Eternal Friendships?

The notion that the family is eternal is central to modern Mormon identity. The definition of the family that has been adopted in this vision is the 20th c. nuclear family. This is in stark contrast to how some early Christians envisioned eternal earthly relationships. It was not the family that was eternal, but friendships. Interestingly, this view may have some resonance in early Mormonism as well.

Classical theories of friendship saw it as an extremely intimate relationship of like minds and shared souls, much more intimate than modern friendships. When early Christians began to seriously theorize about friendship in the 4th c., they took over the vocabulary, virtues and values of the classical philosophical heritage, and attempted to merge it with a Christian ethics. For some, this meant adding an eternal, eschatological perspective on friendship. For Augustine, the heavenly community was made up of friends, not families. There, spirits will be joined in “perfect peace and friendship” (On the Trinity 3.4.9). In Sermon 16, he says, “in that place you shall have God as your friend, you will not be without your closest friend.”

Part of the emphasis on friendship in antiquity, it must be admited, is rooted in a kind of misogyny. Augustine famously said, “if it was company and good conversation Adam needed, it would have been much better arranged to have two men together, as friends, not a man and a woman” (de Gen ad litt. 9.5.9). While mixed-sex friendships were not impossible in antiquity, even among Christians, friendship was generally considered to be something between members of the same sex, and in some cases, males only. Because friendship represented the highest virtues, some considered it to be possible only among the more virtuous sex, males!

While Mormonism now has little to nothing to say about friendship that goes beyond the shallow theorization of broader society about male-female relations, and has adopted the language of friendship to overlap entirely with family relations, so that family relations are imaged through the discursive lens of friendship, this was not always the case. To choose the most famous example, Joseph Smith taught, “Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism; [it is designed] to revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers.” Here, it is not family that is reduced to friendship, but friendships which are transformed into family. It is friendship, not family, that has the powerful effect of revolutionizing the world. Such language is not far from Smith’s eschatological vision, I’m sure.

As in antiquity, 19th century American ideals of friendship were rarely mixed-sex, and the homosociality that governed those relationships peformed the division between the sexes. If we are to recover friendship as an ideal, either as a virtue in itself, or an instrument for changing the world for the better, or even as an alternative model for imagining the divine realm, we will need to better theorize mixed-sex relationships. This presents an opportunity, not a problem, for thinking of new and better ways of relating to one another.

9 Replies to “Eternal Friendships?”

  1. Excellent write-up, TT; my recent article in the JMH has a section on friendship in Joseph Smith’s thought, so the topic is somewhat fresh on my mind.

    I agree that this notion was much more prevalent in the c19. To me, I think it was much more rooted (or, had much more explicit representation) in their adoption theology, which had the Saints looking more horizontally than vertically when concerning eschatological kingdoms. It also fit in nicely with Richard Godbeer’s recent work on male friendship in the early republic. It was also a part of the universal brotherhood (and yes, it was male-centric rhetoric) that permeated in American Romanticism.

    I think it is a shame we’ve lost some of this ideal in our retrenchment of the familial nucleus. We probably have a lot to reconsider when trying to understand JS’s belief that the “sociality” in this life continues in the next.

  2. Ben,
    Now I am going to have to look up your work! I am going to come back to the issue of adoptions for some research this summer, but I think you’re right that adoptions were a way of ritualizing certain kinds of friendships, especially mentor-protegee relationships. Thanks for the other references too.
    As for families, I think you’re right that temporally horizontal relationships were particularly important. My hunch is that even for batpisms for the dead, the immediate dead were most important, rather than generations back, but that is just a hunch.

  3. I’m not sure I understand your point, so I’ll ask a question. One problem with emphasizing family is that no one chooses their family and some people hate their family members. A “celestial” family in the modern church is envisioned as more than being merely a nuclear family, but being a loving family or perhaps a family of friends (in the antiquated sense). Is this thought the kind of thing you mean by “family being reduced to friendship”?

  4. TT,

    This is a good topic. One aspect of friendship which as has been largely effaced in modern contexts is the ability to speak frankly. For Greeks of the third century BCE and beyond this frankness of speech (parrhesia) was the defining attribute of sincere friendship. Trusted friends could speak openly to each other and, more importantly, offer frank criticism for each other’s benefit. The opposite of parrhesia was flattery (kolakeia), the salient characteristic of an unhealthy, parasitic, or manipulative relationship. The difficulty of practicing parrhesia was especially pronounced when a friendship was between those of unbalanced power or where one was dependent upon the other for patronage or protection. In other words, it can be a tricky thing to offer frank criticism to the wealthy friend who is footing the bill for your research, tutoring, or whatever. It becomes all the more treacherous when the one offering frank criticism is liable to some sort of punishment or public disfavor. Philodemus, the 1st century BCE Epicurean philosopher, has an excellent treatise on parrhesia and kolakei which explores engages these very issues in a serious manner.

    I haven’t really given enough thought to how the concepts of parrhesia and kolakeia play out for Mormons but I will toss out a few undeveloped ideas. Criticism of leadership (an institutionalized, unbalanced kind of relationship) is a bogey(wo)man for Mormons even when the leader and the person offering criticism happen to be close friends. Sometimes the desire to not offend and to not introduce ‘contention’ paves the way for kolakeia in deleterious ways. Also, the emotional and physical distance most men and women keep from one another largely prohibits the ability to form close enough friendships in which frank criticism can be offered and received beneficially, and so, it seems, flattery is often the parlance in which we interact with each other. I am not offering judgment on this last issue, I am only taking note of what I see and also do.

    On a personal note, last night I received some of the harshest criticism of my life in regard to a church calling. Normally I respond pretty well to criticism when it comes from those I love and/or trust. But the source of the criticism was a stranger to me whose new calling it is to serve as a watchdog over my calling (which I share with others in the stake). The frankness of this criticism, regardless of its merits or faults, seemed to me inappropriate given the fact that it happened between two perfect strangers. Had there been some sort of friendship in place, I am quite certain the criticism would have been delivered and received in a more personal and meaningful manner.

  5. Jacob,
    I think that what I meant by that phrase is that we often suggest that our spouses are the only friends we need, and the family and friendship can be fulfilled in the same person. While I applaud the idea that our spouses may be our “best friends,” it also signals that we don’t have other friends who we have that level of trust.

    These are some great insights, and I think your idea about friendship being not only the opportunity for rebuke, but also the necessary precondition in church settings is excellent advice. Why have we forgotten these 2000 year old lessons? 🙂

  6. I find it interesting that you mention investing the spouse with most of the friendship duties. This is not how eternity was defined by the early Church brethren and sisters and I believe this is sad. By focusing so much of our social, familial, and intimate relations in one person, we place a tremendous level of expectations on that person. And when those expectations are not met, we wonder why we are not fulfilled. This is especially true for married LDS men who are expected to provide 100% attention to the wife’s happiness while ignoring their own friendship needs. However, the women are not placed under such limitations.

    I sure as hope we abandon this twisted logic during the millennium.

  7. Seems interesting you’d say this since I’d argue a Priesthood quorum is a classic fraternal organization and arguably is nothing more than elevating a collection of friends. Even home teaching, ideally (ignoring the correlation aspects) is getting people to develop friendships outside of the box somewhat.

  8. Clark,
    I like the idea of seeing the priesthood as a fraternal order, but I think that this also has some limitations. To the extent that EQ groups are based on geography rather than shared interests that bind voluntary friends, I think that we cannot be satisfied with EQ as a model for a theory of friendship. Home Teaching faces some of the limitations, but I think that the issue of “teaching” in the relationship actually hinders friendship more than it fosters it. It sets up one side in a hierarchy rather than the mutual exchange of true friendships.
    Finally, I would note that the priesthood and even HT offer models for male friendships only, and face the problem of making mixed-sex friendships possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *