Monday, June 29, 2015

BookPastor >> "Spiritual Friendship" (Wesley Hill)

This review was first published at Panorama of a Book Saint.


TITLE: Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian
AUTHOR: Wesley Hill
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015, (160 pages).

Must all relationships be sexual in one way or another? Is there a place for celibacy in the modern debate over homosexuality? Can there be genuine friendships without any sexual connotations?More importantly, is there a place for friendship in spite of one's sexual orientation? According to Wesley Hill who is celibate and also gay, the answer is yes. In this book about spiritual friendship, Hill attempts to show us that friendship is "the freest, the least constrained, the least fixed and determined, of all human loves" and "entirely voluntary, uncoerced, and unencumbered by any sense of duty or debt."  He believes that friendship must stand alone and above all kinds of opinions or prejudices. He sees Simon bearing Jesus' cross as "an icon of friendship." He separates the idea of sexual attraction from the development of true spiritual friendship. Having done that, he moves toward distilling the essence of spiritual friendship based on acceptance, grace, and love. Hill believes that the gospel says "No" to same-sex relationships but "Yes" to spiritual friendship that is not necessarily sexual in any way. This sets him on a path to finding out love as a celibate and spiritual friendship without sexual implications.

Part One of the book focuses on the cultural, the historical, and the theological background of friendship. In "An Eclipse of Friendship," he traces the reasons of weak friendship to the overwhelmingly sexed-up culture and the living out of myths as if they were real. People too readily connect sex with any form of relationships, from both heterosexual to homosexual ones. From marriages to families, politics to societal pressures, friendship has often become a means to a sexual end. For Hill, this is not a "natural bond" at all. Instead, these types of relationships have been built upon several myths. Myths like Sigmund Freud's assertion that every kind of relationship has a sexual root. There is the myth of "freedom" in which people believe that only solitary men are free, which implies that people in a relationship like friendship are not free.  Just like marriage will never meet all of one's needs, we cannot expect friendship to meet all of our needs. For true friendship to flourish, one cannot tie a person to the meeting of needs over and above the meeting of persons. In "I Love You Because You're Mine," Hill debunks the dependency relationship by using the example of two friends, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eberhard Bethge, whose friendship is strong despite them not married to each other or having any kind of physical union. He goes back to the historical Rievaulx about a Benedictine monk named Aelred who is famous for works like "On Spiritual Friendship" and "The Mirror of Charity." In a monastic community where monks have pledged a celibate lifestyle, intimacy among people can be achieved without the need for the relationship to become sexual. In fact, modern interpreters have erroneously read in modern sexual components which led them to conclude that the ancient monasteries are places where gay sex occurred.  This is most unfortunate. It is when we recognize that good and intimate friendships can be achieved without having to go the sexual route, that we would have become truly free to make friends. In the "Transformation of Friendship," he sketches the consistency of true friendship from the ancient Greeks, Romans, New Testament times right through to the modern era. The Greek friends Damon and Pythias were ready to die for each other. The relationship between Naomi and Ruth goes beyond mere mother-daughter toward a strong commitment to each other even though there is no obligation to remain mother-daughter. The gospel records Jesus weeping for Lazarus and his family. Even Jesus calls his disciples friends (John 15:14). The essence of spiritual friendship is one of self-giving love.

Part Two deals with more practical areas of friendship, especially for someone who is gay and in love with a member of the same sex. Hill shares his conversation with one such person struggling with celibacy and same-sex attraction. Gradually, he develops a friendship with him that is non-sexual, open, and supported with Christian love and understanding. It is important to understand that friendship is not a substitute for gay relationships. It is the essence of true relationship. In other words, friendship cannot be sexualized. The moment it is, it is no longer friendship but a dependent relationship. The way Hill reads Conor his friend, is that Conor is not devoid of companionship, but real friendship. He asks the hard question: Is gay a calling? Can one love a member of the same sex without any sexual hint? Here, Hill writes with deep honesty about learning to channel his same-sex tendencies toward becoming a "doorway to blessing and grace." He appreciates non-judgmental pastoral support. He shares about his struggles on which defines him more: gay or celibate? In "Friendship is a Call to Suffer," Hill shares about his own struggles with regards to his sexual orientation and takes comfort in Henri Nouwen's testimony of being gay but celibate. With deep friendship comes the danger of expecting more than what a friend can give. Loneliness is a condition that is spiritual. Just like marriage does not resolve loneliness, friendship too has limits. Disappointment and fear are part and parcel of being in a human relationship that includes friendship. Friendship learns to live with pain. Hill concludes with "Patterns of the Possible" that true friendship may not be easy to cultivate, neither is it impossible. He lists several patterns:
  1. Admit with unabashed honesty that one needs friends
  2. Start small
  3. Friendship is best cultivated within a community
  4. Good friendships strengthen the community
  5. Friendships can become doorways to hospitality and welcoming strangers
  6. Friendships include the practice of presence, choosing to stay rather than frequently move

While many are ready to debate about the merits and the demerits of both sides of the issue of homosexuality, not many have touched upon the areas of grace and peace even as all sides claim to speak the truth in love. Acceptance too is often something talked about but more difficult to live out. For relationships, it is not true that all relationships will have a sexual root cause, contrary to what Sigmund Freud had claimed. Friendship goes beyond sexual and in this light, celibacy is possible in gay people. Friendship is never about sexual attraction. In fact, it is the concern about sex that is a direct threat against true friendship.

So What?

This book is a powerful reminder that not every relationship be seen from the lens of sexuality and sensuality. For true friendship is devoid of the expectations of sex. The homosexuality debate has become the most divisive issue of our age. Not only is society generally split, churches have been divided right down the middle. Every Christian denomination has been affected. Both sides of the issue can claim to be "biblical" in their approach to homosexuality. One claims to assert biblical and traditional stand on the Word of God while the other argues for a progressive point of view. Trapped between the two opposing sides are people who are unsure how to relate to one another in spite of different sexual orientations. In a heated debate, is it possible to have real spiritual friendship regardless of our positions? Wesley Hill is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania and has a deep appreciation of friendship.

Relationships are important for everyone. Whether one is single or married, lonely or not, we all need friends. The more we learn to see people from a non-sexual point of view, the easier it is to develop a truly meaningful friendship based on acceptance, grace, and love. Purity of heart is key. Once we learn to see what God sees, we can appreciate the meaning of Jesus calling his disciples friends. We too are called to love one another as friends. Greater love has no man than one who is willing to lay down his life for his friends. Is Jesus' love for us sexual? No. Jesus' love for us is pure and beautiful. By following after Jesus, and keeping His Word in our hearts, we can learn to cultivate a path of true friendship.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Brazos Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

1 comment:

Michele Morin said...

Thank you for this. I just finished reading The Cultivated Life by Susan Phillips where she discusses friendship as a spiritual discipline. Hill's book sounds like a good follow up.

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