Anne-Marie Ellithorpe

The Importance of Friendship

By Anne-Marie Ellithorpe

What role does friendship play in your life? How important is friendship to you, and within your communities? Friendships are relationships of mutuality and reciprocity that may take different shapes within varying contexts and stages of our lives. Yet they are consistently formative relationships. Given the formative role of friendship within our lives, I suggest we need to be more attentive to friendship’s potential as a “school of love.”

As formative relationships, friendships are consistently schools of learning. While school may conjure up images of classrooms, textbooks, and homework, my use of this metaphor acknowledges friendship as a relationship of learning in many varied contexts. It also acknowledges that learning is fundamentally social, and integral to human participation in communities. Chosen friendships, open friendships, fun friendships, compassionate friendships, soul friendships, friendships between spouses and between relatives, friendship with the divine, and civic friendship may all serve as contexts for this school.

While some have polarized friendship and love, I am convinced that friendship is, in fact, a school of love. Love is a core element of friendship, and friendship is an outworking of love. Authentic friendship is not opposed to a broader love, but rather, provides a context for its development. The love of friendship is not in competition with an all-encompassing love, but rather an expression and source of it. The love that a friend receives and enjoys as a gift provides a source of motivation for love given to others.1

I am not alone in this conviction. Writers from a variety of backgrounds have recognized friendship as a school for a wider love, which in turn has friendship as both its inner meaning and its intent.2 For Simone Weil, for example, all our loves are implicitly love for God, and love and friendship are profoundly related.3 Weil notes that there is something universal about friendship: “It consists of loving a human being as we should like to be able to love each soul in particular…”4 She continues: “As a geometrician looks at a particular figure in order to deduce the universal properties of the triangle, so he who knows how to love directs upon a particular human being a love which is universal.”5

More recently, Paul Wadell has identified friendship as a school of love, finding confirmation within the work of Augustine, Aelred, and Barth that, within the context of love for God, friendship does not oppose Christian love (agapē). Rather than agapē being a love beyond or opposed to friendship, friendship is the relationship within which such love is learned. Agapē then is “friendship’s perfection.”6 Thus, friendship has the potential to form human beings in ways that reflect aspects of God’s character, including God’s love.

While the way we love each other can only ever be a very faint echo of God’s love, such love is not an optional extra within the Scriptures. Rather, it is insisted upon, commanded, and empowered. We are to love, as we have been loved; we are to befriend, as we have been befriended.7 Loving and befriending are a response to God’s grace, and a natural overflow of a way of life immersed in and empowered by the Spirit.

Further, both love and friendship are integral to flourishing communities.8 Contemporary communities will benefit from the restoration of love as a serious public reality, and from the recovery of friendship as an expression of this love that values “the interrelatedness, mutuality, and interdependence of humanity.”9 Likewise, our communities will benefit from the recognition and encouragement of friendship as a formative school of love.

Love and friendship take varying forms throughout the lifespan. Within what contexts have you learned to love? In what ways have you experienced the mutuality and equal regard of friendship as “a school of love”? Within what contexts and communities do you see potential to encourage and nurture this school?

Anne-Marie Ellithorpe has recently completed a PhD in practical theology through the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Her thesis is entitled “Towards a Practical Theology of Friendship.” Originally from New Zealand, Anne-Marie is currently living in Vancouver, Canada. As a research affiliate at Vancouver School of Theology, she has taken a lead role in facilitating meetings of and presentations by fellow research associates.

1. John Burnaby, Amor Dei: A Study of the Religion of St. Augustine, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1938), 310.

2. See also Liz Carmichael, Friendship: Interpreting Christian Love, (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 165.

3. Weil developed an acute sense of God’s universal presence not only animating human love, but indeed “making all love possible.” Carmichael, 169.

4. Simone Weil, “Friendship,” in Waiting for God, (New York: HarperCollins, 1951), 135–136.

5. Weil, 135–136.

6. Paul J. Wadell, Friendship and the Moral Life, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 119.

7. See, for example, Deuteronomy 10:18¬–19; John 13:34, 15:12–15.

8. Martin Luther King Jr. describes agapē as seeking “to preserve and create community,” as seeking to restore community, and as recognizing “that all life is interrelated.” Martin Luther King Jr., “An Experiment in Love,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr, ed. James Melvin Washington, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 20.

9. L.D. Ivory, “Towards a Theology of Radical Involvement: The Continuing Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” (PhD diss, Emory University, 1994), 112.