What Kind of Friend Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

My copy of Charles Marsh’s new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer will be dispatched to my house soon, so for now I’m making do by reading John Stackhouse’s fine review of it. Someone on Twitter sent it to me the other day, with this tag: “Bonhoeffer was a celibate gay Christian. Thoughts?” Intrigued, I landed on this paragraph from Stackhouse:

Bonhoeffer’s former student, longtime confidante, and first biographer, [Eberhard] Bethge comes through in this book as a significant character—but chiefly as the object of Bonhoeffer’s increasingly lavish affections, the expressions of which in actions, gifts, and words seem to fascinate Marsh perhaps more than they will every reader. Marsh never once refers to homosexuality and only once or twice refers to sexual desire at all, but he frequently paints Bonhoeffer as the ardent suitor while Bethge wants to remain “just friends.” What Marsh doesn’t ever do is explore directly whether a same-sex friendship without sexual desire can be this intense, even erotic in the sense of deep desire for closeness that can become (excessively) possessive. Bonhoeffer, who grew up without a close friend and whose twin Sabine gets married rather young, seems lonely until he meets Bethge, and then pours himself into that friendship as a river surges through a channel rather too small for it. Marsh defends the chastity of the two men, but one wonders if Marsh might usefully have hinted less and ruminated more. (Remember, it isn’t as if Marsh is overdelicate about such themes. He is quite willing to detail and pronounce upon the sexual sins of both Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, and to do so without the scholarly cover of actual citation of sources.)

I can’t tell what Stackhouse intends with the sentence just before the parenthesis. Is he implying that if Marsh had ruminated a bit more, he might have concluded that a pursuit of friendship as intense as Bonhoeffer’s must have been fueled by sexual desire (thus lending credence to the idea that Bonhoeffer was gay, albeit celibate)? Or is Stackhouse rather suggesting that more interrogation on Marsh’s part would have shown our suspicion of Bonhoeffer’s being gay to be a post-gay-rights-era preoccupation, all too ready to classify people as either “gay” or “straight” and not attuned enough to the complexity, even for “straight” people, of desire in simple friendship? As I say, I can’t tell, but I’d like to continue the conversation.

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The Freedom to Love

When many of my friends moved toward a theology that affirms gay sexual relationships, they did so because they grew weary of saying “no” to love. Several of them described an experience where they were fully committed to the church’s traditional teaching on sexual ethics when they grew to deeply love someone of the same sex. They remained chaste for a season and prayed for direction, then eventually sensed the Lord saying: You’re free to love.

While many Christians considered their shift an act of rebellion—a plunge into sin—they saw it as the only path to love and intimacy. They recognized that “It’s not good for man to be alone,” and they longed to serve the one they love, share their lives with the one they love, and mutually draw energy from that love to better serve those around them. Many felt like the traditional ethic required them to cut off fundamental aspects of being human in order to be chaste: they felt saying “no” to sexual relationships meant saying “no” to love, and that saying “no” to love meant saying “no” to any intimacy, and that saying “no” to intimacy meant saying “no” to feelings altogether, which eventually led to detachment and isolation. The burden felt unbearable.

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Christianity and Same-Sex Eros

Nathan O’Halloran has an interesting article over at Vox Nova on the “richness of homosexual relationality.”

O’Halloran points out something I’ve highlighted before, which is that when the Church speaks negatively about “homosexuality,” it is not talking about the same thing we generally mean by “being gay.” When the Catechism speaks about “homosexuality,” it doesn’t even mean the same thing we mean by “homosexuality” in everyday speech (as opposed to its meaning within the technical discourse of Catholic moral theology). The teaching of the Church against homosexuality, as O’Halloran notes, “extends only to same-sex genital acts and does not refer to the sexuality as a whole.” The Bishops of England and Wales make this very clear in their pastoral letter Cherishing Life:

In so far as the homosexual orientation can lead to sexual activity which excludes openness to the generation of new human life … it is, in this particular and precise sense only, objectively disordered. However, it must be quite clear that a homosexual orientation must never be considered sinful or evil in itself.

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Everyday Intimacy Played Out

I wrote a post earlier this week that highlighted some of my fears for the future related to loneliness. As some of my closest friends have moved away, I’ve caught myself coming home to an empty apartment more often than I’m used to, more often than I would like. People responded with such thoughtful feedback: encouragement, challenges, pertinent questions and words of solidarity.

It seemed fitting to respond to some of the questions in a consolidated manner, and this one opens the door to exploring some related questions about how exactly we might all come alongside one another: “Julie, when you put on your hoodie and stare into space in your apartment, what are you really longing for?”

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The Vulnerability of Hope

“I’m lonely”, I said a few weeks ago in a phone conversation with a friend. I wore my favorite grey hoodie with the hood pulled over my head as I leaned against a bookshelf in my empty apartment. A few of my closest friends recently moved away, and not only are they top-notch folks that I miss for who they are, they’re also glue-like folks who bring people together.

When they left, they left a hole significantly larger than the size of their lives because the relational dynamic they created dissolved along with their physical presence. “I know I just feel lonely tonight, and that when I wake up tomorrow I’ll be bright-eyed and chipper, but I can’t keep from blowing this moment up into an entire future strung together by thousands of nights like tonight until I become an 81 year old sitting in a cold cabin with cats scurrying around while I listen to Lesbian Campfire Music and reflect on the tragedy of a long life shared with no one.”

I can be dramatic. But few things are as adorable as elderly intimacy. Whether it’s lifelong friends laughing together or an old couple holding hands, elderly intimacy wins the Most Adorable award in my mind. The laughter and hand-holding tell stories of years of intimacy created over witnessed embarrassment, shared silence, long rants, quotes read aloud, being let down, saying “I’m sorry”, choosing forgiveness, choosing vulnerability, choosing “Yes” day in and day out for a shared lifetime. It looks sacrificial and painful and comforting and boring and beautiful and—when it’s shared with the same person for tens of thousands of nights in a row—adorable.

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Celibacy and Loneliness

“For both Aristotle and Aquinas, friendship stands at the core of human and Divine reality… If we get that wrong, we get it all wrong.” -Fr. James Schall

When I was a child, I used to have night terrors. When I had bad dreams, I would sit up in my bed and cry or yell while I was sleeping. My parents would have to come up to my room, gently wake me, and then help me fall back to sleep.

I don’t have night terrors anymore, but I do occasionally have bad dreams. Like the night terrors, I don’t always remember them. Once, when I was visiting a friend, he told me one morning that he had woken me up the night before. Apparently, he heard me having a bad dream, so he woke me up, made sure everything was fine, and told me to go back to bed. I don’t remember any of this.

This is one fear I have: suffering under a bad dream in the night and not having anyone around to wake me up, and to tell me to go back to sleep. It sounds silly. It makes me sound like a child. But this is not a childish fear. It’s a human fear. It’s a fear of falling into a brokenness that you don’t even realize and that can only be alleviated by those who have loved you so much that they know you better than you know yourself. It’s the realization that you can become careless or tired and unaware of your failings and that, from time to time, you need people to make up for your inadequacies. It’s the commonly admitted fear of dying alone that acts as a mask for the real, underlying fear: the fear of living alone.

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On Coming Out and Being Known

I attended a lecture about disabilities recently. At the end of the lecture, a steady stream of students and professors walked up to a microphone in front of the audience and offered questions to the speakers. The questioners mostly came up one-by-one, asking abstract questions about abstract people. Silence fell when the final questioner stepped before the microphone. It was a woman, her left arm clinging to her friend beside her, and her right arm holding a long white stick extending out in front of her—she was blind. And when the conversation changed from an abstraction discussion about disabled people, to actually talking with a disabled person, there was a subtle but obvious shift in tone.

The moment reminded me of a conversation I had had a few months before. I was around a campfire with a group of Catholic friends, discussing the Church. At a certain point, gay marriage came up. One of the guys, with whom I was friends but didn’t know particularly well, said, “I know that a Catholic guy came out in order to defend traditional marriage when it was being debated, and I understand that. But, as a Catholic, I don’t know why same-sex-attracted people would want to be open about and discussing their sexuality. I mean, I don’t go around discussing my sexuality with other people.”

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“All the Lonely People”: On Hospitality, Again

The anonymous blogger, Frau Luther, is frustrated with the way we (or perhaps just I, since I seem to be the one who throws the word around the most here) at SF talk about hospitality:

Like, there’s a LOT of trendy talk in those circles about “hospitality” and communal living and whatnot. Those who are outside traditional families are supposed to find some way to link up with this. Those inside them are supposed to somehow reach out and pull them in. This is allegedly the cure for loneliness. And as someone who is firmly ensconced in the very kind of traditional family they look towards, I have to say their understanding of what it’s like in here must be based on a 19th century novel or something, because it sounds nothing like my reality. Maybe it’s class-based (I strongly suspect this), as their visions seem to be filled with dinner parties and wine glass clinking and rich conversation over great books and fine liquor, and calendars full of ~social obligations~. Or something like that.

The idea that life in a family is not lonely is laughable. Think it through. Do you remember Betty Friedan? I spend most of my life in a static-space between utterly alone and never alone. I rarely have a soul to talk to and I can’t go to the bathroom for 5 minutes without someone interrupting. I’m not complaining, here, and I am not claiming that my status in the family constitutes oppression. I mean that the lot of the human being is loneliness, to some degree, and mutual incomprehensibility, and toil and weariness and weeping in hac lacrimarum valle. And life in a family isn’t all hobbit-like coziness and ale. It’s more of the same, with people you’re related to.

More:

What I get from these writings, what puts me SO on edge about them, is that these folks who completely romanticize family life want to come warm themselves by the hearth and have a glass of wine and let a child amuse them for an hour or two, and call this “being part of our community” or somesuch. They will go home reflecting, thoughtfully, and write an essay about the deep meaning of it all, and with some tinge of envy and tsking about how plain boring hausfraus don’t appreciate our fortune. And then I will clear the plates, load the dishwasher, switch the clothes into the dryer, treat someone’s cough, sit half a precious hour in the room until she sleeps again, mend the blanket, thaw the chicken, mix the filling for the lunch entree, put on the TV and try to read 30 minutes before I fall asleep, alone.

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Jesus, John, and the Intimacy of Physical Touch

Crisis Magazine recently covered several writers at Spiritual Friendship with some caution at the notion of chaste friendship. Austin Ruse’s skepticism shines through when he writes:

“Their ideal is that you can draw close to someone of the same-sex, love them intimately and intensely, yet never cross the line into sexual activity. They point to the relationship between Jesus and young John as a model. Recall John was the “one whom Jesus loved” and who laid his head on Jesus’ chest, something if done today would clearly be considered gay.”

This, if anything, should be a lesson to us from history. It’s a well-documented fact that previous generations were far more comfortable with people of the same gender sharing physical affection. The Art of Manliness had a terrific post on this earlier this summer, with the photographic evidence to prove it.

Bros being bros.

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A scattered “reader’s response” from a “New Homophile”

Austin Ruse has published  a piece on us in Crisis Magazine. While he has critiques, the main point of the piece is to just say, “Here, look at this strange phenomenon! Check out the eccentric and often brilliant Eve Tushnet, progenitor of the whole crew! [Eve, the Mother of All...?] Check out the Momma Bear, Elizabeth Scalia! Here’s a kinda weird, kinda wonderful bunch of people to look at!”

I must admit, I’m a bit amused by the piece. It almost makes us seem like some exotic tribe, with Ruse as the diligent anthropologist setting out to record and explain our practices. Of course, it is old school anthropology, the kind where you didn’t ask the people you were studying what they were on about, but just developed your own explanations, which you relayed to people who were more distant than you, and coined names for them yourself (though “New Homophiles” does roll off the tongue nicely!). As a result, he misses some things, like Ron Belgau and Wesley Hill, the editors of this blog, whose contributions to the First Thoughts blog at First Things are significantly more prolific than my contributions to On the Square over there. He also tends to portray us as much more homogeneous than we are. Still, I appreciate his basic interest in our project, and  look forward with interest to his promised forthcoming piece on our gay critics.

In the mean time, when the anthropologist relays the practices of the indigenous populations, something is invariably lost. Let me speak as one of the natives (and only one of them, not a definitive spokesman for the whole tribe) and try to articulate some of the nuance which, it seems to me, is missing.

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