Friendship – philia or agape?

Jesus went down to the shore of the sea of Galilee and found two fishermen. He distinctly selected them to enter a powerful relationship, asking if they would drop everything they were doing and commit their lives to following him. Simon (later called Peter) and his brother Andrew did just that. This extraordinary event illustrates a poignant example of one of the scriptural terms for love, called philia, in which a preferential bond is based on a mutual attraction. In this case, Jesus selected these friends to be the recipients of his love, and the brothers’ reciprocal offer included a loyal commitment to this particular friend. However, this is the same Jesus who would soon be reinforcing the scriptural command to love all neighbors as themselves. This generous expression of love, known as agape, would mark the shift in discourse and practice for the followers of Jesus throughout the subsequent centuries.

Gilbert Meilaender discusses in his book, Friendship: A Study in Theological Ethics, how the Christian calling to serve others is in tension with loyalty to selective friendship. But a careful look at the relationship between Jesus and Peter demonstrates a harmony, not a tension, between philia and agape. Meilaender argues that there is justification for recapturing the importance of philia in Christian practice, but he does not show convincingly that friendship tends to assist relationships with near and distant neighbors.1 The central unresolved element in the apparent opposite forces of philia and agape, he claims, lies in the “preferential character of friendship”.2

I find the example of Jesus’ friendship with Peter disproves this tension in its demonstration of the ideal unity of divine Love. If philia and agape are both found in the works of Christ Jesus, they must have their origin in this divine Love. In Jesus’ faithful practice of philia is found a profound support for his own and for his friend’s broader practice of agape. Therefore, the preferential character of friendship, if practiced in the way of Jesus’ teaching, is an ally to neighbors and strangers.

Jesus loved Peter preferentially. He selected him to be among his closest and trusted friends. At times there were only three who were invited to be with him during his most significant experiences, and Peter was always there.3 Jesus healed his mother-in-law;4 he invited Peter to walk with him on the water.5 Peter loved Jesus specifically. He gave up his livelihood to learn from him and to support him; and he struggled with himself in order to be a more faithful friend. Their friendship was not self-centered or self-consuming. Rather, its distinct purpose was to discern and support the individuality of the other. It is clear that honoring each other’s individuality resulted in strengthening each other’s capacity to be of service to mankind. Jesus’ life was wholly dedicated to the salvation of the humankind, and Peter was being prepared to establish the church.
The essential aspect of philia that supports the activity of agape is this discernment and commitment to support individuality. Therefore, a precise meaning of the term “individuality” is necessary to establish the consistency of this argument. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, individuality is “the aggregate of qualities and characteristics that distinguish one person or thing from others.”6 Since Christians agree that the distinguishing characteristics of God’s creation are determined by God and to be celebrated by all creation, man is better understood as a reflection of the infinite Soul and does not relate to God in autonomous self-sufficiency. What greater friend is there than the example of Jesus who discerned and supported all that reflects God in his friends?

Meilaender turns to Kierkegaard to justify his attempt to unify philia and agape, although there remain tensions within the relationship that are not fully resolved by Kierkegaard.7 However, there is a way to consider how utter unselfishness characterizes the type of philia that can result in agapeic neighbor-love. While the Greek word philia may include the meaning of self-fulfilling neediness,8 the example of Jesus’ friendship with Peter, seeking not its own, illustrates philia’s promotion of agape. Without the discernment and support for a friend’s life purpose, philia is a negative influence on agape, as it loses focus on support for the friend and feeds on neediness. Likewise, without the commitment to support individuality (life purpose), agape is a negative influence on philia. That is, the attempt to love our neighbors would be hollow and perhaps insincere without the sharp learning experiences inherent in practical friendship. Therefore, the friendship of philia can be seen as an ally to the practice of agape, only when it is practiced as Jesus lived it.

Peter and Jesus specifically addressed the question of their individuality, when Jesus asked his disciples if they knew who he was. They reported what others thought, but Peter identified him as the Christ, the Son of the living God. With that, Jesus blessed him and in turn identified Peter with his new name.9 In both cases, they discerned the God-given individuality in each other in such a way they understood the other’s calling to serve mankind. In this scene, their mutual discernment of true individuality (God-given life purpose) exemplifies the way philia naturally results in the broadest experience of agape.

Another characteristic of friendship discussed by Meileander is the need for a relationship “between free and equal participants.”10 As was often the case when Peter needed to learn from his friend, Peter found the lesson of equality difficult to understand and admit. While Jesus was preparing for his separation from them, he purposefully took care to wash the feet of his disciples. But Peter rebuked him, probably feeling too intensely his own inadequacy for an implication of equality. Jesus’ commitment to friendship, seeking equal participation from them, helped them to discern their own God-given, pure individuality as he saw them. Proof of this intent lies in Jesus’ explanation for washing Peter’s feet: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”11 Rebuking the impurity, Jesus pointed to the origin of purity for himself and his friends. And as in the other lessons of friendship, this one also pointed to a greater service to neighbors. Jesus continued, “I have set you an example, that you should do as I have to you.”12 In this case, Jesus is perhaps referring to their duty to neighbors who are “near”, or those who are more conscious of following a similar path in life.

Another argument in favor of the tension between philia and agape is that friendships are fragile and yield to greater causes. If forced to choose between loyalty to a friend over loyalty to the nation, Aristotle chooses the nation.13 Indeed, Peter desperately fought this notion of infidelity, insisting he would never betray his friend even to the end (through Jesus’ death). Meilaender describes the type of difficulty Peter was facing: “…if one simply becomes far superior to the other and the ‘distance between them becomes great,’ it is impossible that friendship should be sustained.”14 Jesus understood this strain and warned Peter that he wouldn’t be strong enough to follow through. Three times the cock would crow before the next morning, and Peter would discover his own denial of this friendship three times.

However, Jesus’ solid commitment to friendship (philia), his loyalty to the God-given individuality in his friend healed even this breach, when Jesus forgave him. The pain of Peter’s weakness was redeemed, when Jesus gave him the opportunity to affirm his love, including both philia and agape: “Do you love me?” Jesus asked him. After being questioned for the third time, each affirmation canceling his three denials, Peter understood the basis of the love between them. Jesus was again affirming the strength of Peter’s individuality, as Peter admitted, “You know everything (implying everything about me). You know that I love you.”15 Jesus brought home the lesson to Peter that he could be forgiven, because Jesus knew Peter’s true God-given individuality was strong enough to be faithful, even beyond death.

Peter learned through this encounter in friendship that his individuality could sustain the responsibility placed upon him. His three-fold confession of his love for Jesus was met with three commands to feed (or care for) his sheep (his followers). This deeply personal experience of forgiveness produced an equally deep commitment to love the neighbors near and far.

Another argument for the tension between the practice of philia and agape, expressed by Jeremy Taylor, is that “universal love can become an inhumane requirement rather than an inspiring ideal.”16 Indeed, unselfishness is honorable, and yet a Franciscan approach to life is not an honest calling for everyone. It often leaves the unwary Christian in an undesirable position of practicing stoicism. The pain of unreturned friendship can cause one to retreat to himself, putting himself at the center of his concerns.17 The opposite extreme from stoic self-sufficiency is the claim to a spirituality beyond the point of demonstration. Some early Christians, ascetics, excused themselves from the rigors of friendship, by claiming they had already passed the human necessity for individual relationships. These “spiritual enthusiasts …claimed to participate already fully in the future age, claimed to be already fully spiritual, already ‘angels.’”18
In defense of philia’s support of agape, however, the two extremes of stoicism and asceticism illustrate how an escape from the rigors of unselfish friendship merely bypasses the essential lessons of love. Peter’s ordeals in his friendship with Jesus were the very strengthening lessons he needed in order to fulfill his role as leader of the church. It was a friendship that brought upon him rebuke and correction, but it also saved him from the uselessness that would have come through stoicism or asceticism. The courage to discern and defend individuality brings force to the shared purpose of friends, and therefore agape is a natural outcome.

Friendship based on self-consumption has been found to be fragile and unreliable. But the standard set by Jesus, a friendship committed to discerning and defending individuality, shows why true friendship never loses purpose nor dies. This is the kind of friendship that is an ally to all neighbors near and far. Peter had been tempted to go back to his old ways, as if his friendship with Jesus never took place, fishing for fish instead of men. But Jesus, returning again to restore Peter’s confidence in his worth, gave him a chance to prove his loyalty. From that day forward, the apostle Peter, friend of Jesus, devoted the rest of his life to “feeding his sheep”.

1 Gilbert C. Meilaender, Friendship: A Study in Theological Ethics, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1981).
2 Ibid, 3.
3 Matthew 17.1 (the transfiguration); Mark 5.37 (raising of Jairus’ daughter); Mark 14.33 (in Gethsesmane)
4 Luke 4.38
5 Matthew 14.9
6 The American Heritage (r) Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright (c) 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by the Houghton Mifflin Company. (c) 1996-2002, Inc.
7 Meilaender, 47.
8 I do not claim to have the linguistic skills to know the Greek understanding of the term “philia”. I merely surmise its meaning from English-speaking theologians.
9 Matthew 16:17
10 Meilaender, 46.
11 John 13:8
12 Ibid, v.15.
13 Class notes.
14 Meilaender, 58.
15 John 21:17
16 Meilaender, 26.
17 Meilaender, 39.
18 Allen Veryhey, Remembering Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 220.

Copyright 2007-2008. Spirituality and Christianity.All rights reserved.

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