You are my friends. . . . I do not call you servants. (John 15:14-15 [NSRV])
I and most Quakers I know take humble pride in admitting we are of the Religious Society of Friends. That word, Friends, calls out a warm welcome and acceptance. Besides being an instantly recognizable title for an iconic television show, it has also proven to be a useful identifier for our religious society—Friends Journal, Friends Homes, Friends schools, and even a collective address: Friends, may I have your attention? Although we use John’s verse to secure our identity, we now tend to use the “Friends” label offhandedly, rarely pausing to give much thought to the fact that Jesus used it to single out people with whom he had established a sacred relationship. I contend Jesus was not simply talking about friends so much as friendship. In that regard, the word friends takes on a divine attribute. By selecting and calling this chosen group “friends,” Jesus offers himself as a bridge of friendship to God.
Even though “friend” forms the root of “friendship,” it does not, in and of itself, designate a meaningful relationship. Being friends with someone does not necessarily mean you have a friendship with that person. We can be friends and friendly with many people; indeed, all friendships start with being friends. A real friendship, however, takes time and intimacy to develop. A friendship is unique, as precious and valuable as a nugget of gold and most often just as elusive, for we are more likely to stumble upon a true friendship rather than make it appear.
A friendship is unique, as precious and valuable as a nugget of gold and most often just as elusive, for we are more likely to stumble upon a true friendship rather than make it appear.
The pursuit of a comprehensive understanding of friendship has historically been included in philosophical quests to understand happiness. It can be traced back to Plato, specifically in his Lysis but also in some of his other writings. It was Aristotle, however, who gave the world the foundation for expositions on friendship, making it the sole topic of two of the ten books in his Nicomachean Ethics. The Roman philosopher Cicero wrote a thoughtful account of friendship in his Laelisus de Amicitia. The great Christian theologians Augustine and Aquinas, as well as other medieval scholars, went beyond the great ancient philosophers and proposed that friendship offered a spiritual relationship of the highest order, not simply between humans but also with God. There is something in the concept of friendship that these distinguished intellectuals found not only profound but profoundly necessary to understand.
While it would be folly here to attempt to do justice to Aristotle’s examination of friendship in the Ethics, there are a few basic features that must be noted. First, friendship is “a sort of virtue, and necessary to our life” (8:1, 1). Second, there is mutual well-wishing: “And those who wish well to their friends for the friends’ sake are friends in the truest sense” (8:3, 6). There is no alpha in true friendships, only the other person whom we love for whom he or she is, not for what he or she can give us beyond love. Aristotle stresses the inclusion of such love in friendship, when he writes: “Friendship seems to lie in the loving, rather than in the being loved” (8:8, 3), and “[t]he virtue of a friend is to love, so that when people love each other in proportion to their worth, they are lasting friends, and theirs is a lasting friendship” (8:8, 4).
Of the several chapters in Cicero’s book, we find such thought-provoking chapter headings as “Friendship is Good and Necessary,” “The Blessings of Friendship,” and “Friends Should be Chosen Carefully.” Those three headings alone should give us pause. Friendships are good, and they are necessary. One of the blessings of a friendship is that we like ourselves better because someone likes us for whom we are. Find people who are truly happy, and you will find they have secure friendships, whereas the absence of secure friendships contributes to melancholy. Friends should be chosen carefully. (Who hasn’t been hurt by someone thought to be a friend?) Of the truest of friendships, Aristotle notes that “such friendships should be uncommon, as such people are rare” (Ethics 8:3, 8); such rarity makes them all the more precious.
Our part of the friendship is to love God simply because he is God. As for His part, God, of course, offers us His eternal love in return.
The great medieval Christian theologians saw in friendship a divine attribute. In his Confessions, Augustine tells us that
[t]here is no true friendship save between those thou [God] dost bind together and who cleave to thee by that love which is ‘shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who is given to us’” (4.6.7).
Another statement from Augustine (“Blessed is he who loves thee, and who loves his friend in thee, and his enemy also, for thy sake” [4:9:14]) suggests our Quaker belief in the indwelling of God in the other.
In the thirteenth century, the renowned theologian Thomas Aquinas produced the most insightful Christian theological perspective on friendship, especially as it relates to happiness. The Quaker-sounding title of the eighth article in his Summa Theologica (I-II) is “Whether the Fellowship of Friends Is Necessary for Happiness?” He begins his answer with this secular qualification:
If we speak of the happiness of this life, the happy man needs friends . . . that he may do good to them; that he may delight in seeing them do good; and again that he may be helped by them in his good work (I-II: 4, 8).
Aquinas, who based much of his assessment of friendship on Aristotle’s Ethics, found a connection between Aristotle’s maxim that we should treat a friend as a second self and the Christian dictum “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”
There was one area, however, where Aquinas disagreed with the great philosopher. Aristotle held that individuals of extremely different rank could not develop friendships of depth; subsequently, one could not be friends with God. Aquinas took exception to that view, when he wrote: “That [which] is loved as a subsisting good . . . is so loved that we wish well to it. [This] is called friendship” (Summa Theologica II-II 60, 3). Aquinas recognized that nothing subsists of good more than God, and we, the created, cannot bring anything to the Creator that he does not already have, not even friendship—at least not as humans know it. Our part of the friendship is to love God simply because he is God. As for His part, God, of course, offers us His eternal love in return. Aquinas concludes his examination of friendship by noting that while humans do not need other humans for perfect happiness—such happiness is to be found only in God—we may find earthly delight in the fact that
[s]upposing one neighbor to be there, love of him results from perfect love of God. Consequently, friendship is, as it were, concomitant with perfect Happiness (II-II: 4, 8).
Individually, in our Quaker communion—that sacred moment of silent worship—why not accept God as a friend, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, repentant, trusting, honest, and loving?
While attempts to define and understand friendship stretched across thousands of years, the basic attributes of friendship always surfaced. Friendship is a virtue, thus making it a moral attribute. Friendships are necessary for human happiness. Friendships require reciprocal love. As a matter of fact, love, or charity in the Christian sense, is bound to friendship throughout all these philosophical examinations of the subject. Friendships are communal, they bring justice and harmony to the family of humankind. “The bond of human friendship,” wrote Augustine, “has a sweetness of its own, binding many souls together as one” (Confessions 2:5:10).
Perhaps, due to centuries of “fear of the Lord” and “hellfire and brimstone” preaching, the belief that God is too distant to be a friend prevents us from approaching Him as such. Although a friendship with God seems to defy human understanding, we should give due diligence to Jesus’s use of the term. By canceling our servitude and offering us a divine promotion to spiritual friendship, Jesus bestows upon us a divine honor. If we are to base our official Quaker identity on Jesus’s call to friendship, do we not have an obligation to live up to his calling?
This spiritual friendship, however, does not come without obligation. The other part of Jesus’s declaration is that inclusion in divine friendship requires following his commandments; therefore, the human-God-human connection of friendship recognized by Augustine and Aquinas should direct the practice of our faith. This raises the query: How can Quakers put spiritual friendship into practice? Corporately, perhaps, as we implement any of our noble testimonies, we do so emboldened by the ethical virtue and benevolence of spiritual friendship. Individually, in our Quaker communion—that sacred moment of silent worship—why not accept God as a friend, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, repentant, trusting, honest, and loving? Give of ourselves without expectation of reward. God offers us love, acceptance, forgiveness, and happiness in return. It is through him that many souls may be bound as one. As a best friend, Jesus is available 24/7, no texting required, available to share any joy, any sorrow, and able to sit silently beside us and know what is in our heart. In Jesus, we really do have a Best Friend Forever. Take time to recognize the friendships in your life; be grateful and thank God for them: “For he who gains a good [person] for a friend, gains something good for himself” (Ethics 8:4, 5).