Friendship Means “Living Each Other’s Death”

As I continue to work on my book on friendship, a project primarily for other celibate gay/lesbian/same-sex attracted Christians, I’m increasingly aware of the need to speak honestly about all the ways friendship can involve significant disappointment and struggle. Finding the appropriate way to articulate this will, I suspect, be the defining factor in whether or not this book can offer realistic hope to people.

I believe in the thesis I’m arguing for—in many ways, it’s simply my effort to expand on this post by Ron Belgau from the early days of the Spiritual Friendship blog. Gay and lesbian Christians, in and through their celibacy, are “called to love,” as Eve Tushnet’s forthcoming book puts it. We are called to something positive and hopeful, not simply to a negative renunciation. We are summoned and enabled by God to give and receive love.

And yet the danger lurking here is that I’ll present friendship as a kind of panacea for how difficult sexual ascesis can be in our culture. “Having trouble feeling fulfilled in celibacy? Here’s a great solution to your lack of intimacy and closeness with others—it’s called ‘friendship’!” This is the problematic message that Stephen Long over at the Sacred Tension blog has spent so much time exploring, and I think Stephen is right that there are serious problems with this approach.

Insofar as there is an answer to this problem, I suspect it lies in the recognition that friendship involves just as much of an ascetic struggle as marriage or any other form of Christian love. C. S. Lewis wrote the following about charity, but he might equally have written it of friendship: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal.” The calling of friendship is, in other words, a call to pain. Joy, yes, and consolation, but not as a substitute for pain.

And not only one’s own private pain. C. S. Lewis’ eccentric friend and fellow “Inkling,” Charles Williams, wrote movingly of the calling of friends to “co-inhere.” As Alan Jacobs explains,

What Williams desired was to explore the most radical implications of Jesus’s commands to “bear one another’s burdens” and “weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice.” The “way of exchange,” as he often called it—“dying each other’s life, living each other’s death”—a kind of moral economy in which prayer and love are the currency rather than money. (“Money is a medium of exchange,” he writes in one of his poems.) Williams believed that if a Christian sees another person suffering, it is that Christian’s duty to pray to take on that suffering him- or herself: to become, in an almost literally Christ-like act, the vicarious substitute for one’s neighbor.

In this picture, there is certainly a call to deep friendship—deeper than most of us ever get around to fathoming. But it is also simultaneously, on this side of the eschaton, as much a call to desolation as consolation.

If our churches and communities learn to take friendship seriously as a genuine love in its own right worthy of honor and public recognition—as I hope they will—the result will be, I trust, a diminishment of gay Christian isolation and loneliness, but it won’t mean the eradication of the cost of discipleship.

7 thoughts on “Friendship Means “Living Each Other’s Death”

  1. Good point point Wes. I agree that it won’t eradicate the cost of discipleship.

    I think friendships are crucial–and really kinship is crucial though. I wonder if your book will be exploring the practical aspects too? What I see is difficulty in people knowing how to form these kinds of deep friendships. So many lonely people walking around and we can’t seem to break through the barriers to deeply connect.

    How do we begin, for example, to have deeper levels of affection when our culture is so touch phobic? Do we have conversations about it with a particular friend? Begin to take more risks in expressing affection to others in hopes that it is returned? Etc etc. Do we make different life decisions to stay rooted somewhere instead of chasing the job because there is community and deep connections in a particular place? (I think that needs to be considered more than it is) Etc etc.

    How do we get beyond the theoretical to the experiential?

  2. I’m really looking forward to reading your book. You’re bringing some new dimensions to this conversation, and I’m interested in seeing how this area of reflection develops.

    I’m gay, but married to a woman. I have close friendships with straight men, but find having a close friendship with another gay man to be so difficult. In my experience, the friendship begins to be defined by its boundaries, ultimately ending in frustration or disappointment.

    Much thanks for giving us new things to think about, both in this area and in all the topics you explore.

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  6. Hear, hear. And one step toward recognizing the importance and validity of friendship would be to recognize that friendship can include its own kind of love, and that “genuine love” does not have to refer exclusively to romantic love.

  7. As a single, straight, chaste, Christian, I’ve found myself thinking of friendship just this way. The problem that I am facing is that either people are too busy for (or uninterested in) the sort of life together that I’m hoping for. I find myself often very lonely, knowing that fellowship and community are supposed to ease this burden. However, I’ve also been convicted of putting too much pressure (to an idolatrous level, which, I’ve found, is not all that hard to fall into) on earthly relationships. I’m praying for the right people, knowing that they may rend my heart.

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