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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

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George Aldhizer

George Aldhizer

George Aldhizer is an accountant who lives and works in New York City. George is continuously fascinated by the relevance of the Christian faith for all of life.

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  • joncarllewis

    Thanks for your review. I can’t was wondering how it would resonate with a non-gay man. I can’t wait to read the book!

  • Benjamin Winter

    Thanks for this, George. I like the idea of spiritual siblinghood, and don’t think it should be all that controversial! The other insights you mention from this text, such as same-sex attraction within a framework not oriented purely toward eventually intercourse, are also worth pondering.

    • George Aldhizer

      What do you think of a church-blessed ceremony of friends to life-long commitment? A “til death do us part” ceremony between friends?

      Maybe I’m off-base, but it seems to me like modern church culture would be wary of this kind of public ceremony of friends. I dunno, still thinking through what the implications of this practice might be, I can only think of positive ones.

      • Benjamin Winter

        Hey George, I see what you’re saying about potential backlash for such a ceremony. It would be tricky to navigate the “legality” of something like this, but I think the factors that you mention (here and elsewhere) about the modern world being in many ways arrayed against single people merit a proposal for something official. Would it be another sacrament? Probably not. But I personally would not be opposed to the popularization of some sort of spiritual vow of lifelong friendship and encouragement.

        The other thing I’d like to say is that, as a Catholic, it’s nice to know that there are thousands of religious communities where people can find solidarity and support from members of their same sex. I do think we need to be open to the Spirit when it comes to both reforming these communities and providing other opportunities for the spiritual growth of those who are discerning a vocation toward celibacy, or are in the single state.

        • George Aldhizer

          Yeah, I doubt Hill is making a legal case for the practice, but I have a hard time seeing church communities, particular the Protestant ones I’m used to in which the space feels very “nuclear family-ish,” implement this practice. Maybe I’m reacting against the comfortability with being married in the church. I don’t want to fall into that.

          And, yeah, in some ways I think I envy the institutional support for celibacy that the Catholics (and others) promote. Even if one does not enter into a monastic community, single people at least can see that celibacy is possible.

          • Thanks for this, George. Yeah, it’s interesting to talk to people about this sort of thing. Really, there are only two choices for Christians: Marriage or Celibacy / Chastity. There is no other option. I think I would like to read this book and “Washed and waiting” which is another book by Hill.

            • George Aldhizer

              I agree with you on the options, it’s becoming more and more radical of a position to agree with (and live out!) everyday in this culture.

              I’ve read Washed and Waiting (see my footnote #3), and I’m thinking whether Hill would agree today with the tone in which he wrote in that book. For example, he writes in Washed and Waiting,

              “More and more, I have the sense that what many of us need is a new conception of our perseverance in faith. We need to reimagine ourselves and our struggles. The temptation for me is to look at my bent and broken sexuality and conclude that, with it, I will never be able to please God, to walk in a manner worthy of his calling, to hear his praise. But what if I had a conception of God-glorifying faith, holiness, and righteousness that included within it a profound element of struggle and stumbling? What if I were to view my homosexual orientation, temptations, and occasional failures not as damning disqualifications for living a Christian life but rather as part and parcel of what it means to live by faith in a world that is fallen and scarred by sin and death?”

              The portrait Hill paints in Spiritual Friendship has little discussion of this “broken sexuality.” Rather, Hill believes that his sexuality reveals a vocation for same-sex love in friendship. Maybe Hill would believe that the two books ought to be taken in tandem, showing that being a gay Christian means both denial and perseverance as well as vocation for celibacy/community/friendship.

              • Yeah, that’s fascinating. If we could get him for an interview would you like to be involved?

                • George Aldhizer

                  Oh, of course! I would love to be a part of that.