Shared Roads for Fellow-Travelers

Near the beginning of Lauren Winner’s newest book, there’s this passage:

What do I know about friendship from close to four decades of being, or trying to be, a friend?

I know that friendship both requires and breeds honesty—perhaps foremost honesty with myself. When I am lying to myself (as I have been known to do, usually about something important—otherwise why bother?), I am not available for friendship.

I know that friendship is rich and delightful. I know that I could live anywhere if I had two or three real friends.

I know that friendship is often supported by institutions and the structures they provide. A few years ago, the rector of the church where I served as a priest associate left for another job. The moment she announced she was leaving, I began to dread the ways our friendship would suffer—and it has. It hasn’t disappeared, but now it is entirely dependent on our free time and our admittedly plentiful affection for each other. We manage to meet for a cocktail about every four months, which is better than nothing but a lot more fragile than when we not only adored each other but also shared common work and common concern for a parish. Likewise, I do not look forward to the day I stop teaching at the women’s prison with my friend Sarah. I have buckets of affection for her, too, but it is a relief that we have something to talk about other than current events and our petty domestic squabbles; we also plan syllabi together, and think together about what our students need from us, and argue about which books to assign. Friendship benefits from the support of institutions: classes taught together, church bazaars planned together.

That third point especially stands out to me. You might think of it as an illustrative riff on C. S. Lewis’ opinion: “Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice…. [T]hose who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers” (italics added). Friendships are propped up, energized, and sustained by shared inquiries, tasks, projects, and investments. Friendships thrive on “institutions.”

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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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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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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.

Hoping for Love

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My friend Alan Jacobs, a traditional sort of Anglican Christian, wrote this the day after the Obergefell ruling:

Perhaps I am soft on sin, or otherwise deficient in serious Christian formation — actually, it’s certain that I am — but in any case I could not help being moved by many of the scenes yesterday of gay people getting married, even right here in Texas. I hope that many American gays and lesbians choose marriage over promiscuity, and I hope those who marry stay married, and flourish.

I know what he’s saying. I felt that too.

But I was thinking more today, What is that experience? For those of us like me who hold to a Christian view of marriage that contradicts the SCOTUS definition, what does it mean to be moved by scenes of gay marriage?

Well, for starters—and I’m speaking for myself here, not necessarily for Alan—I think that for many, many (not all) gay people in America today, the options have not been (1) belong to a healthy, vibrant Christian community in which celibacy is held in high esteem and deep spiritual friendships with members of the same sex and opportunities for loving service and hospitality abound or (2) be in a romantic relationship with a partner of the same sex. That has not been the choice facing many gay and lesbian people. Instead, for many (not all) today, the options have been (1) be ostracized (or worse) in church and effectively live without meaningful same-sex closeness of any kind or (2) be in a romantic relationship with a partner of the same sex. Listen, readers, this is the reality for many gay people who have had a brush with the Christian church in recent years:

So many people have been told (explicitly) that they aren’t welcome, treated as problems rather than persons. They’ve been disowned, had their trust betrayed and their confidences exposed, been kicked out of their homes and their churches, threatened with expulsion. They’ve listened as preachers proclaimed that people like them were destroying the church, that their desires were uniquely and Satanically destructive, that homosexuality by its nature cut them off from God; that their only hope for a faithful Christian life was to repent of their homosexuality, become straight, and get married. All by Christians who claimed that their actions were the result of their faith in Jesus.

And often this abuse—I know labels can obscure complexity but in this case I think naming the abuse is important—is inflicted on people who are trying to live out the full Christian sexual ethic. The treatment they receive would be unjustifiable even if (and even when) they reject Christian teaching on homosexuality, but what’s sort of amazing is that simply self-identifying as gay or even “struggling with same-sex attraction” will earn you condemnation and shame in many Christian communities. Your shame is treated as a sign of faith; any hints of self-acceptance are treated as rejection of God. It should come as little surprise that many of the people who receive this mistreatment eventually reject (what I believe to be) the Christian sexual ethic, and often reject Christianity entirely.

So, I think part of the reason I got a lump in my throat on Friday as I was scrolling through news feeds and seeing gay friends’ pictures pop up on Facebook and Twitter is because I know that for so many of these people, the alternative to their current jubilation has been a gulf of loneliness and marginalization. I persist in believing in the traditional Christian picture of marriage—what G. K. Chesterton once called a “triangle of truisms,” i.e., “father, mother and child”—but I know that when many people depart from it, they’re doing so after undergoing a significant amount of ill-treatment.

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The “Benedict Option” and the Dazzled Pagan Eye

After yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage (about which more here), there’s been a lot of chatter in my Twitter feed and email inbox about the so-called “Benedict Option”—the view that we traditionalist Christians, who continue to believe that marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, are in a kind of cultural exile and that our calling, therefore, is to “a limited, strategic withdrawal… from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what we must do to be the church” (as Rod Dreher puts it). In other words, a lot of my orthodox Christian friends are asking what it looks like to be faithful to Christian teaching now that the state’s definition of marriage diverges so widely from the church’s biblical and traditional definition.

One of the earliest posts I read on this approach was by the Duke Divinity School theologian Paul Griffiths, published years ago on his now (alas!) closed-down blog. Probably around 2006 or 2007, from what I can remember, Griffiths wrote this:

In the America of our day, it is about as difficult (or as easy) to make what the Church teaches about marriage comprehensible and convincing (the latter more difficult than the former) to the educated locals as it is to make the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception or the Real Presence so.

If that empirical claim is right… , then the conclusion strongly suggested by it is that the Church should not, at the moment, oppose legal recognition of same-sex unions. Those who have undergone a profoundly pagan catechesis on these questions will believe and behave as pagans do; it would be good for them and for the Church if the Church were not to attempt to constrain them by advocating positions in public policy based upon the view that what she teaches resonates in all human hearts—because it doesn’t, true though it is.

What the pagans need on this matter is conversion, not argument; and what the Church ought to do to encourage that is to burnish the practice of marriage by Catholics until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.

Griffiths has since the time of this writing apparently shifted his views on same-sex marriage, but I’m not interested in exploring that change here. What I am interested in is Griffiths’ final sentence from this old blog post, which has haunted me ever since I first read it: The church’s calling now, and all the more so now that Griffiths’ hypothetical legalization of same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, is to burnish the practice of marriage until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.

On the surface of it, I’m not sure how that strategy would work. How is it that Christians’ purifying of their own male-and-female marriages will work to convince, say, a happily satisfied pagan couple to give up their gay sex and convert to traditional Christianity? How is that, to return to the Benedict Option mentioned above, Christians’ strategic withdrawal from mainstream culture and our commitment to our own re-conversion will prove attractive to an indifferent, or hostile, pagan world?

I’m not sure what the answers to these questions are, but I am increasingly convinced those are precisely the questions to ask.

But let me go ahead take a stab anyway at imagining some answers.

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An Initial Response to SCOTUS: Where Do We Look for the End of Loneliness?

Over at First Things, I’ve contributed to a symposium on yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling. The questions each of us were given to answer were these: “How should we respond to how the Supreme Court has ruled? What’s next?”

My answer started off with a riff on a really affecting gay memoir:

In his memoir Denial: My Twenty-Five Years Without a Soul, the gay journalist Jonathan Rauch says that there once existed a frightened young man tortured with the certainty that there was no place in the world for the love he experienced. That man was Rauch, and there was no home for him—none, that is, until he and his fellow Americans decided he had the right to marry. “They and he have found, at last, a name for his soul. It is not monster or eunuch. Nor indeed homosexual. It is: husband.”

When I read Rauch’s book, that last sentence left a lump in my throat. That receiving the word husband felt to Rauch like the relief of a negative biopsy—“You’re not sick or twisted or crazy; you’re just hindered from giving and receiving love, and now the hindrance is removed”—goes a long way toward explaining the jubilation so many gay and lesbian people feel in the wake of the Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS ruling. Finally, their loves may be dignified not with the anemic moniker friend or partner or the clinical epithet disordered or the disdainful slur pervert but rather with the venerable, ordinary, immediately recognizable words husband or wife.

You can read the rest of what I wrote by clicking through—basically, in my contribution, I fault us Christians, the churches themselves, for our complicity in promoting erroneous views of marriage (“we,” not just “them,” share the blame!)—but I wanted to take the opportunity here to say a little bit more.

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A Pentecost Meditation

This coming Sunday is the Day of Pentecost (for those of us in Western traditions), and it has struck me powerfully in recent years that we don’t really have a name for the time between Ascension Day and Pentecost.

The collect for the Seventh Sunday of Easter from the Book of Common Prayer bridges the gap between those saving events by connecting Jesus’ ascension with the Spirit’s outpouring: “O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us and exalt us to that place where our Saviour Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.” Still, even in that prayer itself (whose precursor, incidentally, the Venerable Bede is said to have prayed on his deathbed), you can hear how the time between Ascension Day and Pentecost is one of those liminal periods in the church’s year, like Holy Saturday, when we’re reminded of the fact that a basic task of God’s people is simply to wait. Jesus is bodily absent from his followers at this point, having ascended into heaven, and yet the Spirit has not yet been given. “And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father…” (Acts 1:4).

Wait.

And the Spirit himself, after he has been poured out on the day of Pentecost, becomes a sign of a different kind of waiting but one that is still, nonetheless, waiting. His presence doesn’t so much “make up” for the absence of Jesus as insure that Jesus and his followers will one day be reunited. The Spirit acts as a kind of engagement ring, a pledge and foretaste of the still-future consummation of the Lamb’s wedding feast. The Spirit, St. Paul says, “is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Ephesians 1:14). So the Spirit, in a sense, enables us to continue living in the liminal space in between Jesus’ first and second comings, an in-between time that was felt acutely after Jesus left and before the Spirit descended in tongues of fire in that upper room in Jerusalem.

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Friendship in the Valley of the Shadow

Via David Mills, here is a remarkable essay that touches on tons of themes we’ve covered over the past few years on this blog. The author is Matthew Teague, and the title of the Esquire magazine piece is simply “The Friend.”

When Teague’s wife Nicole was diagnosed, at age 34, with ovarian cancer that had metastasized to her stomach, the couple’s friend Dane Faucheux left his hometown, his apartment, his own friends, and his girlfriend to move in with them and help see them through the nightmare.

There is so much to appreciate in this raw, unsparing piece, but what stood out to me most were the places where the author reflects on the sheer mystery of why and how someone who’s made no vows, has no blood ties, and has nothing material to gain from the relationship decides to commit to it nevertheless. “I had married into this situation,” Teague writes, “but how had [Dane] gotten here? Love is not a big-enough word.”

Although Teague’s piece is a meditation on the death of his wife Nicole, not Dane his friend, this essay may well be a prime instance of what Eve Tushnet has called “the death-haunted art of friendship.” Teague is paying tribute to Dane in the awful wake of cancer, and what he’s describing is an enormous instance of self-sacrifice. “It may help,” Eve says, when we are trying to understand friendship specifically as a vocation, “to ponder the humiliations of caring for vomiting, querulous, or bedridden friends, and the humiliation of being cared for by a friend when we’re in that state ourselves, as part of the cross borne by those whose love is poured out in friendship.”

If that’s what you want to ponder, I would really urge you to read Teague’s essay. It is brutal and beautiful.