Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Questions for the Author (Part Three)

John ArmstrongBooks, Friendship, Sexuality

Today I complete my three-part personal interview with author Dan Brennan about his engaging and controversial book, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions. I would encourage you to not only read this online interview I’ve posted but to visit Dan’s web site and even sign up for his Facebook page. There you can engage with him more personally and discuss his ideas openly, in a manner that is non-threatening and truly gracious.

One reviewer of Dan’s book recently wrote:

Gendered stereotypes blocking friendship are notions like emotionally intimate, vulnerable friendships are for girls/women or gay men. In evangelical communities where romantic relationships are on a pedestal and friendships are inferior, gendered stereotypes and straitjackets are common.

My questions to Dan concluded with the following dialog.

Wouldn’t “face to face” intimacy in friendship threaten marriages and leave one vulnerable for a sexual fall?

We have to do a little tweaking of the metaphor to get some distance from romantic idealizing or gazing. For centuries prior to Freud intimacy in friendship meant emotional, spiritual intimacy, transparency, vulnerability, delight, and sweet language and affection—all of which we would now describe as characteristic of “face to face.”

“Face to face” in sexuality is as much about having friends as it is having lovers as Ronald Rolheiser says. Why is that? Sexuality is not limited or confined to a contemporary romantic version of love– between men and women where emotional intimacy, companionship, delight, vulnerability, and commitment are only contained within marriage. Sexuality is not about idealizing certain body parts in marriage. Communion in sexuality is more than just experiencing orgasms between married lovers. It is embracing our divine calling to love our neighbor, our cross-gender neighbor as ourselves, and as Christ has loved us.

This has always been a concern in nurturing a face to face friendship with someone of the opposite sex to whom you are not married. In other words, the concern is that face to face leads to sexual intimacy with someone other than your spouse.

This has always been the concern for intimate friendship for the same sex friends or opposite sex friends. This was the concern for some in Saint Aelred’s time when he wrote on intimate platonic friendship. I think we can see where chastity was more complex among many communities in the monastic tradition. Some communities were fearful of “particular friendships” and enforced strict rules. A man could not spend time alone with a male friend.

In other communities, there were numerous stories of dyadic friendships full of mutual tenderness, mutual sweetness, and “heart-to-heart” transparency where sex never happened. Bernard of Clairvaux slept with men in the same bed. He also held hands with men.

In romantic love, face to face intimacy means we don’t impose our agendas on each other; we don’t use each other for our own instrumental purposes. Our care for each other is born out of face to face. Out of goodness and beauty expressed in face to face intimacy between husband and wife, the capacity to love others in face-to-face intimacy is born. Both spouses have to be on the same page or trust in each other as they nurture close bonds with others beyond the marriage. This trust can develop early on in the dating relationship as they discover the important relationships in each other’s lives.

Seeking to love others face to face requires us to address our deepest fears. It challenges our deepest, ingrain cultural stereotypes about relating to each other both in romantic relationship and non-romantic. Most of us (both men and women) in evangelical communities have been trained to act in a stereotypical masculine way toward members of the opposite sex: control, order, superficial emotional connectedness, very limited (if any) physical contact/affection. To move past that means we will have to probably experience some weirdness.

Loving one another face to face in non-romantic friendship transforms lust into healthy and maybe even passionate attraction for the good and beautiful in the other. It dismantles sexism in the relationship and serves as a model for all. Appropriate and healthy responses to embodied beauty in friendship intimacy draw us to a healthy, robust, deep communion.

You reach out to singles in your book and invite them to intimate platonic friendships. You yourself are close to a couple of single women. Can singles find satisfying intimacy in friendship sans sex?

As you know, John, singles are a huge part of our churches and society now. I think intimate cross-gender friendship presents itself as a powerful expression of intimacy for singles. It is possible to enjoy communion with an opposite sex friend while one is single and waiting to marry. In friendship, singles choose to truly open themselves up to the beauty of others in face to face intimacy. Many adult men and women know how to express tenderness and sweetness toward the member of the opposite sex only within a romantic relationship.

But in so much of the evangelical sub-culture singles are discouraged from giving themselves fully, from giving their hearts fully within platonic friendship. Most singles in the evangelical sub-culture are taught to see the opposite sex in two groups: either romantic possibilities or married (off limits or having no friendship currency). They are taught to maintain a guarded distance with their heart with exception of the person they are dating. Is this the only alternative for singles within the evangelical community?

What does the virtue of chastity look like for singles in the evangelical sub-culture when most evangelical communities insist that friendship with the opposite sex is inherently sexualized? Margaret Kim Peterson and Dwight Peterson, in their newest book, lament how many young people on the verge of adulthood think that romance/marriage is the only possible relationship in which to experience deep and lasting friendship. What they are observing is how the evangelical community has created its own subculture of sexualizing friendship.

I think evangelicals need to seriously rethink culturally-bound stereotypes of chastity, distance, and fear. Beginning with Jesus the call to love one another is not sex-segregated. Nor is it a call to accept “second-best” options until one finds the “one” in a path of romantic friendship. Al Hsu and others have pointed out that in the New Testament friendship is the highest virtue, not romance.

This is not to reject romance altogether. But the virtue of chastity calls us to love one another and is critically evaluate romantic scripts. I would argue that singles are called to love—and learn to love others for their sake, with their full hearts ready to engage in loving, authentic, life-giving friendship.

Chaste love for singles would not mean leaving their sexuality or their hearts at the door of friendship. Sexuality is a deep, beautiful, good, desire/energy that is expressed in a longing to know and be known by others at intimate levels in marriage and friendship. Friendship is not about repressing our sexuality as we love our friends. How would we do that? How would we define and parse out what parts of us are sexual in friendship and what parts are not? The immediate popular answer in evangelical circles has tended toward a genital-focus with a list of specific behaviors relating to sexual arousal or hopeful outcome of sex (dating).

But can we isolate sexuality in ourselves that way? How healthy is it? I see chastity in the 21st century calling us all—men, women, married and single—to embrace embodied sexuality in marriage, friendship, and community. Is there not a place for fully engaged and fully present emotional and physical tenderness in non-romantic relationships?

I am in agreement with David Benner and others that our embodied sexuality is an ever-present invitation – indeed, a call – to passionate life and love in our relationships beyond the one with whom we share a bed. The biggest issue in sexuality and friendship for singles is the same one married people encounter once the fantasy of romance diminishes: Can we learn to love members of the opposite sex face to face? Are we able to let go of our fears and our culturally-bound romantic stereotypes and evangelical stereotypes to truly learn to receive beauty from the other and to truly give beauty to the other? Face to face intimacy is always powerful, transforming, and life-giving with or without sex.