The Heart of Being Human
- ISBN: 9781540960849
- Published By: Baker Academic
- Published: July 2020
Friendship halves our sorrows and doubles our joys. So said the 19th century Anglican bishop and devotional writer J.C. Ryle. It is the relationship for which mankind was ultimately created and destined for. So writes Victor Lee Austin in his book, Friendship: The Heart of Being Human. Austin serves as a theologian-in-residence for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. His work in ethics and philosophy, as well as his pastoral vocation, shine forth in this volume. This work, part of the Pastoring for Life series from Baker Academic, provides an overview of the concept of friendship from a biblical, theological, historical, and practical perspective. In doing so, Austin shows readers the value of cultivating friendship and how Christian friendship in particular is unique in its theological and anthropological importance. Austin’s work is highly personal, based on the tragedy of losing his wife, and thus explores the topic of friendship from that initial vantage point. The text also interacts with a wide array of both academic as well as more quotidian sources. The book is helpful for introducing audiences to some engaging and helpful reflections on friendship from a Christian perspective.
The introduction begins with his reflection on losing his wife, catalogued more in depth in his work Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away (Brazos Press, 2016). This previous work wrestles with the topics of faith and suffering and God’s presence amidst tragedy. To lose a spouse to the ravages of cancer is no small event. While readers of Friendship are not required to have the full background knowledge of Austin’s life to appreciate this text, this context sets the stage for a deeper engagement with the concept of friendship for Austin. Thus, chapter 1 deals with friendship in light of marriage to conclude that it is friendship, rather than marriage, that brings a person into fulfillment and flourishing. Marriage itself is primarily built upon friendship.
From here, Austin assesses the current landscape of friendship in contemporary culture and contrasts it to the ancient world. In chapter 2, he introduces a classical definition from Aristotle who believed that friendship is, as Austine conveys, “the point of human life” (15, emphasis original). Friendship in this ancient perspective is the foundation for ethics, justice, and human happiness. From here, Austin does a chronological backstep and looks at friendship according to Plato in chapter 3. Austin proposes that the so-called “Socratic method” of question and conversation is in fact a means to friendship (34). Austin then leaps forward in chapter 4 to look at the way in which the Roman orator Cicero described friendship. Though very much in line with Aristotle and Plato, Cicero brings even greater precision to understanding friendship. For Cicero, friendship is agreement on all things human and divine and wherein we are attracted to the virtue we see in others as an impetus for friendship. Mutual growth in virtue becomes the impetus for friendship according to Cicero.
This summary of the ancient philosophical tradition gives way to a theological discussion of friendship. Chapter 5 identifies Jesus as the paradigm of friendship. According to Austin, “We will need to look to Jesus if we are to understand what friendship is in the fullest sense.” (51). This leads to a longer discussion of the love of God as unique among other paradigms of friendship, as well as the way in which love and friendship plays out in the narrative of Scripture. From the Old Testament patriarchs to Jesus and the disciples, the thread of friendship is woven throughout the Bible. Austin’s assessment of Jesus is that his entire mission is one of friendship—establishing friendship with humanity and re-establishing humanity’s friendship with God. Austin describes this as the “weird intimacy” that is possible when one is friends with God. Such intimacy is “weird” because it doesn’t make sense that a divine being would choose to have the sort of relationship described in the Gospels and New Testament. It is also weird because such intimacy and its possibilities in friendship are contrary to expectations of friendship in modern culture.
Austin spends the next chapter assessing Christian voices of late antiquity and the medieval period, primarily Augustine of Hippo (354–430), Aelfred of Rievaulx (c. 1110–67), and Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–74). These writers reflected variously on friendship, from proposing the first theology of friendship (Augustine) to refining the character of friendship in light of community and God’s love (Aelfred) to further defining the nature of Christian love as friendship with God (Aquinas). The Christian theological tradition is clearly not devoid of reflection on friendship, but it seems that direct engagement with the idea of friendship disappears in early modern and modern Christianity. Austin then turns the conversation to consider the nature of celibacy in light of friendship. He reiterates a previous thought: “One must not marry or otherwise have sexual intercourse in order to be fully human” (99). Thus, celibacy does not diminish human potential but rather provides opportunities to embrace one’s humanity in pursuit of friendship with others. By removing sexual fulfillment from the conversation, Austin directs readers to consider human relationships as an intimate knowing of the other. This naturally leads Austin to consider how the Trinity reflects friendship, as well as literary examples of friendship which reach beyond sexuality. His work concludes with concrete ways to pursue friendship in light of the philosophical, theological, and practical foundations established in the text.
Austin’s work gives readers a fresh perspective on friendship and challenges cultural paradigms of friendship. His work is almost poetic, weaving in philosophy, Scripture, and literature while propelling readers to value and seek friendship in their own lives. That said, Austin’s work meanders and at some points ends abruptly, only to pick up the topic in a different context. The text, compiled from various presentations in academic and ecclesiastical settings, often reads as such. The work could have benefited from a more cohesive structure and been edited in such a way as to provide a smoother reading experience. However, this critique is small in comparison to the overall value of the text. This book should find its way onto the desks of ministers and lay readers alike. It is also helpful for courses in pastoral ministry, counseling, and specific courses related to friendship.Coleman M. Ford
Coleman M. Ford is assistant professor of humanities at Texas Baptist College, Fort Worth, Texas.Date Of Review:June 30, 2022