Part one if you missed it, is here.
Now if Prior were not a Christian and embraced materialism as the ultimate reality in the cosmos we could understand sexualizing intimacy. It was Malcolm Muggeridge who observed, “Sex is the mysticism of materialism and the only possible religion in a materialistic society.”
For Christians, isn’t there more to the story of intimacy than stereotyping sexual intimacy as the summum bonum of interpersonal intimacy? In the sexualized world left to us post-Freud, where we do acknowledge that we are sexual beings, isn’t there still more to human intimacy in the fullness of God’s narrative?
In a sexualized world the conflation of romantic love/sexual union and intimacy as the one and only path for closeness feeds the intimacy-starved imagination of those in power and those who are not. It breeds scenarios like the Petraeus-Broadwell affair.
But surely there is another way to reframe intimacy in the Christian narrative.
Communion, of course, is not a popular word these days as it once was in Christian tradition, but it is still alive and well among the Catholics and even among some Protestants. Kenda Creasy Dean from Princeton says, “Communion… is union with God and neighbor through the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”
Catholics like Jean Vanier and others have identified friendship as a form of communion. They believe we are all called to communion. Instead of a hermeneutics of suspicion toward intimacy, it is a hermeneutic of love and trust: “Communion is mutual trust, mutual belonging; it is the to-and-fro movement of love between two people where each one gives and receives… [it is] “mutual vulnerability and openness one to the other… To a certain extent, we lose control in our own lives when we are open to others” (italics inserted).
In our sexualized world, the only kind of intimacy that exists for most folk (Christian folk particularly) is that which practices a heartfelt, authentic openness and vulnerability toward the other on the path of romantic-sexual intimacy. One path. One meaning. One vehicle. One hope for intimacy in this world.
And this is why, for example, in a sexualized evangelical culture of suspicion it is dangerous and unchaste for a single woman to authentically open herself up to a married man in an intimate posture of robust giving and receiving. Obviously, the same suspicion exists between two people who are married but not to each other.
Openness in a sexualized culture means that any kind of surrender, accessibility, availability, uncovering, unveiling, transparency, or a bursting forth toward the other—is a message of explicit or implicit foreplay.
This requires maintaining a constant vigilance toward any lurking foreplay between a man and a woman who are open to relational beauty and goodness in the moment. In other words, friendship as intimacy, or intimacy within a mentor model is highly suspicious and to be avoided by keeping “wise boundaries.” This is what looks and feels like wisdom in a sexualized culture.
It’s a wisdom of better safe than sorry.
It’s wisdom in a culture of fear in which authentic openness is interpreted as foreplay.
However, I would submit that the Christian alternative is to desexualize intimacy, to recognize boundaries of good and beautiful as guardians for all authentic interpersonal intimacy. Embedded in these boundaries are fences of safety, goodness, and well-being as well as an ongoing openness for the deeper good and relational beauty.
What is missing in Prior’s plea against pandemonium in the mentor model is a panoramic view of interpersonal intimacy in God’s story where oneness—not orgasms—is at the heart of all human relationships. This is not hard to find. Even though there may not be explicit words of friendship in the New Testament, David J. Wood observes: “Much of the language of koinonia in the New Testament is the language of friendship: brothers, being of one spirit, having the same mind, being in one accord, and having all things in common” (The Recovery and the Promise of Friendship).
We need to reject those sexualized spiritualities that tell us: it’s either emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational distance or it’s sex. This stark choice between one or the other is essentially short-sighted pop-Freudianism veiled as wise spiritual boundaries. Sexualizing intimacy or oneness in mentoring as Prior does is just as flawed as sexualizing physical proximity as Falwell did.
While I applaud Prior’s intentional space between her and Falwell, she still seems to be held captive by a fear of relational closeness in mentoring. Yet, some of the greatest stories of mentor- protégé relationships include not just practical support but loyalty, trust, companionship, and yes, sometimes intense closeness.
We will need to understand what Jean Vanier saw when he observed, that intimacy “is a beautiful but also a dangerous thing. Beautiful because it is a new form of liberation…We are close even if we are far away. Dangerous because letting down our inner barriers means we can be easily hurt.” Beauty. Liberation. Openness.
What if Christian leaders began to reframe intimacy outside of marriage as a beautiful and dangerous thing? Do we not find in the fullness of God’s narrative a trajectory of righteousness and shalom in interpersonal intimacy—where “the wolf shall live with the lamb” (Isaiah 11:6)?
In our current sexualized world, it is tragically ironic that Christians almost without discretion view romantic intimacy as the utopia of all human relationship. But, isn’t there a danger story on that path, too? Consider a moment: date-rape, possessiveness, inordinate jealousy, stalking, domestic violence, and even murder are a part of the romantic world. Non-sexual violence happens in twenty five percent of dating relationships. And, just this morning in the news we learned of a 68 year old man charged with killing and cooking his 73 year old wife!
Adultery is not the singular dysfunction or impropriety in a world where healthy intimacy is not a given. The danger/distance warnings for romantic intimacy are nearly nonexistent in comparison to the danger/distance warnings for non-romantic intimacy. Why? I suspect the reason for that difference is the general consensus that beauty in romantic intimacy that makes it reasonable to risk facing the danger. It is my contention here that the in-breaking Beauty possible outside of marriage also makes it reasonable to risk facing the danger.
What if intimacy opened the door to an ever-deepening trust and openness within marriage and within friendships (including mentoring-friendships)? What if a hermeneutics of love governed interpersonal intimacy (not just romantic intimacy) in a sexualized world? What if we enhanced the boundaries of good and beautiful intimacy to include friendship as a healthy expression of human intimacy?
Boundaries of what is good and beautiful as we follow Jesus in the new creation makes intimacy enjoyable, mutually satisfying, and authentic within marriage but also beyond it, outside it, alongside of it—in friendship.
Authentic openness between men and women as sexual beings is possible, life-giving, good, and beautiful within the limitations of intimate friendship. Intimacy through friendship stands in stark contrast between a boundaryless, unhealthy vulnerability with no discernment and a lurking fear of closeness in a sexualized world.