A Review of
Friendship: The Heart of Being Human
(Pastoring for Life series)
Victor Lee Austin
Reviewed by Scott J. Pearson
How everyday life intertwines with the Christian faith has always interested me. In this work, Episcopal priest Victor Lee Austin attempts to analyze just that by making a compelling case that friendship is a universal theme within Christian theology. While many would use the traditional term “love” to apply to these circumstances, by using a new term, Austin brings freshness and nuance to the issue.
He starts by analyzing why friendship does not hold a prominent place in contemporary church discussions. Marriage, not friendship, tends to maintain a central place in ecclesial discussions. This is unfortunate as friendship seems to be a more universal concept than marriage. Further, singles often complain about how the church overlooks them, and contemporary family units are becoming less traditional. Into this discussion, Austin relates his own story as a widower.
He then ties his understanding of friendship to classical texts from Aristotle and Plato. Neither of them comes to a definitive conclusion. They end up throwing about several concepts that are key to understanding the dynamic, but do not land on an authoritative definition. He notes that this ancient Greek culture held friendship in higher regard than marriage.
He traces the concept of friendship throughout the Christian scriptures. While many would exclusively focus on tried-and-true examples like David and Jonathan, Austin attempts to tie friendship into such disparate and varied episodes like the Garden of Eden, the story of Job, and Jesus’s mission to the cross. By finding friendship as a relevant motive throughout the Biblical narrative of redemption, he makes his case that this concept is neglected within theological circles.
In Christian history, he contends that love and friendship take a rightful lead in the writings of Augustine of Hippo and play a significant role in Thomas Aquinas’s theology. These two heavy hitters set the tone, but Austin then pivots to a text by an obscure 12th-century Scottish monk named Aelred of Rievaulx. Aelred once served in the court of the king and so understood first-hand the leverage of relationships among people of power. He sought to see spiritual friendship as the point of the Christian life. Being friendly with others stems simply from the overflow of Christian redemption.
Then, in what I judge as the main weak point of this otherwise helpful work, Austin diverges on a long diatribe about sex and celibacy. While I don’t necessarily disagree with his position that contemporary Western society over-emphasizes sex to the detriment of friendship, he comes off as somewhat obsessive about this concept. In so doing, he belabors the point instead of stating his position simply. Perhaps I am too much reminded of some reactionary sermons of my youth where pastors tried to grab cheap cultural relevance by talking about sex. Were I editing this text, I would have reorganized this chapter and attempted to make the point more succinct and straightforward.
Then, in an obvious move, Austin attempts to find friendship eternally in the Trinity. By mixing the concepts of love and friendship, he can mix Augustine’s Trinitarianism (God as Lover, Beloved, and the Love that Proceeds) with his own theological concept of friendship.
Finally, he depicts a hodgepodge of examples from literature that many of us are familiar with from modern culture (e.g., Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Huck Finn). While many – even those that write within the church – would start and end there, these act as a mere postscript to Austin’s main argument grounded in classical philosophy and Christian theology.
Very few humans, regardless of religious bent, would argue that the world needs less friendship. As such, Austin treads on very safe ground in addressing this topic. Nonetheless, as chronicled above, he analyzes friendship by taking several unanticipated turns. In fact, he inspired me (a longtime fan of Plato’s dialogues) to pick up Lysis, Plato’s treatment on friendship. I welcome anything that would help me help others make this world a less cold place.
Overall, this treatment provides a nice, short (173 pages with only 155 pages of main text) theological argument for the centrality of friendship in Christian spirituality. It can serve as a launching pad for discussion among Christian parishioners or interesting engagement in homilies. In fact, I plan to use Victor Lee Austin’s discussion of the nature of friendship in the story of Job to lead discussion in a Sunday School class soon. This book is appropriately part of a series entitled, “Pastoring for Life,” but its appropriate audience probably spans wider than pastors. Lay folk interested in ministering to fellow humans can also be served by this accessible text. After all, friendship is a gift from God for all of us.