Matthew Loftus on Wesley Hill’s Spiritual Friendship book

SF book coverMatthew Loftus has written a review of Wesley Hill’s new Spiritual Friendship book for MereOrthodoxy. Titled “Material Dimensions of Spiritual Friendship,” Loftus’s essay offers a brief summary of the book, and explores three questions about spiritual friendship, culture, and mission that arise both from his own experience as a doctor in inner city Baltimore and from the challenges Wesley raises in the book.

Wesley Hill’s new book Spiritual Friendship is not an easy read. It’s short, yes, coming in at under 150 pages. But in that space Hill manages to be disquieting on a subject that is often taken for granted–specifically, the question of how we form and maintain intimate friendships. Part historical survey, part Biblical analysis, and part personal reflection, Spiritual Friendship manages to be informative and insightful but also unnerving and challenging. Rather than a full review, I’d like to briefly summarize the themes in the book and then respond to some of the questions that it raises. Since Wesley grounded his exploration of friendship in his experiences and friendships, I’d like to do the same as I recount some of what my wife and I have learned from our time in inner-city Baltimore.

The first part of the book looks at the situation we are in with regards to friendship, using the author’s own experience as a celibate gay Christian as a jumping-off point for how much more anemic our honor of friendship is now–particularly same-sex friendships– than they apparently used to be. He assigns as much blame for the decline in friendship’s power and privilege to the modern instinct that boils every interaction down to its sexual nature as he does to the reactionary traditionalism that wants to elevate marriage well beyond all other human relationships. What we’re left with nowadays is friendship as purely voluntary, thus making the idea of intimacy and mutual comfort wholly dependent on the whims of our friends. Wesley’s Christianity Today cover story from last year covers many of these same themes in a more compressed fashion, which lead to a great discussion of vowed friendships in particular here at Mere Fidelity.

In the second half of the book, Wesley gets more personal as he looks at how difficult these intimate friendships are to build and maintain. Regardless of one’s stance on questions of gay identity, it is hard not to be moved by the quandary he puts forth: gay and lesbian Christians who choose to honor the Biblical teaching by remaining celibate (and all Christians who don’t marry) are shut out of the intimate companionship that marriage provides–erotic or not–and so far have been left to their own devices to find ways to ameliorate the attendant loneliness and isolation they face. He relates the moving story of how one particular friendship fell apart and concludes the book with a chapter about how his local church has been trying to find ways to foster friendship–and how powerful the Eucharist in particular can be in unifying us as a community. However, these relationships are still incredibly vulnerable to the mobility many of now experience as we transition from wherever we grew up to wherever we study to wherever we find a job thereafter. While never really resolving the tension inherent in this mobility, he emphasizes the importance of friendships that require serious commitment to one another, particularly as they give us the opportunity to suffer together and share in the burdens that come to all believers–not just the celibate.

There’s obviously a lot more in the book than what I’ve summarized above, but I want to emphasize that the book left this reader feeling incomplete, asking more questions than when I started. I suspect that this is by design, though it is a book that stands on its own even as it complements the body of work accumulating at the blog Wesley helped to start (http://spiritualfriendship.org/). The three lines of thought I’d like to explore are: What else has fueled our cultural denigration of friendship besides our changing cultural mores, and can we change these upstream factors? How do we think about intimate spiritual friendships across class lines, and is there a particular call to suffer there? Finally, to what degree does our understanding of the local church and its mission affect how we forge our friendships–or is it the other way around?

Read the full review.

Remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Martyrdom

Seventy years ago today, the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in the Flossenbürg concentration camp.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1923

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1923

There are two distinctly different accounts of his death. Hermann Fischer-Hüllstrung, a Nazi doctor who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s death, wrote that “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

Dr. Fischer-Hüllstrung may, however, have been whitewashing a much more brutal scene. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, Ferdinand Schlingensiepen argues, “Fischer-Hüllstrung had the job of reviving political prisoners after they had been hanged until they were almost dead, in order to prolong the agony of their dying.” Because Bonhoeffer was executed as a political prisoner, he may well have died a lingering, painful death.

Whether Bonhoeffer’s death was a model of peaceful resignation to God’s will, or was drawn out by the horrors of Nazi torture, throughout his life he chose the costly way, repeatedly risking suffering for the sake of fidelity to the Gospel.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate.” On the other hand, “Costly grace,” Bonhoeffer says, “is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake the man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ for which the disciple leaves his nets and follows Him.”

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Faith, Hope, Love…and Loneliness

In high school, I would cry quietly in my bed. I felt like an outsider in my faith community. I felt a measure of rejection from my family. I felt confusion, shame, and insecurity about my sexuality. All of these added up to one simple feeling: I was lonely. So I wept and prayed every night for Jesus to show up, physically, in my room. He never did.

Throughout my twenties, I’ve gone through periods of asking for that same thing. The reasons have changed, as have the pressures and responsibilities of life. But that silent, desperate plea has not. Please, Jesus. Now. You did it for Thomas. Can’t you do it for me? Just for long enough to know that you’re really here; that my life really matters to you; that this painful obedience and denial is worth something immeasurable to you. But still he resists.

Loneliness persists.

Solitary Tree

I’ve had a thousand reasons why I’ve felt lonely over the years. When I was young, my dad left, so I felt lonely when I looked up at the family pictures in my friends’ houses. I played classical music and enjoyed musical theater, so I felt lonely when my friends met up after school for garage band sessions. I knew my sexuality was different, so I felt lonely when I couldn’t talk about that boy in the back of that class with my friends because not only was it weird to them; it was a black mark of a sinful disposition. As kids, our loneliness can feel insurmountable.

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Label Makers

Well, here we are, talking about labels and identity. Again.

[throws taupe confetti in the air]

Among those who think people shouldn’t describe themselves as ‘gay’, the most common objection is that it intrinsically compromises one’s core identity as a Christian (or, in some cases, as a man or woman). The supporting claims are varied and come from a few different directions, but near their center is a belief that saying ‘gay’ identifies one too closely with one’s sexuality or certain possible sins.

The thing is, those of us who are fine with using ‘gay’ as a social label are similarly concerned by the way many people’s self-perception, regardless of orientation, is dominated by their sexuality. The difference, of course, is that as far as we can tell it is this obsession over language and labels that is one of the primary causes of this myopia in churches.

I never feel more defined by my sexuality than when Christians obsess over how I sometimes describe myself. In my current communities, where people are pretty chill and understand how and why I occasionally describe myself as gay, I find my self-perception has much more balance and integrity; I feel like a whole person with various facets held together by my relationship with God rather than any one particular label. Thus I don’t only find the fervent ‘don’t say gay’ movement socially harmful and theologically errant but also practically self-defeating.

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More On Coming Out Part 2: How Open Should You Be?

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m often asked by other sexual minority Christians how open they should be about their sexuality. There is no single answer for everyone, so I would like to offer some reflections on the process of discernment. Towards that end, in my previous post I discussed my own story of getting to where I am today. In this post I will offer my advice for others, using the second person for convenience.

Rainier Waterfall Crossing

One thing I want to point out from the beginning is that there are very few cases where I’d say you are actually obligated to discuss your sexuality. About the only case I can think of is that your spouse or even potential spouse, if you have one, needs to know as early as possible. Otherwise, it’s ultimately your own decision how widely you want to open up. As I’ve discussed before, I think you really ought to open up to a few people for your own good, but it’s your decision how broadly to do that.

For my straight readers, I should offer the aside that it’s really important to respect a sexual minority person’s choices about who to come out to. If someone has trusted you with a secret about their sexuality, you need to keep it secret. If you think he or she would do well to open up to a particular person or group, you can encourage him or her to do so, but never do the sharing yourself without permission.

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All You Holy Innocents, Pray for Leelah

Early Sunday morning a young transwoman, Leelah Alcorn, left a suicide note on Tumblr before walking out in front of a truck. She believed that she would never be able to successfully transition, that she would never be able to live a full life as a woman, that it was impossible for her to live a full life as a man.

Leelah’s mother posted that her “son” had gone for a walk and been hit by a truck. It’s a post that has been reposted, reblogged, tweeted and proliferated all over the internet, and there’s been a lot of hatred poured out on Leelah’s parents. As is often the case in teen suicides, Leelah blamed her parents for her unhappiness. I don’t know whether this is justified in most cases or not. I know that I when I was a suicidal teenager, my parents really had nothing to do with it: I was clinically depressed, and not interested in seeking help.

Leelah, however, was interested in seeking help. As is too often the case in LGBTQ suicides, her parents’ religious beliefs prevented her from being able to access that help. She was taken to counselors, but only to ones who wanted to forward a particular ideological agenda in conformity with her parents’ beliefs. According to Leelah’s suicide note, her parents isolated her from her friends, removed her from school, and prevented her from having access to any network of support from outside of the house.

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What Is “Gay”?

Several months ago, I got into a discussion with Wes Hill and Matt Anderson about Wes’s post, Is Being Gay Sanctifiable? At the time, I drafted a post in response to that conversation, but did not have time to polish it for publication. In light of the more recent discussions of language (including Wes’s On Disagreeing About “Homosexuality”: A Thought Experiment and Matt’s Can Christians be gay? An Inquiry), I decided to revise and expand the draft.

I want to reflect on what the word “gay” is about—that is, what experience or set of experiences does it point to? (I also want to ask similar questions about “friendship.”) But before doing so, I want us to think about a very different example: the word “ship.” Consider Eustace Scrubb’s response when he found himself magically transported into Narnia and embarked on the Dawn Treader. He wrote in his diary,

It’s madness to come out into the sea in a rotten little thing like this. Not much bigger than a lifeboat. And, of course, absolutely primitive indoors. No proper saloon, no radio, no bathrooms, no deck-chairs. I was dragged all over it yesterday evening and it would make anyone sick to hear Caspian showing off his funny little toy boat as if it was the Queen Mary. I tried to tell him what real ships are like, but he’s too dense.

For Eustace, “ship” referred to a modern ocean modern liner like the Queen Mary; while for the Narnians, “ship” meant a small sailing vessel like the Dawn Treader. The word is the same, and certain key elements of the concept are the same, but what the word is about is different.

MV Coho in Victoria Harbour. Photo by Steve Voght via Wikimedia Commons.

MV Coho in Victoria Harbour. Photo by Steve Voght via Wikimedia Commons.

When, as a boy, I read Luke’s description of the Apostle Paul’s journey on a “ship” (in Acts 20-21), I imagined him getting on board something like the MV Coho (above), which I rode several times a year from Port Angeles to Victoria and back again. When I got a little older and realized that Paul had been on a sailing ship, my mental imagery tended to be drawn from the ships of the Age of Discovery, because that was the kind of sailing ship I most frequently encountered in my non-Biblical reading.

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Washington Post: Gay Christians choosing celibacy emerge from the shadows

Despite encountering criticism, the LGBT community is finding greater acceptance, even in religious circles

Josh Gonnerman and Eve Tushnet, both of Washington, are shown on Oct. 22 in the District. Gonnerman and Tushnet are gay and choosing the path of celibacy. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Josh Gonnerman and Eve Tushnet, both of Washington, are shown on Oct. 22 in the District. Gonnerman and Tushnet are gay and choosing the path of celibacy. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

 

The Washington Post has recently published a story by Michelle Boorstein that talks about celibate gay Christians:

When Eve Tushnet converted to Catholicism in 1998, she thought she might be the world’s first celibate Catholic lesbian.

Having grown up in a liberal, upper Northwest Washington home before moving on to Yale University, the then-19-year-old knew no other gay Catholics who embraced the church’s ban on sex outside heterosexual marriage. Her decision to abstain made her an outlier.

“Everyone I knew totally rejected it,” she said of the church’s teaching on gay sexuality.

Today, Tushnet is a leader in a small but growing movement of celibate gay Christians who find it easier than before to be out of the closet in their traditional churches because they’re celibate. She is busy speaking at conservative Christian conferences with other celibate Catholics and Protestants and is the most well-known of 20 bloggers who post on spiritualfriendship.org, a site for celibate gay and lesbian Christians that draws thousands of visitors each month.

Check out the whole story.

John Corvino: Remembering Robert

Today is World AIDS Day. According to UNAIDS, over 75 million people have been infected by HIV, and over 35 million of those have died. Behind each of those lives and deaths is a story. I thought I’d share this story (originally written in 2002), from my friend John Corvino. It’s a reminder that—despite protease inhibitors and drug cocktails and “the end of the plague”—AIDS still kills:

johncorvinoLast month I learned of the death of an ex-partner.  It’s an odd feeling to lose to death someone whom one has already lost to painful separation.  But it’s a loss nevertheless.

Robert and I met as graduate students in philosophy at the University of Texas.  I had just “escaped” from Notre Dame, and I had high hopes for Austin.  It was 1991: Ann Richards was governor, and the UT student-body president was an African-American lesbian socialist.  (“Toto, we’re not in South Bend anymore.”)

Robert approached me at the new students’ party.  Physically, he wasn’t my type, but there was something about him I found mesmerizing.  He had a keen intellect and a razor wit.  We got into an argument during that party—the good kind, the kind that philosophers thrive on.  We quickly became friends, and then something more.

The relationship is hard to explain to people who didn’t know us (and even to some who did).  It was passionate but not sexual; full of conflict yet strangely comfortable.  The contradictions suited us.  Most people were unaware that we didn’t have sex, which was fine with us.  (How many of us know the details of our partnered friends’ sex lives?)  Some would say the relationship didn’t “count”, but it counted to us, and that was what mattered.

He had a brilliant sense of humor.  Robert, who had grown up in Odessa, often poked fun at his West Texas roots.  He used to steal phone-message pads from the philosophy department secretary and then leave notes in my office mailbox, often beginning with “Robert Ramirez, of Paris, New York, and Odessa, called…”

Read the rest of the article on John’s site >>

The Fruit of Traditional Teaching

Photo by MarkusHagenlocher via Wikimedia CommonsOne of the most common ways to argue against the traditional sexual ethic is to cite all the negative consequences that are said to flow directly from it. For example, people point to the high rates of depression and suicide among sexual minorities who grow up within conservative religious communities, and they also remind us that even those who don’t face the most severe mental health consequences still often deal with isolation, fear, shame, and stigma.

The basic argument is this: if we are to judge teachings by their fruit, then we can judge the traditional view of sexual ethics as wrong and immoral.

A common knee-jerk reaction I see from some conservatives is a denial of the problems. I’ve heard several people argue that these claims are just smokescreens for people who want to justify immoral behavior.

I don’t know if I can put this strongly enough: the problems cited are very real, and to deny their existence is to be extraordinarily calloused and unloving. I’ve even experienced some of them, like the fear and shame, myself. And I’ve heard enough stories to know that even the more serious ones like suicidal ideation are shockingly common.

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