Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Crazy Religion and Sane Friendship

There are two kinds of sincerely religious people: the crazy ones and the sane ones. We've all observed the former (Fred Phelps & co., Mormons, and now, those people who sold all their possessions for the rapture that's been postponed); the latter are, depending upon whom you ask, perhaps only a theoretical possibility. (If pressed, I'd say I've probably met a few. But they draw far less attention to themselves than the crazy sort do.)

What is one to make of the sincerely deluded? Well, the first thing to emphasize is that they're usually not bad people (with the probable exception of that horrible Phelps clan): they are merely carrying a (nonsensical) belief to its logical conclusion. If I truly believed God was planning to save only 144,000 special folks, why wouldn't I knock on your door to let you know about it (and, if you were out, leave some pamphlets)? The fact that it's an objectively asinine thing to do should not concern me, should it? Your salvation is at stake!

Several years ago I passed a church sign that read, "Friends don't let friends go to Hell". (Yes, it was one of those churches. On a later occasion, the sign read "Pray first, then vote". They must not've had enough letters to spell "Republican".) In all ages of the world this sentiment has been true; all ages, that is, except our present one. Only now is it widely considered a virtue to tolerate heterodoxy among one's friends. (This is assuming, of course, that one believes in an ortho-doxy to begin with.) Is this a positive development? I daresay in many ways it is. I certainly have no desire to befriend the sort of Christian — generally one of the more foaming-at-the-mouth sorts of Protestants — who would endeavor to convert me to whatever obscure non-creedal sect he belonged to.

And yet at the same time this development probably says something about our friendships. It's worth noting that the medievals had a stronger sense of friendship than we do today. The Cistercian Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167) considered friendship a gift from God, a point upon which even the most deracinated Episcopalian or Unitarian can probably agree. But Aelred goes further: in true friendship, as in marriage, Christ himself is present as a third person. (I would give you a full quotation, but my library, which includes Aelred's Spiritual Friendship, has gone before me into Iowa.) Is this possible in friendships between two people of different beliefs? That is to say, if friendship is such a deep spiritual connection, to what extent are friendships between people of differing beliefs the real thing? I'm not prepared to answer this question. If Aelred is right, though, I should probably be prepared to admit that I've never truly experienced "spiritual friendship", for so many of my dearest friends indeed do not share my deepest beliefs. For some reason, though, I feel no need to start proselytizing.


  1. I think your question is the right one. Answering it probably depends on answering (at least) two other questions: what does it mean for a person to have beliefs that contradict another person's? and what does 'friendship' amount to?

    To make the last (question) first, Bernard Williams (pronounced in the good-old English way: "BER-nerd"), a very influential 20th century moral philosopher, argued that if "understanding" a word amounts to iterating the word's necessary and sufficient conditions, words with emotive force (like "moral" and "immoral" for instance) will lose that force when we fully understand the word. The thought is that fully understanding a word in this sense puts the person who uses the word outside of the normal community of users; interestingly though, if the word loses its emotive force for the person who understands its necessary and sufficient conditions, the person still cannot be said to understand the word because he does not grasp the emotive force, which is part of the word's meaning in the first place.

    All of that to say, I wonder whether the concept of "friendship" isn't similar to Williams' discussion of "moral." Fully enumerating the necessary and sufficient conditions for whether a friendship is happening reduces the friendship to that set of conditions - in this way, disappears the friendship.

    But with that in mind, look at the first question. One part of the problem with two people being possessed of contradictory beliefs is that they experience the world in different ways, just to the degree that the belief in question affects their experiences. And I would think that part of the point of friendship is to try to share one's experiences of the world with another person; if you can't have the same experiences, you can't really be friends. Religious belief is a tough cookie (pun accepted, though not intended) for friends then, I would think. If two friends disagree about this, but think that a significant aspect of friendship involves the sharing of experiences, I wonder where is the friendship's limit. It would impressive indeed for two people to love one another as friends do if they saw the world through such significantly different sets of beliefs.

  2. Your comments are astute (he said, from the middle of the echo chamber). I would seize on your mention of friendship's limit(s) as important for further discussion. All of my friendships — and indeed, all of my relationships in general — are defined by their limits, by the ideas and experiences I cannot, or will not, share with that particular other person. (This, I assume, is not uncommon. Do you know anyone who shares all with all?) Some of these, it is to be admitted, are trivial: it's not a great loss that nobody likes to play Quiddler with me. Vastly more important are those things that shape our view of the world: religion, philosophy, politics, et alia. To what extent do disagreements in these areas preclude true friendship? Moreover, how closely can we relate to any person at any level, considering how rare it is to agree on all points? Are the only real marriages between those who experience the world in the very same way? (I may have just inadvertently discovered a lousy argument for same-sex marriage. But that's another post.) It would seem a rather considerable impediment to the marriage of true minds.

    I'll suggest, then, that some measure of heterogeneity is a feature inherent to all friendship. The problem is determining what degree of difference a true friendship can bear. As you suggest, differing views of religion are a tough cookie (or, as I would have it, a tough Body of Christ) for any two friends — but not an impossible obstacle.