In Medium, in February 2023, Addie Page describes her search for new friends amidst what is increasingly being seen as a crisis of friendship. Americans have fewer friends and they spend less time with friends every week. This can lead to what Page describes as “learned loneliness.” This retreat of friendship is part of the background for the Hannah Arendt Center’s upcoming 2023 Conference “Friendship and Politics.” In the following series of blog posts, I want to explore the crucial loss of friendship imposed by mass society. In my other posts on mass society, I have described its key features: 1) It is governed by technocratic rationality which employs means-end rationality; 2) it is publicly embodied by political power structures in which large corporations have integral relationships to governance structures; and 3) it has hidden authentic individuals behind avatars created in the relationship of the individual and community. With this general concern for the complete loss of freedom, I want to explore the loss of friendship as an indicator that indeed, our social world has colonized our more integral authentic selves and our need to self-determine as key features of the human condition.

Collective Moral Conversations

In early February 2022, the Interdisciplinary Studies Committee, of which I was the director, poured over a few ideas for what would be our yearly theme. The Committee coordinates, with much help from external and community contributors, including Conference Services. the twice-yearly Interdisciplinary Studies Conference, which acts as a course at the King’s University, but has also attempted to help the community to delve more deeply into the roots of spiritual life. While we had a number of potential themes in front of us, we asked a couple of guiding questions: What are our students and wider community really concerned about? And how could we explore these deep concerns? How could the Interdisciplinary Studies Committee draw experts in to guide us to the spiritual roots of some of the deepest crises of polarization and the experienced alienation of people from themselves, from each other, from nature, and from God? We came up with the idea of “Collective Moral Conversations” which is the theme that also underscores the yearly direction of the EveryThing Series as it now stands.

But as the proposals for breakout sessions and keynote addresses came in, I began to notice something a little different than what might be the topics of a first-year ethics class. You know those classes – the ones where you would talk about the abortion debate, euthanasia, just war theory, political lying, the trolley problem, LGBTQ identity recognition, and the abstracted statements of the Ten Commandments. As the discussions and the formation of each breakout session happened, the relational constitution of moral conversations became more and more evident. More than just an issue-by-issue analysis, stories emerged from Rwanda, from the prison system, from economic relationships in Ecuador, from the threat to social relationships in AI domains, from diverse Protestant Christian denominations about the make-up of local church conversations, and from our civic responsibilities. Collective Moral Conversations came to be understood as more than just finding rational arguments for cultural hot topics. Having good collective moral conversations came to be an opening to becoming very deliberate, loving, just, and merciful in our relationships. It said more about who we collectively were than it did about having right or wrong beliefs. It was a sign of hope that perhaps, the existence of worldly, covenant relationships is still hoped for, and needed —- that we haven’t lost complete sight of them.

A Covenant Relationship

The chickens are coming home to roost. Mass Society has been preaching fulfillment of the individual but has been doing everything in its power to leave individuals unfulfilled.

In striving for freedom, we have eroded and destroyed all the infrastructure that can house freedom. In the name of liberation, we have attacked and destroyed anything that looked like a constraint for centuries. Except for a few writers, and exceptional mystics and monastics, the language of contemporary Western society does not have any words and concepts for the architecture of freedom but all kinds of languages and forms of expression for liberation. The individual has been emancipated toward her own fulfillment, and everything is put in utilitarian and instrumental importance toward the individual. We sign contracts, and undertake projects, to help us lead more fulfilling lives. While these types of activities assume the liberty of the person undertaking them, they erode the infrastructure that makes human fulfillment possible.

Instead of a contract, I would like us again to consider the seemingly archaic concept of covenant. What is a covenant? And why is a return to covenant necessary now?

Law and Freedom

To recover the notion of a covenant, we need to make sense of what a contract is. First, in a contract, the liberation of each party is assumed. They are at liberty to enter a contract, and at liberty to reject it. If they do enter a contract, they are held by the terms and conditions of the contract for the duration of the contract, which is always temporary. There is a tentative balance between the legal aspects of a contract and the freedom to accept or reject it. However, conceptually, the legal aspects of the contract and the freedom of the individuals entering it are as distinct as possible. From the contractual viewpoint law and freedom are self-consistent concepts that do not overlap.

Second, and more importantly, contracts establish an instrumental relationship between the parties to the contract. Contracts assume the following attitude: I will only keep up my end of the contract if you also keep up your end. In work, if an employer doesn’t pay, the employee has the right to stop working. Contracts are necessary because they help us to manage multi-faceted and nuanced exchanges. Contracts build in types of accountabilities in case one person doesn’t fulfill the conditions of the contract. We see this clearly in the world of work, where employees are “quiet quitting”, and work-from-home or hybrid work is being demanded. We see this in the very difficult times the UK has undergone with Brexit. These examples, and many more, reveal the deep inadequacy and lack of fulfillment in the concept of “contracts”.  

However, a covenant is markedly different from a contract, but not entirely. A covenant is a kind of contract, in that there are limiting conditions to the relationship. However, a covenant relationship is so much more than a contract. Where the contract bases the relationship on each doing their own share, fulfilling a covenant does not expect this outright. A covenant relationship says that “I will do my share even if, for a time, you aren’t doing your share”; and both parties in a covenant relationship make this commitment. It is a commitment of two parties for the best interests of each other. One party puts the interests of the other ahead of her own. Covenants are much more profound relationships than contracts, and the fulfillment that they can bring constitutes a structure for experienced freedom, rather than a mere assumption of liberation.

The most obvious types of covenant relationships that exist are parent-child relationships and marital relationships. The most obvious kind of covenant is intimacy. In these cases, the relationship cannot be sustained if both parties in the relationship aren’t willing to say: I will do my share even if, for a time, you aren’t doing your share.  

In Philippians 2, Paul writes, “make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Let’s take a step back, a step within, for a moment. Behind all of this conversation about contracts and covenants, there are some essential human needs and yearnings that are affected. The largest of these needs is to be understood as unconditionally loved. A parent-child relationship cannot be sustained if the love that is there is based on certain conditions. One of the key questions we have deep in our hearts is to know that the blessings we receive from others are freely given without conditions. If it is, we know this love to be deeply fulfilling. On the other hand, love that is given based on one abiding by conditions, i.e. conditional love, may bring some temporary pleasure or satisfaction. Still, it is certainly nothing like a fulfillment of a need.

For example, I love it when my kids do the dishes sometimes, take out the garbage, or vacuum. That gives me temporary joy and satisfaction. But I don’t make being a good parent a condition on them taking out the garbage; I would fulfill my parental role anyways.

We seek to be held unconditionally. It is what fulfills us.

And this is where law and freedom are brought together in substantial harmony. Covenant relationships hold us accountable in faithfulness and fidelity to particular people, but they do so unconditionally. Covenants resolve the paradox we all struggle with.

A covenant is more loving and intimate than a legal relationship, but more accountable than a personal relationship. It is a stunning blend of law and love, vows to be loving and faithful no matter the circumstances.

Both have to say: I will be what I should be, whether you are or not. I am committed to the relationship even if it is not meeting my needs at the moment. If both parties agree, it is far more fulfilling, deep, and profound than an instrumental relationship.

The very idea of the covenant is based on a story in Genesis 15. Abraham was seeking certainty of the promised land, and God promised he would give Abraham a son in Abraham’s old age, and through this son and his descendants – his people would be able to claim the land. Abraham asked, “How will I know that this will be true?” God made a covenant with Abraham? How? Abraham participated in an ancient custom of cutting up animals and separating them into aisles. As was tradition, the servant would walk through the aisles and make the covenant to his lord. In effect, the servant was making an oath that if he did not keep up his end of the bargain he would be cut up and destroyed as the animals had been. Breaking a covenant traditionally meant that the one who broke the covenant would take the curse of the covenant. Ones who kept the covenant would enjoy its blessings.

The revolutionary thing that God did was that He took the covenant for Abraham. Verse 17 & 18 says, “When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day, the Lord made a covenant with Abram…”

God committed to Abraham at that moment that he would take the curse of the covenant. And he did… on the cross.

We have learned ourselves out of covenant relationships, and this is the core of learned loneliness. Covenants seem archaic because so many are not willing to say: I will do my part, even if, for a time, you aren’t doing your part.

2 thoughts on “The Friendship Recession: Part 1 – Learned Loneliness

  1. Interesting. The loneliness problem in America, as you probably know, has been documented for years (The Lonely Crowd (1950), The Culture of Narcissism (1979), and my favorite, The Pursuit of Loneliness (1970)). The voices have been calling out in the wilderness for some time now. Yet the problem remains today, probably even worse than back then.


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