These are lonely times. Not just because many of us are still navigating pandemic restrictions and limitations, either. We’re more isolated than any time in recent memory. Academia is no safe harbour from that loneliness – it’s as prevalent there as it is in the rest of society. That’s rather ironic, given the origins of the academy in monasteries – places of rich, long lasting, intentional community.
Dissatisfied with that disconnection and isolation on campus, over the past six months a group of Christian scholars and campus ministers gathered online to plan a conference to explore the possibilities for finding friendship in the halls of academia.
Sponsored by the Society of Christian Scholars, InterVarsity and Global Scholars Canada, the conference titled Friendship that Makes a World of Difference took place via Zoom on October 22 and 23. It gathered faculty, graduate students and campus ministers from across Canada for four lectures and a breakout session.
The opening session on the evening of the 22nd was led by Dr. John von Heyking, a professor of political science from the University of Lethbridge, with Dr. David Koyzis as a respondent. Von Heyking traced the philosophical roots of our understanding of friendship through an exploration of Aristotle, and then engaged how Christian thinkers like Augustine took that work and baptized it in service of building Christian community. He noted that many developments in the history of academia came about because of the collaboration of friends; modern understandings of science, for instance, arose from groups of friends gathered in Oxford and Cambridge. He also noted the fruitful friendship among The Inklings, the literary circle which included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis as members. Von Heyking concluded by reminding Christians that we are primarily lovers, and in the context of a workaholic, competitive and isolated academy, Christians ought to remember that primary identity, and seek out flourishing in community.
Acadia Divinity College scholar Danny Zacharias opened our Saturday session with a talk called Decolonizing Education: Friendship, Neighbors, and Treaty-Partners. Zacharias, a Cree-Anishinaabe scholar interested in exploring Indigenous approaches to Christian theology, gave an overview of how a strategy of decolonization might open up possibilities for collaboration in the academy, with the richest possibility being friendships rooted in respect and reciprocity.
Dr. Cindy Aalders, a professor of history at Regent College, led the late morning session, also exploring the history of friendship, tracing it from the Roman philosopher Cicero through to Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th century English monk whose work Spiritual Friendship is profoundly influential. Aalders also offered compelling portraits of the exemplary intellectual friendships among women in the 18th century, notably among “The Female Brethren” – a group of three female Methodist preachers – and the epistolary friendship of Anne Steele and Mary Steele Wakeford.
After a breakout session, Dr. Paul Heintzman and Mark Harris closed our time with a reflection called Leisure and Spiritual Companions. Heintzman, a professor of Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa, and Harris, a Spiritual Director in Halifax, traced the importance of leisure time in shaping friendship. Time away from the grindstone and worker bee ethos of academia – whether in road trips or on long hikes – does so much to generate deep, reciprocal, intimate relationships.
For this pastor who seeks to facilitate academic friendships, it was an invigorating weekend. Much to reflect on, much to put into practice not just on campus, but in our churches and neighbourhoods too. I’m left pondering a line from Aelred of Riveaulx: “God is friendship, and he [or she] that abides in friendship abides in God.”
Friendship is the very heart of God, written into the very structure of the cosmos, and perhaps one of the consequences of our frantic and workaholic culture is that we’ve forgotten that, and elevated other preoccupations to where friendship should rightly sit. There’s some blessed work before us as we reconnect and rejoin our communities after months of isolation.