What Do We Do With This?
In the Old Testament, David and Jonathan had a type of relationship that we moderns don’t quite know what to do with. A passionate friendship that surpasses the love of women? Surely there must be some sort of suppressed romance between the lines. But such an interpretation tells us more about ourselves than it does the characters in the narrative. What would it mean for our culture (in which men are so starved for touch and embrace) to come to grips with the possibility of male friendship that was deeply and chastely satisfying?
I’m not sure we would know what to do with it. We certainly don’t know what to do with it when we see it on the page or the screen. It’s exhausting watching Hollywood fumble around with something as deep and necessary as male friendship, dressing it up as eros beyond recognition. Both David and Jonathan married women. They burned for the opposite sex and their love for one another was of a stronger stuff than what they had in bed with their wives. And the amazing thing is that it was completely devoid of romance with one another.
So what are we to make of the Bible’s unblushing appreciation of a man’s love for his friend? It is not the Bible that is backwards and regressive. Rather, it seems that it is we that need to update our view of friendship. Compared to the honest and unflinching approach to human relationships, we have categorized everyone as a potential resource. A male friend is a “bro” or a wingman, a means to an end. When guys can transcend this template of machismo and find a kindred spirit in another mind, that is when the possibility of covenant friendship becomes real.
It’s refreshing to me that the biblical archtypes of male friendship (David and Jonathan) are also quintessentially men. They are kingly warriors and hunters with the shared heart of a poet. Aristotle famously defined friendship as one soul inhabiting two bodies. Living centuries before the philosopher, we see these two great men embodying that ideal. What does that mean for us today? What, if anything, can we learn from the friendship of this prince and this future king?
Masculinity is compassionate. When Jonathan dies, David laments in 2 Samuel 1 that his love for Jonathan was “extraordinary, surpassing the love of women.” That is a depth of feeling to which few males can attest, and yet the Bible includes it at the very beginning of a book. It is held up as exemplary manhood. Perhaps we’ve only recently lost this ease of familiarity, but there’s hope we can find it again.
Masculinity is loyal. Their friendship was a brotherhood. It exceeded the family ties of clan and kin. It was such a powerful bond that Jonathan kept David alive, even in the face of the wrath of his own father, King Saul.
Masculinity is brave. To be loyal in their capacities and in their context, with death as a very real danger, required a steeled resolve to hold onto that friendship regardless of consequences. Friendship in the face of death is friendship with the weight of truth behind it. Fair-weather friends do not usually risk their own blood for one another.
A Monk’s Evaluation
Aelred of Rievaulx was a 12th century English monk who literally wrote the book on spiritual friendship. In the last of Aeldred’s dialogues on friendship, he discusses the outline of its progression. Friendship (like that of Jonathan and David) rests upon the foundation of God’s love. It begins, he says, with “he whom reason urges should be loved because of the excellence of his virtue steals into the soul of another by the mildness of his character and the charm of a praiseworthy life.”
Storing aside the lovely phrase “charm of a praiseworthy life”, let’s move on. Aelred then says that spiritual friendship passes through four stages:
- Choice (“electio”)
- Testing (“probatio”)
- Admission (“admissio”)
- The greatest agreement in things divine and human, with a certain love and goodwill.
But, the monk cautions, not all are likely to become “the companion of your soul, to whose spirit you join and attach yours, and so associate yourself that you wish to become one instead of two, since he is one to whom you entrust yourself as to another self, from whom you hide nothing, from whom you fear nothing.”
This has to be possible for more than just two Bronze Age warriors and a Celtic monk. Men charmed by the praiseworthy lives of other men, from whom they have nothing to hide or fear? I think it can be recaptured. And perhaps it begins with a bit of courage on our part. The courage to be charmed by a praiseworthy life is a good starting point.