“Where was I to find love? Where was I to give love?
If Scripture and the Christian tradition were right that I shouldn’t
try to find a husband, surely the apparent corollary couldn’t also be
right—that I was therefore cut off from any deep, meaningful
form of intimacy and communion. Could it?”
As an evangelical who has significant interest in the connection between sexuality and friendship, I was eagerly awaiting the delivery of Wesley Hill’s Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. He did not disappoint.
Although Hill writes from the perspective of a gay celibate, he writes as an evangelical who seeks to integrate a post-Freudian view of sexuality with friendship. To be clear, Hill doesn’t use that phrase. That comes from take. In my own language, some of the distinctive features of a post-Freudian sexuality are that it 1) affirms we are all spiritual-sexual beings, 2) expands the meaning of sexuality beyond genital engagement, and 3) embraces friendship love in relational sexuality.
Friendship love has two different dimensions for Christians in a post-Freudian world. Evangelicals are just beginning to explore the friendship love within marriage. That’s the first dimension. What does spiritual friendship mean in marital sexuality? The second dimension focuses on the question of what it means for two sexual persons to love one another wholeheartedly not as romantic partners but as friends. Hill’s book centers on this dimension exploring the meaning of friendship love as a gay celibate.
For gays who are committed to a traditional sexual ethic, the friendship love in the first dimension is not an option. However, what about friendship love in the second dimension? Gays living within the current evangelical sexual milieu are faced with a rigid two-choice dilemma: seek the almost impossible task of changing their orientation or face a life destined for despairing loneliness.
Hill’s book courageously offers gay celibates a breakthrough out of that evangelical gridlock by boldly claiming friendship love in the second dimension. In popular evangelical sexuality, the message for evangelical gays is so strong: they have no choice other than this two-choice dilemma. This evangelical gridlock is a powerful narrative precisely because it is comprised of a number of mini two-choice dilemmas presented as gospel truth. In contrast, Spiritual Friendship explores how friendship offers gay celibates authentic, life-giving, life-affirming choices beyond those dilemmas. We’ll look at three such dilemmas for this post.
Unfulfilled or Neutered?
In this courageous book, Hill dares to forge in the midst of the evangelical world a sexually safe space for gay celibates to enjoy friendship as gays without neutering their sexuality. In so doing Hill has to challenge conservative evangelicals who have uncritically accepted a When Harry Met Sally ethic as heterosexual gospel. If the sex part always gets in the way of friendship between two sexual beings, then evangelical gays are consigned to a haunting two-choice dilemma with no authentic alternative.
Can gay men be profoundly and authentically sexual as celibates and friends? Suddenly, evangelicals who enthusiastically endorse a When Harry Met Sally sexual ethic are faced with their own reductionistic corner into which they have painted themselves. Hill wants us to think deeply about authentic love in friendship without neutering sexuality.
For gay Christians and heterosexual Christians who hold to the When Harry Met Sally ethic, only romantic love/marriage provides an authentic way out of loneliness. Matthew Vines, the author of God and the Gay Christian, sets up this dilemma with his insistence that marriage for gays is the path out of loneliness. When I heard him speak, he immediately dismissed friendship for gays as a serious and authentic alternative to loneliness.
Hill deftly and daringly leads us deep into the heart of the landscape of sexual beings seeking authentic spiritual closeness in friendship as celibates. Sex is not the only place for sexual beings to experience the fullness of God’s presence; friendship, too, offers authentic fullness with no neutering of our sexuality.
Slippery Slope or Integrity?
As I stated earlier, evangelical gridlock poses a number of two-choice dilemmas. Gay celibates aren’t stuck with the narrow dilemma: slippery slope or integrity. Both choices are undesired alternatives for gay celibates. Of course, it’s immediately apparent that sliding down the slippery slope into gay sex is not a virtuous path for gay celibates.
Evangelicals typically cannot conceive of life-giving intimacy between two friends where romantic attraction may arise with no choice for marriage. But simplistic evangelical accounts for sexual integrity are also undesirable for gay celibates. In popular evangelical sexual ethics, integrity means staying sexually pure in the eyes of God.
For many evangelicals this would mean gay celibates could never enter into deep intimacy with someone to whom they could be physically attracted. In many popular straightforward evangelical books on sexuality, the message is to run away just as fast you can. Some even conflate sexual attraction and lust. This kind of integrity, of course, dooms the gay celibate to life-long shallow relationships.
Hill rejects those narrow two-choice dilemmas for gay celibates. “My being gay,” he writes, “and saying no to gay sex may lead me to be more of a friend to men, not less.”
Unconsummated Love or Distant Intimacy?
A sexuality centered on body parts coupled with a When Harry Met Sally sexual ethic pressures evangelical gay celibates to another narrow two-choice dilemma: unconsummated love or distant intimacy. Either choice is undesirable for gay celibates.
There is no deep peace when two individuals who are committed to celibacy desire an intimacy that leaves them just short of a consummated love. For evangelicals deep love and sexuality mean consummated love. Wholehearted love in evangelical sexuality translates into would-be, could-be, ought-to-be consummated lovers.
Distant intimacy for gay celibates would also be a frustratingly undesirable alternative. Contemporary evangelicals regard this kind of intimacy as the only kind of friendship connection that is appropriate. For straight evangelicals, friends can be left behind when romance enters the picture. Evangelical sexuality conflates romance and deep intimacy between two adults as the only road to fulfilling, generative, and long–lasting love.
According to evangelical sexual scripts, friends don’t have to work at deepening intimacy. There is no expectation among evangelicals for two friends to intentionally pursue deep intimacy over the long haul. Distant intimacy between friends is what passes for meaningful connection – with friendship lite expectations. Nor is there any expectation for romantic couples to share a life of intentional deep intimacy with celibates or with any others beyond the couple.
Hill peers into both the theology of friendship and the history of spiritual friendship; he wants evangelicals not to be stuck with these undesirable options of fragmentation. He does not gloss over the difficulties and challenges of nurturing a spiritual closeness within intimate friendship; nor does he run scared.
For Christians (progressive or conservative) who anxiously need to keep friendship as a distant intimacy in order to keep their sexual scripts, Hill’s book might not be good news. But for those who embrace a post-Freudian view of sexuality, the integration of the freedom of friendship with sexuality offers twenty–first century Christians many “patterns of the possible” (the title of one his chapters).
While it may appear to the casual observer that sexuality is all about sex, a post-Freudian shift posits that there is much more meaning to sexuality than just sex. It is this shift toward a holistic meaning of sexuality that gives celibate gays like Hill a strong hope that deep intimacy of shared life between friends holds great promise.
The conversation of integrating sexuality and friendship advances another step in the evangelical world in Spiritual Friendship. Friendship no longer takes a back seat to the connection between deep intimacy and sexuality.
Dan Brennan has been married to his best friend, Sheila for thirty three years and has one adult son, Jonathan. He is a blogger, and author of Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women. Dan has been researching sexuality and friendship for the past decade. In his day job, he oversees quality control for a large limousine company in the Chicago area.