philia and eros: sloppy wet kissing cousins
June 13th, 2018 | 4 min read
Steven Wedgeworth has a post up at the main site critically examining Spiritual Friendship (and by extension, the Revoice Conference). It’s probably the best critical engagement I’ve yet read with these ideas so far, but it still misses the mark in two important ways.
First, Wedgeworth interpolates the desire for a singular, exclusive friendship with the whole of the Spiritual Friendship project. He takes Ron Belgau’s teenage fantasy and Wes Hill’s unfortunate “breakup” as normative endpoints of what “Spiritual Friendship” is about, when there are many blog posts at the Spiritual Friendship blog and many parts of the Spiritual Friendship book that are about the broader recovery of intimate friendships (particularly same-sex ones). Wedgeworth asks, “Why aren’t the Spiritual Friendship writers attempting to form a spiritual friendship with persons of the opposite sex?” They are!
It is fair to say that some of in the SF/Revoice world have argued for the good of singular, exclusive same-sex relationships. However, to use the words “a spiritual friendship” presumes that the SF writers are arguing that the telos of same-sex desire is ordered towards a singular, exclusive relationship — which I don’t think is what anyone is arguing for. Rather, same-sex desire is ordered towards friendship, as Ron Belgau has said, and here I think he means all kinds of friendship. Heck, I think we’d all say that straight people have same-sex desires, too, that are ordered towards friendship, just in slightly lower doses and with some heterosexual desires ordered towards monogamy on the side.
Okay, but what kind of friendships? Here Wedgeworth notes that eros and philia get all mixed up when, “classically”, they are distinct: “Philia is created between individuals who share a common outside love–a love of some task, pursuit, of duty. This shared love of the object is what then brings them together. Eros, however, is a love of the person as themself an object of desire.”
Here, then, is the second problem: just because we can use eros and philia to describe different kinds of love doesn’t mean that they’re always distinct. Marriage is clearly a place for eros to thrive, but no marriage without philia between husband and wife will thrive. We may be more hesitant to let it work the other way, but I can speak for at least myself that I have good friendships in which I love my friends themselves as objects of erotic but non-genital desire. I have written more about this here in the context of marriage and procreation, but when it comes to friendship, I think it is totally legitimate to say that I desire the presence of my friends, male and female, for who they are.
I am not a particularly touchy person. However, living 3000 miles from many of my closest friends in Africa makes physical contact between me and my friends quite infrequent — and thus much more desirable and meaningful when I get to experience it. If the longing to passionately but chastely hug my dear friends (men and women) is philia, okay, I’ll take your word for it, but when you say eros is about longing for the person themself, man, that sure make it sound like eros.
I think it is very important to continue to develop this conversation and be willing to discuss these ideas critically: I still find this post by Matthew Lee Anderson from several years ago quite helpful. However, if gay desire is properly ordered towards friendship — all sorts of friendship! — then I think there’s far more worth discussing (like Wedgeworth’s section on concupiscence, which was disappointingly brief compared to the rest of his essay). In any case, I very much look forward to hearing what comes out of Revoice and learning from those who are seeking to honor Christ there. And if you’re looking for more examples of what sorts of reflections I’m thinking of, you could start here with this pair of posts from Eve Tushnet detailing all sorts of different ways this love ends up:
A home is made of time. Time spent in service to the people in your home is what makes it your home. This service–the years of repentance and forgiveness, seeing their worst private selves and showing them yours, and still loving one another and shaping your lives around one another–is a path of sanctification. To realize that same-sex love can be devoted, intimate, lifelong, utterly surrendered to God, obedient, beautiful, and sweet–this is a revelation. I’ve seen it dawn on gay Christians who have tried to be obedient all their lives and yet have never considered that there might be anything in their longings for same-sex intimacy and love other than shame. It’s like watching hope unfold its blossoms.
Again, many straight people are called to live in these beautiful forms of same-sex love, whether alongside their marriages or as unmarried people; and many gay people aren’t called, or won’t find someone who will live in devoted friendship with them, and must find other ways to pour out their lives in love. Even some sympathetic readers, like Elizabeth Bruenig, have seemed to think my book proposes same-sex friendship as a “solution” for gay people in the Church, a kind of special gay vocation. (I think this is not so much because I wasn’t clear, though doubtless I could have been clearer, but because we have so totally lost the vocabulary for friendship-as-kinship that we can only imagine same-sex love as “gay marriage lite.”) What I am instead suggesting is that strengthening our friendships, recognizing friendship as a form of love as rich and real as sexual love, and reviving historical Christian practices of same-sex friendship will be very good for straight people–but urgently needed and potentially life-saving for gay people.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org