Friendship and Asymmetry

Thesis: the biblical-canonical concept of friendship is not incompatible with radical different-ness between the friends. 

[This train of thought begins here and it part of a series I’ve been working on since last year. You can find earlier articles by searching for the theme ‘friends’]

The different-ness of friends can be seen more subtly when we seek to locate the character of biblical-canonical friendships against a broader background of biblical relations. The drama of the Old Testament takes place among a set of characters who are bound together, not by an act of originative free association, but as a family. Israel was begotten, not made. Early in the story, as the plot thickens, so does the blood. Over time the family becomes greatly extended, internecine conflicts erupt, the extended family becomes the dispersed family. But always with the memory that Israel is a family: with all the pre-structured obligations and responsibilities invoked by kin. When the biblical authors need to characterise the relationship of biblical characters, whether to lament or berate, enjoin or celebrate, they find brothers. The usage flows on into the New Testament, the shared participation in the ‘family of Abraham’ becoming one of the key sources (along with the Fatherhood of God) for the Christian practice of referring to co-religionists as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’.

To characterise a relationship as filial is to immediately imply mutuality, that the relationship has a symmetry. Either party could rightly be called the subject of the predicate ‘is my brother/sister’.{{1}} The biblical-canonical tradition also has plenty to say about other non-mutual, asymmetric relations like master/slave, father/son, etc. But if we consider the biblical-canonical descriptions of friendship, we find that they don’t map easily onto this taxonomy of mutual/non-mutual relations. Biblical-canonical friendship is capable of being quasi-mutual. Clearly, two men (or women?) are envisaged as being able to mutually address each other as ‘friend’. But in the outstanding narrative descriptions of friendship there is a significant reticence to predicate the relation mutually. Abraham is God’s ‘friend’, but the usage is never reversed: God is never Abraham’s friend. We find the same thing with Jesus and his disciples: we do not hear the words, ‘I am your friend, if you do what I command.’ It’s very safe to assume that in both these cases, this subtle lack of mutuality is due to the maximal ontological difference between the parties. As a result, it would be risky to apply this lack of mutuality straightforwardly to human/human friendships. But if it is fair to characterise these relationships as ‘friendship’, and the biblical authors press us in this direction, then our concept of friendship must expand to include a level of difference, of inequality between the friends, that could even result in friendship being asymmetrical, i.e., not having precisely the same quality as it flows from one party to the other.{{2}}

Could it even involve obedience?

[[1]]It’s probably easier to see what I mean if we contrast mutual with asymmetric relations.  A master/servant relation is asymmetric: the master and the servant do not share the same relation to each other. A master and servant cannot change places without changing their relationship. A ‘brother’ or ‘neighbour’ relationship is one in which the parties are equally/mutually ‘brother’ or ‘neighbour’ to each other. This point shouldn’t be confused with the fact that in both asymmetric and mutual relations the parties can be mutually constitutive of each other, i.e., one cannot be ‘master’ without a servant, nor ‘brother’ without a brother.



[[2]]We must be careful not to overstate our claim at this point. Not every friendship must be founded upon the kind of radical difference presupposed by the Creator/creature divide, but the biblical-canonical history pushes us to recognise that equality, which forms the root of the pathological narcissism Derrida detects in the Western canonical concept – cannot be made an essential quality of friendship.[[2]]


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