Friendship: The Heart of Being Human
By Victor Lee Austin
Baker Academic, 2020
$21.99 192 pp.
I first became acquainted with the Reverend Victor Lee Austin when he was theologian in residence at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. This is the third of his books that I have read. Father Austin starts by telling us the church has spent countless hours talking about and debating marriage, but has paid little attention to the theology of friendship. This book focuses our attention on friendship, one of the most important components of being human. In all my years attending church, I don’t recall a single sermon devoted to the topic of friendship.
Yet it is friendship that plays such an important part in our development. I was fortunate to have quite a few very close friends as a child, and the memories of the times we spent together I truly treasure. I am still in contact with a number of these childhood friends. Junior high, high school, and college brought more new friends with whom I developed lifelong relationships. When I finally settled down in one place for a long career, I made yet more friends. In each place that I have lived, interactions with friends have made life fulfilling. This is not to say that family isn’t important, but friends have a different function.
The early part of Father Austin’s book explores the question of what a friend is, starting with the Greek philosophers. Aristotle is referenced as saying friendship is the point of life. Friendship develops between people who are basically equal (one can’t be a friend with one’s boss, for example), and who are of good character. People without integrity, who flatter others and try to use them for their own benefit, cannot be a friend to anyone. True friendship requires that one give time and attention to others.
Friendship is an activity: to be a friend is to do things for others. Father Austin points to the book of Job as being the ultimate biblical story of friendship. When disaster strikes Job, his friends are there for him, trying to console and counsel him. But the important thing is that they stick with him through everything. In this they give us an ideal model of friendship.
Friends are for sharing life with. There is nothing that compares with being with a good friend. There is true delight in making new friends, in finding other kindred spirits to be with—those who let you know that they admire you as you admire them.
We all know God is love. But is God also friendship? Jesus says to his disciples in John 15:14, “Ye are my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you.” Father Austin explores the question of whether we can be friends with God, and argues that this is indeed possible. He writes that cultivating one’s friendship with God, and extending that friendship expansively to others, is the very point of the teachings of the bible.
To explore these questions more fully I urge you to read this book. You will never think of friendship in the same way, and the sentiment of songwriter Danny Schmidt may become your own: “When I die, let them judge me by my company of friends.”
Robert Kent is a retired Cornell University Cooperative Extension Educator who focused on “bringing science to the shore” to engage communities in environmental stewardship of the marine environment.