Review of William Young, Uncommon Friendships: An Amicable History of Modern Religious Thought

William Young, Uncommon Friendships: An Amicable History of Modern Religious Thought, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 317+xi pgs. $36.00

W. C. Hackett
Australian Catholic University

This capacious and well-rounded book returns to a classical yet severely neglected theme within theology and philosophy: friendship. It focuses on friendship in three modern and idiosyncratic iterations (and what genuine friendship is not idiosyncratic, or even sui generis?): first, the intellectual and religious friendships of Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig and the lesser-known Jewish-Christian thinker Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy, whose respective theoretical outputs are grounded on an impassioned and even fierce religious disagreement that friendship first made possible; second, of Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and atheist writer Maurice Blanchot, school-friends who were engaged in a life-long conversation that passed through and was even sustained by the discontinuity of their “infinite separation” by means of each one’s willingness to listen and to be transformed by the other; and third, of feminist authors Catherine Clément and Julia Kristeva, who possess a complicated relationship to the phenomenon of religion in general but, more particularly, to Indian religion(s) and Christianity, and who give the strong impression of being engaged primarily in an intellectual register. This, of course, is not a criticism of their friendship, of their philosophies, or of their faiths; rather, it simply raises the questions of their relationship as a model for inter-religious friendship, which seems to be lacking something significant that is powerfully present in the other friendships examined. For both Kristeva and Clément, there appears to be an extrinsic relation between one’s philosophical-political project and one’s religious faith. For Kristeva, religion is understood primarily in therapeutic terms and for the support and liberation it provides to individuals; for Clément, syncretism is a means toward critiquing traditional Western hierarchies of meaning.  For both of them, religion lies at the service of a political project.

Among present-day research in the history of religious ideas, this book possesses a unique and poignant focus on friendship across boundaries of belief (or unbelief) and explores the biographical and intellectual tensions, failures, transformations, questions, and accomplishments that such challenging friendships generate in the lives and writings of these six figures. In a world where the boundaries of belief seem to define who gets to count as fully human in the eyes of this or that group of “believers” or “unbelievers,”1 this book is a passionate witness to the value that irreducible religious differences have (a) for individual beliefs, (b) for the forging of a common, human understanding across boundaries, and (c), therefore, for the inseparably intellectual and spiritual tasks in which believers and unbelievers (and those somewhere along the continuum in between) continue to engage in contemporary Western letters.

This is a book of intellectual history, “an amicable history of modern religious thought” as the subtitle expresses it. It takes the inter-religious friendships as central and formative components of the persons involved and, therefore, of the thought-products of such persons. This is the most fundamental thesis of the book, since its demonstration leads Young toward broader reflection on the theological and religious significance—the irreplaceable significance—of friendship in general. The value of such a thesis is found in its compelling explication of the view that thinking is achieved only under the real conditions of historical, embodied, inter-personal, and remarkably messy experience. An un-provable thesis—or better, a conviction—generated from this view is that inter-religious friendship is a context for the most profound reflection on religion. The proof is nowhere else but in the pudding, for Young successfully attempts to show in nine learned chapters the surprising and almost miraculous ways that religious thinking is tested and intensified through honest encounters sustained over many years, encounters for which only genuine friendship provides such conditions.2

The introduction should strike the reader as a bit exaggerated, arguing from a simplistic supposition that ancient friendship “privileged” sameness and remained “exclusive,” whereas modern friendship is based upon difference and becomes “inclusive.”  Surely “sameness,” something shared in common, is necessary for “modern” friendships as much as it is for ancient friendships—even if what is shared is not the specific religious identity of the individuals. Besides the fact of the “sameness” of humanity, which ought not to be passed over lightly, what is shared, in some cases more than others, is the experience of simply being “religious”—an experience which is similar for Jews as for Christians and, paradoxically, for atheists as for believers.3  Also shared in these friendships, perhaps most acutely, is an intellectual commitment to the question(s) of religion.  However, this is not a uniquely modern phenomenon. As historians such as Robin Darling Young, Tony Grafton, and Megan Williams have shown, the trace of inter-religious friendship, based on common access to libraries by the intellectual elite (in Alexandria, for example) or on traditions of reading common texts (such as Aristotle), can be found in antiquity in the most conspicuous places. The argument of the historical research mentioned here is similar to Young’s own: inter-religious friendship lies at the base of the religious ideas of certain thinkers who are sometimes crucially important in their respective traditions.

Taken heuristically, however, the introduction is insightful. Its thesis qualifies as a relatively sound observation: today more than ever we have come to find that fundamental differences (and what differences are more fundamental than religious differences?) actually offer positive and even irreplaceable contributions to our human experience (and what similarities, therefore, are more like one another than religious differences?).  If we have learned anything from the Continental philosophy of the last century, to which each of these figures has made a lasting contribution, it is this: to understand ourselves, we need the other. Our others are woven deeply into the fabric of ourselves as much as we are; they make us who we are!  If religion manifests the deepest possibilities and richest expressions of human experience, then religious alterity is more important than any other form for understanding ourselves, our world, and the Creator who remains our common origin and, together we hope, our common end.

Sameness and difference are required for friendship, and in equal measure: sameness is the condition for difference, as each of these friendships share a common language, a common historical moment, a common nationality, common intellectual interests and sources, etc., and difference is the condition for coming to realize what there is and what can be held in common. In both ancient and modern conceptions of friendship, sameness and difference are equally present.  In today’s terms, however, they are figured differently: a devout Catholic today no doubt feels closer in spirit to a Muslim of traditional morality than to the producer of pornographic films who lives next door.  We live a certain way because we believe in God; you live a certain way because you, it seems, do not.

As Young shows, this irreducible tension of sameness and difference is deeply fruitful: its major fruit, at least for this reader, is a renewed awareness that what one knows in the religious domain is only ever known partially, and that amicable tension simultaneously increases such knowledge and unknowledge. The God that is known is never coincident with the act of knowing; the knowledge of non-knowledge—as the ancients certainly knew was the highest sort of knowledge4—is intensified in an irreplaceable way by the goad of inter-religious friendship. This certainly speaks to this reader’s own experience and calls me again to embrace the restless challenge of my beloved others, as a path of encounter laid down through the providential guidance of the Beloved Other. If the reader is like me, he or she will be found writing him or herself into the blank spots of the text as it is read and studied.  The memories and hopes, the failures and fragments of inter-religious encounter that invariably brand one’s own thinking by at once perplexing and illuminating it become a more coherent story through taking up reflectively the three-fold journey of this book.

The conclusion reserves some reflective remarks on the nature of inter-religious friendships, marked by aspects such as “hospitality,” “receptivity” and “vulnerability,” in order to display a “new form of harmony” that is structured by deepening difference. This unfolding play of unity and difference in the harmony of love between persons, passing through the strange domain of inter-religious encounter that strives for unity in the preservation of difference and respects difference as an expression of solidarity, emerges in the form of authentic friendship as a living image of divine beauty that can never be captured but only received and adored.

Through this final reflection, Young offers three images that attempt to communicate the essence of the friendships he studied: (1) “competitive virtuosity”: the relentless competition, one-upmanship, and ceaseless struggle for the possession of what the other has in a more authentic manner. The competitive virtuosity which shapes the relationship between Rosenzweig and Rosenstock-Huessy is an antagonism most charitably pictured by Young as an improvisational competition between dueling musicians; (2) “ecstatic sobriety”: Levinas and Blanchot’s friendship is marked by an exposure that puts oneself into question and discloses the necessity of responsibility out of which an “element of goodness” may shine out;5 and (3) “open chords”: Kristeva and Clément’s friendship is marked by simultaneous completion and openness to revision, wherein harmony and difference are expressed through the central chord form of blues music that gives startling voice to deep, searching sentiment.

If Rozenzweig’s and Rosenstock-Huessy’s friendship is the most humanly interesting, it is also the least instructive (except perhaps in the negative) regarding the ideal of inter-religious friendship. Levinas and Blanchot, on the other hand, are two immensely fascinating personalities whose friendship became, as it were, the living flesh of their theories as these theories unfolded through their mainly epistolary conversation over the course of their lives. If we are to measure quality by the meaningful satisfaction or joy the friendship offers its participants, in an inverse proportion with each other, these first two friendships would certainly make for good cinema as far as the quality of the friendship is concerned. Finally, the friendship of Kristeva and Clément is certainly an exemplary and inspiring instance of communication, collaboration, and creative fidelity in difference.  Ultimately, according to Young, these inter-religious friendships are our tutors in our own tasks of “learning to listen” to each other—a listening that becomes the work of God in us and can be accomplished most radically together, as our hands remain an open space that welcomes the hands of the other.

While it is impossible in a brief review to analyze the specific contributions each study makes to research in the thought of any one of these figures, much of the material will be valuable for specialists.  Young’s juxtapositions and probing questions certainly throw into deep and fresh relief the ideas of each thinker, contextualizing them and showing the role played by friendship in the genesis of their individual theories. What must be stressed, for now, is that this book makes a true contribution to contemporary religious reflection by showing again and again the “fruit” of inter-religious friendship for religious belief.  It reciprocally displays the fruit of religious belief for friendship and, therefore, for our common humanity. The most important contribution of this book is that, through the friendships that it chronicles, it demands that we look at ourselves, at our beliefs, and our friendships: if we indeed are blessed by heaven to have inter-religious friendships (and who today does not?), we must allow them to challenge our thinking as we think from within our own religious heritage(s) that we hold so dear.  The transcendence and mystery of the love within friendship, which springs from out of the heart of the humanity expressed within conflicting religious faiths, keeps faith and hope alive in surprising ways. If the phenomenon of such friendships is a testament to the poignancy and profundity of human experience, it is also thereby a living trace of the divine mystery.  It is good, even necessary, that we attend to this trace.  Only friendship will allow us to do so in a manner that surpasses all of our facile reductions to what is comfortable, easy, and instrumentalizable.  Therefore, only friendship provides a path that rightly honors the divine mystery in order to become a living testimony to it.


1. Or, for that matter, think of the modern nation state and its institutionalization of ever-more hegemonic and intrusive “unbelief.”
2. The three major divisions of the book correspond to the three distinct friendships noted above and range from about one hundred pages (Part I, on Rosenzweig and Rosenstock-Huessy; Part II, on Levinas and Blanchot) to fifty pages (Part III, on Kristeva and Clément). These sections are framed by an introduction on the history of inter-religious friendship in Western thought and a conclusion that sketches some indications toward a new account of friendship based on the three investigations of the book. I will only mention the basic theses of these framing portions of the book, and I will leave it to the reader to discover the most interesting and compelling parts of the book for him or herself: the overall dramatic but intermittently banal, the often tense, even tragic, but never insignificant—in short, the deeply human stories of three friendships that radiate through the lives and thought of six important religious thinkers of the twentieth century.
3. If Maurice Blanchot is not “religious” through or even because of his atheism, then there are no genuinely religious people at all.
4. I refer to Thomas Aquinas’ aphorism, surely a summary expression of ancient religious thought and with corollaries in Jewish, Islamic and even pagan philosophical reflection: “We know God truly only when we believe that he is above all that men can think about God” (De veritate 8, 1, ad. 8).
5. This serves as an “inversion” of the Stoic account of friendship for which friendship is a means toward the exercise of individual virtue, of one’s own self-perfection.

PDF Version