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 Christ like 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.
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 blind spots, 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.