Spiritual Friendship is a great book. So great that it is difficult to know how best to praise it. But the highest complement I can pay to it is this: I don’t reread books (a deficit on my part, I know). I read books like an explorer. I discover a new land only to move on and find the next unread continent. But I will reread this book. That’s how good it is, and how important it’s message is.
In Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian, Wesley Hill models reflective, constructive, and winsomely critical scholarship. The book is accessible to a broad audience, and yet Wesley does not dumb down or “oversell” his product. He is passionate about friendship and the possibilities intrinsic to it as a way to love deliberately, courageously, and sacrificially. But he is also honest about the pain and loss involved in friendship.
I’ve found that whenever the word “gay” (or one of its LBGTQ cognates) appears in a book title, people’s first response is to want to know where the author stands on this hot topic. Citing Karl Barth on the Yes and No of God, Wesley Hill eloquently articulates his position this way:
“God created humanity male and female, as the book of Genesis describes (1:27; 2:18-25), and when Jesus appeared on the scene, after humanity’s fall, he set about healing and restoring God’s originally beautiful creation rather than replacing it with something entirely new. Jesus hallowed what had previously existed between Adam and Eve. ‘A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh,’ he told his disciples (Matt. 19:5). This, it seemed, was God’s ‘Yes’ to sex, to marriage, the divine endorsement of erotic love. And throughout Scripture, that ‘Yes’ appeared to entail a ‘No’ to any sexual relationship that might deviate from it. Christ died and rose from death for the redemption, not the setting aside, of our gendered bodies, and it’s on that basis that the gospel says ‘No’ to same-sex relationships” (italics original, page 19).
However, defining and defending a position on the LGBTQ Christianity and culture debate is not the purpose of the book. Finding meaningful, intimate love through friendship is.
Spiritual Friendship is a constructive proposal beginning from Wesley’s own experience of near exclusive erotic attraction to people of his same gender, and Wesley’s choice in seeking to follow Jesus in discipleship through his same sex attraction by living a life of celibacy. Given this context, the question then is, where can love be found?
Looking back in history, Wesley discusses times when friendship was not held in such triviality and suspicion as today. In times past, friends would swear oaths, making promises that bonded their relationship into a form of kinship – brother and sister making. Similarly, in the past, friendship was not held in the same sexualized suspicion as today. C. S. Lewis recognized the ridiculous cultural suspicion that intimate friends are actually lovers as being “akin to the claim that there’s an invisible cat in the chair [i.e. sex]: if you question the assertion, the very lack of evidence may be marshaled as proof (‘If there were an invisible cat in that chair, the chair would look empty; but the chair does look empty; therefore there is an invisible cat in it’)” (page 7).
My only constructive point of criticism is that the book left me wanting more (and I mean that in the best possible way). I loved the beautiful vision for friendship that Wesley gloriously and honestly portrayed. But for better or for worse, Spiritual Friendship is a short book. And while Wesley discusses the historical, biblical, and personal complexities of friendship, he doesn’t give much of a theological underpinning, or better yet, a theological epic for friendship. I was chewing at the bit while reading this book, hungry for a theological excursus into something like the Trinitarian theology of Richard of Saint Victor who personalized the role of the Spirit as the friend in the economy of the Trinity. I wanted something mythic, stretching from creation to new creation in which to situate the powerful love of friendship. This addition to Wesley already compelling book would only strengthen and add further support to what makes the kind of friendship he is describing spiritual.
Spiritual Friendship is a book for all Christians, exploring the powerful, beautiful, and painful love of friendship in a creative vision for the possibility of reclaiming vowed friendship in the church as a cruciform path of loving and being loved. “No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13, Hill’s translation, page 50).