Wesley Hill’s new book Spiritual Friendship is not an easy read. It’s short, yes, coming in at under 150 pages. But in that space Hill manages to be disquieting on a subject that is often taken for granted–specifically, the question of how we form and maintain intimate friendships. Part historical survey, part Biblical analysis, and part personal reflection, Spiritual Friendship manages to be informative and insightful but also unnerving and challenging. Rather than a full review, I’d like to briefly summarize the themes in the book and then respond to some of the questions that it raises. Since Wesley grounded his exploration of friendship in his experiences and friendships, I’d like to do the same as I recount some of what my wife and I have learned from our time in inner-city Baltimore.
The first part of the book looks at the situation we are in with regards to friendship, using the author’s own experience as a celibate gay Christian as a jumping-off point for how much more anemic our honor of friendship is now–particularly same-sex friendships– than they apparently used to be. He assigns as much blame for the decline in friendship’s power and privilege to the modern instinct that boils every interaction down to its sexual nature as he does to the reactionary traditionalism that wants to elevate marriage well beyond all other human relationships. What we’re left with nowadays is friendship as purely voluntary, thus making the idea of intimacy and mutual comfort wholly dependent on the whims of our friends. Wesley’s Christianity Today cover story from last year covers many of these same themes in a more compressed fashion, which lead to a great discussion of vowed friendships in particular here at Mere Fidelity.
In the second half of the book, Wesley gets more personal as he looks at how difficult these intimate friendships are to build and maintain. Regardless of one’s stance on questions of gay identity, it is hard not to be moved by the quandary he puts forth: gay and lesbian Christians who choose to honor the Biblical teaching by remaining celibate (and all Christians who don’t marry) are shut out of the intimate companionship that marriage provides– erotic or not– and so far have been left to their own devices to find ways to ameliorate the attendant loneliness and isolation they face.1 He relates the moving story of how one particular friendship fell apart and concludes the book with a chapter about how his local church has been trying to find ways to foster friendship–and how powerful the Eucharist in particular can be in unifying us as a community. However, these relationships are still incredibly vulnerable to the mobility many of now experience as we transition from wherever we grew up to wherever we study to wherever we find a job thereafter. While never really resolving the tension inherent in this mobility, he emphasizes the importance of friendships that require serious commitment to one another, particularly as they give us the opportunity to suffer together and share in the burdens that come to all believers–not just the celibate.
There’s obviously a lot more in the book than what I’ve summarized above, but I want to emphasize that the book left this reader feeling incomplete, asking more questions than when I started. I suspect that this is by design, though it is a book that stands on its own even as it complements the body of work accumulating at the blog Wesley helped to start (http://spiritualfriendship.org/). The three lines of thought I’d like to explore are: What else has fueled our cultural denigration of friendship besides our changing cultural mores, and can we change these upstream factors? How do we think about intimate spiritual friendships across class lines, and is there a particular call to suffer there? Finally, to what degree does our understanding of the local church and its mission affect how we forge our friendships– or is it the other way around?
As with many historical blindspots, it’s easy to think that marriage’s preeminence in human society has always given our romantic relationships the same cultural baggage we see now. Wesley makes the case, on the contrary, that friendship has shifted “from a public, tangibly beneficial relationship to a private one that [has] no agreed-upon aims or ends other than the continuance of the mutual attraction itself.” I agree that this is how we tend to look at friendship (and that it’s bad for us), but I think that the same statement could be applied just as well to the relationships we have with our neighbors, family members, and even spouses.
What’s more, the hollowing out of intimate relationships doesn’t just marginalize sexual minorities. The plague of loneliness isolates older people and puts them at higher risk for death or disability. The mentally ill suffer from social exclusion and stigma that only makes them more vulnerable. Even one’s socioeconomic status is clearly affected by one’s relationships–all of which I see every day in my inner-city medical practice. There’s a work of art in my office made by a patient describing one of the worst parts about homelessness: “Nobody cares what you do.” The poignant fantasy that keeps recurring in Wesley’s book is that of coming home to an empty apartment at age 60–but that is reality for more and more people who are disconnected from their communities and families. Wesley makes the case very well that this is a huge issue facing those who have chosen lifelong celibacy (and he uses new parents several times as an example of people who struggle with loneliness), but his analysis is equally relevant to others whose life circumstances or health will isolate them. Thus, the questions he raises in his book regarding how to make friendship better are all the more important for us to face in the church today.
I think a lot of this decline in human relationships can be traced to individualism and consumer culture, and I’d argue that our uncritical use of technology and social mobility make this worse by giving us more power to isolate ourselves from the unlovable.2 However, it’s worth noting that architecture and economics play crucial roles here as well: if we don’t design the places that we live in order to interact with one another, we’ll self-segregate until we’re just alone with our screens all the time (while driving ourselves whatever distance we can tolerate to the school, restaurant, or church of our choosing.) Thus, if we want to promote the sort of friendship that Wesley wants, we’re going to have to push back against the forces that put each of us at a comfortable distance from one another. I think that one key way to do this (amplifying the final suggestion he gives in the book) is to increase our physical proximity to each other across the board and intentionally promote the understanding that more proximity should bring with it more responsibility to those that we are close to.
Of course, such proximity increases our vulnerability to pain. Wesley puts it this way: “Friendship is a call to voluntarily take up the pain of others, bearing it with and for them, by virtue of our relation to Christ.” When we pursue Christ, suffering is inevitable. How, then, do we count this cost? The challenge here is twofold: the question of exclusivity and the problem of mobility. At the end of Spiritual Friendship’s third chapter and somewhere near the end of the fifth, Wesley transitions from talking about one-on-one friendships to broader (but still intimate) circles of friends, particularly within the Church. One of the book’s few actual weaknesses is that he never addresses the question of whether or not the aforementioned vowed friendships would still be necessary if we had enough intimacy among our other friends. I think we can conclude that the latter is absolutely necessary, but a problem we have to consider with vowed friendship is that it requires (like marriage) a great degree of mutual interest and passion to even consider taking a vow to someone else. At the same time, our tendencies to self-segregate aren’t just isolated selfishness; we’re clustering by race and class in ways that perpetuate injustices. I don’t think that vowed friendship or a general increase in intimacy will necessarily make this worse, but I do think that we have to ask “who is my neighbor?” and view friendship with those who are different than us as an opportunity to share in the joy of the Spirit when our tendency otherwise would be to cluster together with those like us. And not just friendship–but the sort of suffering together my friend Mark described as a core feature of our church’s ministry in an inner-city community.
Having married a woman who was willing to move into a neighborhood very different than what we grew up with, I have seen the incredible benefits that come from our vowed partnership as we have learned to love our vulnerable neighbors (and learned how to love from them.) In this sense, then, I think the answers to a lot of the problems that Wesley raises lie less in how we perceive our friendships and marriages and more in how we perceive our churches and communities. If our churches aren’t centered around particular places and communities, but rather try to attract the best worshippers based on preferences and interests, we’re just carrying out another form of what Patrick Deneen calls “extractive liberalism”. Furthermore, a stronger focus on tying the spiritual community to the physical community will not only help us to welcome those who we’d otherwise pass by as we’re driving from one place to another– it will lower the barriers to life together as we live, work, play, and worship together.
One of the ways that this has played out in my life has been in communal living; Wesley briefly discusses his experience with it but doesn’t go much further than that, as most of his firsthand stories about shared living quarters “have ended with disappointment.” While I understand his reticence to jump in with any definitive pronouncements, I’ll go ahead and say that more families– yes, even families with small children–should open their homes to single adults. My friends and I may represent only a small sample, but I’m happy to say that we’ve had four housemates in five years of marriage and all involved have judged the experience as positive.3 Our other friends in the neighborhood–some single, some married–have reported similar blessings from this sort of fellowship. Much of this, I think, is because we all worship together and share the same commitments to loving one another. This has been particularly powerful when people in great need have taken up residence with us. While a lease is a far cry from a vowed friendship, it might be enough of a commitment to get us started.
Still, our temporal circumstances can change (of our own accord or not) and the limits that we put on ourselves to foster good relationships have become even more challenging to keep to in this day and age. Even if we commit ourselves to a particular place or people, we are less and less able to guarantee that we will be able to stay there–and for those of us who are called to small places, it may be even harder to find someone with enough shared passions to make the leap of faith and commit to one another. Many of us have come and gone through enough places that we understand the challenge that Wesley lays down when suggests that we “resist the allure of mobility.”
This isn’t an academic concern for me any more than it is for Wesley; my wife and I are preparing now to move to South Sudan for the foreseeable future and say goodbye to the church and neighborhood we’ve grown to love. We’re following God’s call on our life by going to a place that is more vulnerable, just as we did when we moved into our current neighborhood. Our hearts are pulled in multiple directions and our minds affirm multiple overlapping but somewhat contradictory commitments. There aren’t any clear answers for us at the moment beyond the call to move to a new place and learn to love our neighbors there; until then, we will simply have to do the best to love the place where God has us at the moment. In that way, I have to end this essay the same way that Wesley ended his book: convinced of the beauty of friendship but still struggling to make it happen as I would hope.
You’ll have to read Spiritual Friendship for yourself to see how Wesley connects these dots for himself– or exposes other threads left to be explored. The need for intimate friendship and the practices that foster it is all the more pressing in our day and age, as our culture has not only drained friendship of its public social benefit but placed a variety of economic, technological and political counterweights against it. The local church can be a place to nurture this Christlike love, but first we must take full stock of all these counterweights and intentionally devote ourselves to balancing our lives such that they are less important than the places that we live and the people who live in them. Friendship can be an abundant source of Christ’s love– but we must cultivate our ecclesiological and cultural environments so that it can flourish.
- I won’t revisit the questions of gay identity or reparative therapy here except to say that rejecting the formulation of “gay Christian” still leaves the problem of spiritual friendship wide open and that even those who feel like they’ve experienced some success from reparative therapy will still have to deal with tensions inherent in same-sex friendships and find a marriage partner. ↩
- I don’t want to undermine how the Internet has been a blessing in particular for minority groups like gay and lesbian Christians who would otherwise may have suffered more in their communities without the fellowship they found online, but I think it’s safe to say that the majority of Internet users have to work really hard to make the technology serve our higher interests and callings instead of being slaves to it. ↩
- Admittedly, the woman who has shared our house for the past several years is one of the most supernaturally gifted people my wife and I have ever met in terms of patience and generosity. ↩