"He makes us love all that he loves, for his love's sake,
and makes us take pleasure in him and all his works."
Julian of Norwich
"The recovery of play is an invitation to friendship. Playfulness means the devalutation of control. Play involves the capacity to trust and surrender. So also with friendship... In the midst of giving myself over to the experience, there seems to be a spontaneous movement from my own enjoyment to enjoyment of my friend." James Nelson, The Intimate Connection
I remember reading this four plus years ago before I had written Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions. Is there is a healthy wildness to play between cross-gender friends that is delightfully free and a deep affirmation of God's splendor and goodness for men and women?
I think play is definitely a part of what is included for men and women to be fully alive. If I could translate St. Irenaeus quote for today: "The glory of God is men and women fully alive--and playing together." Is there is a healthy wildness to play between cross-gender friends that delightfully promotes the glory of God in the here and now?
In many church systems, being a "good Christian" means staying clear of pleasure, delight, play, and deep beauty between men and women as friends. In these church systems, embodiment and pleasure between men and women as "good Christians" means sex, romance, and marriage.
But what if play between men and women is a redemptive path to taste the fullness, richness, and depth of their humanity to the glory of God's pleasure?
In many church systems, embodiment and pleasure between men and women as "good Christians" means sex, romance, and marriage, and nothing else.
What does the glory of God in the fullness of embodied wholeness and richness between men and women look like? Is it a given that we must resort to the character Harry's famous line in the movie, When Harry Met Sally, that men and women who are not married to each other can't play together because the sex part gets in the way?
Being good Christian men and women in many church systems often means rigidity, distance, space, fear, disembodiment, separation, guilt, rules, and control. In evangelical Christianity, this is the limit of shared humanity between men and women in many church systems.
Is this all there is to embodied wholeness and richness between men and women? Can we as men and women hunger for a full-blooded "Yes!" to an embodied wholeness and healthiness of play between men and women?
The "boundaries of human hope" are largely determined and shaped by the richness of our eschatological imagination. A popular interpretation within the evangelical tradtion was a pessimistic view of social flourishing. Eschatology focused upon an individualistic deliverance from a world in serious and irreparable decline.
For many evangelicals rooted in conservative tradition, cross-gender friendship is something mired in an unrealistic utopian vision. Sharon Hodde Miller speaks for those within this when she writes, "Regarding sin, we exist in a state of already and not yet: Christ has already come to redeem the world, but that redemption has not yet been fully realized. That said, we are not living in Eden so we must grapple with the reality of sin in this world."
Women should be familiar with such eschatological gloom and doom. Many well-intentioned evangelicals strongly objected to women's right to vote. Giving women the right to vote was a sign of social disorder and "the last days." History is filled with strong opposition by Christians to something they thought not possible as a social good.
Although there have been others who have not bought into such eschatological pessimism, N.T. Wright's recent book, Surprised by Hope argues for radical reorientation of our hope, future, resurrection, and the "new heavens and new earth."
To embrace social challenges of sexism, patriarchy, objectification, violence, and oppression one must have the imagination to see another alternative. As Adrienne Rich put it, "If the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment."
Paul Wadell is among those who "believe the life of Jesus, and especially his death, and resurrection, permanently changed the world... people do not have to be governed by fear and mistrust, by calculated self-interest, by defensiveness or insecurity." Instead, "they can afford to be generous, to risk the vulnerability of love... What God has done in Christ invited radical reconsideration of what it means to be human."
Norman Wirzba sees the power of the new creation in this present age: "Through the power of the resurrection all things can become 'new,' meaning they can become most fully what they were always and originally meant to be" (Living the Sabbath). Instead of taking us out of this present world, the new creation is about us discovering the wild beauty of God now.
Wildness of God's Beauty
More and more theologians are moving away from a hypermasculinized lens of seeing the world as if men were the "masters and possessors of nature" (Descartes). They are embracing a "wildness" to God's beauty not only in the future but in the present world--precisely because it is foundational to who God is.
Reformed author Belden Lane highlights this this of wildness in God's beauty in his recent book, Ravished by Beauty. He quotes John Muir, "in God's wildness lies the hope of the world." Lane writes, "This is a God extravagant in beauty, reckless in love... a God of cosmic wonder I'm not able to pin down and control."
He goes onto to confess that too often Christians have "attributed all wildness and exuberance to sin."
This however, can't possibly be the case if there is a wildness to God's beauty.
Sabbath and Eternal Life
"Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath while still in this world, unless one is initiated in the appreciation of eternal life, one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come" (Abraham Joshua Heschel).
For many within the evangelical tradition "eternal life" speaks of a privatized, individualistic spirituality with so little social relevance and something to experience after we die. As frequently construed, it has little robustness to interpersonal communion between men and women in the here and now.
But what if the Sabbath and eternal life were expressions of the "boundaries of human hope" between men and women presently? What if they were seen not as an escape from humanity but as humans fully alive, present, and authentic with God and each other?
Jesus came that men and women might have "abundant life" (John 10:10). Was Jesus romanticizing something unrealistic? Something utopian for the next life? Or perhaps we have settled for the abundant life to mean nor more than being a "good Christian" and attending church. What if though, the abundant life meant experiencing the fullness of life between men and women in marriage and friendship in this present world?
What if it means opening ourselves to the wild beauty of God?
Even though we are in the "already but not yet" perhaps we can embody a better world beyond objectification, sexism, pornography, adultery, and violence by nurturing delight, play, and mutuality between the sexes in this present world.
What if we could be fully human and open ourselves up to the wildness of play between men and women not just in our marriages but in our friendships?
An essential dynamic in play is surrender, to be open, to be spontaneous, to fully "let go" and enjoy the moment and a deeper connection with the other. We have trivialized and sexualized play to be only possible and authentic for adults if it is contained in romance.
What if we could nurture a playfulness between men and women as friends? Surrender for men of course, is usually interpreted as weakness or a sign of giving up. Surrender for women on the other hand, is something to be feared for it can lead to abusiveness and unhealthy situations. We cannot deny the realities of unhealthy surrender.
But what if surrender were an ongoing expression of a deepening mutual connection for a greater oneness between men and women? What if mutual surrender meant a greater love and human authenticity?