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More Thoughts on Spiritual Friendship/Gay Christianity– Unpacking Some Basic Confusion

My essay over at Mere Orthodoxy on the Spiritual Friendship conversation has generated a fair amount of discussion these past few weeks. Much of it has been very good. Some of it was of the predictable online partisanship variety, which, while inevitable, is still too bad. There was a sort of blind partisanship on the part of both those who liked the post and those who didn’t. That’s exactly the kind of conversation that isn’t helpful at this point.

It is especially regrettable that a few responses from leading Revoice participates have been some of the most reactionary. Jack Bates’ rebuttal engages with my post on a few points, but its overall tenor is dismissive, looking for reasons to not have to take my critique seriously. Ron Belgau has been even worse, designating my essay a bad faith offering, guilty of either immorality or incompetency with no possible third option.

This isn’t terribly surprising, I don’t suppose. We never like criticism, and these particular people are currently feeling “beat up” due to the controversy. But more than this, these folks feel themselves to be rather long-time victims of bigotry, bullying, and abuse. I don’t know of any of them personally, and so I can only assume that they have actually been badly treated– both in their personal lives and in intellectual debate. I’m sorry for them and truly wish their experience had been otherwise. But this history shouldn’t be a trump card for this conversation–“hurt people” hurt people, as the saying goes– and we shouldn’t let this evasive posturing, even if passionate, prevent us from having the conversation. I can’t guarantee a steady and fast pace to my writings on this topic, but I would like to make a few more contributions over the coming weeks.

Jack Bates highlighted two main points of my critique which I do think are worth taking up again: the questions of concupiscence and effeminacy. These deserve their own discussion. However, before I get to that, I would like to address the point which both Bates and Belgau believe identifies me as a bad-faith actor and thus one disqualified from the conversation. They both say that I wrongly attributed to Belgau a view that he once held, years ago when he still “rejected traditional Christian sexual ethics,” a view which, we only conclude, that he no longer holds. Belgau says this is like criticizing Augustine for the adolescent sins he is looking back upon and criticizing. Bates adds, “This was clear in the context of Ron’s essay and as such illustrates a serious and basic reading comprehension error on Wedgeworth’s part.”

It was obvious. A simple matter of the grammar and logical sequence. The only way to make such a mistake would be bad faith or inability. Yet interestingly, neither Belgau nor Bates demonstrate these assertions. They don’t show any quotes from the original piece which would make this so clear. They leave it to the reader to go back and check. So let’s do that and see if their perspective holds up.

In my original critique, I was making the point that while Spiritual Friendship writers say that they are looking for “friendship,” they offer a description of something that looks like an erotic relationship. The way that the reader can tell that this is my point is that the section in question appears under the subheading “Conflating Different Types of Love.” Here is the paragraph where I describe Belgau’s experience:

In fact, as we read more of their explanations, it does not appear that the sort of friendship that the Spiritual Friendship writers are after is the ordinary kind of intense friendship experienced by straight men and women. When Wesley Hill writes about one of his “spiritual friendships,” it has the quality of a romance, and when it ends, he refers to it as a breakup. And as we mentioned above, when Ron Belgau describes one of his desired friendships, it sounds like a marriage: a man who understands him, who he can love more than any other, who he can introduce to mom & dad, who he can dance with, buy a house with, adopt kids with… Again, this really doesn’t sound like philia, not even a very intense form of it. It sounds like the establishment of a home. Belgau’s “friend” sounds like a helpmeet.

So my point is clear. The problem I see is that the Spiritual Friendship writers use the name of “friendship” but infuse it with emotions and activities which are more fitting for eros. I used the language of “helpmeet” at the end in order to highlight the fact that husbands’ erotic love for their wives also includes more than just the sexual act. It includes a sort of shared life centered around home and family. I had wanted to write more on this point in particular but struck it due to considerations of length. Still, the basic point remains– the “spiritual friendship” is presented with erotic overtones and thus it shows a conflation of philia and eros.

Let us now go back to the Belgau essay which I was citing and see if he clearly stated that the description he was giving was one which he held in his confused youth that he now rejects. The essay is titled “What Does Sexual Orientation Orient?”, and that is the main question the post attempts to answer. Belgau wants to show how a person’s “sexual orientation” is about more than just the sexual act itself. Indeed, it is about more than just the desire for that sexual act:

I think it’s worth recognizing that the desire to marry a particular person is much more complex than just the desire to have sex with that person. It also involves emotional connection, the desire to become a father (or mother) and to raise a family together. So even though I didn’t feel any physical desire for any of the girls I knew, I could still daydream about the possibility of a future together. And I think this is relatively common—most children think about marriage long before they know what sex is or have any desire for it. (Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether children may not understand marriage better than adolescents.)

This section, it should be noted, is not the “old” Belgau. Rather, he is explaining what a desire for marriage is in general as a way to highlight the complexity of defining “sexual orientation.”

He then goes on to explain how it was that he came to discover that he was gay. He says that he heard descriptions about what homosexuality was from other Christians and that it was very different from his own experience:

One day, right around my fifteenth birthday, I had an epiphany: these fantasies meant I was attracted to men the way most of my peers were attracted to women. These attractions were what words like “fag,” “homo,” “queer,” and “homosexual agenda” were about.

You might think that I would have been horrified to realize that I belonged to a group despised by my peers and my church.

Actually, however, my response was to marvel at how stupid everyone I knew was when it came to homosexuality.

The condemnations I heard growing up simply did not resonate with my own experience of being gay.

From here, Belgau goes on to describe one particular gay “crush” from his adolescence. And while it is clear that he is “looking back,” it is also clear that he is looking back with the added perspective of hindsight. Indeed the Belgau of today is describing what the “old” Belgau was feeling and he is also explaining what was “really going on,” so to speak:

Looking back, I can recognize what I felt when we met as a kind of love (or at least infatuation) at first sight. But at the time we met, I hadn’t even the slightest inkling that I was sexually attracted to other guys. I thought of the warmth I felt in his presence as a kind of intense friendship. Mostly, we talked about shared interests in science.

If I try to recall those years, I remember my daydreams about him being connected primarily with daydreams of creating a new aerospace company which would build the first American supersonic transport, and eventually take the role of lead contractor in the United States first manned mission to Mars…

It sounds kind of silly looking back, but it was an intense desire to share life together, a kind of desire that I never felt for any of my female friends…

So yes, it is clear that Belgau is describing an earlier life experience, but it is also clear that he is exegeting it for the present audience. He is taking this older experience as an illustration for the point he is now trying to make: sexual orientation is a complex thing, made up of more than merely a desire for the sexual act.

From here Belgau says, “when I realized I was gay, those feelings were the best evidence I had about the nature of homosexual desire.” Which feelings? The feelings of wanting to share a life together, an “intense friendship.” He adds more:

I wanted to find happiness in a relationship with another man. And while sex played a part in this desire, the most important thing was to be loved and to love. I wanted to know that there was someone in the world who loved me more than anyone else, and I wanted to love him more than anyone else, as well.

After this section, Belgau continues illustrating the nature of his desire. He lists out the activities that I mentioned in my critique: understanding, meeting the parents, dancing, buying a house, adopting children, etc. He even adds one more thing which I did not mention in my critique but perhaps should have. Belgau says he wanted a partner he could go to church with as a family unit:

I wanted to worship God together and share with each other the insights we gained into our faith along the way. I wanted a church that would welcome our family the way they welcomed every other family.

Is this also a desire exclusive to the confused and rebellious “young Belgau,” one which the reader can easily see should not be taken as describing a present model intense friendship? More than this, is the answer obvious simply from reading the original essay?

After giving this series of illustrations to help the reader understand the nature of Belgau’s “early” desires, he transitions back to his original question, the one which he wants the contemporary reader to ask and then apply to a conversation that is currently being had:

I began a few moments ago with the question: what does sexual orientation orient?

Freud thought that the libido, or desire for pleasure, and particularly sexual pleasure, was the very most basic human motivation. Following the sexual revolution, something like this idea became more and more part of the unquestioned background of our cultural understanding of relationships.

My own experience has taught me that that desire is much more complex than the Freudian account. That kind of immediately sexual desire certainly plays a role, and often a very significant role. But I don’t think the kind of desire for shared life which I just described was really just a dressed up way of trying to have sex as often as I possibly could.

That’s not exactly a repudiation in the style of Augustine’s Confessions. To the contrary, while Belgau is admitting that an “immediately sexual desire” plays some role in one’s orientation, he denies that it plays an exhaustive role. There are other aspects of his homosexual orientation which are not reducible to the libido. Indeed, this is the point that is exceedingly clear in the post:

…what I have just described is a desire that is much more complex than simply a desire for gay sex. Unless we are dumb enough to accept the Freudian picture of human desire, there is no good reason to think that my feelings for my friend were derived primarily from disordered sexual desires.

The desire which the “old Belgau” experienced is explained to us now as being something complex and worth understanding as complex in order to understand what sexual orientation is. Belgau does not simply reject his old views. Not at all. Indeed, concluding things in that way would constitute an error in basic reading comprehension.

Instead, Belgau is looking backwards at an experience that he didn’t fully understand at the time–but which he believes he does understand now– and holds it up to us as an illustration of sexual orientation as such. He is doing this in order to explain what a gay orientation is–or can be–and thus how it can co-exist with a larger lifestyle of renouncing the sexual act itself.

This is an honest and straight-forward reading of Belgau’s post. Indeed, it seems like the obvious reading of it, one which would not require any lengthy substantiation. I linked to the essay and described one portion, not in order to accuse Belgau of defending homosexual activity or even homosexual lust but rather of giving us one illustration of an intense friendship which still has strong erotic overtones. It’s also worth remembering that my original piece was offering a critique of the larger conversation as a composite, and so I was taking that section from Belgau, adding it to another section from Wes Hill, presuming the immediately prior section of my critique which dealt with the question of orientation as such, and then noting what a general audience would “take away” from such a composite. The relationship is called philia, but it looks like eros.

Thus it is actually Belgau and Bates who have missed the point here, and their protest ends up being a plea to the audience to also miss the point and instead respond in righteous indignation. This doesn’t have to be a self-conscious move on their parts. The heat of battle often generates confusion. Still, we ought not allow ourselves to be distracted in this way. Clarity is the need of the hour.

A few people have mentioned to me that one challenge in engaging with the Spiritual Friendship writers is that they are not necessarily proposing a “program” so much as they are “having a conversation.” This is common for internet communities, of course, and there’s nothing in principle wrong with it. But conversations are by nature fluid, and I think we all know from experience that one can misspeak or imply more or less than they intended to. So instead of ending my post at this point, I would like to highlight why it is that I think Belgau has found himself so easy to be misunderstood. It isn’t simply because his opponents are bad guys. Rather, it comes from his style of discourse.

In another place, Belgau was asked whether he still believed the relationship between Gore Vidal and Howard Austen was an appropriate illustration for a spiritual friendship. He responded “no” because the men weren’t centering their friendship around Christ. So their friendship wasn’t spiritual in the Christian sense. But then Belgau went on to restate his claim that their relationship is an illustration that Christians can learn from. The friendship isn’t a “spiritual” one in the Christian sense, but it is nevertheless a friendship and a sex-less one at that. Thus, on that level, it does serve as a potential model for gay Christians looking to form their own intense but sexless gay friendships. And yet, when we read what Vidal and Austen’s friends thought about the relationship, they all thought it was a marital one. Even apart from the question of sex, the two were “like an old married couple.” Indeed, “[Austen] worshipped Gore, and Gore needed to be worshipped, and Gore couldn’t live without Howard in a practical sense.” No sex, but certainly an erotically-charged love. Of course, we should acknowledge that the relationship was not always sexless. It became sexless, as the men came to understand that sex actually made their relationship worse: “I saw Gore … and he was really something. Good-looking. Somehow our eyes struck. … Then we started talking and ended up in bed. And it was just a total disaster.” And from what we know, the two men continued to be sexually active, just with other men: “Scotty Bowers, Vidal’s longtime friend, famous as a pimp for many Hollywood stars of the 1950s and ‘60s, says that Austen would go out cruising, pick up guys and share them with Vidal.”

Now, let’s be clear– of course Belgau isn’t endorsing this sort of behavior. He isn’t saying that Vidal and Austen should have been behaving in this way. That is NOT why I am pointing all of this out.

But Belgau is pointing to Vidal and Austen’s relationship and saying, “That’s sort of what a celibate but intense gay friendship looks like.”

We know that he has more to say. We know that he is going to go in a different direction later.

But many of us are still not willing to move on yet. We want to raise our hand and say, “Maybe that kind of relationship is entirely too disordered to serve as a helpful model.” Indeed, it still looks like multiple, combustible, and even contradictory forces are being held together under a single illustration. This can happen because people are complicated and often internally confused and contradictory. But the reality of the experience is actually not a justification for using the illustration to propose a new theory.

I want to highlight one more essay from Belgau which employs this same confusing methodology but which has a much better concluding explanation. In “The Desires of the Heart,” Belgau again remembers his struggle to sort out his sexuality, and he again tells about a complicated relationship he formed with a friend he calls “Jason.” The entire relationship is described in the way in which one would describe a series of “dates” with a romantic partner. They meet at a social mixer, even breaking the ice with classic self-deprecation “I’m terrible at this…” They go on to create a spark over shared interests, hobbies, and professional goals. As the relationship progresses, they fight a bit. As the story unfolds, the two men end up holding hands and cuddling in front of a fire, even as one of them continues to deny that he is gay.

Now again, these are Belgau’s memories. He is not prescribing them. In this post, he makes his caution more explicit than in the other examples:

I suspect my story is, at the very least, unusual. I would hesitate to recommend that other 18-year-olds start cuddling with attractive soldiers. I doubt the result would be contented celibacy in very many cases.

Now, we should still point out that this correction is offered in muted terms. The story is “unusual.” Instead of recommending against it, Belgau would “hesitate to recommend it.” He “doubt[s]” that it would work out for most people. Again, this is not exactly Augustinian stuff. But we can grant Belgau his rhetorical space. He is, in fact, telling us not to try to replicate his experience here.

He explains this in more detail:

In the years after Jason and I began to drift apart, I could see that the romantic element created an emotional roller coaster, while the real strength of the relationship was not in the cuddling and holding hands, but in the intimacy that arises from shared interests, especially shared commitment to God, and the shared effort to understand His will and His ways.

…I have found that nurturing sexual desire for another guy has always ended up creating obstacles to intimacy in friendship.

This is actually very good and close to what I would recommend to people in Belgau’s position. The romantic element is not itself the friendship but a thing distinct from it. Indeed, it is actually a competing force that will harm the friendship rather than help it.

But Belgau does not emphasize this difference. He does not go on to explain in any detail how the romantic element can be discerned and eliminated. The compelling illustration was full of detail. It had drama and tension. It was titillating. And that was its design. It was supposed to hook the reader. The concluding explanation, where Belgau is supposed to sort it all out, is quite brief by comparison. He makes a number of good points, but he also de-emphasizes necessary rebukes:

Was there disorder, temptation, and sin in my relationship with Jason? Yes, of course. No human relationship is free of these things. But the message I received from Christians growing up was that there was no good at all in that relationship…

Was there disorder, temptation and sin in that relationship? Yes, of course. But.

Yes, of course. But– I think that really does get to the problem here. Belgau has an opportunity to clearly distinguish eros and philia. He could say the problem with the homosexual desire was precisely in the way that it confused these feelings. If a person could separate the feelings, then they could suppress and avoid (the old word here would be “mortify”) the eros  and promote the philia. I think this would make the best sense of what he’s trying to do in that essay. And yet he doesn’t quite do it.

Indeed, Belgau had the opportunity to do exactly this when I wrote my critique. He declined, saying that it is too neat of a division. Now we can certainly grant that the various kinds of love don’t divide neatly in experience. But that’s all the more reason to clearly distinguish them in theory and in prescription. We need to sort out the categories appropriately so we can make progress in ordering our complicated and ever-changing lives. Without this clear distinction, and with a consistent downplaying of the dangers of confusing eros and philia, the impression is that erotic desires can themselves be fulfilled in and through friendship, and this is something that I believe to be both a philosophical and a pastoral problem.

There’s a lot more I would like to say, but I’m nearly at the same word count as my original critique. Since this is TCI, I’m free to go on for as TLDR as I’d like, but I had better wrap things up for now. I would like to come back to the question of what constitutes “sex” in the first place. The more I think about this, the less sense I think it makes to talk about a sex-less homosexual or heterosexual relationship. Indeed, I am reminded of Robert Capon’s point that we live all of our lives as sexual beings, a statement predicated upon a prior assertion that the meaningful sexes are simply “male” and “female.” Indeed, it is not clear that men and women even “have sex” in the same way. The man can much more easily delineate a “did it/didn’t do it” paradigm. The woman seems to operate very differently. But this discussion will have to wait for another day.

And before I get to all that, I do need to address the moral status of concupiscence and the sin of effeminacy. I will try to dedicate one post to each of those in the near future.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

One reply on “More Thoughts on Spiritual Friendship/Gay Christianity– Unpacking Some Basic Confusion”

I would like to know what you think of the occasional claim that the traditional understanding of philia is really only fully applicable to men and that female friendship by nature looks suspiciously more inclusive of what is generally understood as eros.

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