Skip to content

Should We Put Friendships before Ideology?

Review of Understanding Friendship: On the Moral, Political, & Spiritual Meaning of Love, by Gary Chartier

Understanding Friendship is not a friendly bedside reader, stuffed with tales of weekend backpacking trips and lengthy hot chocolate and marshmallow fireside discussions with the writer’s engaging friends. Rather, it is an academic-style book with multiple footnotes on many pages and an impersonal though (to me) engaging intellectual approach, as if a liberally updated Aristotle had come back to give book-length treatment to the topic.

If you pick the book up, you will bump into potentially shin-bruising sentences such as “I stress friendship’s capacity to enhance political action, before going on to highlight the ways in which a deterritorialized, network-based conception of politics could help to restore friendship’s classical political significance” (xvi). Having read the whole book, I find this sentence much more comprehensible than I did at first. Here’s another such sentence: “Because of the nature of the biblical stories on which Christian narrative-cum-virtue ethics will likely draw, this approach will be less likely to embrace the sorts of rigoristic fantasies which abstract imperialism might find it easier to endorse” (115). Bottom line: challenging reading.

That being said, the book is brimming with interesting ideas. Like Aristotle, Chartier is helpful with definition and explanation. For example:

Friendship’s most fundamental characteristic is preferentiality: a friendship is a chosen relationship, not one linked automatically with kinship or occupancy of some other social role. The other basic characteristics of a typical relationship between two close friends include mutuality, reciprocity, a disposition on the part of each to enjoy the other’s company, trust, mutual assistance, acceptance, spontaneity, understanding, and intimacy. (3)

I find it illuminating, after a passage like this, to pause to consider each of the writer’s chosen nouns in light of personal friendships and situations. None of the descriptions are new in themselves, but seeing them packed together constitutes a sharpened way of seeing friendship.

Chartier emphasizes and illuminates the idea that friendships help define and grow the self, in passages such as the following:

Because a commitment to a friendship is open ended, because the development of a self that incorporates a friend or a friendship is ongoing, our attachment, our self-investment, is not to a static relationship or identity but to an ongoing project not only of mutual discovery but also, because we and our relationships are themselves developing, of mutual redefinition and mutual adventure. (27)

My friendship is a bond with a distinct and distinctive person who has shared her or his life with me in the course of a particular set of events, with whom I’ve connected in and through and as a result of a unique, and therefore unsubstitutable, irreplaceable common history. In addition, in the course of that history, the person who is my friend becomes a distinct part of me; she helps to constitute my identity in a way that another who has not shared our particular joint history cannot. (28)

When I relate to a friend, I open myself much more completely, much less instrumentally, than in almost any other sort of relationship. And thus the full process of individuation is furthered. . . . friendships are identity constitutive. (40)

Some of the aspects or questions about friendship that Chartier takes up include:

– The obligations of friends to each other.

– The necessarily limited number of people with whom one can be close friends and freedom from the belief that one should be friends with everyone (as distinguished from treating everyone as well as possible in the circumstances): “Christian love is not generic–owed, somehow, to everyone in just the same way and to the same degree” (129).

– The challenges or problems with loving friends for their qualities, abilities, or even their characters, as distinguished from their whole personhood.

I think Chartier is particularly interesting when talking about the tension between loving and enjoying friends for their affinities with us versus for their distinctive qualities and separateness. He strongly commends readers to embrace the value of having friends with different perspectives on religion, politics, and a whole range of matters. This is possible because Chartier presents friendship as much more important than, say, loyalty to church or state (I believe he would draw a sharp distinction between loyalty to a church as a human institution and loyalty to God).

At the same time, he considers the church a crucial setting in which relationships across different lines can be fostered:

The church can help people sustain friendships despite political, religious, and other sorts of potentially divisive disagreements. It can enable people to step back from disagreement and to resist the temptation to resent or dislike others on the basis of such disagreement. It can do so by emphasizing that each person is uniquely cherished by God and embraced by divine love, that the church itself is a place in which that love can be exhibited, that no person possesses God’s omniscience and infallibility, and that no creaturely project deserves anything like absolute importance or loyalty. (168)

I think this is a great passage and an example of the value of Chartier’s thinking. At the same time, I notice that while he rightly says the church “can can can can” do all these wonderful things, it often does not. Churches can be hotbeds of polarization and division. But then I have to ask myself what am I doing to fulfill the lofty nature of Chartier’s possibilities? Am I seeking out opportunities to respectfully listen to those who think differently from me on “important” issues? Not as much as I should be. However, just this last weekend, I was drawn into a conversation with a friend of widely different political views, and I was able to defuse a discussion that was headed toward gravelly roads by briefly presenting Chartier’s ideas referenced above—so I’m already gaining in practical application.

In chapters five and six, “Politics” and “Spiritualities,” Chartier considers the role of friendship within larger social structures—especially that of the state and that of the church. In a potentially controversial statement, Chartier says, “Suppose, for instance, that a state diktat calls for a friend to relocate from one side of an arbitrary line to the other because of her immigration status: there will be no moral reason to cooperate with the state in such a case” (182). The dogmatic construction of the statement is provocative, but it leaves me with questions such as: 1. What if the person were not a friend? Would I then be obliged to hand her over to the state? If not, then what difference does friendship make in the situation? 2. What obligations do citizens have to the state in a case like this? None? It’s easy to think of examples of over-allegiance to the state, as in the revolutionary-era paintings of Jacques-Louis David, such as Oath of the Horatii, where “strong” men uphold the state by suppressing their emotions and family and friendship ties against the personal ties and emotions of “weak” women who threaten to undermine it; or The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, which is more of the same. My tendency would be to think that citizens do have obligations to the state in situations regarding immigration, but that the obligations of friendship (or even common humanity) may well override state interest in a particular situation.

Chartier shows his strong friendship-first perspective on ideologically divisive issues: “The Christian revolutionary who seeks, in the name of this or that putatively good cause, to sweep away the ties of friendship—at least friendship with the politically unsound—has confused his own imagined kingdom with the realm of God. And he has failed to recognize the nature of the flourishing which should be the focus of all Christian political and cultural activity” (189). Where do enthusiasm and zeal—admirable when applied to good means to a good end—turn into zealotry or fanaticism?

Chartier’s book will not answer all our questions on such a question, be we can see from further statements that his thinking stays firmly on a friendship-first track.

We need to find our security in God rather than in our status as people who accept particular beliefs about God. If we do, we can greet our loved ones’ disagreements with equanimity, even curiosity. (211)

When a religious institution, claiming the sanction of God for what it does, prohibits or discourages relationships with “deviants” or outsiders, it may unwittingly be assuming the status of an idol for its members. (215)

Shunning those whose views might unsettle us or challenge the convictions of our communities is a manifestation of idolatry and as such should itself be shunned, not embraced. (216)

I hope, dear reader, that 2023 is a great year for you in investing in and reaping the rewards of deep and meaningful friendships. Professor Chartier’s most interesting book has certainly stimulated my thinking on this central topic of human experience and could well do the same for you.

Scott Moncrieff is a professor of English at Andrews University.

Image credit: Fortess Press

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.