"The soaring intimacies of love and faith only make sense to those who participate in them." Eugene Peterson
Clearly one of the most provocative themes I touch on regarding cross-gender friendship in Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions is the mystery of oneness between men and women in non-romantic relationships. Many contemporary people don't speak of oneness and friendship in the same breath. This is especially evident in some evangelical circles where love and marriage are the pinnacle of "one flesh." Unlike many Christians throughout the centuries, modern evangelicals rarely see friendship as a school for deep love and oneness.
Part of what makes SUSP so thought-provoking and controversial, is that I not only plunged into the depths of love and friendship, which itself pushes some hot buttons, but I did it exploring friendship between men and women!
This is why I was deeply curious about Richard Beck's perspective on love and boundaries in his new book, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality. Beck's blog, Experimental Theology is one of my favorite blogs to read. In Unclean, he explores the rather fascinating subject of how "disgust" shapes and regulates how Christians think about holiness, purity, sin, and atonement. Beck believes disgust is an obstacle to the Christian call of hospitality.
The term "boundaries" is a such a simple metaphor. It is also a metaphor loaded with psychotherapeutic assumptions and meanings when it comes to "self." In psychotherapeutic conversation, language like "dismantling boundaries" intentionally blurs the distinction of "clear" boundaries between self and the other. These "clear" boundaries protect us from being used, manipulated, victimized, or emotionally worn down. Beck fully understands the need for "healthy" boundaries in abusive situations. He is not advocating anyone stay in an abusive relationship.
Yet, as a respected psychologist, Beck makes a startling and provocative claim on love and boundaries: love involves emotional and cognitive union or oneness and the dismantling of psychological boundaries between self and the other. Boundaries he says, are needed "when the mutuality of love has been lost." They act as a form of protection pointing to the absence or failure of love in the relationship.
He is fully aware that he may be swimming upstream against the psychotherapeutic concerns about clear and healthy boundaries when he talks about love and deep hospitality dismantling boundaries. He's a psychologist. He's not some amateur standing outside the community and profession.
Beck poses the difficulty for the modern person: how does a person with a modern view of self and boundaries understand the deep koinonia, hospitality, oneness, life, and love in the early church? Beck asks, "How does the psychotherapeutic concern over 'healthy boundaries' fit into Acts 4?" He adds, "This is not to say that therapeutic concerns about self-care are illegtitimate. It is simply the recognition that modernity cannot speak meaningfully about love."
He observes how many notions of modern selfhood are incompatible with participation in the triune love of God: "The three 'persons' of the Trinity are one." Yet, at the heart of the modern self is a self-determined, autonomous, isolated, individualistic ego. In this way, metaphors of exchange are predominant in love language and expectations, relational "investments" dominate "healthy" oriented conversations in psychotherapeutic community.
True love as Beck points out, entails the dismantling of cognitive and emotional boundaries between the self and the other. What he says in another place is that the ethic of Christian love, "that the Other (e.g., wife, child, friend) is accepted into the sociomoral space one recognizes as Me and Mine." For Beck, the simple fact of everyday life points to a dismantling of boundaries when it comes to love. In love, two people become "one" in physical intimacy or in deep emotional bonding: "This might seem like the very definition of enmeshment but, upon consideration, this description of love describes how most of us do, in fact, experience love."
He offers up another example, the love of a parent and a child. Here, a vibrant, robust, self-giving love gives up a sense of their self for the sake of the other (child). Parents frequently have to say no to opportunities, choices, desires, for a greater "yes" for their child. An important aspect to love is seeking the well-being of the other. So, in a provocative statement he concludes that our notion of selfhood, particularly from the Christian story, is "fused" with the well-being of the other (it's provocative in the sense that the language of "fusion" is something most psychologists avoid). What is radical about Christian love is that Jesus calls us to love beyond our spouse, beyond our immediate, nuclear family: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13). There is a beautiful and deep sense in which our "self" is given and "lost" for the sake of the other's well-being and flourishing.
St. John the Cross (living before the rise of the modern "self") takes a stab at describing the mystery of oneness in friendship-love: "in the transformation of love each gives possession of self to the other, and each leaves and exchanges self for the other; thus, each one lives in the other and is the other, and both are one in the transformation of love."
This is a bold challenge to describe love, the dismantling of boundaries, and the mystery of oneness: "each lives in the other and is the other, both are one in the transformation of love."
For the purposes of this blog and my own passion, I have a deep interest in this subject pertaining to love between men and women. Beck obviously widens the circle much broader and for good reason.