One of the more interesting reactions I've encountered on more than one occasion when I have talked about or written on the reality of deep friendship between the sexes is the assumption that I am advocating something that borders on Gnostic spirituality between men and women.
One of the central tenants to Gnosticism is that the material world is inferior to the realm of the spirit (and therefore sex is inferior) is something that man needs salvation from. Gnosticism (at least the popular version orthodox Christians react too) exalts the "spirit" over the "flesh."
The thinking is that if Christians (such as myself) desire a deep intimacy with the other gender, but not sex, they are actually flirting with a gnostic relational spirituality that desires to put the "spirit" over the flesh. For an essential part of a man and woman in this life is the desire to consumate the relationship in the fullness of physical, emotional, and spiritual intimacy. All orthodox Christians currently believe that men and women enjoy the full range of intimacy when faithful, covenantal sexual intercourse happens between husband and wife. Its the emphasis upon the language and experience of the fullness in body and spirit between man and woman over against the notion of a limited express of physical intimacy between a man and woman as friends that inspires "Gnostic" problems in male-female friendships.
With all due respect though, could it possible, that deep cross-gender friendships unearths some entrenched Gnostic assumptions not so much within those who desire deep intimacy with other gender, but with those who suggest Gnosticism as a problem with cross-gender friendship? Which Christian narrative shapes our understanding of our social bodies??? As Alasdair MacIntyre suggested several years ago, "I can only answer the question 'What am I to do?' if I can answer the prior question 'Of story or stories do I find myself a part?
Could some unquestioned, long held Gnostic assumptions actually undermine the longings and full experience of social bodies between Christian men and women in the kingdom of God? As I have thought about this over the years since someone first raised the issue of Gnosticism to me, there is nothing like the physical experience of male-female friendship and their social bodies that draws out long held dualistic tendencies between the bodies of men and women in the Church and society.
I want to suggest something for you to think about. I don't think anything impacts our view of social bodies between the sexes than our view of eschatology and the kingdom of God. Are we looking at cross-sex friendship more through the assumptions of Gnosticism than we are of the future hope between men and women in the new heavens and the new earth?
Jurgen Moltmann highlights what he feels are Gnostic tendencies in Augustine. He quotes Augustine's answer to the question, "What do I love when I love God?" Moltmann then gives his answer. I think this has some great and deep implications for friendships between sexes as social bodies.
Augustine: "But what do I love when I love you? Not the beauty of any body or the rhythm of time in its movement; not the radiance of light, so dear to our eyes; not the sweet melodies in the world of manifold sounds; not the perfume of flowers, ointments, and spices; not manna and not honey; not the limbs so delightful to the body's embrace: it is none of these things that I love when I love my God. And yet when I love my God I do indeed love a light and a sound and a perfume and a food and an mebrace.--a light and sound and perfume and food and embrace in my inward self. There my soul is flooded with a radiance which no space can contain; there a music sounds which time never bears away; there I smell a perfume which no wind disperses; there I taste a food that no surfeit emitters; there is an embrace which no satiety severs. It is this that I love when I love my God.
Moltmann: When I love God I love the beauty of bodies, the rhythm of movements, the shining of eyes, the embraces, the feelings, the scents, the sounds of all this protean creation. When I love you, my God, I want to embrace it all, for I love you with all my senses in the creations of your love. In all the things that encounter me, you are waiting for me.
For a long time I looked for you within myself, and crept into the shell of my soul, protecting myself with an armour of unapproachability. But you were outside--outside myself--and enticed me out of the narrowness of my heart into the broad place of love for life. So I came out of myself and found my soul in my senses, and my own self in others.
The experiences of God deepens the experiences of life. It does not reduce them, for it awakens the unconditional Yes to life. The more I love God the more I gladly exist. The immediately and wholly I exist, the more I sense the living God, the inexhaustible well of life, and life's eternity."
Dan: I suggest there is so much of an Augustianian outlook on life in the American, Western Church--a huge disconnect between body and spirit, especially for men and women--highlight--embodied men and women in both marriage and in cross-sex friendships. We have practiced and absorbed a disembodied spirituality of social bodies between men and women--even in marriages--and even more so in cross-sex friendships between men and women. This is even more predominant for Christian men and women socialized in the dispensational culture who think its spiritual to be "unsensuous" and who believe individuals will be raptured in the last days.
Moltmann reflects on the way Gnostic tendencies have been embedded in so much of Western Christian eschatology and practice: "People then like to contrast spiritual experiences with sensory ones. Whatever is spiritual and 'not of the flesh' is higher than what is bodily and sensuous. The one is inward, the other external, the one profound, the other superficial, the one reflective, the other thoughtless." He says that this dualism of body and spirit has impacted the Christian spirituality with a spirituality "more or less mildly hostile to the body, a spirituality non-sensuous, unworldly, and non-political...Men and women are by nature on the search for happiness, but nothing finite can satisfy their infinite yearning."
With Augustine's gendered Gnosticism, it is no surprise that physical space and distance were essential between the bodies of men and women. Augustine believed that women relatives--even his own widowed sister--should never stay under the same roof as men. Gregory the Great believed that men should love women as sisters but also flee from them as if they were one's own enemies.
Moltmann suggests that "all the Greek and Latin Fathers had to fight against this contemporary gnostic religiosity, and most of them succumbed to it, developing a Christian spirituality which went half-way to meet these religious requirements. Right down to our own time, the Platonic time-eternity dualism has pushed out the apocalyptic between the past and future, and put it out of commission."
Next post, a look at some dichotomies of a disembodied spirituality.