Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian | Book Review
“If we ask ourselves whether there are a significant number of people today without true friends, or whether our modern society is one in which friendship plays a diminishing role, I think the answers are yes”1
In our current cultural climate, there is a growing sense that we are more connected than ever, yet we lack intimacy. We have hundreds of social media friends and followers, access to world and local news whenever we want it, and technology to connect to our friends and family at any time of the day, and yet there is this lingering feeling that we are missing community.
Wesley Hill’s latest book, Spiritual Friendship, could not be timelier. Throughout the book’s quick 120 pages, Hill critiques the culture that produces this alienation from our neighbors, and also imagines what a reinvigorated practice of friendship might look like for the Church. Friendship, Hill’s thesis argues, must begin to be “taken seriously as a genuine love worthy of honor and public recognition,” resulting in a “diminishment of isolation,” particularly for gay Christians called to celibacy.2
Hill, a celibate gay Christian, did not come to reflect on friendship based on a theological or sociological interest, but on the direct experience of loneliness.3 Hill notes two myths that contribute to the loneliness of our culture. First, there is a suspicion, grounded in the influence of Freudian psychology, that “the desire for sex is the secret truth of every relationship.” This is especially hurtful for male relationships, as men are afraid of getting too close, for fear of suspicion of homosexuality (see the use of the phrase “no homo,” as well as “bromantic” comedies like Superbad and I Love You, Man).4 Second, marriage and the nuclear family have been given ultimate significance, becoming the only sites of long-term, committed relationships within our culture. Those who exist outside marital bounds, particularly celibate folk, are thus excluded from the only social construction that expects permanence. Friendships, in light of this permanence of the nuclear family, are experienced as unstable, lacking long-term expectations.
Historically, Hill explains, this was not so. It wasn’t until 19th century England until the practices of “eating, drinking, toilet and sleeping” moved outside the “space of the extended household” and into the singular realm of the nuclear family.5 Hill summarizes, “Much of what we today would locate primarily or solely in marriage and sexual partnerships, premodern people would have been able to find in friendships.”6
So, where does this leave those who are celibate, particularly gay Christians who believe in the church’s traditional teaching on marriage and sexuality? Hill writes vividly concerning his fear of loneliness; that his renunciation of sex will lead inevitably to a lack of intimacy in a culture that views sex and marriage as the only arenas of long-term relational commitment. Hill’s response to this culture is for the Church to be the location in which friendships flourish.
First, Hill explains that the Scriptures themselves have a high view of friendship. The pairings of Ruth and Naomi (“where you go I will go”), David and Jonathan (“he loved him as his own soul”), and Jesus and Lazarus (“the one whom you love”) show that the deepest human intimacies can be found within friendships. Further, in the New Testament, friendships within the Church are associated with familial relationships, such as “brother and sister,” terms that are meant to show commitment. Love, Jesus explains, is most highly expressed within friendship, as “no one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends.”(John 15:13)
Second, Hill argues that his decision to pursue celibacy as a gay man is not merely the renunciation of gay sex, but is a revealing of a vocation, a “gift and calling for friendship.”7 A gay orientation is not merely a certain preference for genital expression, but brings with it certain gifts that heterosexuals do not have. As this portion of the book is the most difficult for me as a heterosexual man to understand, I quote him at length,
“Being gay is, for me, as much a sensibility as anything else: a heightened sensitivity to and passion for same-sex beauty that helps determine the kind of conversations I have, which people I’m drawn to spend time with, what novels and poems and films I enjoy, the particular visual art I appreciate, and also, I think, the kind of friendships I pursue and try to strengthen. I don’t imagine I would have invested half as much effort in loving my male friends, and making sacrifices of time, energy, and even money on their behalf, if I weren’t gay. My sexuality, my basic erotic orientation to the world, is inescapably intertwined with how I go about finding and keeping friends….I’m inclined to say that my sexuality can be seen as one of the things…that conceals a vocation for me….My being gay and saying no to gay sex may lead me to be more of a friend to men, not less”8
Third, and probably most controversial, Hill advocates for a practice of “vowed spiritual siblinghood” within the church. As explained above, for those who are not called into marriage, whatever their sexual orientation, there is a serious lack of long-term relational commitment within our culture. We tend not to see our friendships or our local communities as places in which we are, in some sense, restricted from leaving, whereas we do view our marriages in this way. For Hill, a commitment ceremony for friendships would bridge this relational gap, in which two people of the same sex “voluntarily surrender our freedom and independence and link ourselves, spiritually and tangibly, to those we’ve come to love.”9 Hill notes that this is not without historical precedent; the Medieval practice of adelphopoiesis, or brothermaking, was once a practice that sealed a friend to another for life.
I imagine that the majority of those picking up this book will not be in the same social situation as Hill. Many of us are married, are soon to be married (in my case), or are pursuing marriage. I simply will never experience the “loneliness of the everyday” that Hill often experiences. As an engaged man, I am on the precipice of entering into the singular social construction in our culture that celebrates relational permanence. After having read this book, I am convicted to ask a series of difficult questions, such as “How might my future marriage be outward focused, and not merely inward focused? What is the place for lasting friendships in my life, as I am about to leave the communal confines of college life? As a married person in this culture, am I doomed to the myth of the nuclear family?”
The conclusion to Hill’s book begins the journey of working through these difficult questions. It is in the Church, Hill argues, that friendship is to flourish. We are to admit our need for friendship, intentionally commit to the friendships that we already find ourselves with, seek to strengthen our communities through friendship, become more hospitable and welcoming towards our neighbors, and choose to stay, physically, spiritually, and emotionally with our friends whom we love. The way of following Christ, for married and celibate alike, should mean nothing less.10
View Sources 1. Digby Anderson, cited in Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015), 3
2. Ibid., 100
3. Spiritual Friendship, I believe, represents a serious development on Hill’s reflection on his own sexuality and his vocation in the world. Wesley Hill’s previous book Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, left the reader with the sense that Hill’s life (and other celibate people) was inevitably lonely. The “remedy” for loneliness, Hill emphasized in his previous work, was to be found within the love and community of God. The primary remedy within Hill’s first work was spiritual. Moreover, Hill’s reflection on his own sexual orientation emphasized a struggle against sin, a struggle that imitates Christ’s rejection of temptation and looks toward the future in which God will reward our perseverence. Spiritual Friendship, by contrast, emphasizes the physical remedy of loneliness within human friendships. Hill, within the present work, does not view his orientation primarily as a site of denial, but as an opportunity for a vocation of friendship in same-sex love.
4. Ibid., 6-8
5. Mark Vernon, cited in Ibid., 39
6. Ibid., 34
7. Ibid., 79
8. Ibid., 81
9. Ibid., 41
10. For the purposes of this review, I primarily centered on the propositions Hill’s book raised. It would be problematic to believe that examining Hill’s propositions exhausts the power of his book. I believe the most important part of the book is Hill’s pervasive transparency, his willingness to allow the reader into the depths of his personal story. I would urge you to pick up this book both for the importance of what Hill believes concerning friendship, as well as the moving experience of learning from the life of a celibate, gay Christian. I would also commend the blog www.spiritualfriendship.org which contains articles from many LGBT Christians like Hill who are wrestling what it means to follow Christ in light of their sexual orientations.
1. Digby Anderson, cited in Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015), 3