Cultivating the Garden of Friendship

In a recent post I expressed my belief that the world is an entropic chaos tending toward death, and that in rebelling against this we can make beauty, which the all-devouring nature of the void requires that we make again and again. I mentioned this idea in conversation with a new friend the other day, and she suggested that it would be better to think about how to cultivate beauty, to find ways of sustaining it over time. This seemed to me a good and wise correction, and although seeds of the idea do appear in my post, especially in the idea that human connection is the highest form of beauty, I wish to develop them further here. Zion, after all, is at once a place and a form of human community where the people are, as the scripture reminds us, of one heart and one mind, dwelling in righteousness, and having no poor among them.

What I’m aiming for here is a practical theology of friendship. For better or for worse, polygamy channeled Joseph’s theology of connection into marital and domestic relations. While family connections are of course important, in the absence of practices like kinship sealing we as Latter-day Saints need to find new ways of forging the links that connect us with (and not just to) people outside our immediate families. Human connection is, as many have said, our school in learning how to become like God, and while this is certainly true in families, the salutary effects of connection need not be limited to our domestic relations. In thinking about Zion, I believe that expanding human connection beyond the domestic sphere is vital, if for no other reason than that the kinds of domestic arrangements experienced by our members vary widely. I’ve written before that the divorced belong in Zion, and I believe that just as fervently about our single members, too, so we need a theological means of connecting them to the greater body on equal terms. “No poor among them” means no impoverished forms of connection or second-class citizens, but full inclusion for all. Social science research showing that loneliness literally is death creates an urgent imperative to form such connections.

My framing of the world as chaos and the beauty of human connection as redemption raises a fundamental question of whether and how we as humans have to change to experience redemption. Traditionally, of course, the answer to this question is easy: we are all fallen and therefore require transformation through the atonement of Jesus Christ. What I wonder, though, is whether transformation means a wholesale remaking into a new creature, or whether it means a more fulsome expression of something already intrinsic. I much prefer the latter reading, for there seems little point to the beautiful Mormon idea of relationships enduring beyond death if the people we have loved here must become radically different in order to dwell there. The lessons in love acquired amidst the thorns and briers of other people here would be of little use in such a heaven, and the sufferings we inflicted on each other along the way would appear as the gratuitous prickings of a gleefully wicked God. Rather, since I believe that much of the pain in the world results from people trying imperfectly to do the right thing (sometimes not only imperfectly, but outright wrongheadedly), just maybe redemption involves learning to love the thoughts and intents of others’ hearts more than it does finding meaning in the suffering that results.

Gerard Manley Hopkins had an especially acute eye for the peculiar forms of life that glance off unique selves as they show forth into the world:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I imagine redemption as the full achievement of this selving-forth, so how, in that process, do we cultivate the beauty that inheres in others—especially when they loathe themselves? Most of us need cast neither very far nor very deep to find things we don’t like about ourselves. Some foibles we learn to live with, while others fester as thorns-in-the-flesh of which we long to be rid. With great frequency we conceive beauty but generate failure, and instead of rebelling against the abyss we only dig it deeper. Left to ourselves, we often see our faults more clearly than our virtues.

I think it’s time we looked beyond marriage as the only counterweight to the divine observation that it is not good for humans to be alone. Marriage is one way of accomplishing togetherness, of course, but it is not the only way. What about Joseph’s cherished principle of friendship?

As Mormons we traditionally reject the Trinity, presenting Joseph’s vision of two beings in the grove as an argument against the idea of unitary essence. Nevertheless, we believe that the members of the Godhead are united in purpose or in other such more symbolic ways—love, I suggest, being chief among them. Similarly, then, there are more kinds of divinely modeled unity than the “one flesh” of wife and husband. If the mutual love of the Father and the Son has a clearly familial orientation, then the love that ties the Holy Spirit to them is less clearly defined. In practice, the Spirit is relational, enabling our two-way communion with God. The richness of the Spirit is the bounty of connection with God. Perhaps the Spirit even fulfills a similar function within the Godhead itself, interinanimating Father and Son. Although this way of thinking almost completely instrumentalizes the Spirit, in my experience the Spirit becomes most powerful when I simply enjoy its presence, tasting with relish the goodness on offer and not trying to figure out what it has to teach me. Connection is not a purpose, but an end unto itself.

These divine relationships can serve as models for human ones. Our spirits speak and spell our selves, and we should seek communion with the spirits of others. Such communion, though, requires vulnerability—and thus by definition carries the potential for and even probability of pain, the abyss that gnaws away at our every effort. I believe, notwithstanding, that there is no other way to overcome the abyss than through the beauty of human connection. We must, therefore, not only risk but also endure the pain of connection, for the alternative is the slowly tightening rack of solipsism coupled with the self-corroding sense of failure.

In friendship we need the Spirit, but we also need to be the Spirit. While the Spirit can facilitate powerful interpersonal connections, we ourselves also need to become active agents of connection. I believe that, even more than overt attempts at diplomacy, the way to do this is to make ourselves present to others and create space for them to become present to us. (I’ve written before about the challenges of making ourselves present to others.) Deeds, not words—except when words are deeds, as in the expression of support or the kind word of encouragement. Such moments of presence, fleeting and rare though they may be, allow us to return a vision of another person’s divinity back to her, giving beauty for the ashes of self-perception. The Father testifies of the Son, and the Son of the Father, while the Spirit testifies of both: this is the model we should emulate in our friendships.

God is not God because God has miraculously achieved an autonomous state of perfection, but because God has cultivated a network of relationships that keep the garden of the divine soul green and flowering with a fecundity that overflows into every moment of contact, even as it benefits from a similar fecundity in others. The only true repentance consists in our turning toward this abundance—in God, to be sure, but also in each other.

It is true that our capacities to forge this kind of connection are very limited. We have so little time, and our personal resources often seem thin to the point of being threadbare. Simple necessity requires that we exercise judgment. We’ll probably only be able to form deep friendships of the kind I’ve been describing with a tiny minority of the people we encounter. Still, I think that these friendships can make us more open and generous—more like God—with even the merest of acquaintances, enriching the world in myriad small ways. In this, too, a multiple-person Godhead provides a useful model, by challenging us to balance the demands of the different kinds of relationship in our lives. Deep friendships can bless our family relationships, but the beauty lies in finding the proportion that allows these different forms of connection to produce harmony rather than dissonance, to augment rather than detract from each other.

Relationships can bring genuine healing. As Judith Shulevitz writes, “Put an orphan in foster care, and his brain will repair its missing connections. Teach a lonely person to respond to others without fear and paranoia, and over time, her body will make fewer stress hormones and get less sick from them.” Joseph Smith was on to something when he linked friendship and redemption.

I believe that in prioritizing friendship we do more than create small pieces of beauty to fling against the all-devouring void; indeed, I believe that through friendship, and through a broad human network of friends-of-friends that runs far deeper than Facebook, we can cultivate a substantial beauty as a bulwark against the void. Yes, I even believe that this is the only way to overcome the void: by growing in its place the Eden we lost long ago.

This post is deeply indebted to conversations with my wife, Ryan Netzley, Constance Furey, and Kristine Haglund. May such friendships endure!


  1. Wonderful. That last paragraph really made an impression (“I believe that in prioritizing friendship we do more than create small pieces of beauty to fling against the all-devouring void”).

  2. An internet search on “Christian” and “hospitality” will bring up some information to support the basic thought of the original posting. Hospitality always has been an important part of our Christian discipleship. I appreciate the reminder.

  3. Jason, agreed – which is why that same ‘sociality’ will rise up with us in the next life and be glorified.

  4. Jason, I believe that friendship for Joseph Smith was essentially an expansive kinship. Do you think that expansive kinship works for what you envision here?

  5. I do find heaven in my friendships – where I feel safe and unconditionally loved. I also find myself challenged to be more Christlike in my attempts with family and friends to grow this same type of relationship, despite differences of opinion. I find that a difficult thing, freely giving love unearned, even to those who are hardest to love. I feel it’s what I’m called to do.

  6. That’s the nub of the issue, J. It seems to me that thinking about friendship as kinship gave Joseph a way of formalizing these relationships through sealing. As I understand it, the practice of kinship sealing was rather short-lived, and we more or less abandoned its more forthrightly polygamous cousin a century ago, so the idea remains, but not the formalizing mechanisms. Part of what I’m trying to do in the post is imagine a theological alternative that recuperates Joseph’s vision of friendship and understands its redemptive power independent of ordinances. So although I find the idea of expansive kinship appealing at at least partially in harmony with what I’m arguing here, I mean the post to be pushing back against some of its implications.

  7. What a gift this post is to me, Jason. Thank you.

  8. This especially, which moved me deeply:

    God is not God because God has miraculously achieved an autonomous state of perfection, but because God has cultivated a network of relationships that keep the garden of the divine soul green and flowering with a fecundity that overflows into every moment of contact, even as it benefits from a similar fecundity in others. The only true repentance consists in our turning toward this abundance—in God, to be sure, but also in each other.

  9. ” I believe that friendship for Joseph Smith was essentially an expansive kinship.”
    That’s interesting. I sent off the publication draft of my SMPT presentation to Kristine a few days ago, with a section on atonement and kinship. The short version- “redeem” had to to do with extending the benefits and duties of kinship through law and covenant, and Israelites viewed God as their divine kinsman, reflected in various names like “God is my father/brother/uncle/kinsman.” Because God was their kinsman, he could be trusted to defend them, redeem them out of slavery, etc.

  10. Cool stuff, Ben. It seems worth noting that kinship is gendered masculine, though, and while this seems right as far as understanding what Joseph Smith meant by it, I don’t think that needs to be the case today.

  11. J. Stapley says:

    Good stuff, Ben. I’ve been noodling a thing for a while, that I thought would make a nice chapter in a devotional volume, but maybe I’ll try and bring a modern translation of the idea down to a few paragraphs as a response to this post. I think it would be an interesting dialogue.

  12. Do it, J.

  13. This is beautiful. You have made beauty here, Jason. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    In my last home, my garden was filled with plants grown from clippings and starts from my friends’ gardens. (gardeners tend to have friends who are gardeners.) I felt incredible joy planting, cultivating and watching the flowers and other plants grow, knowing my garden was the product of loving contributions from people who knew me and loved me. As a long-time divorced, single mother, I agree with you entirely. I feel a web of support – an inner garden, if you will – made up of loving kindness and friendship from a variety of sources. These friendships, from superficial to deep, have provided hope, comfort, beauty and nourishment throughout my companionless years. I’ve often said, “I have a dozen close friends because I don’t have a husband.” For me, that’s what it takes. One’s companion meets a host of social, emotional, and physical needs. Without a companion, by God’s grace, our needs are met in different ways. All my closest friends are married and I’ve always felt like a married woman without a husband, never like a single woman. But however I’ve experienced it, this part of my life has been both painful and remarkably lovely.

    I want to add that those with whom I feel the most profound connection are those who have a testimony of Christ. In this place where we share knowledge of or faith in the Savior, I find a one-ness that transcends any earthly relationship. I can’t really explain it, but I feel it in such a concrete way that it is like we have the same blood. The connection with Christ connects us perfectly with each other – as brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, parents, children, friends and neighbors. It is indeed a thing of incomparable beauty.

  14. You’re welcome, Melody. I’m glad to have you as a friend, and I look forward to getting to know you better! You’ve already made my own little garden a happier place.

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