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.
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.
I have an article up at Christianity Today titled, “Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon,” where I introduce three contrasting lenses through which people see and respond to gender dysphoria and related matters. I also discuss the importance of not equating gender congruence with spiritual maturity:
We can be sensitive, though, not to treat as synonymous management of gender dysphoria and faithfulness. Some may live a gender identity that reflects their biological sex, depending on their discomfort. Others may benefit from space to find ways to identify with aspects of the opposite sex, as a way to manage extreme discomfort. And of course, no matter the level of discomfort someone with gender dysphoria experiences (or the degree to which someone identifies with the opposite sex), the church will always encourage a personal relationship with Christ and faithfulness to grow in Christlikeness.
Those interested in the topics of gender dysphoria and the experiences of transgender persons, including Christian transgender persons, might be interested in the book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria.
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.
Some readers here may be interested to know about a theological project I’ve been involved with over the last several months—a project that touches on many themes that are near and dear to this blog.
Beginning last summer, a group of clergy and lay people, most of whom belong to The Episcopal Church (TEC), began working on a series of essays to try to articulate some of the key aspects of a Christian theology of marriage. We’re calling our project Fully Alive. As the brief description on our website says,
There is an important conversation going on about marriage today. It is happening in society. It is also happening in the Church. People are asking questions about what marriage is and what it is for. Fully Alive is a project by a group of Christians who are seeking to answer these questions deeply and prayerfully, while also considering some even bigger questions that lurk in the background of our conversation on marriage. What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to be a woman or a man? Is it possible for people who come to radically different conclusions about these things to live together with integrity in one society? What about in one church?
In the weeks and months ahead, Fully Alive will be publishing essays and creating resources. This website will have all the latest information. Fully Alive is sponsored by the Communion Partner Bishops.
The background to our work is as follows. At the 2012 TEC General Convention, a Task Force on the study of marriage was created to report back to the next convention—which is happening this year, in June, in Salt Lake City—on the history and theology of marriage. The Task Force’s report was released in February. At General Convention next month, the Task Force will propose Resolution A050 which would change the church’s canons to allow for same-sex couples to marry alongside opposite-sex couples.
Today, we at Fully Alive are responding to the Task Force’s report with an article of our own in the Anglican Theological Review. I played a part in crafting this article, and I wanted to alert readers here to it. Our essay tries to lay out a different picture of what marriage is and what it is for than the picture the TEC Task Force has offered.
If you’re so inclined, please do help us spread the word. We’d like to see our essay widely read and discussed and—please God—used next month to shed some light on the debates at General Convention. More than that, we’d like to see what we’ve written benefit the church catholic, as we all together seek God’s will for the meaning and practice of Christian marriage.
A while ago I was talking to my spiritual director about some anxieties I was feeling in one of my friendships. This was a close friendship which had been tested by time (and by my own idiocy) but I was still having a hard time trusting that it would endure, and coping with the changes that were occurring in the friendship.
My spiritual director nodded and said, “It sounds like you’re ‘attached’ to this friend, in the sense that you’re relying on the friendship for your well-being. This isn’t a Christian approach. Only Jesus can always be there for you in the way that you need; what you want right now is understandable, but your friend really can’t give it to you. You need to be willing to let go. Maybe the friendship will fade away. Maybe you need to invest more in your other friendships, as this one changes. Whatever happens to you, you will be loved and sheltered–but by God, not by the specific other people you’ve picked out.”
That was tough to hear, as you can imagine. But I came to see that my priest was basically right. I did start to invest more in other friendships–and also give thanks for them more often. For the first time, I realized that when Jesus says we must hate mother and father, wife and children, and even our own lives, to follow Him, He is talking to me; I must be ready to live without the relationships which mean the most to me.
This morning, the New York Times published a conversation between John Corvino and me, in which we address the question, “Can People With Dementia Have a Sex Life?” Predictably, controversy ensued. The dispute began when Dr. Corvino linked to the dialogue on Twitter:
With the violent rhetoric that readers of the New York Times have come to expect from conservative Christian thinkers, Matthew Lee Anderson responded:
Things went downhill from there:
The simple answer is: it’s complicated.
Over at his Religion News Service site blog yesterday, Jonathan Merritt interviewed yours truly about my new book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.
The interview started off with my saying,
According to Christian writers of the past, spiritual or Christ-centered friendship—the kind of friendship I’m writing about—is a bond between two (or more) people who feel affection for each other. But it’s also a bond that has a trajectory. It’s a relationship that’s about helping one another along towards deeper love of God and neighbor. I like that but would add that as those sorts of friendships mature and deepen, they often start to become more committed and permanent. It’s almost as if the friends want to become more like spiritual siblings.
And it goes on from there. Read the whole thing.
Some of you will know already that I have a new book that’s just been released. It’s called Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian, and I’m very happy (and a bit nervous, too, truth be told!) that it’s now out in the world and finding its way to readers.
Today, over at my publisher’s blog, I’ve got a guest post that explains how I came to write the book and that gives a bit of teaser-taste of its contents. Here’s an excerpt:
Being gay and celibate can leave you wondering whether you’re left out in the cold when it comes to committed, stable, intimate relationships. Watching many of your friends pair up and get married, you wonder if you have to settle for something less than that—for relationships that always end with separation or distance. And sometimes friendship, which is all too fleeting in our mobile society, comes to seem like a consolation prize. As blogger Casey Pick has written, “No community is quite so sensitive to the reality that, for all its virtues, friendship isn’t family.”
But what if Christian friendships, or at least some of them, were able to become more committed, more bound by promises, and more recognized as integral, lasting parts of gay Christians’ lives? What if friendship were able to look more familial?
If I were to describe the hope and joy I’ve found in my own gay, celibate life, I would point to moments where that shift has happened in my friendships.
Please click through and read the rest of the post, if you’re interested.
Last week I was in Sydney, Australia (or “Oz,” as they abbreviate/pronounce it!) to give a series of talks. I spoke at two day conferences hosted by Liberty Christian Ministries. I also spoke at Moore Theological College (and some enterprising student wrote up a nice summary of what I said!), as well as St. Barnabas’ Anglican Church and a few other places. (There’s a video here, if you want to see the kinds of things I discussed.) It was a wonderful, refreshing trip—one of the highlights of my entire (relatively short, admittedly) career of public speaking on matters gay and Christian!—and I wanted to talk about a few of the things that stood out to me.
What I think I’ll remember most are two conversations I had with two different small groups of people, not more than 20 or so, after the two day conferences finished. When I was done speaking, I hung out in an upstairs Sunday School classroom at the church where the conference had been held and just chatted with whomever stuck around.