Last year (December 21-24) I wrote a series of blogs reviewing a controversial but extremely important book on friendships. This book, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women, is written by my friend Dan Brennan. I mentioned at the time that I did not particularly want to delve into this subject, knowing quite well that some would react against the book and even against my giving it this kind of attention. I also mentioned my concerns and cautions but these seemed to have been missed by critics.
I’ve thought a great deal about this book, and discussed it even more with the author and others (including some critics), since the end of last year. I believe that Dan is saying a great deal of very important stuff about friendship that is too easily missed by the controversial subject matter of males and females as close friends. As a result of a continuing dialog I decided to put some of my questions to Dan and ask him to respond.
What follows is an interview that will prompt more thought about what Dan is saying, and not saying, in this important book.
The most provocative point in your book, is that the Christian story is calling men and women to live in deep relational unity. In other words, you argue that men and women are called into authentic loving communion not just in marriage but in nonromantic friendship as well.
Yet, the United States has one of the highest divorce rates in the world. Conventional wisdom would say it would be unwise to risk one’s marriage for an intimate cross-gender friendship given we live in a divorce culture.
How do you respond to such statistics?
Great question! On the surface, it would seem counterintuitive. However, I would suggest we need to pause and ask what the virtue of chastity means in the 21st century. Lauren Winner’s book, Real Sex addressed certain aspects of chastity. So did Christine Colón and Bonnie Field in their book, Singled Out. Toward the end of the book they look to what Catholics have thought about the virtue. Several years back before I wrote Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions I discovered the rich depth of the virtue by reading what Pope John Paul II, Ronald Rolheiser, Vincent Genovesi, and others had to say on the subject.
Although it’s popularly misunderstood to mean the same thing as celibacy, it is not. To be chaste as Rolheiser observes, means to experience reverence, reverence for other, reverence for the power of sex and sexuality, reverence for sin. Chastity does not require a list of universal, once-and-for-all thou shalt not’s. (“You shall not be alone with a member of the opposite sex, you shall not ever be physically affectionate and tender toward someone from the opposite sex, etc.). In fact, as I have studied what others believe about chastity (Protestants, Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox) it is not about developing a list of overly-scripted rules for the leaders and everyone in the community to follow. The virtue of chastity resists uniformity.
Jesuit author James Martin declares that the main goal of chastity is to love as many people as deeply as possible. Genovesi talks about chastity as under the control of love with tenderness and full awareness of the other. Prior to my research I never associated chastity with tenderness and presence—awareness of the other. Chastity in my mind meant not having sex—having very little to do with the bigger issues dividing men and women. Ever since then I have sought to integrate deep tenderness in my friendships.
I saw then that the virtue of chastity addresses issues of our culture which contribute to the high divorce rate. It is not just about avoiding inappropriate sex. It is that, but it is much bigger, deeper, and broader than that. What does it mean for men and women living in the 21st century to deeply love each other with tenderness and full awareness of the other? That’s what the virtue of chastity deals with.
In this vein, chastity is mission between men and women in this world and how we are to love each other within our communities. Hollywood exalts sexualized friendship as the be-all, end-all for living on the one hand (since their characters never experience communion with God, sexualized friendship in the moment is the only communion to experience) and hardly ever portrays men and women who passionately love each with no sex or romance in their relationship.
Yet, ironically, I don’t think it is too farfetched to say this same thing is happening in most evangelical communities. Evangelicals preach romance and marriage. Beyond that, are heavily-scripted rules reinforcing what Hollywood depicts—very few non-romantic friendships. This is an area where we are truly called to not be conformed to the patterns of this world. We are not called to be hyper-romantic conformists. In this sense, we are called to nonconformity. Chastity is a big Yes! toward authentic, life-giving love in friendships.
The virtue of chastity then, addresses the big issues of friends with benefits, hooking up, gender differences at home, workplace, and church, romanticized Freudian sexuality (which I would argue contributes to the high divorce rate even among Christians) and overly-scripted rules of fear and boundaries between those who are not in a romantic relationship.
So, you would argue that a robust view of chastity integrates “face to face” and “side by side” in friendship?
Many present day evangelicals accept C.S. Lewis’ gendered division of romantic love and friendship love. In his book, Four Loves, Lewis writes, “Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.”
Yet, not all “face-to-face” intimacy is romantic love. Many female friendship scholars attest to the reality that female friendships are face to face. In many evangelical popular books, deep, face to face friendships are encouraged among evangelical women. Evangelical author Dee Brestin in her best-selling book, The Friendships of Women believes there is a distinction between marriage (“one flesh”) and “one soul” friendship. The latter is a union of hearts and minds, but not of bodies.
Historically, before Freud and the cluster of Eastern European sexologists (such as Havelock Ellis) in the 19th century, deep friendships were face to face and side by side—even alongside marriage. William Wirt wrote to his bride in 1803, “O! my Betsy, my soul assures me that we were indeed made for each other… How delightful it is thus to love you!” Yet in his very close friendship with Dabney Carr, Wirt wrote to Carr, “My heart is so friendly feminine that I can’t hold out [from writing to you]…To be sure, we are both married—but is that any reason why we should cease to love each other? Answer, ‘no.’”
While Wirt was expressing great happiness with Elizabeth in their marriage years later, he wrote to Carr that filing away his old letters was “one of the purest, tenderest, holiest banquets that the heart of man can know.” He wrote to Carr again and told him that his letters were among his “most valued treasures.”
Tomorrow: More Questions