On Friendship And The Depth Thereof

Anglican-Catholic curate and theologian John Henry Newman, writing and ministering in the late 1800s, believed the friendship of two people — of same or opposite sex — was a glimpse of the immensely great love of heaven.  He loved his male friends deeply, causing suspicion,  and his female friends dearly, causing friction, and found himself terrifically misunderstood by the Victorian-era “muscular Christianity” appalled by his celibate lifestyle and tender sentiments.

I’m being kind, of course, to the Christian masculinists of 150 years ago.  What they really thought was that he and his ilk were foppish, effeminate dandies unfit for the testosterone-fueled expansion of Christianity in pre-Industrial Britain.  Celibacy was deemed suspect — a state that made men too soft for the rough-and-tumble demands of Christian ministry and women too independent for the genteel, fluffy back seat of Gospel ministry.  Men like Newman were maligned and gossiped about, their heterosexuality never presumed and their “queer,” in the Victorian sense, ways maddening to the “tough Jesus” preached in Victorian pulpits.  There’s no evidence that he ever engaged in any homosexual, or heterosexual, activity.  He just openly, profoundly, loved his friends.

I suspect Newman, raised Catholic, converted to evangelical Protestantism in his youth, and beatified a few years ago by Pope Benedict, would be greeted with the same withering disdain in Moscow — where men are men and classicists, poets, artists, and three-part-harmonic Psalms singers nonetheless dare not show phileos affection for another man, lest they be thought of as liberals, sentimentalists, or “sodomites.”  While secular “bros” and “buds” might be a bit too crude for Moscow’s Latin-studying classicists, they’re preferable to men in touch with their feelings or men who touch their male friends.

But I’m a Newman-ite in this.  I make love with my husband, and I hold hands with him walking down the street.  But when my friend is hurting, I’ll take her hand.  If my friend is celebrating, I’ll hug and kiss them.  And if my friend needs a shoulder to cry on, my arms are open.  I cease to be Keely if I cease to extend my hand in affection and aid to a friend.

One of the sadly oddest things I’ve experienced in Christian culture is our fear of being thought of as homosexual.  I remember once meeting at a Starbucks here, talking with a Christian woman friend about the dismal state of her marriage.  She was miserable; i was trying to be supportive.  As we were walking out to her car, I put my arm around her.  She immediately wiggled out from under it and nervously joked that people might think we were “that way with each other.”  Even after pouring her heart out to me, even after acknowledging what a wreck her life was, her concern was that someone at the mall would see my arm around her and think we were lesbians.

I find that sad, and even a little bit terrifying.  What do men with such fears do with the Scriptural picture of Jesus and “the disciple he loved,” John, who reclined against his chest at the table?  What do women besieged with fears of being tagged lesbians think about the intimacy of Ruth and Naomi?  And what do young people raised like this think — about themselves and about those they love — when their faces light up at the arrival of their best friend, or the spontaneous hug from a new one?

Newman had a beautiful response to the evangelical determination, then and now, that friendships be bland and tepid and that strong emotion be reserved only for marriage:

“There have been men before now, who have supposed Christian love was so diffuse as not to admit of concentration upon individuals; so that we ought to love all men equally…. Now I shall maintain here, in opposition to such notions of Christian love, and with our Saviour’s pattern before me, that the best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate our intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us.” 

The affection and treasure of friendship is a gift given and modeled by Jesus Christ.  It’s tragic that we’ve polluted with our fears and suspicions the love we could experience in the friendships that our Lord and millions of other sisters and brothers not so culturally fettered have enjoyed.  It leads to our functioning not like the stones comprising the Temple of the Lord Jesus, but a bunch of balloons blowing freely apart from each other, grounded entirely in the Gospel-or-something-like-it, never intending to touch and being thought of as odd and twisted if they do.

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