My wife sometimes compliments me as a husband.
“I’m strictly average,” I remind her. I don’t want expectations to rise.
Marriages today are emotionally overloaded. We want someone who will be a lover, spouse, soulmate and friend – someone who “completes us,” as Hollywood suggests. This is much more than the biblical “suitable partner.” High expectations lead to disappointment and sometimes divorce.
In his book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis writes: “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.” Or, I would add, eroticizes it. Since Freud, all our relationships have been sexualized – our whole psychological structure is deemed to revolve around subterranean desires.
Let’s admit it. It’s not just that we are busy, career-focused, hyper-mobile and glued to our screens. We moderns have over-emphasized marriage and family at the expense of deep friendships. This is a critical part of the Human Sexuality Report now circulating in the Christian Reformed Church that is overlooked. The report is a call to repentance from an idolatry of the nuclear family, and much of what it commends is cultivating friendships that disrupt the insularity of rigid kinship circles.
Sexual ethics is a polarizing conversation, and it’s one that will not be resolved on this side of heaven. Everything has become politics these days, and we are all poorer for it. Churches will be torn apart, no doubt, but committed friendships I truly hope can weather the storm. I would even suggest that our non-married acquaintances might be our teachers in friendship. Focusing on the family has become myopic. We have much to learn.
Love without Lust
The Atlantic last October 2020 had an article entitled “What If Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life?” which suggested marriages ought not to end friendships, and that more friendships that replicate sibling relationships “can be models for how we as a society might expand our conceptions of intimacy and care.” These are not the superficial “friends” of Facebook, which are really a network rather than buddies or besties. As one inseparable pair say in the article, it’s “having a life partner you just don’t want to kiss.”
Another interviewee describes a buddy as “the friend of my heart, the partner of my joys, griefs and affections, the only participator of my most secret thoughts.” As historian Richard Godbeer says, “we can love without lusting” and so “nurture qualities that would radiate outward and transform society as a whole.” The article suggests changing laws so that our best friends come in the circle of legal protection; this would be one way to switch the price tag on the value of friendships.
Worth the Risk
As every parent knows, friendships can be toxic, cloying and destructive. “Bad company corrupts good morals,” said Paul (1 Cor. 15:33). We all have friends who disappointed us, and some of us have friends who betrayed us – betrayed our trust, turned their back or suddenly went off the rails and took off in a destructive direction leaving a wake of hurt behind them. No one can hurt us more than a trusted friend.
The third weekend of this October I was involved in a national conference entitled “Friendship That Makes a World of Difference” and the focus was the nexus of faith, friendship and academic life.
One speaker noted that all his best and richest friendships that have survived decades came from his undergraduate and graduate days. When students choose universities, they often consider the reputation of the institution, the promise of the academic program, and probably costs and geography. Maybe a few still consider worldview, too. But do we consider that when we choose a college or university, we are also choosing the kind of friends we might make?
Academic training can easily be over-rated – at any level of schooling. Most schools offer us the basics at least, and family and on-the-job training can fill in the rest. Worldview is certainly a life-or-death matter, but one recently deceased sociologist, Peter Berger, always contended that “your friends determine your gods.” Beware what friends you choose.
I noticed another parent from our children’s school walking my way one day. He’s a computer science professor, and although that’s as far from my academic competency as one could possibly get, we share a faith in Christ and an ambivalence for the public university world. We decided this year to walk together once a week, and slowly threads of attachment and understanding are multiplying between us. I look forward to our walks as sort of balm, a refreshing break. We talk about our kids, our bad day, our family baggage; about the reduction of truth to power and the absurdity of some university administration decisions.
If we are called to love, certainly that love includes friendship. Friendship within marriage, friendships beyond marriage, friendships in church, and friendships beyond the circles of familiar faith. Ecclesiasticus 6:16 proposes that “a faithful friend is the medicine of life.” Here lies one ointment that might heal the wound of loneliness in our modern age.
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