Andrew Sullivan points to an unenthusiastic review by Stuart Kelly of A. C. Grayling’s new book on friendship, which just arrived in my mailbox and which I’m looking forward to perusing. In particular, Sullivan highlights Kelly’s criticism that Grayling doesn’t give enough credence to the way Christianity changed the shape of the classical virtue of friendship:
Grayling being a notable anti-theist, it is no surprise that he treats Christian views of friendship as an opportunity to take a few pot-shots at some large fish in a particularly small barrel. By doing so, he misses the chance to comment on a radical difference. In Cicero, for example, there is a vexed discussion of whether or not it is possible to be a true friend to someone who holds different political or ethical beliefs. The idea of treating people as if they were friends already seems to me to be a more profound shift in the concept than Grayling admits. He may have some fun with the idea that the infinite, self-sufficient deity should require being chums with sinners, but it is at the expense of realising that in religious ethics there is the very openness that he wishes for in terms of contemporary secular friendship. He praises the notion that “children in kindergarten will be unconsciously friends with anyone at all, of any persuasion, background, colour, faith or political family”. That one might consciously choose to befriend despite difference seems to me to be a religious rather than a philosophical proposition. The “as if” (treating people as if they were friends) is a leap of faith, not a cold piece of ratiocination.
A friend sent me an email this week with the text of a homily from several years ago by Fr. Raneiro Cantalamessa, preacher to the Pontifical Household, on friendship between men and women. The text is from Luke 10, on Jesus’ relationship with Mary and Martha. After noting the usual exegesis—that the passage is about the active and contemplative lives—Fr. Cantalamessa goes in a different direction:
I think, however, that the more evident theme is that of friendship. “Jesus loved Martha, together with her sister and Lazarus,” we read in John’s Gospel (11:5).
When they bring him the news of Lazarus’ death he says to his disciples: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep but I am going to wake him up” (John11:11).
Faced with the sorrow of the two sisters he also breaks down and weeps, so much so that those who are present exclaim: “See how much he loved him!” (John 11:13).
It is wonderful and consoling to know that Jesus knew and cultivated that sentiment that is so beautiful and precious for us men—friendship…
This past Christmas ended with my friend Zach and I watching Love Actually with a glass of wine. I love Zach, and we love wine and Love Actually, so it was a solid ending to a quality Christmas day. But I was keenly aware of the fact that as much as I love Zach and wine and Love Actually, I wanted a girl on the couch with us. I wanted a girl by my side, giggling with me and feeling a rush of warm fuzzies when all the gushy moments caused an explosion in my heart.
I find so much joy in the life I’ve been given, and I tend to write about the joy more than the challenges because the joy far outweighs the difficulties. But I’m human and humans are wired with natural desires for romance—innocent desires to shower affection on that one special person. People often say to me (even here on the blog): “Julie, maybe you just have a special gift for celibacy, and that’s what makes it sustainable for you, but not everyone has that gift”. When it’s fleshed out further, they seem to imply that “the gift” would mean I have a lower level of sexual desire or that I don’t experience romantic longings. The gift would be that thing that makes it easy and convenient to fly solo in a culture crawling with adorable couples.
Last week I spoke at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My talks were part of an ongoing series of Faith and Sexuality events they’re hosting, and it quickly became apparent that the campus is having a much deeper and more nuanced discussion of these matters than I’ve seen in similar places, which was encouraging. It was a wonderful visit. Here’s one student, Ryan Struyk, with his take on the kinds of conversations we had, and here’s the campus newspaper report on my talks.
Video recordings of the talks are also available at Calvin’s website. The first one was titled “Between Presumption and Despair: Practicing the Virtue of Hope as a Celibate Gay Christian,” and the second was called “Spiritual Friendship: A Gay Christian Perspective.” As always with this sort of thing, I immediately noticed some places where I wished I’d put things differently, and places where I wished I’d significantly expanded on what I was attempting to say. (It’s just really hard to talk about these themes in a way that acknowledges both unanswered questions and a certain confidence in Scripture and the Christian tradition, both personal and communal pain and joy, both ongoing tension and reliable grace. I am coming to believe that the book I’m working on will only be satisfying—to me, at least—if I can find a way to write well, to write hopefully but also unflinchingly, about all the hardships of friendship, including jealousy, betrayal, frustrated longing, etc.)
Several comments on my recent post identified an important question worthy of greater reflection. I wrote, “It [marriage] should only be pursued when there is a strong spiritual, emotional, and physical attraction between two people.” The question: How is a man who is sexually attracted to men to qualify his physical attraction to a woman? Is it tied to spiritual and emotional attraction?
I initially offered the tripartite physical/emotional/spiritual grid for attraction in an attempt to demonstrate that any romantic relationship operates on more than just the physical or sexual level. It seems to me that the nature of attractions themselves are actually much more complicated than this, to the point where trying to make clean distinctions between these three categories may prove problematic. I personally feel this difficulty when I try and describe how my attraction to Christy moved from being primarily emotional to substantially physical, as well as the place that spiritual attraction fit into that process.
I have an essay that has been published over at Ethika Politika today, a combined response to four recent articles pushing the “don’t say gay” claim.
In it, I explore the meaning and value of gayness from a historical perspective in conversation with two queer intellectuals—Michel Foucault (a lapsed Catholic atheist) and Marc-Andre Raffalovich (a devout Catholic convert from Judaism). Here is a brief taste:
History always involves a certain amount of anachronism, of reading the past in light of the present, precisely because history is something constructed in the present. Despite professing to be an attempt to raise our level of moral virtue (and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of this profession), the “don’t say gay” claim, applied to history, robs gay people of almost all of the great examples of moral virtue they have. By ripping up our current cultural framework for the understanding of sexuality, we might legitimately claim that men like Hopkins and Raffalovich weren’t really gay at all, but at what cost? Once you’ve redefined faithful, orthodox gay Christians out of existence, and once you’ve erased them from history, the claim that you can’t be gay and a good Christian simply becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You can read the rest here.
A quote from a very good book I’m rereading at the moment, Marks of His Wounds: Gender Politics and Bodily Resurrection by Beth Felker Jones:
We love one another through the passions—we are moved to the good by the sensibility of the body. When we misconstrue the good, the passions are part of the body’s disorder. Rightly, however, desire itself is to and for God. One way we are graciously permitted to seek Christ is through the love, desire, and joy we have for one another. Thus our passionate love for each other, not only that love narrowly conceived as sexual, is an aspect of our sanctification out of the reach of the disembodied soul. Ordered desire rightly directs us to the love of God. Our sensible delight in one another rightly orders us to the Creator. [Eugene] Rogers reminds us that “it is through the body that the neighbor, and through the neighbor Christ, by the Spirit, does not leave human beings alone.” We know and love God through the available bodies of other human creatures. So, we need to be available to one another very much. It is in Christian community that we are shaped into lovers of God and neighbor, “for knowledge begins from creatures, tends to God, and love begins with God as the last end, and passes on to creatures.” We are shaped in our love through the ecclesial body. The desires of psychosomatic creatures are ordered only through their bodies. With the Psalmist, our flesh faints for God. Desire is taken up for and ordered to God, and our bodies long, finally, for our Redeemer.
In a comment on my last post, Karen K wrote,
I wonder if your book will be exploring the practical aspects too? What I see is difficulty in people knowing how to form these kinds of deep friendships. So many lonely people walking around and we can’t seem to break through the barriers to deeply connect.
How do we begin, for example, to have deeper levels of affection when our culture is so touch phobic? Do we have conversations about it with a particular friend? Begin to take more risks in expressing affection to others in hopes that it is returned? Etc etc. Do we make different life decisions to stay rooted somewhere instead of chasing the job because there is community and deep connections in a particular place? (I think that needs to be considered more than it is) Etc etc.
How do we get beyond the theoretical to the experiential?
As I continue to work on my book on friendship, a project primarily for other celibate gay/lesbian/same-sex attracted Christians, I’m increasingly aware of the need to speak honestly about all the ways friendship can involve significant disappointment and struggle. Finding the appropriate way to articulate this will, I suspect, be the defining factor in whether or not this book can offer realistic hope to people.
I believe in the thesis I’m arguing for—in many ways, it’s simply my effort to expand on this post by Ron Belgau from the early days of the Spiritual Friendship blog. Gay and lesbian Christians, in and through their celibacy, are “called to love,” as Eve Tushnet’s forthcoming book puts it. We are called to something positive and hopeful, not simply to a negative renunciation. We are summoned and enabled by God to give and receive love.
And yet the danger lurking here is that I’ll present friendship as a kind of panacea for how difficult sexual ascesis can be in our culture. “Having trouble feeling fulfilled in celibacy? Here’s a great solution to your lack of intimacy and closeness with others—it’s called ‘friendship’!” This is the problematic message that Stephen Long over at the Sacred Tension blog has spent so much time exploring, and I think Stephen is right that there are serious problems with this approach.
I was on the basketball team at Wheaton my freshman year in college, and I imagine I’m one of the few players in the history of Wheaton College to sit out the second half of the season due to failing fitness class. My coach called me into the office, remained as calm as I could’ve hoped, and asked how on earth I could possibly fail fitness class. “I have no idea,” I told her with puppy dog eyes. “This is totally shocking.” After going to bat for me with the Fitness for Living prof, she returned to say: “Julie, maybe you failed fitness class because you missed eighteen out of twenty-four classes.”