BOOK RECOMMENDATION: “SPIRITUAL FRIENDSHIP” by Wesley Hill

9781587433498

Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian, is Wesley Hill’s second book on Christianity and homosexuality. Wesley, who is a professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry, identifies himself as a “celibate Gay Christian,” meaning someone who has only experienced attraction to people of the same sex, but as a Christian, is convinced that the biblical teaching on human sexuality precludes acting on this attraction. Wesley has written on the topic before in his book, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, and in both books he exemplifies a unique ability to tell his own story through deep, theological reflection in a way that is intellectually compelling, deeply human and often poetic. While Washed and Waiting chronicles how he came to terms with these issues in his own life, Spiritual Friendship is something of a follow-up which hopes to re-introduce the church to the theological richness of “friendship” as a missing but potentially vital component to the discussion around human sexuality.  Early in the book Wesley writes, “Friendship is a good and godly love in its own right, just as worthy of attention, nurture and respect as any other form of Christian affection. That is what the Christian tradition has mainly said and that’s what I want to say – from a fresh angle of vision – in this book, too” (xx).

And that is what Wesley does in just under 140 pages. The book comes in two parts, each comprised of three chapters. The first part, “Reading Friendship” (which is perhaps the most sobering/saddening/insightful part of the book), narrates the disintegration of friendship in modern life. Wesley points to multiple reasons for this, including our shared Post-Freudian inheritance of a deep suspicion that all relationships are motivated by subterranean sexual desire, the elevated status of marriage, and the nuclear family as the exemplary form of human relationship, as well as the Enlightenment conviction that being tied down or committed to anything, especially a friendship, can only inhibit our own self-determining happiness. While his lucid style can lend itself to a casual read, this section merits close attention, evident as it is that he has done his homework on how we moderns have come to think of friendships in such a diminished manner compared to the elevated status our predecessors gave it.

The second part, “Living Friendship,” contains a call for the church to re-discover the forgotten art of friendship, and in particular “spiritual friendship.” For Wesley, “Spiritual Friendship” is a formal and communally acknowledged vow of friendship between two people of the same sex. He sees this as a fruitful way forward for those in the church who, like himself, identify as same-sex attracted but remain convinced of traditional Christian sexual ethics – a pairing that often leads down a life-long path of loneliness without intimacy.

Throughout both parts of the book, Wesley knits together honest and intimate personal experience, well-researched theological reflection, sober analysis of our current cultural moment and that of previous ages, weaving one coherent and highly readable plea for all in the Christian church, both gay and straight, to rediscover the good and hard work of friendship. His basic argument is that one of the primary ways the church has failed those of its own who experience same-sex attraction but hold to a traditional sexual ethic, is that we have over-emphasized marital relationships to the exclusion of friendship. This then all too often implies a diminished status of solitary loneliness for those who are unable to marry. Instead, with the help of many of the Christian tradition’s brightest moments, Wesley traces a tradition of intimate same-sex love which is expressed not through sex and marriage but through chaste, committed friendships. In fact, some of the most thought-provoking material in the book looks to ways in which Christians in centuries past entered into and celebrated these “vowed spiritual siblinghoods.” While Wesley offers a rich celebration of the goodness and power of intimate, committed friendship, he is sober enough to know that proposing friendship alone is no magic bullet for solving all the complicated and personal issues that churches face in caring for people with same-sex attraction. Still, he is convinced it is a wonderful and important place to start!

Wesley’s proposal for the church grabs one’s attention in large part because it avoids the publicity stunts, blanket condemnations, and oversimplification that has all too often characterized the discussion. Instead, Wesley speaks with the gentle voice of experience, creativity, compassion, informed conviction, wisdom and humility. This book (along with Wesley’s others) comes as a highly recommended resource for anyone interested in issues surrounding friendship, human sexuality more broadly, as well as LBGTQ issues within the church.

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