Podcast: On Friendship

Mere FidelityThe latest Mere Fidelity podcast has just gone online. Once again, I don’t take part, but Derek, Andrew, and Matt have some thought-provoking and some just generally provocative things to say in my absence. This week’s episode is on the subject of friendship, discussing Wesley Hill’s recent Christianity Today piece and Matt’s response on Mere Orthodoxy.

A few very brief remarks and questions:

1. I don’t think that the social and economic factors that shape our society’s practice of friendship really have been sufficiently explored by anyone in this discussion yet. The elevation of a companionate model of marriage has a lot to do with the current shape of society and the economy, which uproots us and atomizes society. Choosing a spouse has increasingly become about choosing the only person with whom you will have a close friendship for the rest of your life. For the married, this means bearing the immense weight of the majority of one’s partner’s need for human companionship (is it any wonder that marriages buckle under such pressure?). Those without such a life companion are frequently condemned to lonely lives as, outside of the nuclear family and sexual relationships, relatively few deep and meaningful social connections remain.

2. I think that we could benefit from more distinctions in our uses of terms. ‘Friendship’ is a word that includes many different sorts of relationship that we probably ought to distinguish. It appears to me that we have lost—or we lack—the words to speak of and models to understand many forms of relationship.

3. As a term ‘friendship’ describes a vast spectrum of different relationships. Reading Wesley’s article, I think that he slips between speaking of different forms of friendship, without highlighting that he is doing so. At some points he is speaking about contexts of thick and committed community, of mutual concern, involvement, interdependence, and the interweaving of lives—of having friends. At other points he is speaking about a vowed relationship with one other particular person—of having a friend. I think that these two discussions need to be distinguished more.

4. In looking to Scripture for models of friendship, I think that we should pay more attention to the ways in which the biblical models of friendship don’t fit in our society. Our pragmatism encourages us to rush to find models that we can use. However, closer reflection upon many of the biblical models will reveal that they really don’t fit tidily in our cultural context. As in debates about marriage and gender, we tend to approach the text looking for solutions to or pronouncements upon our individual relationship situations or needs, without attending to what the text exposes about the character of our larger social context. Many biblical models of relationship cannot be sustained in our context and this problem is less a matter of failure at the level of individual responsibility than structural issues on the social level.

5. Let’s take a closer look at some of the friendships and covenants that we find in Scripture. Ruth makes a vow to Naomi, but I don’t believe that the text supports the assumption that personal affection was the primary motivating factor here. The profound commitment and vow that Ruth made was probably more about a radical kinship commitment to her mother-in-law, rather than what we would think of as friendship. David and Jonathan’s friendship had an intense affective dimension. However, their covenant-making was more political in character. Jonathan removed his garments as the crown prince and gave them to David (1 Samuel 18:3-4), designating David as his replacement. Contrary to our typical assumptions, David and Jonathan weren’t the same age. If we pay attention to the text of 1 Samuel, it should be clear that David was only about twenty, while Jonathan was probably in his very late forties or early fifties. This wasn’t a relationship between peers, but a relationship closer to—yet different from—an adoption, where, through the crown prince’s initiative (cf. 1 Samuel 20:8), he chose a young man to take his place. In their later meeting in 1 Samuel 20, the balance of the relationship has changed. Now Jonathan asks David to make a covenant. The covenant is a dynastic covenant, not a covenant that David should be his best buddy, but that David and his dynasty should show kindness to Jonathan and his house (1 Samuel 20:14-16, 42).

Many of the ‘friends’ that we read of in Scripture are friends in a more political or governmental sense: they are allies or the king’s formally recognized closest advisors and supporters. In designating his disciples as his ‘friends’, Jesus alludes to something of this meaning too. That relationship also involves the sort of intense fictive brotherhood that we associate with those who have fought and shed blood alongside each other. In shedding his blood for his disciples, this sort of bond is established (the theme of the raising of Lazarus—the beloved disciple?—as the event precipitating the conspiracy leading to the cross in the Fourth Gospel is worth looking at here too).

6. With this biblical background in mind, I think that we must ask whether Scripture really provides support for the idea of vowed friendship. This is most definitely not to say that vowed friendship is wrong. However, it seems to me that in many respects the notion of vowed friendship, for which personal intimacy is the primary end, owes more to our current cultural situation than it does to Scripture. Just as marriage has increasingly become such a relationship as our broader social fabric had unravelled, so the unmarried also need some form of vowed commitment to shore a shared form of life up against this dissolution. We have few remaining strong given relationships, in which we truly belong to others—‘I love you because you are mine’—so we must create ones to fill the gap. This is a noble venture in many respects, but we should be clear that it is largely a compensatory measure, responding to deeper failures in the structure of society.

7. In focusing upon a vow of friendship made to a particular person, we should think about the phenomenon of vow-taking, duty, and commitment more generally within our society and the capacity of deeper vows and loyalties to evoke friendship, without the need for explicit vows. The profound bonds between soldiers arise from loyalty, often involving a vow, to their country and their shared struggle. It is within their fulfilment of these duties that they are knit together with their brothers in arms, without having to take extra vows along the way. Similar things could be said about monastic vows. These vows typically focus upon things beyond the monks’ relationships with each other. Monks can be drawn into close friendship as they are formed together in the same form of life, all ordered towards something greater than and beyond themselves—the service of God and the poor, study, prayer, etc.

One of the deep problems in our understanding of marriage today is that marriage vows have become about a shared narcissism, rather than about the service of something that transcends the couple’s emotional attachment to each other. The institution of marriage is ordered towards creating a new form of society together, within which children can be conceived and welcomed, a wider community served, holy lives lived, and which aims at something greater than individual fulfilment. The vows of marriage exist because marriage, by its very nature as a relationship involving the sexual union of a man and a woman, is ordered towards the creation of something that transcends itself. Having vows of friendship apart from an integral ordering to a greater end seems to me to fall into the same error as the diminished model of marriage in our society.

Rather than taking this route, I believe that the cause of friendship would better be served by attending to our other duties and the other vows that we make. Are we committed and bound to various forms of life that will form us in union with others? If we aren’t, this is where the friendship deficit most likely arises. Instead of vows of friendship, perhaps what we most need is to create common and committed forms of life beyond marriage. As we commit ourselves together to forms of life through which we serve something greater than ourselves we may find that profound kinships arise more naturally.

Anyway, those are some of my rough thoughts on the subject. Listen to the podcast here and hear what Derek, Matt, and Andrew have to say.

You can also follow the podcast on iTunes, or using this RSS feed.

Posted in Culture, Podcasts, Sex and Sexuality, Society | 28 Comments

Podcast: The Benedict Option

Mere FidelityThis week’s Mere Fidelity podcast has just gone online. I am taking a break from Mere Fidelity for a few weeks, until I return to more regular online activity at the beginning of October. However, Jake Meador and Matthew Loftus ably step in to take the place of Andrew Wilson and me and have many smart and stimulating things to say on the subject of the ‘Benedict option’. The ‘Benedict option’ is outlined in this Rod Dreher piece.

Take a listen!

You can also follow the podcast on iTunes, or using this RSS feed.

Posted in Culture, Podcasts, Society, The Church, Theological | 2 Comments

Open Mic Thread 12

Mic

The open mic thread is where you have the floor and can raise or discuss issues of your choice. There is no such thing as off-topic here. The comments of this thread are free for you to:

  • Discuss things that you have been reading/listening to/watching recently
  • Share interesting links
  • Share stimulating discussions in comment threads
  • Ask questions
  • Put forward a position for more general discussion
  • Tell us about yourself and your interests
  • Publicize your blog, book, conference, etc.
  • Draw our intention to worthy thinkers, charities, ministries, books, and events
  • Post reviews
  • Suggest topics for future posts
  • Use as a bulletin board
  • Etc.

Over to you!

Earlier open mic threads: 123456, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11.

As I am taking a break from regular blogging, I don’t plan to comment here (I will be commenting again from the next open mic thread). However, I will be reading any thoughts left below.

Some comments of mine in recent online discussions:

1. Does Genesis 2 teach that the whole world is sacred garden space? (No)
2. ‘Wrestling’ with the killing of the Canaanites. Derek discussed some of Enns’ statements recently here.

Leave your own thoughts in the comments!

Posted in Open Mic, Public Service Announcement | 32 Comments

Evangelicalism’s Poor Form

I’ve just guest posted over on Christ & Pop Culture:

Whether designed to clarify evangelicalism as an object of study or analysis, or to police its supposed boundaries, definitions of evangelicalism have generally tended to occlude the cultural, institutional, and sociological dimensions of the movement. This is unfortunate, as it is precisely these elements that are most salient in the experience of many within it. Evangelicalism is not typically experienced as a set of abstract and explicit doctrines or beliefs held by individuals, but more as a distinctive cultural environment within which such beliefs are inconsistently and idiosyncratically maintained. The official beliefs of evangelicalism exist alongside a host of other miscellaneous elements and the cross-pollination from the surrounding society, all sustained within local churches and a shifting constellation of denominations, movements, ministries, groups, and agencies.

Much that swims in the weird and wonderful (and sometimes not-so-wonderful) soup of evangelicalism was added quite independent of church leadership. There is a sort of evangelical folk religion, most of which is largely unauthorized by pastors or elders, a folk religion driven and populated by TV preachers, purity culture, uninformed theological speculations in democratic Bible studies, Chick tracts, evangelistic bumper stickers and T-shirts, Thomas Kinkade paintings, VeggieTales, Kirk Cameron movies, Amish romance novels, the Left Behind series, Focus on the Family literature, Christian bloggers, CCM, Christian dating guides, Answers in Genesis books, sappy mass-produced devotional literature, study Bibles for every conceivable niche market, and much else besides. Unsurprisingly, many presume that this all passed quality control and received the imprimatur of Evangelical Central Headquarters.

For a movement that has often promised those within it the pristine order and integrity of a single comprehensive “world-and-life view,” the reality on the ground of evangelicalism can be disorienting.

Read the whole piece here. I’ve also left a couple of responses to comments, which should appear at some point soon and help to clarify where I am coming from.

And follow Christ & Pop Culture: they do good work.

Posted in Culture, Guest Post, On the web, Society, The Church, The Sacraments, Theological, Theology, Worship | 4 Comments

Podcast: Cultural Presuppositions and the Practices that Embody Them

Mere FidelityThe latest episode of the Mere Fidelity podcast has just gone online. This week Matt, Derek, and I discuss the final chapter of Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made? Among other issues, we address the ways in which we should approach such questions as IVF, contraception, and even owning a TV, in a manner that attends to the moral significance of discrete acts, but also recognizes the way that they fit into our larger cultural picture. We begin with the following quotation from O’Donovan:

It may, of course, be wondered whether such subtleties are beyond the understanding of most couples who participate in the IVF programme, and whether such a practice can only have the effect of enforcing the widespread view of procreation as a project of the will.

It may even be thought that the cultural influence of the practice is likely to be so bad that IVF should be discouraged for that reason alone. To such a suggestion perhaps we are in no position to put up a strong resistance. After all, the experience with contraception makes it highly plausible. It is possible that a wise society would understand IVF as a temptation; it is possible that a strong-willed society would resolve to put such a temptation aside.

But this takes us beyond the scope of our fairy-tale, in which no cultural consequences need be feared. These cultural questions are different from the question of whether there is something intrinsically disordered about IVF… And to that question we have not found reason (speaking simply, of course, of IVF as practised by fairy-godmothers in fairy-tales) to return a negative answer.

Take a listen!

You can also follow the podcast on iTunes, or using this RSS feed.

Posted in Controversies, Culture, Ethics, Podcasts, Sex and Sexuality, Society | Leave a comment

Open Mic Thread 11

Mic

The open mic thread is where you have the floor and can raise or discuss issues of your choice. There is no such thing as off-topic here. The comments of this thread are free for you to:

  • Discuss things that you have been reading/listening to/watching recently
  • Share interesting links
  • Share stimulating discussions in comment threads
  • Ask questions
  • Put forward a position for more general discussion
  • Tell us about yourself and your interests
  • Publicize your blog, book, conference, etc.
  • Draw our intention to worthy thinkers, charities, ministries, books, and events
  • Post reviews
  • Suggest topics for future posts
  • Use as a bulletin board
  • Etc.

Over to you!

Earlier open mic threads: 123456, 7, 8, 9, 10.

As I am taking a break from regular blogging, I won’t be commenting here. However, I will be reading any thoughts left below.

Posted in Uncategorized | 21 Comments

The Politics of Sacrifice

I have just guest posted over on the Political Theology blog:

Various myths have been forged to account for the foundation of nations, not only in stories such as those of Romulus and Remus, but also in the famous myths of political philosophy, such as those offered by Hobbes and Locke. Although it might easily go unrecognized in this respect, the narrative of the Passover should be read as another such national foundation myth. It is through the Passover that Israel is constituted as a nation and from it Israel derives its fundamental meaning.

Reading it in such a manner proves instructive: Israel achieves its foundation, not through a contract or compact between its members to ameliorate a violent or uncertain state of nature, but through the divinely instituted ritual of a sacrificial meal within a crucible of apocalyptic judgment. Through this event, the nation of Israel, celebrating in its constituent families, is established as the bearer of a divine meaning—as the firstborn son of YHWH (themes of birth pervade the first half of the book of Exodus).

In Putting Liberalism in Its Place, Paul Kahn observes the blindness of liberalism to the constitutive role played by sacrifice in the establishment of the state. Liberalism’s assumption of a contractarian basis for the state dulls our awareness to the manner in which our politics continue to be shot through with principles of sacrifice, faith, and love. The state presents itself as worthy of sacrifice, as the bearer of an ultimate meaning, worth dying and even killing for. On account of liberalism’s thrall to reason, it has neglected the importance of the will and thereby failed to recognize some of the most powerful forces that animate its own political communities.

Read the entire piece here.

Posted in Exodus, Guest Post, OT, OT Theology, Politics, Society, The Atonement, The Church | Leave a comment