The positive vocation of gay Christians: Book review of “Spiritual Friendship” by Wesley Hill

I found this book when a friend of mine joined Goodreads, and he began uploading all the titles he has already read. There are plenty of people out there who think gay Christians should leave what they consider a hateful sect or find a denomination that is more welcoming. On the conservative side, there are plenty of voices advocating against gay marriage in public settings. But what do gay Christians themselves have to say about the matter? The author tells a little bit about his decision to remain a celibate gay Christian:

There were churches I could join that would affirm, encourage, and support me if I wanted to try to find a husband. Looking back on it now, I could have easily decided that one of those churches was the solution to my turmoil. What became increasingly troubling, though, was that this affirmation of same-sex marriage was not the position of the church throughout the ages, nor was it a position embraced by the churches I had been a part of and wanted to remain a part of. If I decided I wanted to find a partner, I’d have to swim against the current of what faithful Christians, with almost total unanimity, had understood Scripture to be saying about our creation as male and female and the meaning of Christian marriage.

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While the book’s topic isn’t entirely centered on the experience of gay Christians, it does describe a situation that many feel: a lack of deep relationships, and the eclipsing of friendship by marriage in many Christian communities. This topic is definitely more broad than just gay Christians, and Hill explains its relevance in multiple contexts.

I decided to pull Spiritual Friendships off the shelf in a moment of need. I am a bit of an introvert, very shy, and I struggle to reach out even when others are reaching out to me. I tend to stick to books, because I can get deep thoughts without having to go through the pain and insecurity I feel when striking up a new friendship. But that isn’t enough, and I often feel a yearning in my life for deeper friendships.

Expendable friendships

In our culture, friendships are viewed as expendable, while marriage and romantic love take center stage in regards to deep and meaningful relationships. This wasn’t always so, it isn’t inevitable, and it isn’t healthy. Hill quotes the experience of a single friend who mourns the loss of a friend, or at least the closeness they shared, when her friend got married:

Surely I can’t be the only person who feels like weddings are a bit of a rejection—two people announcing in public that they love each other more than they love you. . . . There’s no denying that weddings change friendships forever. Priorities have been declared in public. She’ll be there for him in sickness and in health, till death do they part. She’ll be there for you on your birthday or when he has to work late.

Being platonically dumped wouldn’t be so bad if people would acknowledge you have the right to be platonically heartbroken. But it’s just not part of our vocabulary. However much our society might pay lip service to friendship, the fact remains that the only love it considers important—important enough to merit a huge public celebration—is romantic love.

When I got married, giving up other close relationships was one of the hardest things for me to do. Even when you intentionally strive to maintain previous relationships with friends, your first priority is your family. I mean, I can’t even leave the house without finding a babysitter anymore! I don’t mean to complain– I love my family– but I do feel like something is missing in my life. Thankfully, I have a really great congregation, and I have few Church friends I feel close to. But the book has got me thinking of how I can be better with making and maintaining friendships.

C. S. Lewis’s ideas on friendship

I was extremely touched by C. S. Lewis’s book, The Four Loves, and many of my ideas on friendship stem from that book. But Hill doesn’t entirely buy in to Lewis’s published ideas. He summarizes Lewis’s points here:

In that book, Lewis takes pains to distinguish friendship sharply from erotic attachment. In contrast to lovers, whom we picture face-to-face, exchanging vows, friends are side-by-side, engaged in some common task and needing to know very little of each other’s life outside the friendship. This, in Lewis’s view, is friendship’s true glory: “the exquisite arbitrariness and irresponsibility of this love.” Lewis notes that, unlike erotic partners who are absorbed in each other’s faces, each friend can say to the other, “I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine.” That shocking lack of utility—friendship isn’t for anything in particular, such as procreation or productivity—is precisely what makes friendship itself.

Friends are side by side, while lovers face each other. That’s the central analogy to describe the differences between eros and philia. But to Hill, that isn’t adequate. He wants friends who know when his plane arrives, friends who offer a shoulder to cry on, and friendships that cannot easily be sacrificed when a job takes them across the country. I have had similar feelings, but I thought I was being selfish. I can’t demand such things of friends. It makes me sound needy. And it would probably make some feel uncomfortable. It just doesn’t fit in our culture’s understanding of the word friend. But another central idea of the book is that our culture has lost something when it shed the old friendships of David and Jonathan, and that we would do well to reclaim them.

Suspicion of underlying sexuality originating in Freud.

Our culture has a hard time finding a place for same-sex friendships, because we have inherited a suspicion from Freud:

Friendship in modern Western societies has been obscured by various myths, to the point that we can’t see our way clear anymore to understand friendship the way we once did and embrace it along with its ancient practitioners. Myers traces the first of these myths back to Sigmund Freud’s suspicion that all relationships, at base, involve eroticism—that the desire for sex is the secret truth of every relationship, so that any mutual liking or interest must be something more than chaste affection.

You can see this in our culture, everywhere from teenagers giving up their childhood best friends because they don’t want to seem gay, to movies trying to carve of a space for male-male relationships that just isn’t there today (I LOVEE Shawn Spencer and Burton Guster!). Hill challenges this narrative. But he also doesn’t think we should try to nitpick differences between deep friendships and romance.

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What is the positive vocation of gay Christians?

Whatever renunciations the Christian life involves can never be the final word. Rather, yielding up one thing—gay sex, in this case—is always about the embrace of another. A loss or a place of pain becomes a gateway into a greater benefit that one wouldn’t have been able to find without the loss and pain. And that benefit is best described as a “vocation,” a calling and a divinely given commission, to make one’s loss and pain a means of service to others.

In all these ways, Lewis gestures toward a way of thinking about what it means to be gay and Christian that requires gay people to ask of themselves: What am I being called to, positively? Or, even more pointedly, how might my being gay itself constitute a call, and how might it be the very means by which I discover new ways to love God and others?

From my religious community in Mormonism, I know that the Church’s expectation of gay Christians is often framed in the negative commandment of the law of chastity: don’t have sex outside of marriage, and marriage is between a man and a woman. If gay members are going to find a home in the Church, I think we need to embrace this idea of a positive vocation for gay members. We can find such a vocation ourselves, but if leadership embraced and officially supported such efforts, I think we could do a lot of good.

An amazing book. Highly recommend it!

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