It was Frederick Buechner who first introduced me to the idea that theology is, on some level, always autobiographical. This is not to dismiss the orthodox body of truth at all but to emphasize the fact that theological truth refracted through the individual brings out something significant and particular to the mix.
So what of a theology of the single adult and the church? Over the last few weeks I’ve tried to work through some of Ephraim Radner’s thoughts on the “vocation of singleness” from A Time to Keep, his survey of “theology, mortality, and the shape of human life.” I would like to “wrap up’ (not really possible) his thoughts on friendship as something particular to singles before looking at his thoughts on work.
I mention the autobiographical nature of theology because my thoughts on friendship have taken on a different nuance now that I’m a little older and further along what Radner calls “the arc of life.” As blessed as I have been during my time in Honolulu (and before that in Texas and Tennessee), the pursuit of lasting friendship has been a real struggle. Part of that has been an expectation issue. The greater part of it, though, has been an “ordering” issue . . . an “everything in its place” disposition that holds on loosely while holding on properly.
For me, a big part of the struggle has been the battle between the concrete and the abstract. There has been an almost insurmountable growth of a kind of “intangibility” to my life the older I’ve gotten as a single adult. It’s a kind of “out of sight, out of mind” reality that things like social media only amplifies for me (there’s that weird prostitution of promotion that can come from posting about your life . . . and yet it also makes you a little more real to those you love far and wide). The “equal and opposite reaction” to this reality is what blogger Eve Tushnet has called an “isolation” that leads to “the slow crafting and hardening of a private world.” It can be a kind of double damnation (and with no language to speak your way out of it).
So what role, if any, can friendship for and with the single adult play in this kind of abstract-but-hardened privacy? Well, Radner asserts that “the reality of friendship is one that provides a ground for other relations; it is not only a parallel or alternative to these relations.” He asserts that “the affective aspect of friendship—love—is divinely significant in its own right” and that, as such, has possibilities for the cure that ails us when it comes to our understanding of relationships of all kinds during and after the Great Transition. He goes on to say that
friendship’s cultivation is indeed a “responsibility” to be taken up, pursued, ordered, and cultivated. From the pastoral side of things, we can assuredly say that the church must teach people how to be friends, because it is a significant aspect of every relationship.
It is the particularity of the single adult that results from the blessing-and-curse individuality that makes friendship with singles significant for the church, even if he calls the integration of the single into church life “a grating but also a formative process.” Radner adds:
Friendships constantly press against these edges of distinctions, and the resistance all of us experience in this is often the hardest to bear within the communal dynamics of genealogy—families, cooperatives, politics. The sexually partnered existence that constitutes marriage and moves into family quickly subsumes, and often avoids, this grating character, except when the challenges of mortality slink through the cracks. The single person here is the sound of every person’s movement across the ground and needs to be heard and in any case eventually will be. It is hard to remember one’s spouse’s individuality. But we must, but this is the impulse of our affection. Yet creaturely existence often involves the juggling, lost balance, and dropping of affection necessarily linked with generation, so that friendship itself loses its way within the community of generative existence—but for its constant kindling and challenge by single persons through the press of their friendships within the unconscious flow and forgetfulness of ordered community.
Friendships are cultivated with all the care and dangerous fragility of any sustenance agriculture. There is the careful time of discerning and planting—and here wisdom and experience can bring only success—and not a little luck. There is the giving over of oneself in loyalty, the breaking up by betrayal, the hard and welcome corrections and growth, the difficult learning and respecting of limits as in all things, and long-standing reaping and replenishing. Friendship is a life’s work. It can, furthermore, be deformed, as with many friendships we know that become privatized and possessive, tyrannical and oppressive. So too, of course, can the “collective” demands of survival itself. The friendship, however, that is marked by whatever confluence of location, shared acts, doing, and attention will ever uncover more and more of “just this person” in “just this time and place.”
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Near the end of his articulation of friendship as part of the single person’s vocation, Radner asserts that “friendships are for the sake of others, however. Thus, the friendships of single people are to be cultivated, protected, honored, and then brought in to the whole, the ordered life of families, wherein others may learn from them.”
Reading this, one would be led to think that friendship with singles is a big deal. But it’s a difficult or tricky thing, which Radner wisely points out. That wisdom and experience are somehow necessary seems a bit absurd, as most of us think that friendships probably just happen (as that is often our experience in certain social settings like school). But he’s right, correct in a way that I can see now that I’m farther down the road. Reading this, it makes more sense why married people find it easier to be friends with other marrieds: the particularity of the individual is subsumed enough so that maybe not that much is asked. But a single with all of that time and attention to give? That can be a total minefield.
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I find myself asking some questions of friendship and this line of thinking.
- Why does it seem like single people have a difficult time befriending one another?
- Why does it seem like Jesus just isn’t enough for a basis in Christian friendship (what I call a “brothers-in-crisis vs. a brothers-in-Christ mentality”)?
- What do you do with technology that helps make friendship more of a possibility while also producing more potential pitfalls?
- How can people grow in friendship when there seem to be so few living examples of healthy friendship with older people?
- How do you nurture friendship well in a world that is post-Great Transition?
I think the concept of “rightly ordered” is vital to having a healthy concept and practice of friendship. I think that many of us who have been around for a while and who have a “concrete private world” that leaves us in a place of abstraction, we wonder where, if anywhere, we actually belong. The conversation requires space enough and time to have it out. Most people, I fear, don’t have enough of either.
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Okay. Next time it’s all about work and the single adult in the context of the church community.