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Surprised by Friendship

Even C.S. Lewis who had such a gift for friendship in practice could have giant blind spots about friendship in theory.

Published on:
November 2, 2021
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4 min.
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I’m not great at friendship. I’ll be the first to admit it. I don’t keep in touch as I should, I shirk get-togethers and put off phone calls, and I tend to withdraw into my shell at the first sign of friction. Living in the era of Covid-19 hasn’t helped, of course, but much of this is my own fault, not the virus’s. All of this makes me a less-than-ideal person to write about the importance of friendship—and makes it deeply ironic that two of my books deal with that very subject. 

I touched on the great need for Christian friendships in my book about singleness in the church, One by One, but I really got into it when I wrote about the friendship of two great twentieth-century writers, Dorothy L. Sayers and C.S. Lewis. 

Their friendship was a delightful one to read and write about. And unusual too: a cross-gender friendship between a married Christian woman and a single (for all but a few years) Christian man, a deeply intellectual relationship based as much on cultural and literary interests as on spiritual commonalities. They bantered, bickered, traded quotations, collaborated on projects, and ultimately built the kind of deeply supportive and understanding friendship that so many would love to have, but so few achieve.

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A Life of Blessed Contradiction

Perhaps the most unusual detail is that this flourishing friendship existed in Lewis’s life even though his mind had no category for it. At least, that’s the impression left by Lewis’s 1960 book The Four Loves

In this book he writes movingly about the value of friendship, making a convincing case that we ought to place far more importance on it than we do. In a much-loved passage, he writes: 

Those are the golden sessions; when four or five of us after a hard day’s walking have come to our inn; when our slippers are on, our feet spread out towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim on or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life—natural life—has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?

And yet in the very next sentence, we get this: “From what has been said it will be clear that in most societies at most periods Friendships will be between men and men or between women and women.” 

Perhaps it’s one of the greatest examples of God’s grace that, as unseeing and obtuse as we all can be in so many ways, we’re able to sustain any relationships at all.

Lewis does quickly clarify, “In a profession (like my own) where men and women work side by side . . . such Friendship is common.” But having said that, he drops the subject of that kind of friendship and goes on to talk about all the things that are wrong with cross-gender friendship when there are significant differences in educational level, cultural activities, or professional experience. He dwells on all the difficulties of friendships between men and women in such cases—difficulties so formidable that, in his view, it’s worse than useless to try to force a relationship, as it can only leave all parties dissatisfied and unhappy. Frankly, there are moments when his ideas of such friendships almost sound as if they were drawn from The Donna Reed Show or Leave It to Beaver.

The Confines of Experience

What are we to make of Lewis’s emphasis on all the problems with cross-gender friendship, contrasted with his comparatively brief reference to the kind he knew and enjoyed, not just with Sayers but with other women as well? 

Part of it must be due to his belief that friendship always must be based on at least one common interest. And a man of Lewis’s considerable intellectual prowess would naturally prioritize interests of the mind—the kind he and Sayers shared—as the genuinely legitimate ones. He himself could never have dreamed of bonding with another soul over, say, tennis or golf (chiefly because he didn’t have an athletic bone in his body, unless one counts enjoying long walks as athletic). 

But in the world Lewis had always known, it was most often men who shared these intellectual interests. Many of the women Lewis crossed paths with, women like Mrs. Janie Moore, took little part in the intellectual life, either by choice or by the cultural standard. In fact, not many women regularly crossed paths with Lewis at all. It was usually men who surrounded him throughout his life. Finding relatively few women who shared the interest he most prized may have muddled Lewis’s mental framework for friendship. 

Sayers was aware of these circumstances from having read his memoir, Surprised by Joy. In that book, she told a friend, she saw “a life bounded by school, the army, and the older universities,” all of which would have been male-dominated milieus. And so she wasn’t surprised, much as she liked him, to perceive “a complete blank in his mind where women are concerned.” 

Friends None the Less

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It’s intriguing that a female friend who was so fond of Lewis could say that of him—just as intriguing as it is that a man who was so fond of his female friends could make almost no space for them in his book on friendship. But I find it helpful to hold these two aspects of the man in tension, not trying to explain away one or the other. Even this man who had such a gift for friendship in practice could have giant blind spots about friendship in theory. And yet, with those blind spots, he still possessed that gift. 

This truth gives me great reassurance. As often as I get it wrong in friendship, as often as I neglect to hold up my end or shrink away when I should engage, I still have friends. And that tells me that I must be doing something right, even if it’s in spite of myself. Perhaps it’s one of the greatest examples of God’s grace that, as unseeing and obtuse as we all can be in so many ways, we’re able to sustain any relationships at all.

In my book Dorothy and Jack, I quote Mary Van Leeuwen’s statement from A Sword between the Sexes? that “C.S. Lewis was a better man than his theories when it came to women.” Maybe that’s the best that could be said of any of us—that despite our theories, our pronouncements, our little boxes into which we try to stuff people and experiences and ideas, somehow we still manage to be friends.

Cover image by Andy Kelly.

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