The Future of Asceticism

Over the last couple of years, Eve Tushnet and I have batted around the idea of co-writing a blog post or essay as if we were looking back on the present from the vantage point of fifty years or so. What will be different in Christian conversations about homosexuality in several decades? And what will we wish we had changed sooner?

I’ve been thinking again about this as I’ve been reading the Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley’s newest book this past week, The New Asceticism: Gender, Sexuality and the Quest for God, which I hope to write a lot more about here in the days to come (and which I’ll be reviewing for Books & Culture). One of the main things Coakley is concerned to do in this book is to help us all achieve better, more Christian disagreements with each other, and the sort of future she imagines for “sexuality” discussions is one that I am powerfully drawn to.

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“Washed and Still Waiting”

Yesterday I was honored to give a lecture at a plenary session for the annual Evangelical Theological Society meeting, held this year in Atlanta. The title of my talk was “Washed and Still Waiting,” riffing on my 2010 book title Washed and Waiting, in which I’d tried to describe my celibate gay Christian life as life of tension between the “already” and the “not yet”—I’m already washed, forgiven, and justified in Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11), and I’m waiting eagerly for the resurrection of the body (Romans 8:23).

A few years after the book came out, the journalist Jeff Chu—who, I’m happy to say, has since then become a friend of mine—wrote a book called Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. Towards the middle of his survey of American Christian gay life, Jeff reflects on my Washed and Waiting:

When I finished Hill’s slim volume, I realized… that I would rather have read Washed and Still Waiting, the book that he might be ready to write three decades from now. It’s one thing for someone in his twenties to declare publicly his choice of celibacy—admittedly, a difficult, unorthodox, and bold thing. It’s entirely another to stand by that decision thirty years on. What are the effects of this kind of long-term chastity? What would life look like for the homosexual who, in his relative youth, chose this?

Taking my cues from Jeff’s questions, I decided I would use my ETS plenary lecture to reflect on how it might be possible for people like me to persevere in chastity over the long haul. Although I still can’t offer three decades’ hindsight, I do have some ideas about where to find hope.

In the lecture I explored three areas of pastoral theology that seem to me especially relevant for celibate Christian believers who are gay or lesbian. First—and I decided to take the tried-and-trusted Baptist preacher route of have three points with alliteration!—I discussed our need to rediscover the dignity of the celibate vocation in specifically evangelical Protestant settings. Second, I discussed our need for discipline in stewarding our sexuality. And third, I talked about how we need a theology of celibacy’s direction or destination.

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A Friendship Poem

We’ve been known to post a poem or two in honor of friendship on this blog. Here’s one more for your weekend. This one becomes more poignant when you know it was written by a much-beloved friend who, even as he celebrated his friends in this way, was dying of cancer.

Brett Foster, “For My Friends”

Mark 2

The frequency of your kindnesses
to me is deserving of acknowledgment.
Will it provide you with some thin glimpse,
at least, to say that I have felt at my best,
because of you, in these worst of mortal days?
To have lived this one life so multiply
surrounded by friends of an uncommon sort—
immeasurable comfort, source of my pride.
You cared for me in ways that made me
feel like the paralytic who gets carried
over to that gathering at Capernaum, maybe
at the healer’s own place. The front door
is unapproachable because of the crowds.
And like so—: all summer you have hauled
me around on my stretcher, and when
the entrance was barred to us, you climbed
atop the roof and began sawing through it.
(Even hoisting me up there— keeping me
steady and leveled as we ascended
the ladder, what an effort it demanded!)
I usually picture, in my doubtless presumptuous
modern way, that the roof was thatch,
and even so, it would be no easy task
to open up that skylight on my behalf.
Just so you have lowered me into that room
where a message is being heard, something
about all things being restored, made new,
and there I am, well-meaning interrupter,
empowered by his well-meaning crew.
And I can still feel your presence above me,
the weight of me and your sustaining it,
the rope digging into and burning your palms.
Down here, I am unwavering in expectation
for some remark about forgiveness,
though I really don’t know what it will mean
to be told, “Get up, pick up your stretcher,
and make your way home.” I question
the home that is spoken of, and the nature
of that invited rising. In any case, I feel sure
I would do so quickly, both thrilled with sudden
motion but also, truth be told, glad
to be done with all of this fuss. I like to imagine,
too, you guys still on that roof, how easily
you’ll lift the empty stretcher out of the house,
your smiles and handshakes as you descend
from the roof, mission done, and then stash
the ladder somewhere, and race to meet me
in one of our places— a dark back corner
at Bavarian Lodge or Muldoon’s, or perhaps
the side porch, August evening at Two Brothers.
You will not forget the stretcher, exactly,
and neither will I. I don’t envision feeling confident
enough to throw it away for good, but how glad
and relieved I will be, after our pints (my treat),
to store it away in a closet, not thinking
about it, not at all, till I have need of it again.

Dinner Invitations, Yes, but also Sharing Houses

Matthew and me with our favorite figure-skating-obsessed, novel-writing gay Catholic friend Eve Tushnet

Matthew and me with our favorite figure-skating-obsessed, novel-writing gay Catholic friend Eve Tushnet

I recently had the pleasure of visiting my friend Matthew Loftus in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of inner city Baltimore, where he has lived with his family and worked as a physician for the past few years. Matthew has been a longtime friend of this blog—he was one of our early regulars in the combox, and he recently published his first guest post with us. But it struck me, visiting him, that one of the best gifts Matthew brings to us at SF is the witness of his life and the question mark it puts over all of our talk here about “community” and “hospitality.”

Matthew and his wife Maggie and their children are “relocators”: they moved from the suburbs of Baltimore to Sandtown in order to be part of a remarkable multiethnic church there and live among the urban poor. And when I stayed with them, they shared their small(ish) home with a single woman, a friend who, in the time she had been with them, had become like an aunt to their children. This kind of “thick” practice of community—where it isn’t just a dinner table that’s opened up but an entire home, and where mobility is off the table (at least until God calls you elsewhere)—is something we’ve paid comparatively little attention to here on this blog. We need to change that.

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On the Death of a Friend


One of the curious things about friendship is that it is often “death-haunted.” “It is as if,” writes Andrew Sullivan, “death and friendship enjoy a particularly close relationship, as if it is only when pressed to the extremes of experience that this least extreme of relationships finds its voice, or when we are forced to consider what really matters, that we begin to consider what friendship is.” So, many of the great literary depictions of friendship—Augustine’s, Montaigne’s, Tennyson’s—don’t depict so much the daily course of friendship but rather its dramatic loss. It is death that moves the poet or the preacher to take up the theme of friendship and try to pay tribute to that most un-dramatic of all loves.

Alan Jacobs, in a beautiful essay, has speculated that this nexus between death and the verbal portrayals of friendship may owe something to the “homely, comforting” nature of friendship. Friendship usually isn’t about “a story to tell, a sequence of events to dramatize, an intensity of experience to lyricize.” Furthermore, friendship isn’t about undertaking some quest to achieve some goal. Unlike, for instance, the love of parents for children, which is very much oriented toward the telos of “training up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6), the love of friendship is its own end. And because of that non-flashy, goal-less quality of friendship, it sometimes takes the dramatic rupture of death for us to see the friendship as a whole, and for us to be able, then, to give voice to our gratitude for it. As Jacobs puts it,

Having so specific goal in mind, having nothing to strive towards, friendships possess no intrinsic narrative quality. This is not to say that we should not strive to be better friends, that is, to practice more assiduously the virtues that strengthen friendship, but we cannot do so for reasons intrinsic to the friendship. It is in the nature of friendship, I think, that the demands a friendship makes upon us wax and wane: we go through seasons of relative closeness, seasons of relative separation, without re-evaluating the basic character of the friendship. (I have dear, dear friends whom I can see only rarely, but they are no less dear because of this, and would be no more dear if we could meet regularly.) This stability of affection coupled with great variation in occasions for intimacy is almost impossible to represent in narrative terms, or indeed in other literary terms.

Whether it’s for these sorts of reasons or for others, I’m not sure, but I have been struck this week in the wake of my dear friend Brett Foster’s death on Monday night by how Brett’s death has prompted an outpouring of appreciation for his friendship, specifically.

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When Friendships Fail

One of the things I’ve often hoped we here at SF would write more about is disappointment and failure—disappointment and failure, specifically, in spiritual friendship. It’s very easy to want to clean up one’s stories of friendship, not only for oneself but also for the sake of the hope we’re trying to instill in our churches. Those of us who write here want to see our churches change and become more committed to friendship, and many of us want to find places to belong and love and serve, so it’s always tempting, for me at least, to let the positive rhetoric overwhelm the actual lived experience of friendship, which often is more ambiguous and complicated than my publicly hopeful statements would suggest.

I want to try to say more about this soon—especially in relation to Tim Otto’s poignant review of my book about friendship—but for now I thought I would simply point to a wonderful essay by Laura Turner on grieving the loss of a friendship.

What I love about this piece is that it limns the experience of “falling in friendship” (“I covered my desire for deep connection with a thin layer of nonchalance, taking what I could get and never expressing that I wanted more”) and then losing it with such recognizable honesty, but it also does what so many of us have trouble doing: it turns the spotlight back on oneself, on our tendency to blame and paper over our part in a friendship’s demise.

Here’s Turner:

“Only the hand that erases can write the true thing,” wrote the German mystic Meister Eckhart. I think what he meant is that in order to construct something good, you need to be able to deconstruct what came before it. This applies generally: In order to create just societies, we need to be able to dismantle injustice; in order to cook a good omelet, we need to be willing to crack a few eggs, and so on.

It also applies on the personal level. In order for me to be the person I want to be, I need to be able to deconstruct the myths I’ve written about myself. When my friendship with M ended, my myth was that I was the victim. I was hurt, nursing wounds, feeling self-righteous and angry, and so I believed that the end of our friendship had been all her fault. More than wanting to examine my own intentions, I wanted to be able to place the blame squarely on her shoulders. I wanted to write the story without ever having to erase. There was too much satisfaction in refusing to revisit the story; too much sadness to get into it all over again.

A lot of us tend to imagine friendship, I think, on the analogy of other kinds of love. Our friends are like a brother or a sister, we say. Or our friends are such a permanent part of our lives, they’re like a spouse. Maybe better than a spouse, we think (and maybe we think that especially if we’re gay and celibate, like I am). For those of us who think that way, Turner’s essay leaves us asking what we do when those analogies break down, when friendships collapse. It’s a question I, for one, would like to read and write more about.

“Loving Men”

Brent Bailey, a personal friend to many of us who blog here and author for the past several years of a blog about being gay and Christian called Odd Man Out, has just posted for the first time about his celibacy. He frames the post, in part, around a conversation he and I had the first time we met in Chicago:

By the time I met Wes during my second year of graduate school, I had begun to wonder whether my [sexual] orientation was only a temptation to be resisted or whether it might also hold some unexpected potential for grace. Wes and I happened to attend the same academic conference, and I jumped at his invitation to join a few others for lunch. I don’t recall the particular anecdote he told in that makeshift conference hall cafe, but I remember its punchline: “…and I realized that God is not calling me to not love men.” (He would later nuance the sentiment with more specificity: “God is radically pro-same-sex-love, and I know I am called to intimate friendships with other men.”) Of course, I thought to myself that day and in the months and years that followed, of course God isn’t calling me to not love men. What Wes offered as insight struck me, in that moment, as epiphany that illuminated my experiences in friendship. After coming out publicly, I found myself delighting in certain men in a way that was distinctly gay but also chaste, and my delight presented itself as the kind of supportive, unrestrained love that fosters affinity and trust. The same seems to hold today: When I allow myself to participate in the active work of loving men in the particular way I seem wired to love men, I can love them wholeheartedly. It’s sexual but entirely nonsexual; it’s platonic but electrically non-platonic; it’s confusing but profoundly satisfying.

In his own way, with his unique approach and style, Brent is putting his finger on a major theme that a lot of us who blog here at SF have united around: You have to think about your life of chastity as a gay Christian as a life of self-giving love. If you try to understand it only in negative terms—as if the goal were only abstention and refraining and fleeing and turning away—you will end up missing the main thing God is calling you to. You will end up with a white-knuckled version of Christian discipleship rather than one that revolves around Christlike generosity, hospitality, and loyalty to others. Around here at SF, we’re all agreed that gay sex misses the mark of God’s design for human flourishing, but we’re also persuaded that “not having gay sex” shouldn’t be the main goal of anyone’s life.

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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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