Review by Natalie Robertson
How does a Christian gay man, one who believes that celibacy is the path to obedience, manage to live happily, and without feeling isolated from practically everyone? Wesley Hill has been at this for a while: his first book, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, is heartfelt and engaging. Hill and some companions also write an absorbing weblog on these same subjects. Hill suggests that his vocation is one of renewal: somewhere along the way, the Church lost its strength at forming the astonishing and life-changing friendships that transformed history and showed the world something about who God is. Hill and his friends want to live in creative ways that help bring the vocation back.
The book asks whether we should continue to think about friendship as a voluntary bond or if friendship should be seen as more sacred and binding. Part One sets Hill’s personal stage, and introduces a few important Christian figures to the conversation. He spars with C.S. Lewis’s views on friendship, much to the delight of those of us who have always wondered how this Inkling could keep a straight face while he made some of his claims in The Four Loves, such as how friendship has no natural utility. He ends the section with a lovely exploration of the nature of Christ’s friendship with us, and what that means for the Church. Part Two deals mainly with practical considerations, along with some suggestions for how we might improve friendship in the Church.
A major motivation for this project is the experience of loneliness. Hill often identifies his own loneliness as being most linked to his sexuality. This makes partial sense: the people in his life who seem most open about their loneliness are other gay men who have chosen celibacy. That may say something about relational conversations in the Church. Is there room for married Christians to admit loneliness without feeling ashamed or like they are confessing marital failure? But ultimately, if Hill is right that committed, life-giving, lifelong friendship is a substantial part of what is missing in his life, the loneliness he experiences is not exclusively “gay” loneliness, it is cultural loneliness, and he and his friends are just some of the first to be so honest about its devastating effects.
There are moments that Spiritual Friendship is a bit uneven. The book highlights questions that have no answers or do not yet have robust answers. It’s a frustrating book because it’s a frustrating situation. Yet this frustration makes it a categorically good and potentially important book, especially for those who have never seriously considered the lonely in their midst. We ought to be frustrated by a culture, especially in the Church, that leaves people feeling alienated — or, worse, incapable of escaping alienation. Widespread experiences of alienation are not the mark of a healthy culture, whether traditional or progressive. And it is not only sexual minorities who experience entrenched loneliness: the mentally ill, the disabled, and the socially awkward are vulnerable as well.
This book, as well as the rest of Hill’s project, ought to stir us to conversation and action. We cannot ignore the challenges that Spiritual Friendship brings to our often isolated and isolating mode of existence and still claim to think with theological clarity. Especially in light of the Obergefell ruling and the General Convention’s acceptance of same-sex marriage (subject to diocesan approval), Hill’s suggestions about friendship cut both ways. Ethical questions about this issue are important, but advocating either way on sexual ethics does nothing to change a culture that often excludes other kinds of historically Christian, life-giving relationships, such as spiritual friendships. As Hill elucidates, without these friendships, we are all left wanting.
Spiritual Friendship is a compelling, often moving introduction to what should be a fruitful conversation on the nature of friendship in the Church. It pushes beyond highly polarized issues, and ultimately provides language that can help us to heal, and to recall our vocation to love one another in practical, felt ways. Its brevity, timbre, and accessibility make it ideal for group discussion, perhaps followed by trying some of the ideas Hill suggests for renewing spiritual friendships in the Church.
Natalie Robertson lives in Fresno, California, where she is an intern for the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and a student of literature and languages.