Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendships

Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendships August 20, 2018

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 8.41.44 AMA good reading in the history of friendship makes manifest that friendship, probably most especially in the 20th Century, has changed dramatically. If one reads, for instance, the great two chapters on friendship by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, or the essays and letters on friendship by Cicero, one sees that friendship was a much-discussed and prized virtue. In fact, it can be said accurately — so far as I know the history — that males had male friends and women had women friends, and having one’s spouse as one’s best friend is largely a 20th Century phenomenon.


I’ll stop at that point for this series on Wesley Hill’s very good book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Brazos, 2015). There a number of ideas in this book, not least the “vocation” Hill discusses because he is gay and celibate and how that shapes his relations with other males. More of that below but do not be mistaken: this book is about friendships regardless of one’s sexual orientation.

And his book is an appeal for us to recover the lost art and even interest in the significance of friendships — in the church and in society:

And that’s how I found myself praying for friendship that night in my priest’s living room [when asked for one word that could focus his prayer requests]. Now, I’m praying for it not just for myself but also for others—single, married, gay, straight, and otherwise—in the church todav. I’m convinced that all of us could benefit from a recovery of friendship as a genuine lo¬
ve in its own right. We’ve largely forgotten it, but I’m praying w can find it again (22).

Early in the book Wes Hill discusses the changing face of friendship and how Christians have somehow learned to devalue friendship (philia) in favor of love of all (agape), thanks in part to C.S. Lewis’ (at times artificial) distinctions. This is only one of the contributing factors to the demise and diminishment of the significance or ordered and even vowed (eternal) friendships. What are the challenges to friendship in our world? He discusses five:

1. Freud: he points his finger most at Freud for eroticizing relationships. Today, and here he is the point, when we see two males develop a relationship that involves lots of time and even sacrifice for one another, or if two females go on a vacation together — two unmarried females — many today will raise an eyebrow and offer a cough or two to wonder, suggest, imply or accuse of some kind of homosexual relationship. Why? Because (Hill is arguing) of Freud’s eroticizing of all relationships.

This, so it goes, casts all same sex relationships into the shadow of the erotic and therefore minimizes them.

2. Marriage and the nuclear family have been radically centralized as the ultimate relationship — thereby, too, diminishing the significance of same sex friendships or friendships in general. He calls these diminishments “myths.”

3. Biological evolutionists of some sorts contend all relationships are about “hardwired self-interest” and this too diminishes the ultimate value of friendship.

4. The increased attention to vocation or our work has made usefulness and value all about work and labor and money. Friendships take time and get in the way of labor.

5. Freedom: the less encumbered we are, the less obligation and responsibility, the happier we are … thus, friendships, which entail obligation and restriction, diminish freedom.

Question: What do you see challenging you the most about friendships?

One of the marks of “friendship” in our world is that they are the “freest, the least constrained, the least fixed and determined, of all human loves.” This is a theme throughout his book.

A theme, in fact, that is seriously challenged by a proposal that Wes Hill offers, namely, that friendships ought perhaps to be more formally framed.

Once Bonhoeffer opined when Bethge got engaged and then married that he was in some sense losing his friendship. He wondered if friendships ought to be more stable. Bethge was more realistic about friendship as what he perceived would happen when married.  Bonhoeffer knew friendship had no recognizable rights…

This leads to Florensky and to Aelred and to Wes Hill pondering spiritual friendships and pondering formalized relationships. Aelred discusses such kind of intimate friendships.

After his death, Aelred’s model of devoted friendship did not lack for exemplars in his homeland of England. For roughly the next seven hundred years, from the medieval world on through to the early modern, certain pairs of friends would consider themselves not merely chums or pals, and also not homosexual lovers, but spiritual kin, “brothers” and (to mix metaphors) “wedded” friends. “This is an era,” writes the historian Alan Bray, “where different kinds of kinship overlap, shade into one other and are not clearly distinguished from friendship” (33-34).

What were these relationships like?

First, they were overtly religious/spiritual relationships.

In the Christian East, such rites, as Pavel Florensky notes, already bore a more overtly spiritual character. With adelphopoiesis, the rite of brothermaking, the two friends who were making promises to each other shared Holy Communion, partaking of the presanctified elements from a common cup, and exchanged crosses with each other (35).

He prints the kind of prayer that was sometimes prayed:

O Lord our God Almighty, who was and is and is to come, who did not disdain to be born of humankind in the womb of the Virgin Mary Mother of God, send your holy angel upon these your servants [name] and [name] that they may love each other, as your holy apostles Peter and Paul loved each other, and Andrew and James, and John and Thomas, James, Philip, Matthew, Simon, Thaddeus, Matthias and your holy martyrs Sergius and Bacchus, Cosmas and Damian, not through the bonds of birth, but through faith and by the love of the Holy Spirit, and that they may abide in the same love all the days of their life (36).

Second, they were public and communal friendships.

Friendship, in other words, belonged in the realm of law and policy, of public interest and observed give-and-take (37).

Third, they were not just for males.

The third notable feature of these friendships, according to Bray, is that they weren’t limited to the brawny world of war
riors. Women, too, took vows of friendship, albeit much less frequently and visibly (37).

But these kinds of friendships got pushed aside. “Friendship was being pushed out to the margins of public life, and marriage was taking its place as one of the only forms of vowed kinship that society would rec
ognize” (39).

He wonders, then, what we have lost in losing vowed friendships:

I find myself wondering which is the greater danger—the ever-present possibility of codependency, sexual transgression, emotional smothering (and other temptations that come with close friendship) or else the burden, not to mention the attendant temptations, of isolation and solitude created by the absence of human closeness ? A great company of saints witnesses to the fact that we can indeed flourish without romance, marriage, or children; I don’t know of one who witnesses to the possibility of our flourishing without love altogether (41).

Wes Hill, then, is proposing we raise awareness of and commit ourselves to (for those who so want to) what he calls “vowed spiritual siblinghood” (41 [not a catchy term, to be sure]).

Instead of love that looks like this: You’re mine because I love you, we can move to “I love you because you’re mine” (41).

Let us agree (1) that friendship as a common art, friendships between males and friendships between females, has fallen into neglect and (2) that there are more than solid theological and biblical grounds for resurrecting friendship by Christians, among Christians, among the church and among Christians and those of other or no faiths. What would it look like?

Wesley Hill offers six helpful orientations for resurrecting committed, vowed or what he sometimes calls “spiritual friendship” or “spiritual siblinghood.”

First, we need to understand our “need for friendship” (106). The solitary life is not a life of love and a life of love is a life shaped to the core by friendships. God made us to love one another, and it is there that a theology of friendship begins. Wesley Hill is known for being a gay, celibate Christian and he admits that he needs friendships, and that desire has led him to study friendships. He’s not alone.

Second, we can renew friendship by starting small, that is, by starting with those who are already our friends. We might ask who are our friends and ask how we might strengthen such relationships. We might more formally acknowledge those relationships.

Third, friendship flourishes most when practiced in the context of a wider community. Friendships can begin in churches because there’s an existing community in which those friendships can begin to flourish. The community, then, can strengthen friendships.

Fourth, we will learn that our friendships will strengthen our community. Leaders he suggests can be especially vigilant about encouraging friendships among the congregation. While a koinonia, or fellowship, is not the same as “friendship” (let’s call it philadelphia), and while some would contend the former can exist without the latter, there is here a spectrum — Hill observes — rather than alternatives. I would contend the former doesn’t exist entirely without the latter. Here’s why: love is a genuine and rugged commitment to another person, first, to be with that person, and second, to be for that person, and third, in that context those who genuinely love journey into Christlikeness. I don’t think that can happen without friendships being formed.

Fifth, our friendships can be doorways for hospitality and the welcoming of strangers. In other words, friendships can be opportunities to love others outside the fellowship, to gospel others, and to enter into the lives of others. Dinner parties, anyone?

Sixth, Wes Hill suggests “we might begin to look for ways to resist the allure of mobility and choose to stay” (115). In other words, friendships can become constraints on mobility and vocational changes. Some can pack up and move away and it not bother them one bit; one has to wonder how much koinonia was experienced and how much friendship was at work.

Thanks Wes for a wonderful book.

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad