of friendship, friendship exists primarily because they are useful to each other. The second type of friendship sustains primarily because of the mutual enjoyment of some pleasure by being together. Aristotle believes these two types of friendship are based on accident: “friendships of this kind are easily broken off, in the event of the parties themselves changing, for if no longer pleasant and useful to each other, they cease to love each other” (V III.ii.23). However, friends of the third type friendships of virtue are those who love each other because of the good qualities in themselves. Friends involved in relationship based on virtue are not perfect, but because of the foundation of an attraction to the good, this kind of friendship will result in the perfection of the parties involved over time. Like Aristotle, Cicero believes that men of virtue seek each other not because of need but because of qualities among themselves. So, friendship can only exist among good people (V.18), and be not shared by “more than a handful of individuals” (V.20). Aelred also distinguishes three categories of friendship: carnal, worldly, and spiritual friendships. “The carnal is created by a conspiracy in vice, the worldly is enkindled by hope of gain, and the spiritual is cemented among the righteous by a likeness of lifestyle and interests.”(I.38) He only considers the last type as true friendship.
From the implication of the notions above, we can see that friendship is a preferential and reciprocal love. How can we deal with the tension of friendship a preferential and mutual love and agape a universal and unconditional love?
In The Confessions, Augustine concludes a lesson from the death of his friend that the love of friend assists him to draw friends toward love of God (IV.810). In his opinion, attachment of a friend must be transformed but not be destroyed, for the intimate personal sharing in friendship is an addition to agape as its internal fruition. However, other thinkers prefer to begin with a universal love and “build down” to particular friendship as special expressions of universal love. In his “Discourse on the Nature and Offices of Friendship” , Jeremy Taylor notes that friendship, which is understood as a preferential and exclusive love, should be displaced by neighbour love “friendship to all the world”. The time and space cause some people are “near” to us, and limit our entry into universal friendship. Our charity “must be limited, because we are so”. So, particular attachments with persons near us are specifications of universal love. As a matter of fact, the opinions of Augustine and Taylor can be summarized in this way: particular friendship need not be grounded in universal love. As a gift of God, friendship has its own place in human life, but it also a partial love at the same time. Friendship can be a preparation and a school for a greater love. The natural love of friendship can be transformed by the love of God, and toward to “friendship to all the world”. However, this tendency is never perfect because of the limits of time and space. So the expression of a greater love is still partial.
Another perspective of the tension between friendship and agape is whether the mutuality of friendship indicates selfness, for “love seeks not its own”. In his Works of Love, Kierkegaard says that “the true lover regards the very requirement of reciprocity to be a contamination, a devaluation, and loving without the reward of reciprocated love to be the highest blessedness”. He considers love as a duty and friendship as a Vanity Fair. In the opposite of friendship, Kierkegaard notes that neighbour love, which is unconditional and selfless, is the correct way for Christians to love one another.
However, as human beings, we are not meant to live by ourselves alone. Being needy is part of human nature. Friendship, a mutual love, is always a question of give and take: we need not only to give ourselves in love, but also to receive love in return. “Admitting our desire for mutual love which fulfills and satisfies our needy nature is a step toward admitting our need for God.” Aristotle argues that loving one another depends on loving oneself, because only people befriend themselves, can they be able to build deep friendship with others. In his opinion, what matters is the good self love which enables people to overcome themselves and be free to pay attention to others. In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas points out that the real question of the debate of “selfness” in friendship is “the extent to which the friendship on offer is possessive or not”. Thus, he distinguishes two kinds of love: altruistic love (love of friendship) and egoistic love (love of desire). Altruistic friendship occurs between people are equal in what they have or are, while egoistic friendship is dominant when one person has something that the other desires. To summarize the opinions of these philosophers, benevolence or charity (a self giving spirit) is a prerequisite of mutual friendship and a reciprocal union of affections is also necessary.
Friendship is not a love in general; it is a deep preference and attachment with another person for who he or she is. Because of the preference and mutuality of friendship, there are some important characteristics or virtues of friendship which may be relevant to self identity: freedom, trust, openness, and fidelity.
Being friends is an action of freedom. No one is able to force us to be friends. The beginning of friendship is recognizing a friend “I become aware of him…”. Martin Buber, a great modern Jewish thinker who wants people to relate each other as “ I-You”
not “I It”, notes the terms of one’s encounter with another one in T he Knowledge of Man. In his opinion, we can not completely remake friends in recognizing them. In friendship, we must learn to accept the uniqueness of the other who will remain the way he or she is right no matter what we do. The differences of friends are important, for if friends are perfectly alike, their lives will remain narrow. Because someone is essentially different, he or she can enrich the life of the other in friendship. Sometimes, differences trigger struggles. But as these struggles are between friends, we may accommodate each other and help our friend to grow as we grow. We have the security to maintain our uniqueness in the tests of friendships.
In the ideal friendship, friends may expose their vulnerability to each other. The fear of uncertainty of this interaction can only be overcome through trust. This means that trust lies in the heart of true friendship through genuine communication . Unlike marriage and family, there are no regulations or rules between friends: we merely trust each other. The closer we are to our friends, the more likely they are able to betray us. There is no friendship where there is no trust. We have to behave with the assumption that friends will not betray us although we know they have the ability to. In fact, this underlying assumption is a hope which includes nonrational and incalculable elements. Anthony Giddens notes trust is a form of faith in which “confidence vested in probable outcomes expresses a commitment to something rather than just a cognitive understanding”. Barbara Misztal also remarks, “trust is to believe despite uncertainty. Trust always involves an element of risk resulting from our inability to have a complete knowledge about other people’s motivations and, generally, from the contingency of social reality”.
Being friends is a gift, this relationship can be deepen if we become more open. The open person is available to respond to other people, and will develop a character that allows friends to be more open. Gabriel Marcel believes that our openness through faith, hope and love to the divine Presence is the ground to let us be more open to others. He analyzes the reasons why people isolate themselves from friends and from the Other. One reason is our selfcenteredness from birth. Those who recognize the fact and then overcome it by steadfast openness become friends. We all have certain zones that are left only for ourselves. Isolated people have no zones for others to enter. These persons can not know their real needs because they only focus on themselves and do not see themselves in relations to others. A second thing that prevents us from being open is “crispation”. Those who are curled in their own schedules are not able to become friends. Marcel also uses “encumbrance” to describe what close off people most frequently. Encumbered people may be “visible” to us but they seldom open themselves to anyone else. Marcel claims that “self presence” is the medicine to these close off people. He notes that self presence is “the portion of creation which is in me, the gift which from all eternity has been given me of participating in the universal drama, of working, for example, to humanize the Earth…” Presence reveals itself immediately in a look, a smile, or a handshake. A presence is someone who “takes me into consideration, who is regarded as taking me into account.” It is the Presence of God as the Being who takes us into consideration. Then we do so to others in a similar way.
“A friend loves at all times” (Proverbs 17:17). We all expect faithful friendship, but the question is whether we can have it. Friendship, a preferential and reciprocal love, involves mutual delights and enjoyment. Fidelity requires a steadfast love even when no enjoyment is present. Aelred believes that true friendship never ceases. He distinguishes four elements in friendship: love (benevolence), affection, security (trust), and happiness. He grants that a friendship may lose affection, security, and happiness, but “love should not be withdrawn”16. If friendship ends, the steadfast love can be directed to the neighbour who was once a friend. Faithful friendship is a goal which can only be realized in God’s love. To love a friend in God is not to love the goodness of him, but “the Goodness which possesses the friend and is refracted by the friend is what the eye is to discern”.
2. Friendship and Self
Communication is the center of friendship, and the contents of communication help us to distinguish true, and significant friendships from those that are not worthy of the name. We exchange information with acquaintances, and share thoughts and ideas with ordinary friends. Only with close friends, can we share our deep feelings. It is this close and intimate friendship that significantly strengthens our personal identities. “We are all driven to discover who we are and what we mean the proverbial quest of identity and it is only when two solidates meet that personal identity emerges. Identity is social; we arrive at it through compassion, experience, and evaluation.” The psychologist Erik Erikson defines identity as “something in me which is continuous, on which you can count”. If I find something continuous in you on which I can count, we may begin to know who we are.
Aristotle says: “a man stands in the same relation to his friend as to himself.” Thus, to love our friend we must first love ourselves. In this context, the friend becomes “another self” to us, someone who feels as close to you as you do to yourself. This implies that two friends become one person, as Montaigne says “One soul in two bodies”. Contemporary philosophers Dean Cocking and Jeanette Kennet provide two models of friendship and self: the secrets view and the mirror view. According to the secrets view, the closer the friendship is, the more we are willing to disclose. According to the mirror view, one’s characters are reflected in the friend. However, the essential features of the close friendship are not completely revealed in these two views. Friendship is transformation, making something from something. Another way in which friendship can change us is through the eyes of our friend. “The way our friends interpret us helps us to interpret ourselves.” Furthermore, Giorgio Agamben notes that “the friend is not another I, but an otherness immanent in selfness, a becoming self of the self”.21 It implies that a close friend is part of ourselves, and we can only fully become who we are with another person.
Nietzsche also suggests a close connection between friendship and identity: a person’s friends reflect his or her personality. There are two types of people who have a particular gift for friendship: some like ladders; others like circles. Ladder types are those who find new friends for each period of their growth. Life for them is a journey of change, so their friends are considerably different, and unlikely to get on with each other. The philosophy of the ladder types is that it is a mistake to expect and build intimate, long life relationships. The second sort of people, circle types, make different types of friends at the same time. Their friends can engage with each other although they are quite different.
Nietzsche proposes in Assorted Opinions and Maxims that “ If we greatly transform ourselves, the friends of ours who have not been transformed become like ghosts of our past”: these ghosts say how we once were, “younger, more severe, less mature”. Like Aristotle, Nietzsche also believes friendship can make a significant contribution to our self knowledge and self improvement. He recommends that we view ourselves as we view our friends. Acceptance of others and their limitations helps us to learn to see ourselves more clearly, and free us to celebrate, despite we are all imperfect. He acknowledges that honesty is a prerequisite of self knowledge. Only through the observation of honest friends, can we acquire a more accurate view of ourselves. He notes in Day break “Honesty towards ourselves and whoever else is a friend to us”. This implies that being honest to oneself, one becomes a friend to himself. The friend can be seen as another self and meanwhile the self can be seen as another friend. In both cases, friendship can challenge the separation of the self and others.
Nietzsche’s philosophy of friendship is future orientated. The future with the quality of newness, is a place of possibility and growth. It is unknown and undisclosed to us as we are not wholly disclosed to ourselves and to our friends. So we commit ourselves to each other to embrace the future and unknown ourselves. From this perspective, friendship is a way of life. Life is a journey, and one’s journey enriches another’s. One’s discoveries also open new areas for another. The quest of our identity is a journey of self discovery. In the ancient Hebrew, self discovery means “coming to know my name”. For the ancients, to name someone means to have a relationship with the person and know something about him. “We do not name ourselves. Our name is a gift from God and others. It is only in human companionship that we discover the name that God already knows and that others help us to clarify and recognize.” We reveal something about ourselves in the gift we select for a friend. We also reveal our knowledge of the friend because of the gift we choose. Naming is a special kind of gift giving. Nicknames between friends reveal both the one who gives name and the one who is named. We cannot give a name if we do not truly know the person. In friendship, we give our name the gift of who we are to each other. In this giving, we receive more of who we are.
Besides friendship, family also makes a significant contribution to our identities. The affirmation and shared life of family members is one portion of the personal journey in discovering who we are. We find that some family ties have friend like qualities, and some people see their friends as their families. “Because of the issues of authority and responsibility, some people feel that friendship between parents and children is difficult, or only possible when the children are well established adults.” The difficulties prevent them from being totally transparent to each other. Thus, a movement from this kind of relationship between parents and children to an equal, friend like one will help them open their hearts and share deepest thoughts and feelings, which are crucial to self discovery. For husbands and wives, one issue is the relationship between erotic love and friendship. Obviously, erotic love and friendship are similar in some respects, and different in others. Both stem from our need to be with others, call us into happiness, help us rise above pure self interest, and are built on a degree of trust and understanding. However, friendship is calm and reasonable, while erotic love is spontaneous and irrational. Friendship must be reciprocated to make sense and is mostly virtuous, while erotic love can even exist in secret and can be destructive sometimes. Friendship is the love that longs to know and to be known, while erotic love is the love that longs to have and to be had. Plato suggests erotic love should be transcended into a passion beyond the desire for bodies in order to avoid the possible destructive effects. The movement from an fixation on the other to a shared passion of life makes it possible for lovers to become friends. We do not conclude that friendship is better than family, but friend like qualities (equality and shared passion of life) in families will benefit our quest of personal identity.
3. The Transforming Friendship
As Christians, our friendship with others should begin with friendship with God, and our friendship with God will begin with the friendship within the Trinitarian God. Each person in the Trinity the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is distinct from each other, but they live harmoniously. The friendship within the Trinitarian God is that of love given, received, and shared. “The Father loves the Son. The Son receives the love of the Father. The Holy Spirit shares the love of the Father and the Son, making their presence real to us.” It is God who extends the friendship, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit, and we accept it on faith. This friendship is God’s presence and among us, a connection with the life of God which touches our own. The invitation to be connected with the Father from Jesus Christ includes our identification with him: the crossroad, the loneliness, the misunderstanding, the shame, and even the fear of God’s “forsakenness”. Jesus is the true friend, since he has paid high price to save us. “To talk of such friendship with God is also to talk of ourselves, our journey, and the times in particular when the messages of friendship with God have gotten through banged us on the head or whispered to us in the midst of a prayer.” The friendship with God is a matter of being, and of being ourselves with God, as God is God with us. While God creates friendship and allows himself to be met and loved through friendship, he remains totally Other. God is immanent with our world and utterly transcendent, as Christian orthodoxy affirms. Of course, friendship with God is not only presence, connection, suffering, but also joy rejoicing over the beloved One, over our new creation in him. In friendship with the Father, we are adopted to be “children of God” through Jesus’ death for us. We are called by God, and given a new identity in him. We are renewed in the image of God, and become a member of his family. In friendship with Jesus, he died for us, frees us to be ourselves before him. He also prays for us. The Holy Spirit is the friend who reminds us, warns us in advance, makes heaven real to us, and is always with us. Friendship with God is the reason why we are alive and the foundation of our identities.
A true friend is a friend who loves for the sake of the other. In a similar way, friendship with God requires to love for God’s sake. However, Bernard of Clairvaux notes that our nature is to love God for our own sake. When we begin to learn to love God, we still love God for our own sake. As we grow in the friendship with God, we learn to love God not only for ourselves, but also for the sake of God. Finally, we may even love ourselves for God’s sake. It is the desire to know and to be known by God that inspires us to be willing to sacrifice everything for him.
As mentioned in the second part, communication is essential to friendship. Francis De Sales writes in his book Introduction to a Devoted Life t hat “friendship is the most dangerous love of all because the other love can exist without communication, but friendship being totally based on it, we can hardly have a friendship with a person without sharing the person’s qualities”. We are made in the image and likeness of God. That means we are created and called to love as the Trinitarian God loves. Francis claims God communicates himself through Jesus Christ to us so that we are able to communicate with him and become his friends. Thus, our communication with God prayers to God is crucial in our friendship with God. Listening to God reveals how we respond God’s love for us. “It is a commitment to a way of life. It involves personal discipline, self sacrifice and patience.” Listening to God is the basis on which we can listen to another in friendship.
We are called to communicate with God and to communicate with others, especially through the love of friendship. In the love of God, people are secure enough to communicate with each other honestly. It is in this kind of spiritual friendship that we can become who we are. Spiritual friendship means that friendship is created, sustained, and nurtured by the Holy Spirit. The primary purpose of spiritual friendship is to grow in Christ by becoming more closely united with God and each other. For Francis, spiritual friendship is one “by which two, three or more souls share their devotion and spiritual affection, and become one spirit”.
What does spiritual friendship look like in practice? There are some key components of the practice of spiritual friendship. The first component is the openness of a listening friend. A good listener makes us feel valued and important, and understands our need and situation accurately. The second is the encouragement of a caring friendship. A good spiritual companion is “unjudging and unshakable”. The third is the toughness of an honest friend. “A mentor is a friend who is tough enough to bring out the best of his student.” The last is the wisdom of a spirit mind friend. The focus on spiritual friendship should be on God and his work in our lives.
In Christian traditions, spiritual friendship goes hand in hand with spiritual direction. “Spiritual direction is a prayer process in which a person seeking help cultivating a deeper personal relationship with God meets with another for prayer and conversation that is focused on increasing awareness of God in the midst of life experiences and facilitative surrender to God’s will.” Spiritual direction is a transforming friendship which allows us to have space to be ourselves and talk about what deeply happens inside. When we open our hearts to a spiritual director, we open to the Holy Spirit at the same time. In fact, what spiritual directors offer is often beyond themselves because that is from the source of life, God himself.
Although someone thinks that friendship is chosen rather than given, we believe that circumstance and timing are necessary for the birth of friendship, especially spiritual friendship. “A combination of historic circumstance, good timing and human character is, then, what makes for soul friendship.” This implies that spiritual friendship is ultimately a gift of God. Then a hard question is how to live without it. Ralph Waldo Emerson believes that the key to spirituality of friendship is “the condition which high friendship is the ability to do without it.” Without spiritual friendship, we tend to value all kinds of friendship, and refuse to allow one to remain special. So many good friendships are likely to be enjoyed. The person who has a gift in befriending is not because he has a spiritual friend, but because he values friends. Spiritual friendship has far reaching effect regardless of the friends’ circumstances or locations. As Menander once commend: “A man is happy if he has merely encountered the shadow of a friend.”
No one is an island, and friendship is crucial to our existence. It is a source of goodness and happiness. Although there are various degrees of friendship, only true friendship in which friends love each other for the sake of the other can significantly influence our identities. True friendship has some important characteristics: freedom, trust, openness, and fidelity. Freedom is a great gift from God and what we can give in friendship. Freedom makes us deeply respect others’ uniqueness. We are not supposed to change others in friendship. The differences between friends can enlarge our experience of life. Trust lies in the heart of true friendship. It always involves an element of risk, and is to believe despite uncertainty of friendship. Our openness to God is the ground on which we can open to others. The primary reason why people isolate themselves from others and the Other is their selfcenteredness and a sense of importance of themselves. Selfpresence, which takes others into consideration, is the medicine to these close off people. Friendship and fidelity are not contrary. Friendship includes benevolence, which will not be withdrawn even the other elements affection, trust, and happiness are lost. Friendship, as a preferential and reciprocal love, has its own place in human life. It is a school to train us to a greater love. The mutuality of friendship does not necessarily mean selfness, because being needy is part of human nature. Admitting our desire for mutual love is a step toward admitting our needs for God.
It is the close and intimate friendship in which we share what deeply happens inside that strengthens our personal identities. A friend is another self and the self is also a friend. Friendship changes us through the eyes of our friend. Thus, we can only become who we are with another person. A person’s friends also reflect his or her personality. Friendship is a way of life, in which we walk in a journey of self discovery “coming to know our names”. We reveal ourselves and our knowledge of the friend in naming a special giftgiving in friendship. Friendship is not always better than family, but the friend like qualities in the relationship of parents and children, husbands and wives will contribute to the quest of who we are.
As Christians, we are called to love as God loves. The friendship in the Trinitarian God is that of love given, received, and shared. God extends his friendship in Christ to us, through the Holy Spirit. We are given a new identity a person in Christ. This identity is deeply rooted in the friendship with God. The friendship includes presence, connection, suffering as well as joy. We always seek identification with Jesus Christ in this friendship. Friendship with God requires a love for God only for his own sake. It is our desire to know and be known by God that makes us willing to sacrifice everything for him. The Holy Spirit creates, sustains and nurture spiritual friendship in which we feel secure enough to be who we are before God and others. Spiritual friends assist our growth in Christlikeness, and our close union with God and others. Spiritual direction, a formal transforming friendship, also helps us to become increasingly aware of God’s presence and surrender to God’s will.
In conclusion, friendship, a precious gift from God, is a preparation to train us to be a true lover. It is also a discipline to lead us out of our selfcenteredness and make us be more like Christ. In its warm and intimate acceptance and love, we are free to be who we are. Thus, friendship strengthens our identity a person in Christ.