VUGT: What is true friendship?

WE LIVE in a culture in which all the emphasis is focused on sexual love. There is no such thing as “little friendship”.

In God Matters, the late Herbert McCabe OP writes very movingly about friendship. He argues that it is a relationship (unlike marriage) possible only between equals; he sees the incarnation and the kenotic self-emptying involved in God becoming human (mortal, limited, dependent, suffering, thirsty, weeping, etc.) as a necessary precursor to true friendship – God becomes equal to us so that we can become God’s friends.

McCabe also suggests that there cannot be true friendship between parent and child, since there cannot be equality – that, like Jesus, we can learn to be “equal” and be friends.

Friendship is a primary Gospel value. Sexual activity is not. Friendship seems to have been Jesus’ preferred form of love, especially in John’s Gospel – which is curious since John is often described there as the “disciple whom Jesus loved”. To his disciples he says: “You are my friends… I do not call you servants… I have called you friends”. (John 15: 14-15). “Greater love hath no one than this, that one lays down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15. 13).

There is no such thing as “little friendship”. What we need is big friendship because we are dependent on our neighbors. We need what you call “love in action” . We must not undervalue friendship. We live in a culture in which all the emphasis, where too much value is found on one-to-one, sexual, spousal “love”. You can see this easily enough in contemporary idiomatic English.

It is fairly usual for words to change their value, usually downwards – “spinster” and “gossip” for example – but we have done something particularly strange with the agent noun “lover”.

I can – entirely respectably – be a nature lover, a music lover, a lover of books or of my country but, as soon as we apply it to human beings, “love” means sexual partner, and it means this pretty exclusively.

This matters because it separates friendship from love, and denigrates the importance of the former. It is essentially possible to love someone we are not in sexual relationship with, and equally, to be in a sexual relationship with someone we do not love.

It is an excellent and lovely thing when people who are in sexual relationship are also friends; but friendship cannot exist without love. I want the word “love” to mean again those people who love me and/or act lovingly towards me – my friends.

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