A Feature Review of
Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian
Reviewed by Tim Otto.
*** This review first appeared in our print edition (Summer 2015)
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Wesley Hill’s spectacular new book, Spiritual Friendship, explores one way gay Christians—especially those who embrace the traditional teaching of the church—are a gift to the church. As friendship has been eclipsed in western culture by romantic love, perhaps in God’s surprising and beautiful design, queer Christians might perhaps be the ones who help the church revive Christ’s commandment: that Christians love their friends sacrificially. Spiritual Friendship displays Hill’s considerable intellect, pulls from an astonishing variety of sources, and inspires with its beautiful prose.
If you are straight, I hope you don’t stop reading now. While Hill’s book is especially helpful for gay Christians, the impoverishment of friendship is a problem that affects everyone. Hill cites sociologist Niobe Way’s Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, which reveals that while most boys have surprisingly care-full relationships with other boys in their early teens, most give up these relationships in the face of the “no-homo” culture. The AARP reports that a third of adults over 45 feel chronically lonely, making them more prone to health problems and suicide. Hill surveys the eclipse of friendship by romantic love and how gay Christians may lead a revival of friendship. But for this to happen, LGBT Christians need the understanding and support of straight Christians.
At this point I’m going to stop referring to Wesley as “Hill.” I’ve met Wesley, and while I couldn’t respect him more, it feels weird to keep calling him by his last name. As Wesley notes at the beginning, the book is autobiographical, and as he shares his personal experience, the reader not only understands but feels the truth of his writing. A downside of the autobiographical mode is that the book doesn’t grapple with a female perspective on sexuality or friendship (could that have been remedied by the inclusion of an interview or chapter with a female friend?). As someone who identifies with Wesley’s life situation (we’re both gay, celibate Christians) I’m excited to champion his beautiful vision for friendship. But some of the most deeply felt arguments are between those most similar. So, I’ll also note my (friendly!) disagreements along the way.
Wesley tells the story of how Freud’s thinking—that our libido animates everything—has made modern people suspicious that close same-sex friendships are (in some deep-down sense) gay. Many people therefore, like the adolescents mentioned above, fear developing close same-sex friendships. Friendship in the West, for this reason and others, has suffered a great decline. For gay-affirming people, this might serve as a dismaying account of homophobia’s cost. But Wesley, a strong believer that gay sex is wrong, finds it understandable that many people want friendships to be free of connotations of homosexual desire.
For Christians however, while it may seem logical to think “if gay sex is wrong, then the desire for gay sex is wrong,” such thinking is faulty. If Christ was tempted in all ways, yet did not sin, then the temptation itself—the desire—can’t be wrong. The question becomes, what do we do with desire? If we notice the desire of greed in ourselves, can we redeem that desire by being greedy for God? Similarly, Wesley believes that if someone realizes that she has a gay orientation, that doesn’t mean that she should engage in gay sex. Rather, it can be used as energy for friendship. As sociologist Roger Mehl says, “A vocation is nearly always a way of accepting a situation that was first of all considered a limitation.” Desire for a same-sex erotic relationship, rather than being repressed, can be redeemed.
Wesley’s goal of redeeming desire is one of the most important projects we can undertake in the midst of modernity. But I wonder, if Wesley is going to talk about desire, then how do we understand desire in the face of consumer capitalism? If capitalism treats us as bundles of infinite desires, where thirsts must be obeyed, how likely is it that the bonds of friendship can withstand these economic pressures? In addition to fear of being perceived as gay, Wesley cites the following reasons for the decline of friendship: the shift to seeing romantic love and the nuclear family as primary and a cynicism toward friendship as self-interest. All of these are fueled by consumer capitalism. Capitalism has groomed us to be self-interested individuals who use “friends” to “network,” to value freedom highly, and to have small families (sometimes just a spouse and thus the emphasis on romantic love) so that we can move to be the new cog wherever the machine needs us. I realize such language is an over-generalization. But I fear that Wesley has cataloged all the symptoms but hasn’t diagnosed the disease. Conservatives stress uncertain Biblical themes like procreation as a necessary context for moral sex, or the importance of gender difference, but fail to mention the clear Biblical witness about the dangers of Mammon. The concrete problem Wesley mentions in his friendships again and again is not others’ fear of gay cooties, but moves for the sake of school and jobs. And moves are a function of capitalism.
After examining the sorry state of modern friendship, Wesley goes on to contrast this with the Biblical witness, particularly its examples of more robust friendships. Jesus had a best friend among the disciples (John the beloved), and Jesus told his disciples that the mark of friendship with him was that they would lay down their lives for their friends (John 15:12-15). We also meet exemplars of friendship such as Pavel Florensky who made a vow of friendship with his childhood buddy and saw friendship as a means of acetic practice in which one learns the ways of a costly, self-sacrificial love. The church in both the east and the west observed the practice of vowed or “wedded” friendships, in which same-sex friends made public promises of commitment to each other.
As Wesley surveys Scripture and the historical value placed on friendship, he advocates for emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually intimate friendships that may be vowed. It is a convincing case that I want to say “Amen” to. But if Wesley is encouraging people of the same sex to “go all the way” in spiritual, emotional, and intellectual ways, why not “go all the way” with the body as well? As theologian Beth Felker Jones asserts, “God makes humans holy only as psychosomatic unities” (Marks of His Wounds, 88). She is uneasy about any dualistic separation of body and soul.
I’m curious as to how Wesley would respond to concerns that by singling out physical intimacy as wrong, his proposal is dualist or even gnostic. Are there any limits on emotional, intellectual, and spiritual intimacy in friendship? What about the gay couple who experience bed death (cessation of sexual activity)? Is their relationship now morally acceptable?