I met my best friend in fourth grade. Tim was new to my school and to the city. Our first playdate was spent rummaging through my giant bin of K’Nex for pieces to construct our skeletal skyscrapers, mostly in silence. He was, like me, naturally bookish and reserved, so it did not take long for us to become friends. Our friendship was built around things we both enjoyed — construction toys, Lord of the Rings, and math — which, as we aged, became activities embedded in communities and institutions— after school Algebra, AYSO soccer, youth group and Academic Decathlon. As middle school ended, and with it the imperative to have a best friend, my social circle expanded, but Tim and I would continue to be friends through high school.
Since then, I have given up K’Nex: I have found other ways to spend time with my friends. But I miss the materiality of my childhood friendships; then ‘being friends’ meant constructing a fort together or sharing an earbud on the busride home. Like many graduates of private colleges, I now live and work far from many of my friends from college. I’m very happy to live with my closest friends, and yet even with them I lack the common purpose and space our college’s campus supplied.
And so I was eager to read Wesley Hill’s new book, Spiritual Friendship. I have followed Hill’s work since I read his first book Washed and Waiting, an elegant reflection on being a gay Christian called to celibacy. Now a Professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry, Hill brings a more capacious perspective to this book, while still supplying the personal urgency that animated his first.
The problem with friendship today, as Hill sees it, is that it is a relatively weak bond. Freudian suspicion, an unhealthy exaltation of marriage, and the premium we in the West place on personal autonomy, Hill says, have made it hard to be good friends. All true, and I think Hill is right to focus on the last, perhaps most actionable cause. As he says, “What we need now isn’t disinterested, disembodied companionship. We need stronger bonds between brothers and sisters in Christ. We need ways to voluntarily surrender our freedom and independence and link ourselves, spiritually and tangibly, to those we’ve come to love.” While this way may require us to sacrifice our freedom to choose, it gives us the freedom to be something, that is, a friend.
What kind of friendships does Hill have in mind? Here he is at his very best, leading us at a dash through the history of friendship. Fittingly, he brings along a whole company of friends: theologians Pavel Florensky and Dietrich Bonhoeffer drop by, as do writers aplenty — Iris Murdoch and Tom Stoppard — along with screenwriters and visual artists. The primary figures, though, are C.S. Lewis (especially “The Four Loves”) and Aelred of Rievaulx, whose own treatise supplies the name for Hill’s (and for the group blog Hill helped create). It is in Aelred’s time that Hill finds the prototype he is searching for: the practice of “vowed friendships.” Up until the modern period, vows were a way for friends to affirm their mutual commitment and ask publicly for their communities to help them uphold their commitments to one another.
In the second half of his book, Hill sets forth a vision for what “vowed friendship” could look like today. Overall this is a helpful and perceptive vision, though I wish Hill had provided more. I appreciated his inclusion of the story of the failure of one of his own friendships; a sobering and necessary reminder of what is at stake in any relationship of depth. In the closing chapter he recommends some specific practices to enrich our friendships: acknowledging our need for friendship, choosing to stay with friends, and practicing friendship in community. It is this last practice I would like to examine in a bit more depth.
Growing up, what I loved about K’Nex was that each creation did something: the sum of these spindly sticks and their connectors was more than their plastic parts. I built clocks and tanks, roller coasters and vending machines, and with them won a few minutes of appreciative attention from my parents. My friendship with Tim was like the K’Nex towers we’d first bonded over: a structure that was composed of the pre-made forms of our adolescent activities, that ultimately did something: brought us together. Without the institutions — our AYSO league, Chicago Public Schools, Academic Decathlon — and the communities within those instutitions — our soccer team, our after-school algebra group, our Acadec team — our friendship would have had no space to form.
In adolescence, friendship’s uses are obvious: friends make crowded cafeterias tolerable, help us with our math homework and, in the secrecy of a sleepover, listen to us talk about things we never could otherwise. These uses, and the friendships that form because of them, come from finding and spending time with friends in common spaces: a cafeteria, a soccer field, an attic. It is no surprise, then, that I formed my best friendships in college, in the confines of the classroom, dorm floor, and cafeteria.
After college, though, those common spaces dropped away: most of my life in Chicago is spent in spaces of intimacy or anonymity. In spaces of intimacy, I can enjoy time with friends in the quietness of their apartments, but these spaces lack the communal character that, as Hill points out, friendships need to be sustained and to extend beyond themselves. Meanwhile, spaces of anonymity — buses, bars, supermarkets — afford few opportunities for striking up friendship, since they lack the constancy and constraint of a common space (unlike, say, a small town grocery store). Common spaces, ones where we can’t choose who is there, but where there is the possibility of repeated encounter, are hard to find after college. Perhaps increasingly so in our society, if the success of companies that enable us to choose who we spend time with (Uber, Tindr, GrubHub etc.) is any indication.
Hill rightly notes that our ability to always choose debilitates our friendships. But he underestimates, I think, one of the ways our premium on choice has undermined our friendships: the loss of common spaces. This is bad for finding friends — as Alan Jacobs once pointed out in a Digital Literature course, when we can always choose, serendipity can’t operate— but it is worse for deepening existing friendships, since friends often need the support and purpose that come from outside the perimeter of their friendship. For Tim and me, that support and purpose came through our school, our church, and our soccer league — spaces made possible by institutions. For my parents, these same spaces enabled them to make and deepen their own friendships. Single people, though, like myself and Hill, are not bound by necessity to institutions in the same way children and their parents are, and for that reason are less likely to reap the benefits of the common spaces institutions create. And as singleness extends later — the average age of marriage for Americans is now 29 for men and 27 for women (the highest in modern history) — or is lifelong (for those, like Hill, called to celibacy), that will apply to more people.
If Hill is correct that “friendship can and should be understood along the lines of a vowed or committed relationship, much like a marriage or a kinship bond” (and I think he is), then the common spaces where friendships can be found and flourish will need to be revitalized. How can that happen? To Hill’s helpful suggestions at the end of his book, I would add that we might start by checking our innate distrust of institutions, by more readily putting up with places where we don’t know everyone, and by committing to a few common spaces. And perhaps the best common space to commit to is a local church. Sunday morning is one of the few times during the week where I am in a space with strangers and have a realistic chance of striking up a friendship. It is certainly not always an easy place to meet people. But at its best it can be, as my pastor put it in yesterday’s homily, “a school for love.”
“The life of the Christian community has as its rationale — if not invariably its practical reality — the task of teaching us this: so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy,” Rowan Williams writes in The Body’s Grace. If the church is to fulfill this calling, it will need to take more seriously the vocation of friendship and work to make spaces for Christians to live out this calling. Spiritual Friendship is a welcome introduction to that endeavor.