Disclosure: I received this book free from Brazos Press through the Brazos Press Bloggers program. The opinions expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. This is in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.
Wesley Hill has written this book in his pursuit of answers for his interest concerning intimate friendships, how Scripture has presented them, and what the Church has historically thought about them. Do we have more obligations to our friendly relationships other than simply choosing to have them? Since friendships do not have the type of physical ties like those of our ancestry or like marriage does it then follow that friendship doesn’t have significantly meaningful and spiritual ties?
Hill describes several enemies on the path toward this intimate outlook on friendship. The first he mentions is sex. We have grown akin to assuming that intimacy involves sex and Hill thinks we can thank Freud’s suspicion that relationships are based on eroticism for this connection. Thus, when any same-sex intimacy is encountered, people often feel uncomfortable. Books that describe an intimate same-sex relationship are automatically suspected of masking homosexual attraction.
The second enemy presented Hill describes as a myth about the ultimate significance of marriage and the family. He asserts that it is assumed there is no higher bond than these. When newlyweds forsake friends to embark on a journey together, Hill points out that there is a loss felt by those friends who are left behind. Is not this loss significant and appropriate enough to be grieved?
The last myth Hill points out is in regard to the idea of freedom. We have been sold the idea that less commitment equals greater freedom. If personal autonomy is where we find deepest joy, then a concept like intimate friendship is a hindrance. “We can be friends, so long as it doesn’t require too many sacrifices” (14). For those who turn to the Church for intimate friendships, they often find a casual approach. Not only is this felt by singles, but also by stay at home parents.
Wesley Hill presents these arguments in an engaging and thoughtful way. He illustrates by providing examples of same-sex friendships experiencing intimacy without engaging in sexual relations. An example offered is that of Aelred who was an abbot of the Rievaulx Abbey and wrote on spiritual friendship. Aelred disagreed with the idea that abstinence and committed love were irreconcilable (31). Aelred posited that celibacy created an opportunity for purifying love and desire. Many didn’t agree with this type of sentiment and John Boswell specifically argued that Aelred ventured too far into the erotic. Hill believes this misunderstands Aelred and that his intent was the joy of a committed, loving, and intimate friendship.
Hill uses Aelred’s example and several others to make a convincing point that re-looking at our view on friendship is in order. Hill reviews C. S. Lewis’ position that friendship does not require knowing anything about another’s personal life, but can be built upon a commonality. That commonality “just is” the friendship (68). Hill also shares Lewis’ position that our lack of knowledge about the cause of homosexuality is like the lack the apostles had of the blind man in John 9:1-3. The disciples weren’t given an answer for the cause, but simply that through the blind man the works of God can be manifest. Lewis called this a negative position. We must accept the consequences of these and don’t always know the causes (74). This was a helpful section and was alone well worth the read.
I value Hill’s observations and the sensitivity he is creating for those of us who are not intimately familiar with the struggles for friendship in the particular context of being gay and celibate or simply of celibacy. I found his outlook to be refreshing; especially, as it is viewed through a Christ-centered blueprint. Hill raises awareness to several other sensitive issues and has provided good examples of treating them them fairly. Hill makes a good argument that our friendships may involve “just as much of an ascetic struggle as marriage or parenting or monastic vows or any other form of Christian love” (99). Sharing in the interests or successes of others also involves sharing in the desolation or pain of others.
In all fairness, Hill doesn’t argue that all friendships must be taken to the same degree of commitment, but rather that everyone one of us does have important friendships in which we must take great care. I don’t share, however, his concern for the aftermath on friendships that newlyweds leave behind. In that new union there is a reprioritization that can indeed create a type of severing from other relationships that limits the intimacy of those relationships because of the new priorities (Gen 2:24). I don’t’ view this as negative (1 Cor 7:9). There are some friendships that naturally change. I appreciate, however, the light that Hill sheds on this issue.
I recommend the book and what is behind Hill’s practical suggestions at the conclusion. This work is well done and I feel this is of great benefit for the church.