When Friendship and Fellowship Collide

by Darryl Hart on February 19, 2010 · 9 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

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Among the quotations on friendship that I ran across while preparing to write, two stood out. According to one website, Aristotle is supposed to have written: “Friendship is a single soul dwellings in two bodies.” Another that struck my fancy is alleged to have come from the pen of Thomas Jefferson (a man too often dismissed for my taste among political and Christian conservatives): “I find friendship to be like wine, raw when new, ripened with age, the true old man’s milk and restorative cordial.”

Having grown up in a Christian home that foresook all alcohol and tobacco, I am a sucker for all aphorisms that say positive things about my childhood taboos. Juvenile? Of course. But Jefferson’s wisdom captures well the enjoyment I have experienced with friends, especially those who continue to be. I do sometimes need to reassure my wife that I do really have friends, and they have, along with her, given me some of the best evenings, afternoons, meals, and conversations of my lengthening life.

But Aristotle’s aphorism may be more pertinent for what follows because it points to the shared convictions, outlook, and interests that constitute a good friendship. My mother had never read Aristotle, nor did she seem to intuit the truth behind his statement because she was always after me to have Christian friends. Growing up in a world that was hostile to the faith as my parents had received it, one again that prohibited all sorts of “worldly” amusements, from cigars to cinema, her wishes for my friends made perfect sense. She wanted friendship to reinforce the fellowship that I was supposed to be practicing at church and throughout the course of my earthly existence.

Little did she know that my Christian friends in high school were the ones exposing me to the worldly amusements (some of them even illegal), while my so-called secular friends were jocks who rarely drank a beer even when state laws across the river in New Jersey made it legal for those eligible for a drivers license to drive over to Trenton for a taste. So my mother was a tad naive in her world-denying faith. What does that have to do with differences between friendship and fellowship?

In my case a lot, because I have long puzzled over the reality that I have experienced higher degrees of friendliness with non-Christians than I do with those with whom I am in communion – as in eating and drinking (albeit spiritually as a Calvinist) the body and blood of Christ. In fact, my experience has been that I often share more – or experience a kind of Aristotelian soulful bond – with those who do not sup with me around the Lord’s Table. Which leads me to wonder if there is something wrong with my faith. Maybe I have got too much of the world in me to appreciate those aspects of human existence that I share with fellow believers.

On the other side, it could be that fellowship and friendship fall in different categories all together. Perhaps friendship is inherently a human phenomenon that cements people in the common realms in which we live and move (but do not necessarily have our being as souls). In which case, fellowship is a spiritual reality that transcends friendship because it points to a higher reality that trumps earthly circumstances.

This seems to me a satisfying theory. But despite its appeal on paper it leaves me in the position of feeling closer in this life to people who may very well be estranged from me in the world to come. And this is a dilemma that my mother’s naivete may well have unearthed in a fairly profound way. What if the people to whom I am closest, at least at the level of friendship, are the people from whom I will be farthest in the world to come? I know my mother’s remedy. Evangelize. Make those friends Christian. Well, mom, I have tried and I pray. But the failure of my evangelizing and prayer does not change the deep bond I feel with non-believers. (The other solution not taken is to abandon the truths of religion for the sake of doing justice to friendship.)

I can reassure myself that ultimately fellowship is more important than friendship. I can believe that the bond I experience at the Lord’s Table is truly deeper than the one I find when I dine with a friend. But theory doesn’t change the discomfort I experience when thinking that I am closer to non-believers, and may even be edified more by them, than by my fellow believers.

I see no way out of this dilemma except to chalk it up to the good providence of a God who gives gifts of friendship and fellowship, and that each in its own way sustains this pilgrim. (Yes, it is all about me.) True, this dilemma leaves me in a semi-schizophrenic state, with friends who are apparently closer than fellow believers who frankly are sometimes bizarre. Still, it also points to the important difference between things human and realities divine. If friendship were the basis for fellowship, the church would be an even stranger place. And if fellowship were the basis for friendship, the world would be a fairly scary place. Friendship and fellowship each have their own spheres, and point to the hyphenated reality of human existence this side of the world to come. We are not religious souls (not in an Aristotelian friendship way, anyway) all the way down. Believers have interests other than faith. And we are not secular bodies all the time, but have a spiritual existence that can only be sustained through the fellowship of a believing communion. To force these two sides of our human existence into coherence, as my mother wanted, would be to commit the conservative unpardonable sin – namely, immanentizing the eschaton.

Yet, in full disclosure mode, this way of resolving my mother’s dilemma has its own weakness and again, since this is all about me, my own experience undermines it. Arguably, my best friend is someone with whom I am also in fellowship. Although he is a Mets fan and I root for the Phillies, we have co-written several books that stem not only from our common historical interests but also from our religious convictions. We both enjoy smoking, drinking, and talking about favorite authors (like St. Wendell) while puffing and sipping. In which case, our friendship also includes fellowship.

My mother may be happy to know that the fellowship this friend and I experience makes our bond all the more poignant. It may even confirm Aristotle’s point about a single soul dwelling in two bodies. Less happy for mother is the reality that the single soul, resulting from this communion of two bodies, receives nourishment from single-malt.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Robin Datta February 20, 2010 at 9:59 am

If one goes by the Bible instead of the New Testament, the conflict does not arise. The First Commandment forbids the acknowledgment of other deities but does not command the acknowledgment of even one deity. The Second Commandment forbids not the making of a “graven image” – the common Christian translation – but of “an incomplete” (the word “fesel”). The recognition that finite cognition is necessarily incomplete in this regard is reflected in the lack of a proper noun for the Deity in Judaism.

This is expressed in the Sefer Yetzirah Cmapter I verse 7 – “The One without a second”: it does not offer the option of distinguishing oneself (or anything else) from the “One”. This is non-dualistic Hinduism (and all of Buddhism) clad in a different gown.

avatar Mark February 20, 2010 at 10:26 am

Leaving the hallowed walls of seminary to join the ranks of a public university, there have been times of lonliness and alienation. Yet to my surprise, new friendships have and are developing. This refreshing post rises to the surface delightful memories of past friendships with the same mutual fellow around his pool, drinking a black and tan, puffing. Thank you.

avatar eutychus February 20, 2010 at 3:32 pm

I don’t buy your theory. It’s nice and all, but I think it is more likely than your soul is aligned with these “heathens”. (And your theory of friendship/fellowship contradicts your quote from Aristotle.)

But fear not. Your inability to find soul connections with your believing fellows probably has more to do with the fact that these believing fellows are probably among the legions of Christians who have lost track of their hearts and souls and just might find themselves, and the end of all things, on the outside looking in. I suspect Jesus will say “away from me, I never knew you” to many of us who think we have a punched ticket to throne room.

And I wonder whether Jesus will welcome many who may not profess on earth to be Christians, but when they come face to face with Jesus will recognize him, bow down and confess his Lordship. I often find more evidence of the spirit of Jesus among my non-Christian friends.

avatar eutychus February 20, 2010 at 3:34 pm

where’s the edit post option?? danged typos.

avatar D.W. Sabin February 21, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Some of my best friends are pagan.

avatar Mark Shiffman February 22, 2010 at 9:38 am

D.W., I thought you WERE a pagan.

avatar D.W. Sabin February 22, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Shiffman,
It depends on what the definition of “were” is.

Old Pagans never die, they just conjure.

avatar Jon February 22, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Jesus didn’t say the world will know you are my disciples by your friendship for each other, but rather by your love (agape). Think family, not friends. You don’t get to choose your family, and yes some family members can be quite bizarre, but there should be a bond of love there. Your “heathen” friends will definitely notice when you perform an act of love for some “bizarre” family member of your fellowship; that you would do this is the best evangelization you can do. As Christ taught, even in the world friends will do good for friends; our fellowship is meaningful when we do good to not-friends, simply because of the bond of fellowship.

That said, if you have no growing personal bonds within your community of faith, including friendship, then there’s likely a problem on one side or the other…

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