Why Befriend Your Opponents? Bavinck on ‘Critical’ Friendship

Last year, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg prompted much conversation on the value of friendship between people whose perspectives on life and the world differ sharply. During her career, the liberal Ginsburg maintained a long friendship with her fellow judge Antonin Scalia—a figure who, in ideological terms at least, could scarcely have been more different.

Their friendship extended to their families, who sometimes celebrated New Year’s together. In one memorable photograph, Scalia and Ginsburg can be seen riding an elephant together during a shared family vacation in India. In an age when friend is often taken to mean someone who sees the world like I do, it is a remarkable image.

In recent years, their “odd couple” friendship has been the subject of many op-eds, radio shows, and even an opera. Their strangely countercultural example made people ask: why did they want a friendship like that? How did it work? Did they stay friends by ignoring difference, or did their relationship flourish precisely because of it? How did they understand the nature of friendship in general? Do I need friends from different ideological camps? These questions, of course, are relevant to Christians: should we also value friendships like this?

Odd Couple

To answer those questions, we might consider a similarly intriguing friendship between a Christian and a radical skeptic—Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), one of the greatest Christian theologians of the 20th century, and his lifelong friend Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857–1936), a liberal skeptic who later converted to Islam. In their context, the Netherlands in the late 19th and early 20th century, Bavinck and Snouck were similarly high-profile public figures whose deep friendship marked them as something of an odd couple.

These questions, of course, are relevant to Christians: should we also value friendships like this?

Bavinck and Snouck were both pastors’ sons who first met as students at the University of Leiden in the 1870s. Despite those points in common, their lives could scarcely have been more different. Snouck’s father was a pastor in the mainstream Dutch Reformed Church who was deposed for “faithlessly abandoning” his first wife, and fled to London with a younger woman (Christiaan’s mother). The double-barreled Snouck Hurgronje family belonged to the Dutch nobility. As a young aristocrat, Christiaan came from a questionable branch of a prestigious family tree.

By contrast, the Bavincks came from humbler stock. Herman’s father, Jan, was a carpenter’s son who became a pastor in the smaller, theologically conservative Christian Reformed Church.

Having become friends as students, Herman and Christiaan remained in close contact for the rest of their lives, despite their difference in outlook only increasing across the years. We have no photo of them riding an elephant together. We do, however, have a lifetime of letters in which they share personal struggles, attempt to persuade each other on matters of faith and politics, read and critique each other’s writings, and share in life’s joys and struggles.

Their letters are a window into a rich and frank friendship between deep thinkers and friends who held radically different beliefs about Christianity. They prompt us to think Christianly about the nature of friendship in a culture where friendship is increasingly ordered around package-deal political ideologies, and where we are encouraged to look for friends in echo chambers.

Pragmatic Beginning

In their student years, the culture around Leiden University—the Netherlands’ oldest and most prestigious university—was dominated by the sons of the aristocracy: the typical Leiden student in the 1870s had a double-barreled surname, came from a noble family, and was related to many of his fellow students by blood or marriage. In principle, Snouck belonged in that environment, and Bavinck did not.

And yet both quickly found out they were outsiders there: Bavinck’s family background was not sufficiently high-class, and Snouck’s family was tainted by scandal. Alongside this, both young men were critical of the liberal theology taught by their professors: Bavinck was committed to orthodoxy in doctrine and life, while the radical doubter Snouck was suspicious of their bold and easy heterodoxy.

Friendship is increasingly ordered around package-deal political ideologies, and where we are encouraged to look for friends in echo chambers.

Although both were outsiders (albeit for different reasons), Bavinck and Snouck did not become friends through lack of other options: Bavinck was not the only theologically conservative student at Leiden, and Snouck mixed with a group of other liberal aristocrats. Why, then, did they choose to invest in this particular friendship?

In their first two years at Leiden, students had to take common courses before moving into a degree major. In that period, Bavinck and Snouck first bonded through one of these courses—an Arabic class—which Bavinck found dull and difficult. Their friendship began when they were study partners; it soon became clear that they were heavily invested in each other.

In 1878, both young men sat the same exam. Bavinck received a cum laude, whereas Snouck merely passed. Bavinck saw this as a grave injustice, thought it was motivated by a professor’s personal dislike of his friend, and refused to accept his diploma until the cum laude was removed. Snouck’s written reply to Bavinck was that “such a friendship is worth infinitely more to me than words on a piece of paper.” By the close of their student years, their friendship had become intensely loyal.

Different Directions

As their lives progressed, Bavinck and Snouck followed different paths: Bavinck became a celebrated theologian, and lived by his distinct brand of orthodox, socially engaged Christian piety to the last. Snouck gained a doctorate in Islamic studies. He traveled to Mecca—converting to Islam en route in order to gain entry to the Muslim-only city—where he took some of the first photos of Mecca during the Hajj pilgrimage, which he soon published as a book that brought him international fame.

He lived for years in what is now Indonesia, living there as a Muslim (under the name Abd al-Ghaffar), marrying Muslim wives and fathering Muslim children, before returning to the Netherlands, where he resumed a liberal Dutch identity and married a Dutch woman. He was without doubt the most famous Orientalist of his generation, and was at that time much more famous than his theologian friend (although this has now changed).

Despite the astonishing contrasts between their beliefs and lives, Bavinck and Snouck remained in regular contact—both in person and by letter—during their lives. From their letters, it is clear that both valued “critical friendship,” and believed that one’s insights soon grow dull when surrounded by those who think in the same way.

A truly sharp thinker, they believed, needs a close friend whom he can trust, but who does not share his most basic assumptions. Bavinck once described their friendship as that of “opponents who are also friends.”

A truly sharp thinker, they believed, needs a close friend whom he can trust, but who does not share his most basic assumptions.

For that reason, they regularly read and discussed each other’s writings—often to strong disagreement. Their interactions on Islam, secularization, the authority of Scripture, and, above all, the truth claims of the Christian faith leave us in no doubt that their beliefs were worlds apart.

It is also likely, as I show in Bavinck: A Critical Biography, that Bavinck probably knew nothing of Snouck’s Islamic double life in Mecca and Indonesia. He did not seem to realize, for example, that Snouck had become a Muslim to enter Mecca, and it also seems true that Snouck lied to Bavinck when confronted about his marriage to a Muslim teenager. Clearly, their friendship was not always easy to continue.

And yet continue it did. Bavinck’s book Philosophy of Revelation, written as a work in apologetics and aimed at skeptics, seems to have been written, in part at least, in an effort to persuade Snouck—although from their later discussions of the book, it does not appear that he was won over by Bavinck’s arguments.

Although both men were aware that their distance only seemed to increase with the years, they remained committed to their “critical friendship” to the end. On the day before Bavinck died, for example, Snouck wrote to his friend’s wife, Johanna Bavinck-Schippers, about his last visit to Bavinck’s deathbed: “I am still deeply affected by my last visit: despondent, but also edified. I have never known my good friend to be anything other than pious: 1874–1921.”

There is certainly something intriguing about such a friendship. In the Bavinck-Snouck story, we see two people who asked the same questions, both theological and social, but from entirely different presuppositions and perspectives: is it possible to know God? If so, how? Is religion merely a matter of human culture (Snouck), or a reality that points to something higher (Bavinck)?

Seen over their lifetimes, their friendship is an honest, and very long, conversation between two thinkers who shared a twofold motivation: to convince the other, as well as to learn from him. A century later, that example remains instructive: it played no small role in making Bavinck the insightful, sharp, and persuasive writer now loved by many. However, it also remains an all too rare example—as rare, perhaps, as sightings of rival judges on the same elephant.