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Last weekend I had the privilege of speaking to the Harvard College Faith and Action student ministry (which, incidentally, makes the Boston Marathon bombings feel so much closer—I sat next to two runners on my flight there). Rarely have I encountered such a vibrant, passionate group of Christians, and I was honored by their sharp, creative responses and questions.

(One of the most moving parts of my visit was hearing a student give a testimony about being gay and Christian and wrestling with what that means for his future—celibacy? marriage? community? Afterward, it was hard to avoid tears as student after student came up and embraced him. I thought of Brandon Ambrosino’s story and how these kind of loving expressions often fly under the radar in our public debates about sex and marriage but are no less sustaining for going unremarked.)

The first talk I gave was on “Renewing Friendship,” and I borrowed a lot of ideas from folks like Alan Bray , Ben Myers , and Eve Tushnet .

Several students approached me afterward with comments and questions, but one question in particular stood out. A student recounted to me a conversation he’d had in which his friend questioned whether Christianity really has room for friendship, since the Christian ideal seems to be an unconditional love that perseveres in loving even when the beloved becomes (or remains) unlovely. How is that really friendship rather than simply blind goodwill? How does that kind of love actually respond to the particularity and unique dignity and value of the friend him- or herself? If Christian friendship is unmerited, then it’s not really friendship.

(In a way, this objection is the counterpart to Samuel Johnson’s worry about friendship: “All friendship is preferring the interest of a friend, to the neglect, or, perhaps, against the interest of others . . . Now Christianity recommends universal benevolence, to consider all men as our brethren; which is contrary to the virtue of friendship, as described by the ancient philosophers.” The friend of the student I spoke with thinks this “universal benevolence” is problematic for Christianity, whereas Johnson think it’s precisely what recommends Christianity over and against Greco-Roman ideals of “friendship,” but their thinking about Christianity and friendship is strikingly similar.)

This is a fascinating question, and the answer, I suspect, has to do with the way Christian love among friends is indeed unconditional and persevering but also, at the same time, a love that never gives up precisely because it’s responding to the unique worth of each person who is made in the image of God and for whom Christ died.

In my Christology class yesterday, we discussed the following passage from Augustine’s commentary on the Fourth Gospel:

God’s love is incomprehensible and unchangeable. For it was not after we were reconciled to him through the blood of his Son that he began to love us. Rather, he has loved us before the world was created, that we might also be his sons along with his only-begotten Son—before we became anything at all. The fact that we were reconciled through Christ’s death must not be understood as if his Son reconciled us to him that he might now begin to love those whom he had hated. Rather, we have already been reconciled to him who loves us, with whom we were enemies on account of sin. The apostle will testify whether I am speaking the truth: ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’. Therefore, he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness. Thus in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.

I said to my students that this paragraph is remarkable for how it holds together both the unmerited gift quality of God’s love—God loves us in spite of the unloveliness and misery of our sin—but in so doing God restores us to our original created dignity, what he first planned for us to be and has never stopped loving in us.

Thinking along these lines is, I suspect, the answer to those who are skeptical about the practice of Christian friendship. It is not that Christian friendship is blind to the unique, unrepeatable, supremely valuable identity of each friend. But by loving with a radically committed love that will never give up on the other, even when the other becomes unlovable, Christian friends imitate God who loves not only creatures made in his image but loves fallen creatures and only thereby makes us lovely in the wake of our ruin.

(Cross-posted at Spiritual Friendship )

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