The Luxury of Division

First: Julie Rodgers (who apparently isn’t dead, despite the funerary tone of many articles) is a dear friend who has endured far more gross scrutiny with far more grace than most people would be capable of. Her urgent passion to serve those who have been marginalized by society has made the world a better place, and I am sure that wherever she decides to minister next she will witness to God’s love through deep friendships, hospitable spaces, and simple human kindness.[1]

Second: A few years ago I was visiting a small Palestinian town that had lost much of its surrounding land to illegal settlements and was facing restricted access to its ancestral olive groves. After a Catholic mass in the morning we all (local Catholics included) attended a lunch hosted by the evangelical church before being shown around the village by the Greek Orthodox priest. I couldn’t help but marvel at the familial closeness displayed between those from various church traditions as they worked together to welcome this obtrusive group of college students into their threatened home. It was more than mere cooperation; it was genuine friendship.

While chatting with one of the hosts I mentioned how struck I was by the ecumenical character of the village and the solid relationships between the different Christians. He tilted his head. “Our land is being stolen, people are leaving, the olive groves are being terrorized, and we are at risk of forgetting who we are. Unlike some places in the world, we do not have the luxury or the time to be divided.”

In 21st century American churches, however, division seems to be almost all we have time for.

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The Pastoral Promise of “Vowed” Friendships

Sam Allberry, a Christian minister and someone who has been open about his own same-sex attraction, has written a review of my Spiritual Friendship book, and this week I’ve been posting some responses to it (see the first one here and the second one here). I’m grateful to Sam for his engagement of what I’ve written. And because his reaction to my book is one that I’ve encountered before, I thought it would be worth talking about. So here, again, is Sam’s basic worry about my book:

… it seems to me that resurrecting “vowed” friendships will only add to the current confusion about friendship. It’s hard to imagine such friendships not being confused with sexual partnerships. We also need to be mindful of the potential danger, particularly for two friends with same-sex attraction, of fostering unhealthy intimacy and of emotional over-dependency…

This line of criticism is something we at SF tend to hear a lot, and I hope a lot of us here decide to write more about it in the near future. Francesca Aran Murphy voiced a similar worry about Eve Tushnet’s book Gay and Catholic: “It just seems to me that there’s something inherently erotic about ‘vows,’ so that ‘vowed friendship’ [as Tushnet calls it] is friendship perpetually on the verge of turning into erotic friendship.”

In a previous post I already gave some indication of how I’d respond to this: Basically, the fact that close, promise-bound friendships can be problematically “eroticized” doesn’t mean must be. The fact that something can become distorted doesn’t automatically mean the thing itself is bad. (For the positive case—that vowed friendships are, or can be, good, I’d say go read Eve’s book!)

Now for today here’s one other thought. Sam’s criticism seems to assume we’re talking about two gay Christian people who are contemplating entering a vowed friendship. But what about those who are already in such relationships?

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Waiting for a New—Doubtless Very Different—St. Aelred

An icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, an example of a pair of same-sex friends venerated in the church. My friend Becca Chapman wrote this for me, and it hangs on my wall as encouragement.

An icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, an example of a pair of same-sex friends venerated in the church. My friend Becca Chapman wrote this for me, and it hangs on my wall as encouragement.

In my last post I tried to respond to some of Sam Allberry’s criticisms of my Spiritual Friendship book. Today I’d like to keep going with that response. Here’s Sam again:

… it seems to me that resurrecting “vowed” friendships will only add to the current confusion about friendship. It’s hard to imagine such friendships not being confused with sexual partnerships. We also need to be mindful of the potential danger, particularly for two friends with same-sex attraction, of fostering unhealthy intimacy and of emotional over-dependency…

I think there is also a significant category confusion. Making a close friendship covenantal takes it from a familial setting to something more approximate to a marital one. But whereas marriage is necessarily (at least in Christian thinking) limited exclusively only to one, close friendship is not. We have the capacity for—and it may be healthier to cultivate—close friendship with a small number. This is not the case with marriage. A covenant may not be the best vehicle for the commitment we need, and yet are so often lacking, in friendships today.

I’ll have one more post about all this tomorrow, in which I’ll try to say something about why I think “vowed” friendships between two people of the same sex may become more pastorally important in the coming years. But for now let me just make one point.

Where Sam (I think!) reads me as an advocate for reviving “vowed” friendships—for getting the practice of two same-sex friends making a public commitment to each other back on the table in the contemporary church—I see myself more as an advocate for reimagining such friendships.

In other words, I tend to think (and who knows if I’m right) that a minority of us gay Christians who are seeking to live chastely in accord with Scriptural teaching will find ourselves in a two-person “vowed” friendship. And yet, at the same time, I want all of us to take courage and hope from the rich, varied, surprising, and exciting history of such friendships in past eras of Christian history.

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Forsaking All Others

For one of my graduate school classes last year we learned to create lists of goals with a counseling client, a process called “goaling.” Our professor went through the process with a classmate and then asked each of us to break up into pairs and work through goaling with our partner. After dictating to my partner, a close friend of mine, we were instructed to begin talking through how to order them and to make sure they were just hard enough to be difficult but not so difficult as to be impossible. After doing this together I had assembled what I felt was a good list. It covered the major areas of my life: spiritual, educational, personal, and financial. My partner felt that after looking at my list something was missing. He didn’t say what he thought that could be other than that it just felt like my list was missing something. At that point it dawned on me the things that everyone else in my class’s list included but were missing from mine. So I leaned over to complete my list that he had been recording on his laptop and wrote the following at the top of my list:

  1. To marry the man I love.
  2. To have a family who is centered on Christ and that we would grow closer to Him and to each other.
  3. To have a home that is a refuge for many.

After writing these it took me a moment to absorb the shock of actually verbalizing these desires. My friend was then satisfied that I had written an honest list rather than merely the list I felt I should write. After looking at it for a moment I then deleted the three additions and left the list as it was originally.

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Copyright 2015 Gregg Webb

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Can Vows Change Friendships? And Should They?

Sam Allberry (whose own story of being a Christian and coming to terms with his same-sex attraction you can watch here) has written a sharp, charitable take on my new book Spiritual Friendship, and I’m grateful to him for it. While I don’t want to turn this blog into a platform for promoting my books, I do think, in this particular case, reflecting on what Sam says may help all of us grapple more deeply with what we’re trying to accomplish on this blog.

Sam says a lot of kind things about the book, but here is his primary substantive criticism:

[Hill] exhorts us to reconsider the place of covenanted friendships in the life of the church. No one can deny what earlier Christian generations can teach us about friendship. Nor can we deny that a lack of commitment drives so much of our contemporary loneliness. But it seems to me that resurrecting “vowed” friendships will only add to the current confusion about friendship. It’s hard to imagine such friendships not being confused with sexual partnerships. We also need to be mindful of the potential danger, particularly for two friends with same-sex attraction, of fostering unhealthy intimacy and of emotional over-dependency. One of the heartbreaking episodes recounted in chapter five suggests at least something of this. Hill anticipates these concerns but does not allay them for me.

I think there is also a significant category confusion. Making a close friendship covenantal takes it from a familial setting to something more approximate to a marital one. But whereas marriage is necessarily (at least in Christian thinking) limited exclusively only to one, close friendship is not. We have the capacity for—and it may be healthier to cultivate—close friendship with a small number. This is not the case with marriage. A covenant may not be the best vehicle for the commitment we need, and yet are so often lacking, in friendships today.

I have three main thoughts in response to this line of criticism. I’ll post the first one today and the second and third ones later in the week.

The first is simply that Sam and I may have a genuine disagreement here! I share all of Sam’s concerns about the dangers that might arise in a “covenanted” same-sex friendship, including co-dependency, sexual temptation, and others. But I have become more and more convinced that abusus non tollit usum (“the abuse of a thing does not negate its proper use”). Is it an adequate argument against committed, promise-bound friendships to note that they may go badly wrong? I’m not yet persuaded that it is.

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Spiritual Friendship and Julie Rodgers

Julie RodgersJulie Rodgers blogged for Spiritual Friendship between August, 2013 and October, 2014. Prior to that, she had spent a decade with Exodus International, serving as a keynote speaker at the final Exodus Freedom Conference in 2013. Until this past Monday, she also served in the Chaplain’s Office at Wheaton College, counselling students who were struggling with sexual orientation or gender identity issues.

On Monday, Julie resigned from Wheaton and put up this blog post. The post was mostly a cri de cœur about the damage done by conservative Christians who bind heavy burdens on LGBT people—particularly youth—without doing much to help. But she also wrote, “Though I’ve been slow to admit it to myself, I’ve quietly supported same-sex relationships for a while now.”

Although I spoke with Julie briefly as recently as a week before she put up this post, I had received no indication at all that her views were shifting, and did not learn of it until a friend drew my attention to her post Monday afternoon.

Julie is right that conservative Christians have done a bad job of showing Christ’s love to LGBT people.

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Aelred in Modern Dress

Here’s something I wish I’d seen when I was doing research for my friendship book—a wonderfully pastoral essay by scholar Timothy Lim Teck Ngern on how to live out Aelred’s vision of spiritual friendship in contemporary Western cultures.

Consider this very human paragraph:

Why does friendship hurt? Life is messy, and sometimes, even with preventive measures (such as setting good boundaries and demonstrating mutual reverence), heartaches still knock at our doors. The reciprocity of love as the fountain and source of friendship would imply that if a friendship hurts, it is often due to differing degrees of reciprocity between friends. It is like the case of Jerome’s disappointment with Heliodorus or William of St. Therry’s question to Bernard of Clairvaux that “you did not love me as I did you” (note: not to be interpreted with any sexual overtones). To a large extent, the degrees of reciprocity depend on the nature of the friendship in Aelred’s conception, whether it is carnal, worldly, or spiritual. In essence, friendship hurts because friends disappoint us, regardless of their intentionality, and because we live in a world characterized by jealousy, possessiveness, and selfishness.

I tried to write about these sort of heartaches in my book, and I hope to say more about that in another post soon, in dialogue with some thoughts from my friend Tim Otto.

And yet—

Aelred embraces a biblical notion that a friend loves at all times, even when friends falter; it would suggest that forgiveness is possible. On the limits of friendship in Book II, he acknowledges that those who previously followed wayward paths of lusts and avarices may return to fellowship if they are learned to control over their inordinate affections and behaviors. He further postulates that if Christ forgives us and asks us to love our enemies like friends, then, there can be forgiveness however difficult it may be. Some may read Aelred’s comment on distancing from the wayward as an act of judging others. However, the Aelredian paradigm is not an act of casting aspersion, but that of inner discernment, so as to admit into closer friendship with those who show signs of desiring a godly life.

If I wanted to give someone a quick digest of the wisdom of Aelred of Rievaulx on friendship, I’d probably point them now to this gently instructive essay.

Theologues Podcast: Melinda Selmys and Mark Yarhouse on Gender Dysphoria

Theologues recently hosted a podcast to discuss gender dysphoria with Melinda Selmys and Mark Yarhouse.

Yarhouse-Selmys

In spring of 2015, Bruce Jenner announced to the world that he would become Caitlyn Jenner and the conversation about gender and transgender issues exploded into our culture. How do we approach these issues? When real biology and psychology are involved, how do we approach it?

Zach spoke with Melinda Selmys (writer and author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and blogs at Catholic Authenticity) and Mark Yarhouse (psychologist and author of Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture) about approaching gender dysphoria, sexual reassignment, gender expression in children and how Christians can approach these issues in a changing culture.

We highly recommend this episode to anyone who wants to know more about transgender issues and the pastoral way to approach this issue while keeping a consistent Christian ethic which upholds God’s created order while loving people where they are.

Melinda also recommends her second book “Sexual Authenticity: More Thoughts” and we recommend her Theologues article, Is There a Place for Transgender in the Church?

Go over to Theologues to listen to the full podcast.

Friendship Roundup

Spiritual Friendship has published over 400 posts by now, all of which are related to friendship in one way or another. This “roundup” post simply tries to collect some of the posts which will be the most helpful in introducing new readers to the main ideas of this blog.

Spiritual Friendship in 300 Words provides a concise overview of how Ron Belgau learned about spiritual friendship from a 12th-century Cistercian abbot named Aelred of Rievaulx. In Three Kinds of Friendship, he explains the same ideas in greater depth, and in Some Theses on Friendship, he discussed some of the important themes he hopes to explore in this blog. Joshua Gonnerman has written about how friendship can be helpful for growing in chastity.

In Is Friendship an Unconditional Love? and The Problem of Monastic Cliques, Wesley Hill examines the dangers of exclusivity in friendship. In Friendship and the Scandal of Particularity, Ron Belgau responds by pointing out that there is a legitimate need for the specificity of Friendship. Also relevant to this discussion are Eve Tushnet’s thoughts on Detachment in Friendship and Thomas Aquinas’s discussion of the relationship between friendship and charity.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that says that homosexual persons need the support of disinterested friendship.” This term is a frequent cause of confusion, which Ron Belgau helps to clear up.

Is there such a thing as Friendship at First Sight? Ron Belgau explores some of C. S. Lewis’s writings on this subject.

Finally, he shares about his own experiences with friendship, and Wesley Hill shares about his friendship with Ron Belgau.

What Does “Disinterested Friendship” Mean?

Popes Francis and Benedict

The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the term “disinterested” in five different places. The most relevant instance for most readers of this blog is:

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

The first definition for “disinterested” at Dictionary.com is “unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives,” which would mean that a “disinterested friendship” is a friendship that is not biased by personal interest or advantage, nor influenced by selfish motives. In the context of 2359, the most obvious selfish motive in view would be lust, though any selfish motive will poison friendship. This unbiased and unselfish friendship seems like the sort of love most of us would want from our friends.

However, the second definition for “disinterested” is “not interested; indifferent.” A usage note points out that

Disinterested and uninterested share a confused and confusing history. Disinterested was originally used to mean “not interested, indifferent”; uninterested in its earliest use meant “impartial.” By various developmental twists, disinterested is now used in both senses. Uninterested is used mainly in the sense “not interested, indifferent.” It is occasionally used to mean “not having a personal or property interest.”

And, this confusion infects many people’s understanding of the term “disinterested friendship” in 2359. To many, “disinterested friendship” suggests a friend who is “not interested, indifferent.” Comparison with other usages of the same word in the Catechism, however, demonstrates that this cannot be the sense the authors of the Catechism had in mind.

2649 Prayer of praise is entirely disinterested and rises to God, lauds him, and gives him glory for his own sake, quite beyond what he has done, but simply because HE IS.

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