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.
A reader of the manuscript of my friendship book commented in the margin at a point where I was noting the danger of friendships becoming ingrown and obsessive:
Sounds almost like most marriages in their first five years! But we take it for granted that a marriage will have time to grow and mature…. That would be one advantage of a public bond and vow [in the case of friendship]: it’s the community’s way of making time available for growth into maturity. Nobody worries if a newly wed couple is narcissistic, because the community has pledged to support their love as something that will grow with time.
In other words, granting all the ways a permanent, faithful friendship might go wrong does not prove that the wrongness is inherent in the form of the friendship itself. Indeed, it may be that making the friendship more committed and recognized is a step towards its becoming holier, more accountable to the wider Christian community, and more hospitable to other friends and neighbors. If certain Christian friendships were to involve some kind of more visible commitment that the friends make to each other, that commitment might provide the means by which the friendship itself is purified and elevated and transformed into something more than just “sharing a house” or “having dinner and watching a movie multiple nights a week.”
Putting it concretely, there may be something profoundly healthy and right—not just permissible and excusable—about John Henry Newman committing himself so deeply to his friend Ambrose St. John, and vice versa, that the two end up with adjoining graves, notwithstanding all the ways such a relationship might have turned toxic.