An eclipse of friendship. That is what author, theologian, and gay Christian Wesley Hill says has happened to friendship in our modern era. “Friendship is the freest, the least constrained, the least fixed and determined, of all human loves.” (xiii) You can never stop being a parent. You can never stop being the offspring of your parent. You can divorce your spouse, but you will always be an ex. But friendship is entirely voluntary and un-coerced. Some would even say that it is the least necessary relationship. The fact that friendship has been eclipsed completely by other relationships poses a problem for those in the church who are gay but have decided to live a life of celibacy because they desire to be faithful to scripture and the historic teachings of the church. Other people have a place to find meaningful, permanent, deep relationships, but with the devaluing of friendship celibate gay Christians miss out on the depth of love many others can experience. The main point of this book is to aid in the recovery of deeper spiritual friendship. It is supposed to apply to all sorts of Christians, not just the celibate-gay Christians addressed in the subtitle of the book.
Hill begins by describing why he thinks friendship is a relatively weak bond in our western cultures. He then goes on to argue that friendship can, and should, be understood (at times) as a vowed and committed relationship, much like a marriage or kinship bond. Having argued for this, he takes a look at what Scripture has to say about friendship. Having spent the first three chapters focusing on the cultural background of friendship, he then turns to the lived experience of friendship. He covers erotic bonds and friendships, what it means to cultivate friendships, and he offers some concrete ways to strengthen friendships in the church.
There is a lot to appreciate about this book – especially his discussion of Scripture and his suggestions for how we might strengthen friendships in the church. I also really appreciated his cultural study of friendships across time. But most of all – I appreciated his candidness when it came to describing his own struggles as a celibate-gay Christian. People need to hear about how Christians who have same sex attractions and desire deep, permanent relationships will feel knowing that they don’t have the possibility of marriage – the relationship which society today says is the ultimate expression of love. Now it should be noted – though Hill doesn’t do this – that its not only those who have same sex attractions that find themselves desiring deeper more permanent relationships. Other believers who choose to be celibate – or find themselves living a life of celibacy without choosing celibacy – will find themselves desiring these same things as well. Also, I can appreciate how he “de-sexualizes” meaningful friendships. How often have we heard that a guy and girl can’t really be friends without ulterior motives. As a society we are quick to sexualize most things, friendship included.
Nevertheless, I have some questions about some of what Hill has to say. For instance, he advocates for some sort of vow or commitment in friendships – similar to marriage. But what happens when one of these people get married? Should this relationship change, even just a little? Now imagine that a guy and a girl make this sort of de-sexualized friendship vow. What if the guy gets married to another girl. Now he has two permanent vows to two women. How will his wife feel about this? Or – looking at his discussion of these friendship vows in friendships where one person has a same sex attraction and the other does not. What should happen if one friend begins to fall in love with the other? This is not unreasonable, for love often occurs as we begin to share our hearts with one another (a very reasonable thing for a friendship). Is it healthy to keep diving deeper into this friendship if it become harder and harder for one friend not to be attracted to the other? There are no easy answers to these questions, but this book forces us to ask them, and at the very least begin to address them.
Overall this book is complicated. Not because it’s a “hard” read – rather because Wesley presents a vision of Christian friendship that will certainly seem foreign to us. Almost undoubtedly, you will experience some amount of internal tension while reading this book – regardless of where you stand on these issues. This book is challenging – it will challenge you regardless of what you think you know about love, friendship, and celibacy. Reading this book will force you to ask some questions you might have never thought of. This book will certainly act as a conversation starter for many thinking through these sort of tough issues.