In January 1944, several months after he had been imprisoned by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge. In it, he reflected on what their relationship meant to each of them. Bonhoeffer wrote that, in contrast to marriage and kinship, friendship "has no generally recognized rights, and therefore depends entirely on its own inherent quality."
As he penned those lines, Bonhoeffer must have had his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, in mind. With Maria, Bonhoeffer knew where he stood. They were pledged to be married, and all their family and acquaintances recognized their love and were prepared to witness their wedding ceremony, provided Bonhoeffer was released. With Eberhard, on the other hand, Bonhoeffer admitted there wasn't a similarly public recognition. That led to a question: What were Eberhard and Dietrich to one another, and how might their love be preserved and sustained?
Years later, Eberhard addressed an audience member who had come to hear him speak about his friendship with Bonhoeffer (one explored in depth by Charles Marsh in the acclaimed biography Strange Glory). Surely, the questioner said, theirs "must [have been] a homosexual partnership." What else could Bonhoeffer's impassioned letters to Eberhard have signaled?
Bonhoeffer was aware that his friendship with Eberhard was breakable—that no public ceremony or vow kept them tied. That awareness that friendship is fragile has grown more pronounced since Bonhoeffer wrote his letters from prison. Words like suspicion, unsettledness, and doubt best describe our instincts about friendship. We are uncertain about it—perhaps especially between people of the same sex. And, like Bonhoeffer, we wonder how much we can expect from it, how solid and durable it is, when we compare it to other bonds. Is friendship a weaker tie than marriage or family? Further, many of us doubt that we can attain intimacy without there being deep down some sexual element to the friendship.
An Eclipse of Friendship?
In Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, social scientist Niobe Way recounts her study of (mostly nonwhite) subjects in the northeastern United States over two decades. Before adolescence, the boys talked in shockingly intimate terms about their male friends. Their "closest friendships share the plot of Love Story more than the plot of Lord of the Flies," Way notes, puncturing our stereotype that while girls want deep conversation, boys communicate in grunts and prefer to shoot each other with toy guns.
But Way also found that as they grew older, the boys lost the intimacy they once enjoyed. Afraid of being perceived as gay or feminine, they withdrew. Many of them told Way "that they don't have time for their male friends, even though their desire for these relationships remains."
The boys Way studied aren't the only ones facing the loss of deep friendship. Afraid of crossing boundaries of propriety, many Christians, both single and married, never develop meaningful friendships with people of the opposite sex. Not unlike Bonhoeffer and Bethge, they face suspicion from fellow Christians about whether those kinds of relationships are attainable at all.
It's not just nervousness about sexual indiscretions that keep us from forming deep friendships. I speak, for instance, with many young mothers who tell me they are lonely. Where they once were close with other women, the demands of feedings, naps, and early bedtimes now hinder those friendships. Our modern routines and nuclear living arrangements hinder our finding and keeping close friends. A friend recently told me, "In college, there was a recognized script for finding friends. Now that I'm in my 30s, everyone seems to have their friend groups settled, and I don't know the script anymore."
As researchers like Laura L. Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, have observed, people approaching middle age tend to retreat to the relationships they already have, rather than seeking out new communities. "You tend to focus on what is most emotionally important to you," she told The New York Times. "So you're not interested in going to that cocktail party; you're interested in spending time with your kids."
But our widespread feeling that friendship is harder to come by hasn't always been prominent among Christians. On the contrary, many of our forebears in the faith celebrated the love of friendship. Far from occupying a suspicious or wistful vantage point, they invested enormous effort in making and keeping friends. And therein lies a tale—one we need to heed today.
'As Binding As a Marriage'
In 1914, just after a young Bonhoeffer moved with his family to Berlin, an eccentric Russian polymath published a book in the form of 12 letters to an anonymous friend. The author, a young man named Pavel Florensky, had an unusual craving for friendship. As one fellow student described him, "When he takes someone to his heart he puts everything into the relationship." Not content with acquaintanceship, Florensky "wants to draw his friend into every detail of his life and enters wholeheartedly into their life and interests."
Whatever Florensky's sexual orientation—he eventually, to the shock of many, married a woman—we know the Orthodox theologian cared especially about strengthening the bonds between male friends. As young adults, he and his friend Sergei exchanged vows of commitment, pledging fidelity to one another even as they made promises to remain chaste. According to biographer Avril Pyman, Florensky regarded this pact "as binding as a marriage or monastic vow."
In his letters, titled The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, Florensky explains their commitment. "There are many temptations to turn away from a Friend, to remain alone or to start new relationships," he wrote. "But a person who has broken off one friendship will break off another, and a third, because he has replaced the way of ascesis"—the way of costly, self-sacrificial love—"with the desire for . . . comfort." By pledging to be there for one particular friend, come what may, Florensky thought he could better learn the meaning of Christian love. He concluded, "The greatest . . . love is realizable only in relation to friends, not in relation to all people, not 'in general.'"
Elsewhere Florensky compared the love for one friend to a "community molecule": Just as a molecule depends on the connections between atoms, so too the church isn't reducible to individuals but rather relies on pairs of friends in order to flourish. We aren't called to exist as isolated units who love God set apart from those around us. Instead, Jesus says, God's love is manifested in love for our friends—and here, notably, he doesn't settle on the words spouses or children or family (John 15:13).
A History for the Perplexed
As we spend time with Florensky's writing, we realize that modern views of friendship aren't the last word on the subject. True, speaking of friendship as the freest of loves, as Bonhoeffer does, makes sense in our late-modern world. It's a world in which old friends can be left behind as quickly as we sign the contract for a new job halfway across the country. But that hasn't always been the case.
Florensky's hope for a sealed commitment between spiritual brothers and sisters is found in all major strands of the church, East and West. In the ancient East up until today, a rite exists—adelphopoiesis, "brother-making"—in which friends make promises to each other and solidify their commitment by sharing in the Eucharist. (Although it was primarily men who exchanged these vows, the rite was open to women as well.) In the West, 12th-century English writer Aelred of Rievaulx upheld a similar ideal. Speaking primarily of friendships between monks, Aelred writes that we call such people friends "to whom we have no qualm about entrusting our heart and all its contents." But he goes further: "See how far love between friends should extend; namely, that they be willing to die for one another," unmistakably echoing Jesus. Dying for one's friends is the apex of love.
We might want to write off Aelred's vision of "spiritual friendship" as pious idealism. But his model of devoted friendship bore noticeable fruit. In the centuries following his death, pairs of Christian friends were buried together to signal their love. Looking forward to the bodily resurrection of the dead, the shared tombs ensured for each friend that "the first figure his awakened eyes will see will be [the other friend]," notes historian Alan Bray. With that belief, 19th-century Catholic John Henry Newman was buried next to fellow cleric Ambrose St. John. After St. John's death, Newman lamented, "I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband's or a wife's, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or any one's sorrow greater, than mine."
Evangelical Protestants have lacked the formal liturgical apparatus of friendships like Newman and St. John's. Yet they, too, found ways of underscoring friendship's permanence. I think, for instance, of John Newton's friendship with the troubled poet William Cowper. It was burdened by Cowper's mental illness, but Newton sought to preserve it across the years and miles at great personal cost. Cowper, for his part, understood the depth of Newton's commitment. Facing a debilitating sadness in 1788, Cowper wrote to Newton: "I found . . . comforts in your visit which have formerly sweetened all our interviews, in part restored. I . . . felt my sentiments of affectionate friendship for you the same as ever."
There are many more instances I could mention. They illustrate how much of our Christian past we've forgotten.
I Love You Because You're Mine
Some might say, at this point, that it's just as well we've consigned these intimate, vowed forms of Christian friendship to the rubbish heap of history. When I shared some of these thoughts with Christian college students recently, one of the young women said she worried about the dangers of such relationships. She mentioned an especially close friendship between two women that she'd witnessed, how it seemed ingrown, obsessive, and unhealthy. Perhaps Bonhoeffer was right, she said: Friendship, in contrast to marriage or family ties, has no publicly recognized rights. And that's a good thing.
For a couple of generations now, C. S. Lewis has probably influenced evangelicals' thinking on friendship more than anyone. In The Four Loves, Lewis takes pains to distinguish friendship from erotic attachment. In contrast to lovers, whom we picture face to face, friends are side by side, engaged in a common task and needing to know very little of one another's life outside the friendship. This, in Lewis's view, is friendship's true glory: "the exquisite arbitrariness and irresponsibility of this love." Unlike romantic partners, who are absorbed in one another, Lewis says, each friend can say to another, "I have no duty to be anyone's Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine." Here, friendship lacks utility—it isn't for anything in particular, such as procreation or productivity. And that's precisely what makes friendship what it is.
I confess my sympathies are not with Lewis on this point, not least because I'm not sure I've ever had a friendship of the sort he describes. For him, the love between friends "ignores not only our physical bodies but that whole embodiment which consists of our family, job, past, and connections." It's "an affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds."
We picture Lewis with J. R. R. Tolkien or Owen Barfield, discussing some scrap of Old English literature over a pint at the pub. British theologian Janet Martin Soskice parodies the scene: "How, we wonder, would Lewis react if another 'stripped mind' arrived at the club and told him that his child had been knocked off a bicycle and was mortally ill? Blustering silence?—'terribly sorry, old boy, didn't know you were married—had offspring—that sort of thing . . . but let's get on with translating Beowulf.' " Soskice is caricaturing, of course, but she hits close to home.
And that's why I'm inclined to say that, for all the ways such relationships need to be carefully guarded and tended, what we really need in our churches today is a return, not to Lewis's vision of a circle of male friends before a roaring hearth, but to Florensky's hope in vowed spiritual siblinghood. What we need isn't disinterested, disembodied camaraderie, in which we keep distance from one another's hearts and stories. We need stronger bonds for brothers and sisters in Christ.
Writer and activist Maggie Gallagher describes two kinds of relationships. To the first she gives the tag "You're mine because I love you." In this relationship, you and I may belong to a special friendship and share many of the joys that friendship makes possible. But such joys will last only as long as my love lasts. If I tire of you or am hurt by you, I'm free to walk away—no obligations, no hoops to jump through, no strings attached.
The second relationship Gallagher describes has the tag "I love you because you're mine." Here, my love isn't the basis of our connection. It's the other way around: We are bound to each other, and therefore I love you. You may bore me or wound me or otherwise become unattractive to me, but that doesn't mean I'll walk away.
What would it mean to see friendship—specifically Christian friendship, the kind we want to strengthen and nurture in our churches—as the second kind of relationship rather than the first? What would it mean if we made promises to each other, precisely as friends?
Everyone Can Be a Friend
As a single person, I acutely need intimacy and loyalty from my friends. I'm eager for them to say to me, "We love you because you're ours," without leaving an escape clause. Part of the reason I need that kind of friendship is because I don't think marriage is in my future. I'm gay, and also committed to the traditional Christian view that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. When I contemplate a lifetime of celibacy, I know I want committed friends who will walk beside me on the journey.
What I'm yearning for isn't just a weekly night out or circle of people with whom to vacation. If marriage offers husband and wife the opportunity to cultivate long-term fidelity and the quiet intimacy of a shared history—the opportunity to witness each other's "moments of being," to use Virginia Woolf's resonant phrase—then I need a way of being single that affords me a similar (though not identical) opportunity.
I need people who know what time my plane lands, who will worry about me when I don't show up when I say I will. I need people I can call and tell about that funny thing that happened in the hallway after class. I need to know that, come hell or high water, a few people will stay with me, loving me in spite of my faults and caring for me when I'm down. More, I need people for whom I can care. As a friend of mine put it, you want someone for whom you can make soup when she's sick, not just someone who will make soup for you when you're sick.
As a single person, I feel these needs with a special poignancy. But these needs aren't limited to single people. I know two married couples in their 20s who recently decided to share a large house together. One of the couples has a small child, and the wife of the other couple said to me, "Living together, I see more clearly how raising kids was never meant to be something two parents do on their own." Being a young mother or father can be among the most isolating experiences in our fragmented culture. And what young parents need—perhaps above all—is the devotion of close friends who won't bail when the dirty diapers and spit-up and nighttime cries are overwhelming.
Recovering the historic Christian practice of vowed friendships can help with all of these needs. Certainly such friendships will look different than they did in Aelred's or Newton's days. I hardly expect my local church to get excited about the Orthodox rite of "brother-making" anytime soon (as much as I might wish for that). But, translating the practice of committed, promise-bound friendships into our time, we can retrieve some of the wisdom of those relationships and apply it afresh in our own changed contexts.
I imagine a future in the church when the call to chastity would no longer sound like a dreary sentence to lifelong loneliness for a gay Christian like me. I imagine Christian communities in which friendships are celebrated and honored—where it's normal for families to live near or with single people; where it's expected that celibate gay people would form significant attachments to other single people, families, and pastors; where it's standard practice for friends to spend holidays together or share vacations; where it's not out of the ordinary for friends to consider staying put, resisting the allure of constant mobility, for the sake of their friendships. I imagine a church where genuine love isn't located exclusively or even primarily in marriage, but where marriage and friendship and other bonds of affection are all seen as different forms of the same love we all are called to pursue.
By shifting our practice of friendship to a more committed, honored form of love, we can witness—above all—to a kingdom in which the ties between spiritual siblings are the strongest ties of all. Marriage, Jesus tells us, will be entirely transformed in the future, barely recognizable to those who know it in its present form (Matt. 22:30). Bonds of biology, likewise, are relativized in Jesus' world (Mark 3:31–35). But the loves that unite Christians to each other across marital, racial, and familial lines are loves that will last. More than that, they are loves that witness that Christ's love is available to all. Not everyone can be a parent or a spouse, but anyone and everyone can be a friend.
Expanding Our Spiritual Families
A few years ago, I was washing dishes at my house when the phone rang. It was my friend Jono. Would I consider, he asked, being his daughter Callie's godfather, a witness to her baptism and a help to her parents as they sought to raise her in the faith? "Think and pray about it," Jono suggested. I felt honored. And I was instantaneously drawn deeper into the circle of his and his wife Megan's friendship.
Several weeks later, I stood near the baptismal font in a small Anglican church, warmed by the cascade of sunlight pouring through the windows behind me. The priest lifted Callie, clad in her new white dress, above the font, dipped his hand in the water, and made the sign of the cross on her forehead. "Parents and godparents," the priest said, "the church receives Callie with joy. Today we are trusting God for her growth in faith. Will you pray for her, draw her by your example into the community of faith, and walk with her in the way of Christ?" Alongside Callie's godmothers, I answered, "With the help of God, we will."
It wasn't an exchange of vows between a friend and me—at least not directly. But it was as close to that as I might hope for today. Becoming a godparent meant that my relationship to two of my good friends, and their children, had been sealed through baptism and witnessed by other believers. It was a small step in transforming a "You're mine because I love you" relationship into an "I love you because you're mine" relationship. A small step—and hopefully the first of many on a long journey.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry and the author of Washed and Waiting (Zondervan). A CT columnist, he blogs regularly at Spiritual Friendship.org. Go to ChristianBibleStudies.com for "The Bond of Friendship," a Bible study based on this article.
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