Jose Mena vs Me on Christian Friendship

Jose Mena vs Me on Christian Friendship December 5, 2014

A critique of some elements of my book. Some of this misreads specific phrases (I don’t use “ancient” as a pejorative!) but Mena is putting his finger on something which is really in the book. I should say that I’m just not in a position to respond to these arguments; my best friend isn’t Christian (nor is my family of course), and that’s obviously shaped how I understand the role of shared belief within friendship.

…In Gay and Catholic, Tushnet is primarily concerned with establishing that friendship, properly speaking, can lead to relationships just as intimate as romantic ones. This isn’t obvious: our culture denigrates friendship while overemphasizing romance, while Christian luminaries like C.S. Lewis have argued that an essential difference between romantic partnership and friendship is that romantic partners fix their gaze on one another, while friends focus on some common goal, interest, or project.  Lewis thinks that friendship is essentially outward-focused, a relationship between colleagues, while only romance is characterized by a true adoration and love for the beloved itself.  There’s some value in this distinction in descriptive terms; after all, aren’t most friendships ordered around mutual entertainments instead of the friends themselves?  Tushnet’s book is at its best when, invoking St. Aelred of Rielvaux’s Spiritual Friendship, she attacks the idea that this arrangement ought to be normative.  She emphasizes along with St. Aelred that friends are called to profound sacrificial love, perfected in Christ’s teaching that “greater love has no man than this: to give his life for his friends.” She highlights St. Aelred’s beautiful writing on the intimacy and love that are proper to friendship.

All of this is excellent, as far as it goes. But things get a little shaky when discussing St. Aelred’s admonitions to choose friends wisely, and in her discussion of friendship with non-Christians.  She relegates the idea of “prudence in choosing one’s friends” to “the concerns of ancient writers on friendship;” it’s not clear that we are really supposed to take them seriously in modern society. She draws a distinction between Spiritual Friendship’s depiction of “the day-to-day challenges of friendship” and St. Aelred’s more lofty theological teachings. Of these theological concerns, Tushnet writes “it’s not obvious how we could translate his sacrificial and intimate friendship, practiced virtuously and modeled on Christ’s love for his disciples, into our own lives.” Tushnet, strangely, assumes that St. Aelred did not consider the possibility of friendships with non-Christians in his work. While she admits that most of her friendships do not enjoy “mutual harmony in affairs human and divine,” the Ciceronian norm that guides St. Aelred’s theological reflection, she doesn’t really explain what the true nature of friendship actually is. When speaking of these friendships, Tushnet writes of “keep[ing] [her] side of the street clean,” meaning that she, alone, has the job to seek God in the relationship. Her “job isn’t to convert her friends.” She leaves us with her “conviction that it is possible to compromise on neither faith nor love.”

But this understanding is deeply at odds with St. Aelred’s account of friendship.


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