“Just Friends”

Hey everyone: this is my first post, and I hope it adds to the conversation here!

I’ve been reflecting quite a bit lately on the nature of friendship lately and whether friendship holds the capacity to meet our needs to love and be loved as human beings created in God’s image. It is no doubt true that we are first to be loved by God and to love God. But as human beings, created in flesh and blood, we need that love to be embodied and represented in a way that we can feel it, sense it with our very human senses. This is why God took on human flesh in Jesus Christ to be “God with us” in a way He could not apart from an incarnation. In fact, I’m going to go out on a theological limb and claim that there probably would have been an incarnation even if there wasn’t a fall into sin. Jesus would not have needed to suffer and die for us in that case, of course–suffering and self-sacrifice is the form love takes in a fallen world. But I believe He would have brought heaven to earth to communicate to us His love on human terms, and to show us, in a way we can understand, how to love Him and neighbor out of His love for us.

Now I may be wrong about this contention, and I’m not too interested in defending it here. My main point is that God created us to be loved on human terms and in human ways. He does not call us to rise above the way He created us, into a realm of “purely spiritual love”–that is a Greek, not a Christian ideal. Rather, He calls us to seek and find the fullest fulfillment of our humanness–for our humanness to be imbued and dignified with God-likeness. He wants us to find our true humanness, not exchange our humanness for pure spirituality. This is a theme Wesley hits on in Washed and Waiting, and it has the ring of truth to me. Our need for humanly embodied love is why Christ instituted the Church as His body.

On this subject, I have always been moved and intrigued by Colossians 1:24: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the body, that is, the church.” Filling up what is lacking? How can there be anything lacking in Christ’s afflictions? Did not Christ “finish” the work of redemption on the cross? Here I think certain stands of Protestant theology miss out on the participatory nature of redemption and the church, and how in a real sense, we extend the work of Christ in suffering love to others, empowered by His grace to do so. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, the church is Christ to the world. We mediate His love to others, on human terms, and in ways human beings can feel and deeply experience.

It is certain that the Church is equipped to meet every need of ours for human love. Indeed, it is striking that love amidst the church is given far more stress in the New Testament than love between a married couple. But if you’re like me, “Christian love” often has a cold, almost duty-laden connotation to it. After all, charity, we are sometimes taught, is not a feeling, but an act or orientation of disinterested benevolence to the other.

But I think this is inadequate. While love is not merely a feeling, and while loving actions must be sustained even when those feelings are absent, love nevertheless must have an organic connection to certain feels and dispositions of the heart. What is it to be loved if not to be delighted in, to be appreciated, to make someone else excited to see you, to be such that someone longs to be with you? To be loved is to be made to feel truly alive. It reminds you not only that you exist, but that your existence is substantial, that it matters deeply, that it is valued beyond expression. As C.S. Lewis put it, to be loved by God is to be “an ingredient in the divine happiness.” Love without interest in the beloved, without passion, is not, I maintain, love at all. It is not agape, for agape cannot, I believe, be fully disconnected from eros.

In contemporary culture, we have a hard time conceiving of a relationship like this that is not “romantic” or sexual. Indeed, I am sure that most people who read such a description of love would immediately conjure up images of romance and marriage. In fact, we have a set of conceptual machinery by which we elevate romance and marriage to a higher status than friendship. When two friends seek to clarify their relationship to each other or to other people, they make it clear that they are “just friends, nothing more.” “Mere friendships” are, by our very categories of expression, relegated to a second best position, something less desirable and fulfilling than the passion and excitement involved in romance and marriage.

If this is true, then people who never marry for whatever reason miss out on something essential to true humanness. In the course of their lifetime, it would not be not possible for them to be loved in the way human beings need to be loved–through and through, with passion, delight, and longing. For gay people (and other lifelong singles or long-term singles), this would mean the traditional Christian sexual ethic bars them from experiencing the love that all of us most deeply need to feel alive, to be whole, to feel truly and wonderfully human. And we do all need to be loved like that. This is not a matter of selfish desire. We’re not talking about superficial, utilitarian/egoist pursuits of happiness and “fulfillment” here. Rather, we need to be loved through and through in order to be whole, in order to flourish, in order to thrive as God intends for us to thrive. We were created that way. And were God to command us to live without what we truly need, that would raise serious questions about His perfect goodness toward us. It is theologically unacceptable, in my judgment, to uphold an ethic that is essentially destructive and deprives us of our humanity. It is one thing for an ethic to be costly–this is true for all Christian ethical practice, when seriously pursued. But it is another altogether for it to be inimical to true human fulfillment and need.

But I deny that deeply felt, intimate, affectionate love is confined to the bonds of marriage. Perhaps chaste love is less natural to us as fallen beings, or somewhat challenging as sexual beings, but I believe it is possible, especially with grace. In fact, I think we are all called to friendships like this, married or not, and I don’t think even marriage should be seen as an encroachment on friendship, as if it were a zero sum game. The question is whether intimacy, passion, longing, delight, and embrace are possible outside of sexual relationships. Can there be a kind of romance in friendship? I think so. I believe I have experienced some of that reality in my life, though for some reason our culture has a hard time even conceiving of it. But we need to conceive of it in the Church. We need to be flesh on this concept so it can become a reality in the lives of celibates. I want to explore more about the “how” question in future posts, as well as what exactly Christian friendships should look like (in what way is eros involved? I think it is involved in some way). But for now, I want to say that if this is possible, celibates of all varieties can find the end for which they are made in the Gospel.

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