Featured Reviews, VOLUME 8

Wesley Hill – Spiritual Friendship [Feature Review]

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Near the end of the book. Wesley notes that to sustain friendships we must be willing to sacrifice and suffer pain. “Friendship, in a word, is cruciform” (98). The title of the chapter is “Friendship is a Call to Suffer.” Yes. In our pain-avoidant culture, we must develop an ability to persevere through pain if we are going to recover friendship. That is essential. But I think Tennyson’s admonition, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” is more appropriate here as a way of affirming the need to undergo pain than by naming romantic rejection (Wesley admits that he had fallen in love with his friend) as cruciformity.

Wesley’s argument here gets complex. Spiritual Friendship is a powerful case that we must recover friendships of self-sacrificing love. A loud “Amen” to that. But the exhortation to “cruciformity” must be qualified for at least two reasons. First, to the extent that the book is written with a focus on gay Christians, it seems wrong to me to tell an oppressed group that the main thing faithfulness requires is the further acceptance of suffering. Such an exhortation can be cooperation with the oppressors. As in the body, pain is usually an indication that something is wrong. Certainly, it’s that the oppression of sexual minorities, especially in the conservative church, that needs to stop. However, pain in a relationship usually means something is wrong in the relationship that needs to change. It might be that the other person is treating the relationship too lightly, or that one friend idolizes romantic love, or that co-dependency is afoot, or any number of things. But if the prime directive is to suffer and therefore be Christ-like, needed changes in the relationship may not be made.

In the place of cruciformity, I would advocate Christoformity as the goal for friendships. It preserves the need to undergo pain and sacrifice for others, and yet it places suffering in larger, healthier context. It helps us with discernment. For instance, is the pain associated with romantic yearning “Christoform?” To be honest, not necessarily. On the other hand, Wesley tells the story in the next chapter of friends who decline a job offer, at least in part, to maintain a friendship with him. That is the concrete type of sacrifice that imitates the form of Christ.

As I’ve struggled with my own relational dramas, I find the question “how can we relate in a way that moves us both more toward Christ?” more helpful than “am I undergoing pain for the sake of this relationship?” Bonhoeffer’s comments about mediated friendships are helpful: “Christ stands between us, and we can only get into touch with our neighbors through him.” Paul Wadell’s excellent Friendship and the Moral Life is also useful here. He suggests that Aristotle was right: the best friendships are those aimed at encouraging each other toward the highest good. For Christians this means the imitation of Christ and participation in his kingdom.

One of the greatest challenges for all of us is to receive the difficult limitations in our lives with trust in God’s goodness rather than despair. Wesley’s Spiritual Friendship tells the story of how he receives his sexual orientation as something that points to a vocation—a calling that honors God and blesses others. Wesley has found a vocation in being a friend and in championing the revival of friendship. Wesley has found a way to give good love. If you could use a love infusion, and want to grow as a friend, do yourself a favor and pick up Spiritual Friendship.

Tim Otto is author of Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict Over Gay Relationships and can be followed on twitter at https://twitter.com/Tim_Otto.



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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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