Wednesday, August 12, 2015

review of Wesley Hill's "Spiritual Friendship"

Spiritual Friendship is the second book by Wesley Hill. I've read and enjoyed both. The first, Washed and Waiting, is autobiographical with a focus on his decision to live a celibate lifestyle as a Christian with a strong homosexual orientation. This book naturally follows the first: what is the role of friendship for him (and those like him)-- but then, by extension, for others in the Church?

Hill opens by noting the "freedom" of friendship among the various types of love (xiii). We don't choose our families of origin-- on either side of the equation. We can divorce, but you're still an ex-spouse to someone (and kids are likely involved). When one flirts and dates, the cool and rational often moves quickly to passion and something less than full-rationality/freedom. In contrast, circumstances certainly impact our range of friends, but we do get to choose our friends.

"Friendship is the freest, the least constrained, the least fixed and determined, of all loves...friendship is entirely voluntary, uncoerced, and unencumbered by any sense of duty or debt." And then quoting C.S. Lewis, it is "the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious and necessary". (xiii-xiv)

But this freedom can be abused as permission to avoid or limit the role of friendships in our lives. As an application of Galatians 5:1,13, we should be careful to use our freedom well. (14) "Perhaps that very freedom prevents us from exploring depths of friendship that can be attained only when we accept certain limits and constraints." (xiv)

This leads Hill to a number of provocative questions: "Should we think of friendship as based, above all, on personal preference?...Should we instead consider friendship more along the lines of how we think about more stable, permanent, and binding that we often do?...If so, what needs to change about the way we approach it and seek to maintain it?" (xv).

Hill divides the book into two parts (xviii-xix). The first half covers the cultural background of friendship (and its recent degradation in Western societies); its history; and a theology of friendship. The second half opens with the intersection between eros and friendship, before moving to a discussion of how we can cultivate committed friendships-- individually and within the Church.

Citing work by Benjamin Myers, Hill notes various myths that argue against the value of friendship. "Reductive evolutionary biology and psychology, in which all human loves must be understood in terms of hard-wired self-interest, have little place for friendship." (13). (No problem. That just creates more fun and makes even more room for just-so stories in the ol' Evolution narrative!) And what is the productive social value of friendship vs. work, vocation and output (13)? Its "shocking lack of utility-- friendship isn't for anything in particular, such as procreation or productivity-- is precisely what makes friendship itself." (68)

Perhaps the key barrier is "the myth of sex"-- the idea that sex must be right around the corner from any intimate/deep friendship (8). Although a valid concern, it is not universal. Among heterosexuals, both its common reality and the myth can certainly bedevils friendships between men and women. For Hill and others with a homosexual orientation, the tension develops between those of the same sex. So, how does one pursue friendship without it devolving into sexual activity? Or for the cynic: can this be done at all? (8)

Along those lines, I like Hill's two epigraphs for chapter 4 (p. 65): "We cannot imagine existing in our culture without the haven of erotic partnership, because our capacity to belong together in more chaste ways is so limited." (Christopher Roberts) And "Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc." (GK Chesterton)

Since the end of my undergrad days (getting past that long dork phase I had), I've had reasonably deep friendships with men and women. At times, it's led to modest temptations that were fended off through a combination of prayer, wisdom, and accountability. Before I was married, it was helpful to believe that celibacy was wisdom-- given that I follow a wise and benevolent God. Once I was married, it's helped to have a well-watered garden at home. It hasn't been perfect (in my heart), but I'd easily take that over the many sins of omission (and commission) that would be the alternative. 

For example, our first Sunday School at Southeast featured young married couples who didn't know how to negotiate their post-wedding relationships with those of the opposite gender. This led to some allergic reactions that were somewhere between amusing and sad. Or there's the all-too-common embrace of the "Billy Graham rule"-- a *complete* avoidance of being alone with pre-pubescents of the opposite gender. While good policy for church leaders (given what's at stake) and perhaps useful as a general principle for those who have special struggles in this realm, it's is (or should be) largely counter-productive for most disciples of Jesus-- at least those who are comfortable in the goodness of God's Kingdom. So, take care and practice wisdom, but avoid legalisms that unnecessarily stilt relationships. .

Back to same-sex relationships, Hill notes research where younger boys instinctively form close male friendships, describing those friendships to researchers in "surprisingly intimate terms" (9). But then as they get older, they are apparently acculturated into putting up boundaries, at least as they describe the relationships to others. They "find no cultural space for the friendship they once enjoyed." (10)

All that said, Hill does argue for a tension between deep friendship and romantic love-- male and female, homosexual and heterosexual. "If I get too close to X, will people think we're attracted to each other? Are we attracted to each other?" (10) Hill notes the frequent conclusion/assumption that friendship can be entirely separated from erotic love, but Hill disagrees, seeing a necessary tension there. "Eros isn't an alternative to friendship; it's one particular form that friendship can assume." (70)

As such, for Hill (at this point in life), as one with strong a homosexual orientation: "The question isn't so much whether my male friendships will involve some sort of romantic attraction. The question is how they will do so, and how my friends and I will choose to respond..." (78). He must "find male friends who wouldn't mind the challenges that come when a friend like me is attracted to them." (82) 

Sometimes, especially in what might merely be relational immaturity, this has resulted in heartache for Hill (92). Or maybe it's a lifelong thing for people who have committed to celibacy or are otherwise single. For straight people, I would imagine an on-going tension between friendship and sexual attraction with some friends of the opposite sex. In this, Hill finds solace and support in the example of Henri Nouwen's homosexual orientation (93ff) and in Lewis' heterosexual orientation with respect to his oldest and dearest friend, Arthur Greeves (77).

Remember that Hill is especially motivated on this topic because of his understanding of the full range of Scripture on homosexual orientation, marriage, sexuality, etc. Since he believes abstinence is God's will for those with homosexual orientations, he's looking for his place in this world; he's trying to make sense of his suffering; and he's trying to find purpose in his calling, 

Hill cites a helpful passage from CS Lewis in comparing his state to John 5's man who is born blind (74-75). We are not told why the man suffers, but we are told that its purpose was that the works of God should be made manifest in him. Likewise, *every* difficulty conceals a potential vocation from God. Sexual abstinence is a negative condition and cannot be the end of the matter. A la Eph 4:25-32, what is the positive to which one is called? Renunciations "can never be the final word. Rather, yielding up one thing is always about the embrace of another. A loss or a place of pain becomes a gateway into a greater benefit that one wouldn't have been able to find without the loss or pain." (75)

In particular, Hill wants "to explore the way my same-sex attractions are inescapably bound up with my gift and calling to I can steward and sanctify my homosexual orientation in such a way that it is a doorway to blessing and grace." (79) Or "how my being gay might involve what a thoughtful friend of mine has called a special 'genius for friendship'...Might there be...a way in which gay people have, whether by natural inclinations or through childhood trial and error or some combination of the two (among other factors), a sort of enviable insight into how to foster same-sex friendships?" (80) 

I'm not sure why Hill limits this to same-sex friends here, since the stereotype one often hears is that gay men seem to be really good at being friends with straight women. (His focus in the book is same-sex friendships, but still...) As such, "I don't imagine I would have invested half as much effort in loving my male friends...if I weren't gay." (81) Perhaps. Or again, perhaps it's a natural thing. In any case, "being gay can lead to being chaste, just as being straight can." (81). 

Hill cites the Eberhard/Bonhoeffer friendship and the letters exchanged-- where Eberhard notes that his letters went to Bonhoeffer's fiance and older brother, before him. Even though Eberhard was "closer than a brother" (literally and figuratively), their society recognized blood ties over depth of friendship as the metric by which such things were measured. (24). Of course, part of this is reasonable for the reason given above-- that friendship is, by its nature, based on freedom, with its tendency toward transitory relationships. But the point is still of interest: when should friendship supersede blood ties? 

Theologically, friendship is rated more highly than family in a key sense. Jesus stood common assumptions about family and friends on their head as he announced the coming of the Kingdom of God. Family-- especially one's immediate family-- certainly matters. But family is re-imagined in the NT to emphasize the "family of God"-- that we're adopted into His family. In Mark 3, Jesus defines His family as those who obey the Father-- more important than blood ties not accompanied by obedience. In John 15:15, Jesus calls his disciples "friends". Hill treats this discussion-- and its evolution from pre-Christian views-- at length (see: p. 46-58). 

"We Christians don't care too much about 'friendship' if it only means having acquaintances...we believe in friendship's transformation by the good news of God in Christ...not so much the abandonment of friendship as its revolution and friendship...took friendships based on preference and a pursuit of social status and made them about self-giving love...After Christ, friendship would never be the same." (60-61)

This reading even impacted liturgy for a long while. "Christians came to believe that the truest and most durable relationships were friendships that were sealed with the common participation in the Eucharistic body and blood of Christ. If blood is thicker than water, then Eucharistic blood is thickest of all." (36) Hill describes a rite called adelphopoiesis-- "brother-making"-- where friends would "wed" in "vows of friendship" of "public, communal significance" (28, 35, 37). Historian Alan Bray discovered evidence of these in 2003 and initially assumed it was a "long-forgotten historical precedent for modern same-sex marriage" (34), before figuring out that this rite celebrated deep friendship (between men or women) while the participants were married to others (35). 

Hill wrestles with those who might say it's good that these rites are obsolete now (40-41). Instead, he finds "hope in the possibility of vowed spiritual siblinghood. What we need now isn't disinterested, disembodied companionship. We need stronger bonds..." 

And not just for singles; married folks have the same needs (43). Hill shares a story where a Sunday School community had come together to support one of its members in need. The couple was also visited by secular friends who were amazed at how many friends they had. This sort of thing is uncommon in the World-- and too uncommon in the Church-- when its benefits can be so profound. 

Tonia and I have experienced the same thing through Southeast. Previously, it was through a rich experience with the Abundant Life Sunday School class at the main campus of SE. Now, it's through an aggregation of Christian friendships (including some from Abundant Life) at the So. IN campus of SE-- where there are only small groups, which tend to be quite limited in this regard. This Christian vision of friendship (and a vehicle to pursue this easily enough) has led us to a "promised land" of redeemed friendships with men and women-- husbands and wives striving for glorious marriages, trying to raise godly children, finding and pursuing our callings, and enjoying our Abundant Life in Jesus Christ. 

After speaking in such glowing terms about friendship, one might expect Hill to let it rest there-- even seeing friendship as a substitute for marriage. Although he says friendship is great/important and under-rated, he argues that it is still not marriage in chapter 5 (esp. p. 96-100). (As an aside, he also cites the research results on "reparative therapy" which promise relatively little hope for changing one's orientation [p. 73].) Friendship "doesn't solve the problem of loneliness so much as it shifts its coordinates. Just as marriage isn't a magic bullet for the pain of loneliness, neither is friendship." (98) In fact, biblically, friendship is often "linked to, or even defined by, death" and suffering in the life and ministry of Jesus (100). 

Hill closes by sharing a number prescriptions/recommendations for the pursuit of friendship by individuals and to foster that environment as a church in chapter 6. All of these are good reminders; none of these struck me as particularly insightful: admit the need; start small; start where you are; live in community; practice hospitality; and try to "stay" in place even when it requires some sacrifice.

Hill continues to be helpful as a sadly-radical voice in the wilderness on the topic of homosexuality and Wilderness. Hopefully, he won't be shouted down by the dominant voices in that arena. But here, on friendship, he has a word for all of us. May we follow him down the path of more robust friendships. 


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