Is Spiritual Friendship Code for Gay Unions?

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I’m reading Rachel Lu’s essay critiquing Spiritual Friendship in Living the Truth in Love: Pastoral Approaches to Same-Sex Attraction. I have much to say about it—first that it’s much more articulate and well-argued than most of the criticism that I’ve read of our “movement” such as it is. But more importantly, because it is more articulate it’s actually possible to figure out what seems to be the bottom line. And it’s a massive misunderstanding.

Lu writes, “it’s also fairly clear that, in entertaining the possibility of a special, erotically tinged friendship, Spiritual Friendship writers are looking for a relationship that would be unique to same-sex attracted people, which has no natural counterpart among the married, or among single people who nevertheless are attracted to the opposite sex.”

Basically, she seems to be talking about celibate gay partnerships. There has been a certain amount of back-room discussion on how SF should deal with such relationships. The answer has basically been, with caution.

Most of us are familiar with a couple of celibate gay partnerships that really do seem to work very well, but we’re also aware that for most people the attempt to form a non-sexual relationship around an erotic attraction leads to a lot of pain and heartache. We don’t want to offer people false hope in a kind of chaste erotic union any more than we want to offer false hope that they will find a great opposite-sex partner and get married. Both of these things are rare vocations: they do occasionally work, but they are by no means to be recommended as a universal panacea.

We definitely do not mean the words “spiritual friendship” as code for a kind of formalized celibate gay relationship that is “unique to same-sex attracted people, which has no natural counterpart among the married, or among single people who nevertheless are attracted to the opposite sex.” When we say “spiritual friendship” we mean spiritual friendship. Not some kind of revolutionary new modern mode of friendship specially for gay people, but rather traditional Christian friendship which evolved from Classical friendship and which was articulated by St. Aelred of Riveaulx. (Interestingly, the third essay in the volume that contains Lu’s critique is a succinct summary of Aelred’s thought on friendship: “The Healing Role of Friendship in Aelred of Rievaulx’s De spirituali amicitia”.)

Spiritual friendships are not unique to gay people. They are also possible, and indeed should be encouraged, among single heterosexuals and married Christians. Lu asks “What reasonable husband would permit his wife to enter into an intimate “spiritual friendship” with another man?”

Well, mine. My dearest and closest friend, with whom I have a very deep, intimate and multi-dimensional relationship, is a guy. My husband very reasonably permits this because it in no way impedes or interferes with our marriage—quite the contrary. My friend spends his vacations with our family, is a godfather to one of my children, lived with my husband and I for a period, and he is an essential part of the support network for my family.

Part of the definition of spiritual friendship is that it conduces towards the mutual pursuit of holiness, so a true spiritual friendship between a married woman and another man must be a friendship that supports upholds her vocation as wife and mother—just as I support and uphold my friend’s vocation to lay religious celibacy.

A spiritual friendship between two gay men, or between a lesbian and a straight woman, or whatever, would have to be a friendship that helped both parties to pursue their vocations—including the vocation to chastity.

Lu writes “especially in the context of the reflections quoted in the last section, it begins to seem that what is wanted is not friendship but rather a peculiar sort of erotic love. Erotic love is all of the things that [Eve] Tushnet seems to want in a friendship: intense, consuming, and disposed to serious commitment.”

The problem here is that even if it seems to Lu that what’s wanted is “a peculiar sort of erotic love,” it seems to me that this is because that’s kind of what she (and others) expect to find. For example, Eve actually criticizes the kind of consuming, intense, eroticized friendship that Lu is afraid of. I mean, maybe that paragraph got cut in the final draft of Eve’s book (I read the manuscript before it was in its final form), but in the version that I read Eve talked very speficially about the problem of friends who are clingy and over-involved – those for whom friendship becomes a folie a deux. (Update: Eve on the need for detachment in friendship.)

I also know that a number of us in the SF crowd have had to cut off friendships because the other person was looking for…well, more than friendship. We’re well aware of the risks. Some of us, Ron for example, have the type of temperament that would tend to carefully vet and discern friendship before taking someone into his heart (Aelred in fact recommends this kind of caution.) Others, like me, are more likely to stumble into a toxic friendship and then have to dig our way out of it.

None of us think that these relationships, what Aelred would have considered “carnal friendships” masquerading as spiritual friendships, are some sort of ideal that should be pursued. On the contrary, whether you do it carefully and upfront, or haphazardly, post facto, discernment is really important in the formation of any intimate relationship. You need to know that this is someone who you can grow with, and who will help you to grow in Christ according to your mutual needs and your individual vocations.

Cross-posted from Catholic Authenticity.

20 thoughts on “Is Spiritual Friendship Code for Gay Unions?

  1. The really interesting question, though, Melinda, is whether “gay marriage” is actually just code for “spiritual friendship”. Maybe all the gay marriage advocates are really just angling for spiritual friendships, but they’re too circumspect to say so, lest they lose the respect of their base.

    People accuse Spiritual Friendship types of being covert revolutionaries, advertising faithfulness but selling hedonism. I think something deeper and more insidious is amiss. I think the “gay marriage movement” is all just window dressing, and all people like Dan Savage actually want is calm and loving chaste friendships of the sort Aelred envisioned. What duplicitousness! What a scandal!

    • All the gay couples I know have/want standard gay relationships and an excuse for a wedding. If they are Christians, there can be a longing for a spiritual dimension to the relationship but that desire to find a “soul mate” is also there in non-religious couples.

      • An “excuse for a wedding”? I guess we know different gay couples. Here is my acquaintance: two husbands–now married 5 years and two wives–married 2 years–had church weddings. They continue to attend and teach/volunteer at their respective churches,as they did before their weddings; two men scheduling a wedding ( to be blessed by a Rabbi) after an 18 year monogamous relationship; two men who were married at city hall but keep their certificate posted in their bedroom and plan a church wedding as soon as one of them is able to come out to his family. In my –admittedly limited experience–gay people take their marriages as seriously as straight people.

      • Different countries. Different cultures? Most of the gay married couples I know aren’t Christians – in a society where only only 2% regularly attend church.

        However, the values of the wider Western world are trending in the same direction. Marriage is important to these couples but only because it one of their current ‘lifestyle’ choices. They could live and have kids together without marrying. There aren’t any adverse social consequences for not getting married. Marriage no longer adds anything – except perhaps providing an opportunity for a big day celebration.

        Also – it might be rude/unromantic to say “I’ll give it 5 years” on the wedding day but no amount of optimism, goodwill or solemn vows seems to stop anyone from separating or divorcing once their marriage has “broken down”.

    • “I think the “gay marriage movement” is all just window dressing, and all people like Dan Savage actually want is calm and loving chaste friendships of the sort Aelred envisioned.”

      Ultimately, we all want a relationship akin to a perfect friendship with someone we can share our life with. The “gay marriage” aspect is just a way to get that assurance, get it protected by the law of the land, and a way to help destroy the cultural foothold of our enemies in the process (since the more accepted we look, the more backwards their opposition and hatred of us will appear as time goes on and we take their kids and grandkids from them).

      A win win win.

    • In all fairness, Rachel Lu in her essay is a bit more veiled and tolerable in her criticism than Tim Bayly and his ilk. Tim’s abject hatred of women and view of them as inferior is directly endangered by out “rebellion” against his God, hence one can see the tactical sense in his stance. Even being gay and chaste is enough to cause people to question his Utopian (e.g. Saudi Arabian) vision of a world where rape isn’t punished and women are little more than things to be owned by men.

      With Rachel it feels more like a genuine lack of understanding rather than a malicious attack by an enemy of good. Then again, it is good to always view these attacks as that – attacks – until we learn more about the authors in question.

      • I agree. The difference between Lu and Bayly likely rests in their different theological traditions. Lu is Catholic, while Bayly is an evangelical.

  2. I think- based on what I have observed so far that same sex attracted christians who hold to a traditional sexual ethic do not purposely seek out erotically tinged relationships… which may go against the proper definition of a rightly ordered relationship leading to a sanctioned and committed marriage …which is the only place sex is supposed to happen eh?

    In fact I think same sex attracted or sexually and gender diverse christians ruminate with intense anxiety over the ramifications of pursuing any kind of relationship that might have a hint of romance or sexual tension. Yet we do find ourselves falling in love and our feelings shifting when in a close intimate relationship all of a sudden that person becomes more than just a friend. It becomes difficult to remain detached and unaffected. Sometimes it is mutual, sometimes it is not. So when we cut off that relationship or the other cuts us off it causes pain and loss. That is when we need to reach out and support our suffering friends and that is when it becomes difficult to answer their questions and walk with them through the path of healing and restoration or being supportive and present in their lives if they decide to pursue a same sex relationship.

    These days I think less about protecting myself and more about how I can flourish and develop spiritual friendships in which I serve Christ by serving my my friends, by embracing them…feelings and all… and leaning on the wisdom of Jesus as he pours in to my life, even amidst some toxins and mess.

    I find that process redemptive because I meet all sorts of Christians who are in different places of growth and maturity.

  3. Why is ” spiritual friendship ” given that name , as opposed to ” non-carnal friendship ” or ” standard friendship ” or ” professional friendship ” , etc . , etc . Does the name imply a religious component ? Why does Tom Brady not refer to his close friendships with his teammates on the Patriots team as his ” spiritual friends ” ? Does the name come solely from having read the writings of St. Aelred of Rievault ? In teaching seminarians about such issues , their priest-professors usually refer to carnal temptations by the phrase of ” particular friendships ” . Why all this vagueness on the subject ? When one reads the pages in volume XVI of the Oxford English Dictionary devoted to ” spiritual ” in its various forms and uses , there is no apparent link to friendship . As I understand from this website , one can be in a spiritual friendship which is based solely on ” material or worldly interests ” such as two members of a symphony orchestra loving the same instruments or composers . I do not understand the necessary juxtaposition of the two words , ” spiritual friendship ” .
    Help this poor benighted soul !

    • I think it has something to do with the commitment made to the friendship – a kind of ‘faith’ statement or belief that it will last beyond merely liking of having something in common with the other person – even though a ‘spiritual’ friendship will probably start in the normal way of all friendships. How these regular friendships evolve into spiritual friendships must have something to do with prayer and spiritual reflection. That’s my guess!!

    • You’d wondered, “Why don’t people call it non-carnal friendship”?
      My instant reaction is, “Aghhh! Terrible idea!”
      I don’t tell people “So-and-so and I go shopping together, but our friendship is not JUST about pursuing covetousness together.”
      It would be starting out from the defensive.

      Additionally, if someone says “it’s not that” hearers will often conclude that it is in fact “that.” …like if someone says, “I’m NOT mad about what’s for dinner!” …it’s reasonable to assume that the opposite is true!

      Here’s a great post I found that seems to answer part of your question.
      https://spiritualfriendship.org/2013/05/03/three-kinds-of-friendship/
      It contrasts spiritual friendship BOTH with carnal friendship and with partnerships that exist solely to help each other succeed in making money / gaining power.

    • Hi Richard,
      You’re kind of overthinking this. The reason for calling it “spiritual friendship” is to distinguish it from “worldly friendship.” Part of the reason for making this distinction in Aelred’s work was cultural: he was drawing on a Classical tradition in which friendships were often motivated by political convenience or mutual self-interest rather than a deep love for the other person.
      So a spiritual friendship is one in which the friends are united not only by common interests, or shared pleasures but also (and more importantly) by the desire to build one another up in the spiritual life. Most spiritual friendships will have a more worldly beginning, but will develop towards the mutual pursuit of virtue, support of one another in faith, trust, accountability and so forth.

  4. “The problem here is that even if it seems to Lu that what’s wanted is “a peculiar sort of erotic love,” it seems to me that this is because that’s kind of what she (and others) expect to find. “
    It’s so frustrating!

    A bit ago, I read a comment implying “friendship-only relationships are the traditional cover for extramarital sexual liasons.”
    My first thought was, “I thought the traditional cover was called ‘business trips’!”
    Or what about two heterosexuals of opposite sexes* “making music” together?
    That will often be assumed to have erotic overtones!

    But all these things really ARE risks because all of us really are great sinners before the Lord.
    And sex is one of the things people in our culture are most prone to worship.

    These SF-blog writings give me great hope, though!
    Not just for redemption for generic “people in western culture,” but hope for MY redemption as a person in western culture!

    * (I can’t believe I just spelled that out!)

  5. Hi Melinda,
    Great response to Lu’s essay. I’m a straight married male who has several close friendships with the opposite sex. I’m a passionate advocate for transmarital spiritual friendships and I support what the contributors to this blog are doing.

    My two cents: I was disappointed with Lu’s essay. First of all, Lu was highly selective in her analysis of erotic love. Assigning possessiveness, clinging, and dangers to eros is just revealing her scholarly (personal?) bias. The meaning of eros–especially in the last fifty years has by no means been monolithic. As respected Catholic theologian Edward Vacek observed, “Eros is defined differently by different authors.” I mean even now, I can point to a growing number of authors/scholars who see don’t see possessiveness as a trait of eros. As soon as Lu admitted that sexual attraction is not lust, the conversation must expand to developing virtues that can shape the appearance of sexual attraction into a beautiful engagement in the wide range of personal relationships from friendship acquaintances to the flourishing of sacred friendships.

    My next problem with Lu’s appeal to the dangers of eros is that she shortchanges the spiritual danger of agape and other philosophical nuances of love. How many women have been oppressed in Christian tradition over patriarchal meaning of agape? I’m sorry, but quoting C.S. Lewis doesn’t overcome the injustice and oppression in the name of agape.

    Third, I thought Lu enmeshed interpersonal beauty with romantic coupledom and ended up with a reductionistic and unhealthy view of intimacy. I wholeheartedly support the contributors of this blog and their advocacy for spiritual friendship among the gay community because interpersonal beauty is much deeper and broader than romantic coupledom.

    Beautiful wisdom within Christian tradition can support erotic beauty within marriage (Proverbs 5:15-20) and deep beauty within friendships that fosters passionate and healthy connection: “Some play at friendship but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin” (Proverbs 18:24). In my experience, it’s necessary to listen to one’s critics about possessiveness, clinging, etc. But I also want my critics to discern that the Bible deeply, deeply supports spiritual friendship that is healthy, passionate, and daily integrated in one’s “support network of family” as you clearly articulated.

  6. Pingback: Dinner Invitations, Yes, but also Sharing Houses | Spiritual Friendship

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