This post is part of the February Synchroblog “Cross Gender Friendships”. I will list the links to all the contributions at the end of this post as soon as they are available.
“What we lack is an imagination for an intimacy that is friendship.” David Wood
“Friendship between a man and a woman can be a medium for radical personal and shared transformation, that such an undertaking is eminently Christian.” Wendy M. Wright
“Intimacy could be described as our capacity for closeness and tenderness toward things…Intimacy lets itself out and lets the other in. It makes all love possible.” Richard Rohr
“The way to learn to become like Jesus is to love…The only way we can learn how to love is to practice it in close relationship.” Kathy Escobar
I am looking forward to the Sacred Friendship Gathering coming up in April in Chicago. The men and women gathering together have a social imagination for intimacy between men and women in Christian community. In most Christian communities in America friendliness between men and women is a given. The question focuses on friendship between sexes as an intimate relationship--platonic intimacy.
At Bold Boundaries we are going to have a groundbreaking conversation on intimacy, friendship, and sexuality. We would love to see you there.
I purposely placed friendship in between intimacy and sexuality because for much of twentieth century many Christians thought sex and intimacy were one and the same. All real love was sexual (or romantic). Real intimacy was sexual intimacy.
Intimacy and Female-Autonomy in Male-Female Love
Arguably, the big turning point during the last century came when second-wave feminists argued it was intimacy which was at the heart of female sexuality not the big “O.” This shifted female sexuality bound up to patriarchal oriented sex.
Intimacy, sexuality, marriage, and friendship have never been the same in the Western world. Even Christians who are not sympathetic to second-wave feminists have been impacted.
To say intimacy is self-disclosure is popular but that does not capture the dynamic in its fullness.
Defining intimacy is not as easy it seems. Even in books devoted to the subject one finds different meanings or no stated definitions at all. Is it just mere disclosure of one’s inner state? Is it synonymous with sex? Is it just transparent dialogue? Believe it or not, there is no monolithic definition of intimacy.
To say intimacy is self-disclosure is popular but that does not capture the dynamic in its fullness. A wholehearted openness to the other, affection (may include sex but doesn’t have to), instrumentality (help for a greater good), trust, enjoyment of the other without possession, reciprocity, self-disclosure, and interdependence are some of the defining qualities to intimacy in twenty-first century discourse on adult intimacy.
The interdependence of adult intimacy means at the very minimum that the persons engaging in closeness have a sense of agency, ownership, and voice. This also ties into why friendship has reemerged as an important form of intimacy. Intimacy in its most robust form is an expression of deep personal friendship.
Liberation, equality, authenticity, dignity, agency, ownership, enjoyment without possession, other-centeredness, desire, passion, presence, attentiveness, attunement, tenderness—all these and more have emerged through the presence of intimacy.
It was through intimacy that women gained agency, ownership, voice, and therefore a sense of their “true self” in and through close relationship. This was never possible in man’s world dominated by patriarchy. Francine Klugsbrun in a 1985 self-help marriage manual wrote,” Of all the components of marriage, intimacy is probably the quality most longed for.”
Intimacy understood through the lens of second-wave feminism ushered the notion of healthy deep friendship within marriage and beyond.
As a result, contemporary intimacy and friendship share something in common that previous patriarchal marriages did not: a sense of shared autonomy in close relationships. This is at the heart of what pastor Kathy Escobar means when she says “Friendship diffuses power.”
Evangelicals are still playing catch up to the notion of friendship (or healthy intimacy where neither self is dominated by the other or under the other) in marriage. As Mark Driscoll observed in his recent book, Real Marriage that he read 187 books on marriage and not one of them had a chapter or major section on marital friendship.
But evangelicals are moving that way. In her 2008 book, Liberating Tradition, Kristina LaCelle-Peterson connects second-wave feminism views of intimacy with friendship and why it should impact marriage:
“The use of power in a friendship destroys intimacy to the degree that it is used, because one person does not have the freedom to fully express herself or himself. If we understand the importance of both autonomy and commitment in friendship, we should be able to see the value of this balance in the friendship between people who are headed toward or already in marriage.”
The Turn Toward the Post-Romantic Age
Several twentieth century feminists were critical of romantic love. Wendy Langford wrote, “We may be seduced by the plea that love itself cannot be wrong, because the language of the heart is surely the language of freedom itself. Such romanticism, however, may be precisely what conceals power the most” (Revolution of the Heart).
Christians and others have been increasingly critical of intense romantic intimacy as the fullness of love and intimacy.
Psychotherapist Robert Augustus Masters says, “Romance drugs us; love awakens us.” I suggest this is the fallout for a culture (including the evangelical sub-culture) that has been so infatuated with marriage and the romantic couple. Well meaning evangelicals have glorified the romantic couple; they implicitly and explicitly made “one flesh” as synonymous with the twentieth century intimate romantic couple.
Bella DePaulo writes of how the twentieth century produced “the glorification of the couple.” She notes, “The reigning American worldview may well represent one of the narrowest construals of intimacy ever imagined” (Singled Out). Many Christians still cling to twentieth century meanings of a fundamentalist romantic coupledom portraying it as a timeless, unchanging view of “one flesh.”
In their book, Beyond Companionship published over 20 years ago, Christian authors Diana Garland and David Garland (yes, they’re married to each other) are critical of intimacy as intense romantic couple talk as the ultimate in love, “God never told Adam and Eve to sit down, knee to knee, and look meaningfully into each other’s eyes. He gave them—us—work to do.” In another place they write: “Marriage is not ultimate.”
It could be argued that second-wave feminism contributed to what Author Pamela Haag has suggested we now live in: the post-romantic age. In her view, in the twentieth century overhype of romantic intimacy has set up Americans for “halfhearted” or “semi-happy marriages.” Perhaps “post-romantic” does fit even though romantic utopia is still in the air that we breathe.
Americans enamored with intense romantic closeness have discovered something deep wisdom from the Christian spiritual friendship tradition already knew: human intimacy on earth is a powerful reality but total, complete, and perfect intimacy has an eschatological dimension to it. In the Christian tradition of spiritual friendship the community of friendship is not complete and perfect until the full manifestation of the kingdom of God.
Does this mean we jettison romantic intimacy?
Yes and no.
As I see it, the post-romantic age has opened the door for post-romantic intimacies. Romantic love is still a powerful intimacy. But it is not the only intimacy. The Christian tradition of spiritual friendship offers deep wisdom and deep intimacies (plural—not just marriage) for men and women in the twenty-first century.
Marriage and Spiritual Friendship in the Twenty-First Century
Contra many Christians caught up in twentieth century romantic idealism, the Christian tradition distances itself from marriage as the only real and authentic intimate relationship.
Even conservative evangelicals are beginning to acknowledge this. It’s difficult for conservative evangelicals to admit they have protected a twentieth century cultural fixation of intense romantic heterosexual intimacy as the only real relationship: Difficult, because conservative evangelicals have a continuous message Christians should not be conformed to contemporary culture.
Consider Barry Danylak, author of Redeeming Singleness published by conservative evangelical publisher, Crossway Publishers in 2010 endorsed by Gospel Coalition advocate John Piper:
“In an age in which evangelical Christianity has been strongly identified with the politically active “family values movement,” Jesus’ statements in reference to family relationships sometimes seem surprising… A genuine tension emerges in Jesus’ perspective on family. Jesus inaugurates the presence of a “new family”—the spiritual family of those who believe on him and share in the bond and life of the Spirit… Neither can be ignored or neglected from the standpoint of our responsibilities… There are numerous indications in the New Testament of the deep spiritual intimacy.”
Deep spiritual intimacy?
Transcending even evangelical romantic intimacy of the twentieth century?
It is Jesus who calls us to spiritual intimacy with one another.
Protestants have been slow to recognize the robust tradition of spiritual friendship. Evangelicals, with their idealization of romantic intimacy, have been even slower.
Julie Hanlon Rubio rightly notes in her book on A Christian Theology of Marriage and Family, “Family, however, is not a central idea in the New Testament. In fact, it hardly mentions family at all. Moreover, in those few passages in which the New Testament writers do take up the subject of marriage their words are often more disabling than affirming.”
In the post-romantic age, spiritual intimacy opens the door for healthy spiritual friendship both in marriage and friendship between the sexes beyond marriage as an expression of robust personal community.
Liberation, equality, authenticity, dignity, agency, ownership, enjoyment without possession, other-centeredness, desire, passion, presence, attentiveness, attunement, tenderness—all these are expressions of love inside twenty-first century intimate relationships.
In the post-romantic age, marital intimacy is a chastened intimacy grounded in sexual integrity but open for the vastness of spiritual intimacy between men and women who are not married to each other.
What we leave behind from the twentieth century romantic intimacy is artificial boundaries: only romantic couples can spend time alone, delight in each other’s beauty, experience emotional intimacy, be affectionate toward one another, go out for coffee, movies, dinner, and so on.
Jesus is calling men and women in the twenty-first century - married or not - to the vast richness of eschatological intimacy we are moving toward.
Is this risky? It's possible. Can it lead to adultery? Possible. Can it lead to toxic emotional obsession? Possible. Can it lead to unhealthy triangulation? Possible. Isn’t there relational upheaval going on in our culture? Yes.
These are all the common reasons for not taking steps to practice deep friendship between the sexes when neither one has the opportunity for romantic trajectory.
So should we avoid possibilities to love one another deeply?
I think the most compelling response to that is: God is love. Jesus, himself, commanded us to love one another. As we seek to nurture spiritual depth in marriage and in friendship as Christians we are also nurturing an attentiveness to God’s presence. At the very heart of the Christian narrative is that men and women attend to the dynamic presence of God—deep beauty, generous heart, and immediate Communion of Love.
We are called to imitate God’s robust, faithful, deep, extravagant love to others—not just our spouses only. All the qualities and virtues of the Spirit’s presence in our lives bear fruit in spiritual friendships. Do not underestimate the powerful reality of the Spirit to lead men and women to overcome sexism, objectification, and ambivalence. The ultimate end of gender equality is not romance. Nor is it gender detachment. The end of gender equality is that men and women love one another because God is love.
“Intimacy,” writes Philip Sheldrake, “is a good word for expressing the side of our sexuality that is involved in all of our close relationships…Only within our experience of intimacy with other people, whether genital or not, may we learn a way of being fully present to both ourselves and to others rather than being superficial and remote in our emotional lives” (Befriending our Desires).
Spiritual intimacy means we are open to the spirit of intimacy discerning the difference between deep love and sexual integrity. In the words of Robert Augustus Masters: “Yes, we can love more than one person deeply, but this does not mean that we can or need to be sexual with them! Putting a limit on whom we are sexual with does not necessarily put a limit on whom we are loving deeply!” (Transformation Through Intimacy).
"Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God." 1 John 4:7
Liberation, equality, authenticity, dignity, agency, ownership, enjoyment without possession, other-centeredness, desire, passion, presence, attentiveness, attunement, tenderness. This is not for something in the faraway future. This is following Jesus in the post-romantic age.
In closing, I invite all who read this to the groundbreaking conversation we are having in April at the Sacred Friendship Gathering. The early bird registration is $85 until February 25th. After that it is still pretty low for a 2 day gathering: only $100 (meals included).
Kathy Escobar: The Road to Equality is Paved with Friendship
Jim Henderson: Jesus Had A Thing For Women and SO DO I
Chris Jeffries: Best of Both
Jeremy Myers: Are Cross-Gender Friendships Possible?
Lynne Tait: Little Boxes
Glenn Hager: Sluts and Horndogs
Jennifer Ould: A Different Kind of Valentine
Maria K. Anderson: Myth and Reality: Cross-Gender Friendships
Liz Dyer: Cross Gender Friendships And The Church
Marta Layton: True Friendship: Two Bodies, One Soul
Jonalyn Fincher: Why I Don't Give out Sex Like Gold Star Stickers
Karl Wheeler: Friends at First Sight
Elizabeth Chapin: Fifty Shades of Friendship
Doug Webster: Expressing Love Outside of Romance