Save Our Friendships From Secularism!

Like oxygen, secularism invisibly surrounds and vitiates our lives. If someone said that secularism subtly informed our politics, we might not disagree. We might, however, scoff at the idea that secularism shapes our relationships. Yet, it’s possible that one of the most treasured human relationships in all of history is decomposing in the air of secularism: friendship.

Our secular view of friendship is historically novel, and (at times) spiritually destructive. Ancients thinkers held a more robust an holistic vision of friendship. So let me suggest three ways their wisdom corrects our modern conception of friendship. The ancients said that…

1. Friends can be intimate (without being erotic):
Secular thinking truncates human identity to it’s non-spiritual, animalistic elements. Thus, we tend to see all relationships through the prism of sexuality, not spirituality. For instance, we see friendship and marriage on the same spectrum; as friendly intimacy develops it naturally transitions into erotic love. A sexual relationship, then, is superior in intimacy and meaning than a relationship without sex. Therefore, it’s hard for us to understand deep friendly intimacy without eroticizing it.

For instance, while at MU, I took a course on the Old Testament. The professor spent one lesson explaining that Jonathan and King David were homosexuals, because the Bible uses emotionally expressive language to describe their relationship, “…the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam. 18:1). His secular view has no category for this kind of spiritual friendship, so he assumed there must have been a sexual bond.

Just test yourself. Aristotle wrote, “A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” Did he describe friendship or marriage? Or fill in this quote from Augustine, “I want my ___ to miss me as I miss ___.” Is it “wife” and “her” or “friend” and “him?” Both authors speak of their friends, not their lovers.

Ancients viewed friendship as a different love than erotic love. Friendship and marriage existed on separate spectrums. If you read classic authors, you begin to get the sense that they viewed friendship as the sweetest, most intimate and meaningful relationship.

Likewise, the Bible, sees friendship as a deep well of satisfaction, intimacy, and meaning. It affirms that deep bonds can form without sex. This is relieving, especially for single (or celibate) people who feel hopeless, because the secular zeitgeist says life without sex is a life without meaningful intimacy. The Bible actually affirms singleness in a way secularism never can. As Christians we must reclaim the truth illustrated by David and Jonathan: profound intimacy can be experienced in friendship.

2. Friends can share a reality (truth):
Secularism argues that loving people meet on “neutral” territory, where only scientific materialism claims the title “truth”. Therefore, unless something is “science,” it’s “opinion,” and thus personal and something we should not “force” on others (i.e. share).

Our views on the deepest issues of life are sidelined as subjective, so many of us feel little confidence discussing things of deep meaning. We can debate endlessly on shallow topics like sports and food, but we fear that discussing our faith might encroach on someone’s personal liberty to choose his or her own truth.

Yet, C.S. Lewis argues that sharing the deep things in life is the very soul of friendship. in The Four Loves he writes,

“Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”

Jonathan and David shared a vision for an united Israel that worshipped God. Peter and Jesus shared a vision of the coming Kingdom of God. Paul and Barnabas shared a vision of a church made of both Jews and Gentiles. Early Christians deeply understood the value of sharing truth with someone in friendship. Minucius Felix, described his friendship with Octavious (who converted him),

. . . You would think that one mind had been shared between us two. Thus he alone was the confidant of my loves, the companion with me in my mistakes; the abyss of darkness into the light of wisdom and truth (from Evangelism in the Early Church, Michael Green).

Lovers look into each others eyes and say, “How I adore you.” Friends look at the same horizon and run together toward it; to run alone would be unthinkable. When secularism steals our horizons, and makes sharing them taboo, it sucks the soul out of friendship.

3. Friends can (and should) change one another: 
If secularism eschews sharing truth, it abhors evangelism. Modern thinking places every man on his own island. I have my deep meaning (my island), you have yours, and the only bridges are shallow topics (TV, blogs, work, sports). To ask someone onto your island is rude. To share it is pompous. These are the weeds I see choking out friendships amongst most college students and 20-somethings.

Convincing a friend to believe the truth you believe is not a sin, it is love.

The ancients understood that because friends could share truth with one another, they could also challenge one another. Transformation was the true end of friendship. An unchallenging friendship was not friendship at all. Plutarch wrote,

“I don’t need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better.”

The Bible puts it this way, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17). Friends sharpen our lives. Christian friends challenge us to live with greater faithfulness and conviction. Non-Christian friends challenge us to pursue our vocations with greater excellency. Christians challenge their non-Christian friends to consider the claims of Jesus. Without this sharpening, our lives dull to God and others.

The primary way that the early church exploded was through friendship evangelism. This happens when two friends, a Christian and a non-Christian, begin to try and share a truth. Over time, as the non-Christian sees the beauty of his friend’s life, as well as the force of his friend’s reason, he may be converted. History is full of these stories.

Cicero said, “A friend is, as it were, a second self.” If only we could restore our view of friendship by untethering it from erotic love, by freeing it from shallowness, by freeing it to share and challenge. We would avail ourselves of what C.S. Lewis called, “the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties of others.” Friendship brings beauty into our lives in ways which no other relationship can. We will be poorer without it. May God save our friendships from secularism.

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