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Friendship as Sacred Knowing: Overcoming Isolation

Samuel Kimbriel
Published by Oxford University Press in 2014

Reviewed by Douglas V. Henry, Great Texts Program, Baylor University

Imagine that most of the major achievements of the modern age grew out of a fundamentally flawed assumption about human understanding. Suppose that the assumption in question, for all the evident successes built upon it, gave rise to circumstances in which alienation from nature, isolation from one another, and estrangement from God typify the modern person’s experience. If there were a better way, would we not embrace it? On Samuel Kimbriel’s account in Friendship as Sacred Knowing, modernity has in fact erred and humankind has suffered a dramatic foreshortening of its possibilities for full flourishing, yet a better way framed by the interdependence of love and knowledge beckons us.

Put a little more precisely, to Alasdair MacIntyre’s philosophical anthropology in which the narratively-constituted self figures significantly, and to Charles Taylor’s socio-historical analysis of the rise of modern epistemology and the “buffered self” typical of it, Kimbriel adds a striking theological critique. His critique does not begin, however, with an abstract reframing of modern history, but rather with the acute social deprivation many experience in the absence of enriching, meaningful friendships. Late modern humanity longs for friendship, yet “even as these longings for community are elicited with great intensity, the conditions by which such desires might come to maturity seem so often to be cut off” (9). Nonetheless, Kimbriel brings good news. At the heart of his extended argument is a practical counsel: we need to recover a venerable metaphysical anthropology in which, because human beings are at home in a gift-laden cosmos, we may simultaneously befriend wisdom as we befriend others, both of which find their proper amplitude in the economy of divine love.

Put even more precisely, Kimbriel endorses, with qualification, Taylor’s critique of the disengaged rationality that René Descartes et al. substitute for the porous, embedded rationality of pre-modernity. The rationality of Plato, John the Evangelist, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas “is defined by a metaphysics and practical economy of participation, by enmeshment in every sphere from the ground of being itself, to civic life, to rationality” (14). One’s task therein is to encounter, love, and know. By contrast, the Cartesian philosopher’s task is to disengage, objectify, and control a disenchanted world that we allegedly can judge with certainty. Having made the substitution of one rationality for the other, modern philosophers attempt to forget the exercise of choice at work, self-deceptively supposing their own historically circumscribed form of rationality simply is reason. The consequences of modernity’s uncritical self-endorsement run far and wide; Kimbriel’s special concern runs in the direction of friendship. In the participatory metaphysics and political life of the premodern porous self, one was “involved in the world not as an isolated individual, but as a community, a society,” for “the modern predisposition to view individuality as primary, and intimacy as a later voluntary activity, was not yet in place” (19).

The indebtedness Kimbriel bears to the likes of MacIntyre and Taylor is abundant, and he makes explicit his dependence upon their insights. Yet his own argument is distinctive and substantial. Kimbriel constructively appropriates a metaphysics of participation within a cosmos superintended by Trinitarian charity, and his book is thus simultaneously more metaphysical and more theological than the work of MacIntyre or Taylor. At the same time, Kimbriel also proceeds with a learned scholar’s attentiveness to the nuances of the texts and traditions of historical figures such as Plato, Aristotle, St. John, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas.

He divides the book into two parts. The first part, “Friendship and Disengagement,” consists of two chapters that establish the nature of the problem historically and socially, but even more than that, metaphysically and theologically. The initial chapter, “Friendship and Isolation,” largely retells Taylor’s story in Sources of the Self and A Secular Age, with reference to particular predicaments posed for friendship. Chapter 2 offers a critical treatment of Aristotle’s conception of friendship. Kimbriel herein explores a much-discussed tension in the Nicomachean Ethics between the political life and the contemplative life that derives, he rightly notes, from Aristotle’s self-enclosed conception of the Divine. Kimbriel’s special contribution is to observe that “this theological point” not only causes difficulties for friendship, but exemplifies the ways in which “the problems of friendship arise as part of a broader stance to the world” (51). Who we are as human beings, what we can know of the reality in which we find ourselves, how we can best understand that reality, and why others matter in the midst of our inquiry turn out to be mutually entangled issues.

The second part of the book, “Friendship and Enquiry: Beyond Disengagement,” consists of five chapters: chapter 3 examines the Gospel of John (“Sacred Knowing and Indwelling Love”), chapters 4 and 5 interpret Augustine (“The Porous Enquirer” and “The Veiled Path: Enquiry, Agency, and Desire”), and chapters 6 and 7 explore Aquinas (“Human Finitude and the Paradox of Enquiry” and “Friendship and Deification”). Chapter 5 includes a thoughtful excursis on Plato’s treatment of friendship, love, and wisdom in the Meno, Phaedrus, and Symposium, with attention to Plato’s similarities to and differences from Augustine.

In chapter 3, Kimbriel deftly handles several themes of John’s gospel that are germane to his argument. Above all, he emphasizes the befriending of Jesus Christ through whom the disciples come to know what otherwise would remain hidden. They do not encounter Christ in the manner of analytic philosophers of religion; they respond to God’s love in Christ with their own love, and they thereby come to know something significant about reality. As Kimbriel puts it, “the very account of reality offered by John is itself a product of the love to which he testifies; the buffer is completely absent” (69).

In chapters 4 and 5, he treats the ways in which John’s gospel proclamation shapes Augustine’s theological reflections. In showing continuity and development, Kimbriel treats numerous Augustinian texts, including his sermons on John’s gospel alongside larger works such as De Trinitate and the Confessions. Augustine’s encounter of Christ – the Inner Teacher whose initiative in befriending and loving also illumines the truth – teaches him (and us) that “not all that is interior is one’s own” (98, emphasis in original). Kimbriel’s reading of Augustine thus strikes different notes than Taylor’s reading of Augustine, for Taylor identifies Augustine’s inward turn as anticipatory of Descartes’ hyper-isolated cogito ergo sum. Kimbriel, by contrast, claims that sharp distinctions of subject and object are “arranged for the modern period by a notion of interiority as isolation … that must be compensated for by proper procedures” (98). Far to the contrary, “Augustine’s notion of enquiry radically undermines that which is essential to disengagement, namely the buffer itself, by disputing the notion of interiority that Descartes and others come to take as central” (98; italics in original). John’s incarnational theology and Plato’s participatory metaphysics, experienced by the porous self from both inside-out and outside-in, jointly underwrite Augustine’s at-homeness in the cosmic order. Befriended by God, the one whose love creates and knits together all that is, Augustine simultaneously knows not only God, but also himself, others, and the world more truly. And precisely because of the reality that not all that is interior is one’s own, Augustine escapes the dialectical futility of the buffered stance in which disengaged, procedural “absolutism threatens to dissolve into relativism” (113).

Chapters 6 and 7 bring Aquinas’ exacting scholastic vocabulary to bear upon the issues. At the culminating stages of Kimbriel’s argument, he shows how a central paradox within Aquinas’ writing helps us diagnose the grave misprisions of modernity’s disembedded and disenchanted epistemologies. In De veritate, Aquinas writes: “Though our understanding has been made to see God, it cannot see God by its own natural power” (128). That is, our raison d’être is something we cannot naturally accomplish. So it is that with “Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine, [Aquinas] is emphatic that humanity’s final contentment rests only in the vision of the highest things and that [we] will be ever afflicted with unhappiness until that goal is achieved” (133). Under these circumstances, three ways of resolving the tension are available, two of them false. First, one may deny “the grandeur of one’s longings” (133) and futilely attempt to find happiness in lesser goods (pleasure, wealth, fame, power, glory, and so on). Second, one may deny “the modesty of one’s capacities” (133). This is what the disengaged stance does:

Itdenies that there could in principle be any such object that exceeds human capacity for understanding; it focuses, in other words, upon the denial of finitude itself. The only way to effect such a denial of finitude is to flatten the metaphysical plane in a radical fashion, insisting that all that exists exists upon the model of contemporary human knowledge. (136)

Third, one can receive grace beyond us, the help of a divine gift in a cosmos created and sustained by God’s love, whereby the lasting elevation of our being – our deiformity – makes possible a fuller participation in the Divine good. In explaining this possibility, Aquinas (and Kimbriel) take seriously 2 Peter 1:4: “He hath given us most great and most precious promises; that by these you may be made partakers of the Divine Nature.”

In a brief conclusion to the book, Kimbriel marvelously pulls the varied threads of his argument together, returning to the longing for friendship and the practices constitutive of it as an opportunity for rapprochement with the realities that modernity’s buffered self holds at arm’s length. For in friendship worthy of the name, one cannot objectify, proceduralize, instrumentalize, or control the other. Nor can one in genuine friendships be careless about convictions, reducing others to bundles of mere feelings and preferences without reference to truth, beauty, and goodness. Real friends come as gifts beyond our wishes and exceeding our control, and they thus break down the brittle buffers erected around selves not wholly inured against God’s gift-laden world.

Kimbriel’s book deserves a far wider reading than I fear it will receive. It reminds us that forgetting, mistaking, or misrepresenting what we are gives way to fundamental misprisions about everything else. It contributes new justification for the embedded, enchanted, participatory metaphysics jettisoned by modernity out of a misguided wish to “be like gods,” the original temptation. It also brings good news in a generous-spirited way to an age riven by the ills identified at the outset of this review: alienation from the world, isolation from others, and estrangement from God. Kimbriel offers a welcome alternative, indeed. Inspired by the befriending overtures of his book and the beloved community to which it points, let the buffers come down.

Cite this article
Douglas V. Henry, “Friendship as Sacred Knowing: Overcoming Isolation”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:4 , 412-414

Douglas V. Henry

Baylor University
Douglas V. Henry is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University.