Listers, “There is nothing closer to the heart of a twenty year old,” states Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., “than that of friendship: how it is gained and how it is lost. If you do not understand this, you do not understand life.” [i] The ability to develop friendships is one of the greatest gifts of human nature. Friendship is close to all of our hearts and can dramatically impact our happiness and fulfillment. In order to better understand the nature of friendship and its impact upon us, we must develop a proper understanding of the human person. The study of friendship goes back to the ancient Greeks, particularly Aristotle, who recognized the importance of friendship in both our personal lives and in public affairs. Ultimately, the Greek view of friendship fell short without the Christian insight of sin and grace – and most of all – the understanding that the human person is created in God’s image and likeness. A Christian view of friendship, therefore, must explore God’s own essence, which is Triune and relational. This understanding is enhanced by the Incarnation of Christ, which radically transforms the classical view of friendship. Today, many factors threaten the development of healthy and authentic friendships. By recovering a Christian understanding of friendship, we can once again foster healthy friendships in our daily lives.
1. Imago Dei
In the Book of Genesis we read that, “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”[ii] Here the scriptures present us with an understanding of the human person that is modeled after the very likeness of God. Human beings, therefore, share in the essence of their Creator. This not only reveals to us our dignity as human persons, but also the mystery of our being. We are a reflection, or, a “mirror” of our Creator, as St. Augustine describes.[iii] Our entire being shares in a likeness of God, which means all that we experience – including friendship and love – must be modeled after our Creator.
Genesis offers another passage that speaks to human nature and our longing for friendship. In chapter two we read that, “The Lord God said: It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him.”[iv] God then proceeded to create “wild animals” and “all the birds of the air,” but “none proved to be a helper suited to the man.” Finally, God created woman, and it is only woman who satisfies man. It is only another human person who “suits” man’s loneliness. Woman fulfilled man in way that “all the birds of the air” could not. Adam, filled with joy, exclaimed, “this one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” How beautiful is this exclamation of Adam. In Eve he finds a part of himself, and he is able to form a deep bond with her.
Genesis shows us that even God recognizes that “it was not good for man to be alone.” Man is somehow insufficient or incomplete without friendship. As Sister Mary Ann Fatula, O.P. argues, life without friends would be “hellish.”[v] God also found that life would be unbearable without others present around us. Only when man and woman were created did God pronounce all of creation as “very good.” [vi] Friendship, then, is “very good” and completes the beauty of creation.
2. God as Trinity: Friendship within the Godhead
It is now necessary to discuss the “image and likeness” of God by which the human person was created. Fr. Schall describes the investigation of God’s nature as, “the most exciting and basic of all topics, the one that really gets to the heart of things, of why things are and why things are as they are.” [vii] Joseph Ratzinger describes the Christian understanding of God as, “the Three-in-One, as he who is simultaneously the monas and the trias, absolute unity and fullness.” [viii] God is both one and plural. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: entirely one, yet three distinct Persons who exist in relation to one another. According to the Dionysian principle, the goodness which unites two beings will necessarily result in a further diffusion of goodness. The union of Father and Son would be incomplete if their love did not beget a third entity, the Holy Spirit, which both proceeds from and returns the love of Father and Son. Ultimately, the Trinity’s love diffuses outward toward all of creation.
God did not need to create. His creation is a sheer gift of love. Pope Benedict XVI reflects on the mystery of this gift, remaking that, “love knows no ‘why’; it is a free gift to which one responds with the gift of self.” [ix] This reality of self-gift and love is present within the Trinity and overflows into all of creation. The gift of marriage and the family, for example, beautifully participates within the self-gift and love of the Godhead. The life and nature of the Godhead not only overflows outside itself, but is also reflected in creation. We are truly “marked” by God through our friendships. Understanding the Triune friendship of God helps us to better understand the image in which we were created. As Fr. Schall writes:
“The notion that we are persons related to others in our very being and knowing is itself a long-range result of our reflecting on what Father, Son, and Holy Spirit might mean, on Word and Love as expressions of our relatedness to others and to what is.” [x]
Through our friendships we are imitating the divine friendship that exists in the Godhead.
3. What is friendship?
Before proceeding further, it may be helpful to develop an understanding of the nature of friendship that we experience in our daily lives. Aristotle, wrote one of the earliest reflections of friendship in the fourth century B.C. Friendship was so important to him that he devoted two chapters in the Ethics to the topic, more so than any other subject in the book. Aristotle begins by distinguishing three different types of friendship. The first type is what he describes as friendships based on utility, where the friends involved derive some benefit or good from the other. The partners involved do not care for the good of the other, but rather, for their own benefit. Aristotle explains, “when the motive of friendship is usefulness, the partners do not feel affection for one another per se but in terms of the good accruing to each from the other.”[xi]
The second type of friendship is based on pleasure. Aristotle writes, “the same is true of those whose friendship is based on pleasure: we love people not for what they are, but for the pleasure they give us.”[xii] Aristotle believes that these two forms of friendship are problematic because “the friend is loved not because he is a friend, but because he is useful or pleasant.” [xiii] These two friendships occur incidentally, perhaps based on chance circumstances, like a neighbor or classmate. They are also short-lived because one’s pleasures and needs eventually change as time moves on.
The third type of friendship is what Aristotle calls the “truest” and most “virtuous” form. It is friendship based on goodness, where both friends will the good for the other and help each other strive for goodness and virtue. Aristotle notes that, “those who wish for their friend’s good for their friend’s own sake are friends in the truest sense.” [xiv] These friendships last far longer than the previous two types of friendship because the friends care deeply for one another and they are not based upon incidental occurrences. This view of friendship, as willing the good for the other, eventually becomes the basis of Catholic teaching on marriage, contraception, and love. Aristotle argues that good friendship also, “seems to hold states together, and lawgivers apparently devote more attention to it than to justice.” [xv] Friendship, according to Aristotle, is at the root of human relations and impacts humanity not only on a local level, but on a national level as well.
Aristotle’s reflections on friendship are important for several reasons. Firstly, his thoughts reveal that even in the ancient pre-Christian world friendship was still at the heart and center of human affairs. Friendship shows us that human nature abides over time and is truly universal. Aristotle also shows us the importance of friendship on both a local and global scale. Society truly could not function without friendship. In fact, Aristotle argues, the sign of a bad government is one that prevents human flourishing and virtuous friendships. Aristotle is helpful because he defines and distinguishes various types of friendship, but he ultimately falls short of the Christian view because he does not have a developed understanding of human love, sin, and grace. Aristotle, for example, did not believe that men and women could have “true” friendship because he believed they were not equal. He also was skeptical of the idea that we can have friendship with the divine, an idea St. Thomas Aquinas criticizes. It is here that Christianity and the Incarnation entirely transform the classical view of friendship as developed by Aristotle.
4. I Call You Friends
Human friendship is forever transformed through the Incarnation of Christ. Our entire life is now “enchanted” and blessed, because Christ has entered into it. He “dwelt” among us and experienced joys, sorrows, pains, laughter, and friendships. Everything we experience, then, is transformed into something divine because Christ has also shared in it. Nothing we experience is in vain. Friendship, however, takes on a new and more prominent role through the Incarnation. Through Christ, our friendships are no mere replicas of the divine life, but rather, an intimate communion in and with the life of God.
Additionally, Christ’s Incarnation makes it possible for man to enter into friendship with God. Since there is an “infinite inequality between God and us, we could never become equals with God,” which would make friendship with God impossible because “friendship means a certain equality between friends” who can “love us with reciprocal, mutual love.” [xvi] However, there is good news: God desires our friendship. Christ breaks through the barrier between God and man, firstly through his fleshly dwelling, but also through his deliberate desire to become our friends. Jesus “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped at,” and so he no longer calls us servants, but “but friends.” [xvii] Sister Fatula reflects on this reality, writing that:
In his own person Jesus shows us the infinite ache of the Triune God to be close to us… nothing could satisfy God’s longing to be near us, nothing except becoming flesh of our own flesh. In this radical kinship with us, we would know God’s heart in a way we could never have known otherwise. God’s becoming flesh for us has brought us the inconceivable gift of a more deeply familiar friendship with God. [xviii]
Aquinas also discovered that through Jesus, we obtain the Father’s intimate friendship with us in person, thus making our friendship with the divine possible. [xix]
Pope Benedict summarizes the gravity of this event, reflecting that, “[Jesus] calls me his friend. He welcomes me into the circle of those he had spoken to in the Upper Room, into the circle of those whom he knows in a very special way, and who thereby come to know him in a very special way.” [xx] Through Christ’s Incarnation and friendship we enter into the very life of God. Similarly, our human friendships also share and participate in this divine life, not only because of their participation in Christ’s friendship and the life of the Trinity, but also because we are saved together in a community of believers. While we retain our individuality, we are saved as a “Church,” as Fr. Clark observes, a community of persons bound together in faith and friendship with one another and God. [xxi] Finally, St. Augustine notes in his Confessions after the loss of his dear friend, that because of death, only Christian friendships are eternal as they are redeemed in the glory of Christ’s resurrection. [xxii]
I will conclude this brief list on friendship with beautiful words of reflection from Pope Benedict XVI shortly before his resignation as pontiff: He states,
“‘No longer servants, but friends’: this saying contains within itself the entire program of [our] life. What is friendship? Friendship is a communion of thinking and willing. Friendship is not just about knowing someone, it is above all a communion of the will. It means that my will grows into ever greater conformity with God’s will. For his will is not something external and foreign to me, something to which I more or less willingly submit or else refuse to submit. No, in friendship, my will grows together with his will, and his will becomes mine: this is how I become truly myself.” [xxiii]
Pope Benedict helps us to summarize our reflections on friendship. Our desire for friendship stems from the very source of our creation: God. Through our being made in the image and likeness of God, we are a reflection the nature of the Godhead, which is relational. In Christ’s Incarnation, we not only reflect, but also participate in the very nature of God by becoming his friend and creating friendships with other human beings. It is in entering this friendship with God that we “become truly ourselves” as we are reunited with the very source of ourselves, which is the loving and all good God.
Louis Cona is an undergraduate at Georgetown University studying Government and Philosophy. He serves and coordinates the Traditional Latin Mass on campus and is an active member of the Georgetown Knights of Columbus.
[ii] Gen 1:26-27
[iii] Augustine, “On the Trinity,” XV.
[iv] Gen 2:18
[v] Fatual, “Thomas Aquinas: Preacher and Friend,” 36.
[vi] Genesis 1:31
[vii] Schall, “The Order of Things,” 35.
[viii] Ratzinger, “Introduction to Christianity,” 178.
[x] Ibid, 37.
[xi] Aristotle, “Ethics”, 218. Publisher: Pearson. Translator: Martin Ostwald
[xiv] Ibid, 219.
[xv] Ibid, 215.
[xvi] Fatual, “Thomas Aquinas: Preacher and Friend,” 61.
[xvii] Phil 2:16, John 15:15
[xviii] Fatula, 60-61.
[xxi] Clark, “Five Great Catholic Ideas.”
[xxii] Augustine, “Confessions,” Bk IV, Chap IV-IX.