By Mike Aquilina
Mike Aquilina is executive vice-president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a contributing editor for Angelus News. He is author of more than fifty books, including The Fathers of the Church and Villains of the Early Church. He hosts the “Way of the Fathers” podcast for CatholicCulture.org and edits the Reclaiming Catholic History series for Ave Maria Press.
We can be forgiven, we moderns, for any jealousy we feel toward the early Christians. In his 1996 study, The Rise of Christianity, the sociologist Rodney Stark attempted to quantify the growth of the Church through the first three centuries of Christian history—centuries of intermittent persecution, when the practice of the faith was a capital crime. His startling conclusion was that the Church grew throughout this period at a steady rate of forty percent per decade, and that most of the growth took place in big cities, where population is densest.
Critics piled on. Those numbers just couldn’t be true— even though they seemed to be. Stark answered his critics definitively in his 2007 follow-up study, Cities of God.
In 2017 the historian Thomas A. Robinson argued that the problem with Stark’s thesis was not that the numbers were too high, but that Stark did not go far enough. Whereas Stark described Christianity as mostly an urban phenomenon, Robinson saw abundant evidence for Church growth in the far reaches of rural areas. In other words, from its earliest years, Christianity spread everywhere.
The numbers can be simultaneously encouraging and dispiriting to Christians living two millennia after the fact. They’re encouraging because they prove the universal appeal of the Gospel. They’re dispiriting because the Church is not coming close to those numbers today. Not only are we not in the ballpark; we’re not even in the parking lot.
In spite of religious freedom—in spite of our wealth— in spite of a proliferation of institutional apostolates—we’re not converting the world the way we did when we were poor and persecuted.
Stark and Robinson both suggest reasons for the early Church’s phenomenal success. The former emphasizes the Christian response in times of crisis, such as pandemics. He also speaks of the enhanced status of women in Christian society. Robinson proposes that there was a compounding of crises—disease, war, earthquakes, famines—that made people more open to the Gospel.
The common narrative, however, is a story of friendship. There was, as far as we know, no talk of evangelistic methods or institutional programs in the underground Church. The evidence seems so simple as to be more incredible, at first sight, than Rodney Stark’s hard-earned analytics.
As we move from the macro view to the micro—from the numbers to the paper trail—it seems that Christians converted the world simply by befriending their next-door neighbors and persevering in friendship.
That, in a word, is the Christian revolution. I propose that it is a revolution whose time has come again, for we’ve reached a convergence of crises that resemble the cluster of cataclysms the world saw in the third century. But the principal crisis is the disappearance of friendship.
Sociologists at the University of Arizona and Duke University conducted a longitudinal study on social isolation from 1985 to 2005. In 1985 they found that most Americans could name three people they considered very close friends and confidants. By 2005, however, one in four Americans reported having no close friends—no one in whom they could discuss their thoughts or struggles. The number of the self-identified friendless had doubled in twenty years.
This is a crisis because it affects us not only mentally but physically as well. And it’s not just op-ed writers and psychologists with an axe to grind who worry about loneliness. In 2018 the British government announced that it was going to treat loneliness as a public-health crisis. Most of the country’s general practitioners saw at least one patient a day whose big problem was loneliness, “which is linked to a range of damaging health impacts, like heart disease, strokes and Alzheimer’s disease.”
The government actually appointed a Minister for Loneliness to coordinate the response to this crisis. With new funding and organization, doctors will be able to prescribe human interaction. They’ll be able to refer patients to a network of community services that can get people together to do something fun.
It almost sounds like a Monty Python sketch. Is it really the government’s job to make friends for us?
But the problem may be so big that nothing else can make a dent in it. It’s “one of the greatest public health challenges of our time,” Prime Minister Theresa May said when she introduced the government’s Loneliness Strategy.2 She cited depressing statistics about how many elderly people go for more than a month at a time without talking to a single friend or family member. Loneliness—and presumably what to do about it—will even be part of the curriculum in primary and secondary schools.
But why are we so lonely?
We’re more connected, and to more people, than at any other time in history. But we don’t feel connected at all. You’ve probably heard the complaints. They sound like jokes, but you can hear the despair behind them. “I have 427 friends on Facebook! Why am I so lonely?”
We’re connected to everyone, and we feel all alone.
Part of that is because social media has trivialized the meaning of “friend.” You may have 427 friends on Facebook. But how many of those 427 would come to your funeral?
A “friend,” by social media’s definition, is someone whose random thoughts appear in your feed.
And that leads us to the much bigger and more insidious problem.
“Friendship may be shortly defined: a perfect conformity of opinions upon all religious and civil subjects, united with the highest degree of mutual esteem and affection,” says Cicero, a pagan Roman of the first century before Christ.
Cicero’s definition seems reasonable and considered. And yet one of the longest pieces in this book is going to reject it explicitly. In the delightful Octavius by Minucius Felix, you’ll meet two Christians and their pagan friend, at a time when Christianity was illegal and technically punishable by death.
Certainly two Christians can’t agree with a pagan on religious matters. And as for civil matters, the pagan thinks the laws against Christianity are reasonable and good for the empire.
Can two Christians possibly be friends with a pagan when he thinks their religion ought to be wiped out of the empire? Cicero would laugh at the very idea. But the Octavius was written to show exactly what can happen when Christians and pagans are friends. Spoiler alert: the pagan becomes a Christian.
Does that sound farfetched? The evidence—from former pagans’ conversion stories—shows that it was a common outcome. Christianity certainly didn’t have force on its side, and Christians couldn’t rent halls and have big revival meetings to convert the heathens. The only thing they had going for them was an apostolate of friendship. Christians made friends, and then they made their friends Christians.
But that depended on making friends who were different. It depended on accepting that friends could be imperfect.
It depended on rejecting Cicero’s definition.
Cicero would have loved Facebook.
Social media picks up Cicero’s definition of friendship and runs with it. Facebook and the others thrive by giving you more of what you already think, more to agree with, more to be outraged by. They create a virtual world where all sane people think the way you do and everyone who thinks differently is beyond the pale. They shrink our big, complicated world into a perfect little marble. It’s just what we always wanted.
And it’s lonely.
In the real world, friendships don’t work that way. In the real world, our friends surprise us. We find people who believe the same things we do, but we also find people who believe wildly different things. We become friends for reasons we can’t explain. Cicero would be appalled. We’re so irrational!
But if God—who has no equal—has befriended us, who are we to place anyone outside the reach of our friendship? If Christianity is a participation in divine life, then grace makes us omni-capable in friendship. We can be friends with the most unlikely people.
That’s our job, in fact. Tax collectors and sinners—those were the people Jesus hung out with. “Doesn’t he know what kind of woman that is?” people whispered behind his back. But Jesus found his friends in the most unlikely places. He didn’t make friends with people who were like him. He made friends with people who were different—the people who needed him most.
Jesus declares his Apostles to be friends—all of them sinners, and one of them even a tax collector. He also declares, repeatedly, that we must do the things he does. He establishes a pattern of evangelism that the Fathers followed. They made unlikely friends, too. Some of them made pagan friends and converted them. And some of them were pagans who made Christian friends and were converted.
That’s the Christian pattern of friendship. It starts with the Incarnation. The central event of history is the ultimate act of friendship.
Perhaps the Church Fathers can begin to teach us the cure for our loneliness. After all, the problems of our day are not too different from the problems of their day. Their lives were busy. They lived in an uncertain world of big cities, massive bureaucracies, and constant change. They had big problems. But they found the time for friendship.
No—we shouldn’t say they found the time. They made the time. There is one thing all the Fathers agree on: friendship takes work. It’s a warning to us: we can’t be lazy and expect to have friends. But it’s also a message of hope. With God’s grace giving us the power of friendship, we can overcome our loneliness. We can be the friends we ought to be and have the friends we want to have. And we can do it because God himself has called us friends.
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Friendship and the Fathers brings together, for the first time, the Fathers’ doctrine and stories of friendship—mostly in their own words. Popular author Mike Aquilina shows why friendship changed the world—and why we need another revolution of friendship today.