Recently, while talking to an old friend, I realized that we are the epitome of the saying that opposites attract. I could likely count the number of our shared beliefs on one hand, and if asked, he would classify himself as an atheist. Yet, after hundreds of disagreements, we continue to put aside our differences and share a mutual love and admiration for each other. This friendship has baffled many of my religious friends—they fail to see how two polar opposites can remain so close. I can even admit that their responses from the outside perspective are just, as it is strange to me too at times. However, the reality of the friendship behind closed doors is a different story. Behind these doors, the deep respect, love, and admiration for one another mirror that of which can only be present in a true, virtuous friendship.
Although I have never questioned the quality of our friendship, I recently found it being challenged in a lecture I attended on Aristotle’s three kinds of friendship. The primary goal of the lecture was to consider Aristotle’s definition of friendship through a Catholic lens. It wasn’t until that evening that I found myself truly bewildered as to why my friend and I have maintained a deep bond while failing to share the deepest similarities in our beliefs.
Aristotle describes each friendship as falling into one of three categories: pleasure, utility, or virtue. Although each of these types of friendships have been discussed by many, I’d like to take a closer look at friendship of virtue and the criteria that was added to the definition that evening. In the standard Aristotelian definition of virtuous friendship, the two parties must be good themselves, alike in virtue, and wish well to each other for the sake of the other. Contrary to what I wanted to hear, this lecture was making the claim that in addition to this standard definition of virtuous friendship, a deep shared commonality—namely, faith—must be shared between the two parties. At the deepest core of our being, we must share something substantial, and in the highest form of virtuous friendship, this must be our shared Christian faith.
As frustrating as it was to have my friendship challenged, the claims made were hard to refute. Even when sticking to only Aristotle’s definition, I found myself questioning the purpose of my friendship. Aristotle says that the two parties within a friendship of virtue must be good and alike in virtue. In the Christian life, to be good and virtuous is to be like God, who is perfect goodness. Through this lens, it makes sense that our most virtuous friendships would have a shared belief in the Christian faith. How else can someone strive for goodness and virtue without the supreme good, God, present in their lives? Being able to see the logic behind this, I became quite defensive as I felt my friendship erode beneath me. Virtuous friendship now seemed unattainable for my friend and me or anyone else that was not Catholic, it would seem.
Nervously, I began discussing the friendship with the lecturer. As many before him, myself included, he was bewildered by the fruits the friendship had produced. We began to create various hypotheticals surrounding the friendship, our intentions, and how it would be possible to reconcile the definition of Christian virtuous friendship and the relationship I was experiencing. At the end of the night, we came to the conclusion that although we didn’t share the same belief in Jesus Christ, at the core of our beings, we desired the same thing: to find and know the truth.
At this point, I had come to accept that individuals must share a deep good in their hearts for virtuous friendship to occur. In Christians, this deep good is Jesus Christ, but many of the people we encounter do not share this belief. So how are we to approach friendship with them? It is important to consider this question. If we do not, it is a slippery slope to isolation from anyone who does not share our beliefs—which will stifle our own growth and leave a bitter taste of Christianity in their mouth as well. Additionally, if we isolate ourselves from the nones of the world, what hope is there for them to encounter Jesus Christ?
Realizing this, the lecturer and I continued to discuss what this meant for all friendships, and more specifically, how this insight could inform our view of evangelizing the nones. We came to the conclusion that my friend and I found our mutual desire for the truth by intimately sharing our lives with one another. When we talk, we are telling the other the details of our days, emotions, and experiences without shielding one another from the reality of our beliefs. Our efforts to find and know the truth led us to different conclusions, yet we found a deep good that we share. In any conversation, there is a temptation to conceal the full truth of ourselves when speaking with someone who does not share our beliefs out of fear of rejection or disdain. While this is a temptation we may all experience, this is not true friendship. Still, there is hope for the future.
For a true, virtuous friendship to occur, yes, there must be a shared deep commonality, but there must first be authentic intimacy shared as well. Without this vulnerability and giving of ourselves to the other, it is not possible to discover what could lay beneath the surface. This surely is a risk, but it is a risk worth taking. When we take this risk, we open the door to share the deepest good in us, Jesus Christ. In this action, we allow Jesus to step in and become the evangelizer. This takes the pressure off of us and gives the greatest evangelizer room to work. We need not conform or shrink behind secular society; rather, we must authentically open ourselves up and allow others a peek into the ultimate good in us so that all may come to know Jesus more fully.
According to the Pew Research Center, 29% of individuals now consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, up from 16% in 2007. This presents modern Christians with a complex problem to solve. The solution lies in the way we live our lives, share our lives, and allow others into our lives. We must remember to open the window of our hearts authentically and allow people to see the deepest good within us, Jesus Christ.