This post identifies some broad themes about friendship which I hope to explore more deeply in future posts.
I welcome any feedback you have to offer, as it will help me to develop my ideas as I try to expand on what I have said here.
1. We need to begin with a recovery of the full resources for friendship which already exist within the Christian tradition.
In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis points out how far friendship has fallen in esteem in the modern world. Our culture devotes an enormous amount of attention to romantic, erotic, familial, and marital relationships; it devotes very little to friendship. This stands in stark contrast to earlier ages, where friendship was exalted, certainly at the expense of eros, and even at times at the expense of marriage. As a result, those who do not marry and choose to live chaste lives in our culture have few models for how to form the meaningful human bonds which are an important part of human flourishing and which can be crucial for support and growth in faith.
It can be tempting to respond to this by, for example, trying to adapt the marital, romantic, or erotic models that are prominent in our culture to some new chaste/celibate form. We understand and can relate to these models, while the existing models of friendship in our culture are anemic and seem inadequate to meet our need for intimacy and belonging.
I would argue, however, that our first task should be to reach back into the Christian tradition, which already has a rich history of reflection on friendship. Taking the time to really mine these existing veins will, I suggest, offer two benefits.
First, those who understand friendship as it was practiced by, for example, Aelred of Rievaulx, will be much less likely to think that the Bible or the Church is forcing gay Christians into a life of loneliness. Instead, they will see that a life without sexual intimacy can nevertheless be rich in meaningful human relationships.
Second, to the extent that the situation of celibate gay or lesbian Christians raises problems which are not addressed in the tradition, attention to reflection on friendship will give us much richer resources for thinking about how to extend the tradition to deal with problems which are only being explicitly faced in light of contemporary awareness of the situation of gay and lesbian Christians.
2. Sexuality is a pervasive element of human experience, but it should not be central to thinking about friendship.
Most human relationships are shaped at least to some degree by the fact of sexual difference. We relate to others differently depending on their sex. Sexual attraction is present in the background of many relationships which remain, nevertheless, completely non-sexual in any direct sense. Sexual attraction is not identical with lust; a man may notice and appreciate a woman’s beauty without desiring sexual union with her, and without willfully choosing to imagine such union. Despite the complaints one sometimes hears, close friendships between straight men and women are possible without the relationship becoming a near occasion of sexual sin. This is true even when each feels some attraction toward the other which, if circumstances were different, might have led to marriage.
All of the facts which I have just described in a heterosexual context are also true in a homosexual context. For a man who is attracted to other men, those attractions will be present in the background of many of his interactions with others, shaping how he responds to men and women. I do not think that any of this should be denied. And I think it would be unhealthy to try to pretend that one is a robot whose sexuality can simply be turned off or unplugged, so that if one chooses to be celibate, one ceases to relate to others as male or female or respond to their femininity or masculinity in any way.
However, neither should it be made central. For the most part, celibates should leave such feelings in the background, subordinated to friendship.
More needs to be said about what I mean by this and how, practically, to cultivate these emotional responses. But the basic point, I think, is tolerably clear: in chaste friendship sexual attraction should not be a central object of focus. At the same time, maintaining chastity requires attention to one’s sexuality, and one should acknowledge what is going on with sexuality to oneself, and seek to put it in the right perspective.
As long as we live in a culture which makes sexuality central, and has little to say about friendship, it will be difficult to understand what this means, let alone accomplish it; but richer reflection on friendship will, I think, give us much better resources for placing sexuality in the proper perspective.
3. Homosexual attractions can be destructive of chaste friendship.
A few months ago, a friend of mine wrote:
And yet because “homosexuality” seems like a more all-inclusive category to me than “the desire to sleep with men,” I find myself wanting to embrace it insofar as it leads me to probably greater depths of intimacy and joy in chaste same-sex friendships than I would have (probably?) if I were straight.
First, it’s true that many of us almost certainly do invest more in same-sex friendship than we would have if we were straight, and take much more joy in those friendships than we would have if we were pursuing marriage.
However, I think it is important to remember that sexual temptation can be a serious obstacle to same-sex friendship. Because of my writings, I’ve heard from hundreds of gay Christians over the last decade and a half, and I can’t even begin to count the number of promising friendships I have heard about that have been damaged or destroyed by lust. I could also point to a number of experiences in my own life where my failure to discipline my own thoughts did serious harm to a friendship.
I do not want to over-emphasize this point; but it seems to me that some Christians struggling with homosexuality have tended to miss the fact that the central and defining feature of homosexuality is a temptation towards a serious sin, which, if acted on, does serious damage to the relationship in which it occurs, and also each partner’s relationship with God. (If the concept we want to talk about is not centrally defined by these attractions, then it is not clear to me why we should call it “homosexuality,” or use some closely related word—like “gay” or “lesbian”—to describe it. Once again, however, enriching our vocabulary for friendship will give us a richer vocabulary for describing non-sexual same-sex relationships.)
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I don’t want to place too much emphasis on the negative side of this. There is a reason that I emphasized the positive recovery of the Christian tradition on friendship first. There is a wealth of reflection on the value of friendship in Christian history (along with many guideposts along the way to direct us away from pitfalls which could damage friendship). This recovery is, I hope, one of the primary projects which this blog can facilitate.
I think that greater attention to friendship will help to offset the over-emphasis on sex and sexuality that is found all around us in contemporary culture. It is this positive message that I want to emphasize above all, and it is there that I will initially focus; but I think that attaining the goods of chaste friendship requires taking the dangers seriously, though without giving them undue emphasis.
In any case, I look forward to continuing to explore these topics together on this blog.