I was neck-deep in writing in my new book about how a Freudian-romantic view of marriage inspires “a cult of two” among Christians when this blog post written by Kelly Needham, comes across my Twitter feed: “A New Kind of Couple: When Best Friends Become Romantic.” It was a new article in John Piper's Desiring God web page.
Liberty professor Karen Swallow Prior favorably tweeted the link saying we needed to be wise and cautious in our friendships. That got my attention so I clicked on the link and began reading. Now even though I have many red flags about Liberty University these days, I respect Karen and I appreciate her presence on Twitter. We may have our differences but I respect her and I admire her as a sister in Christ.
Before I start to dive in, I want to say my unending, passionate curiosity in friendship between men and women has led me to come across stories of unspeakable riches in close friendships. I can’t pinpoint when it started. Was it in 2004? 2005? For sure it was there in 2006.
In my research on friendship I have discovered so many stories of deep friendship, soul friendship, spiritual friendship, sacred friendship, and intimate friendship.
I think of the nineteenth century Catholic priest John Henry Newman. When one of his closest friends of many years passed away, he told others, “I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or a wife’s but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be any greater, or any one’s sorrow greater, than mine” (Newman’s Unquiet Grave). Newman and his friend, St John Ambrose had worked closely together for thirty years. He told many people that St. John, “loved me with an intensity of love, which is unaccountable.”
I could easily multiply these stories of deep intense love among close friends, ad infinitum.
With the advent of queer scholarship in recent decades, we do have a number of people scrutinizing many same-sex friendship stories that exuded deep closeness before heterosexuality became known as a distinct phenomenon. Some queer scholars see repressed sex behind all same-sex closeness. Other queer scholars however, affirm passionate, platonic same-sex friendships.
Before there was queer scholarship, there was Freud. No matter how one slices it, during the twentieth century Freud’s theories were popularized, romantic closeness, sexual closeness, and friendship closeness became enmeshed. Many Christians embrace this enmeshed kind of Freudian closeness as "biblical."
A Cult of Two or Dyads?
In conservative Christians circles, this enmeshment birthed, “a cult of two.” I got this phrase from psychologist Robert Augustus Masters. For me, it so described what I came up against when many evangelicals freaked out over my blogging about deep closeness between cross-sex friends, or posting about this intimacy in social media, or in my book. This cult of two prizes exclusive uniqueness, irreplaceability, specialness as markers for romantic exclusivity.
Prior was a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog. When the female editors of that blog sniffed out what I was writing on in public a few years ago, they had a hyperreaction to any deep closeness between a man and a woman in friendship. In one blog post aimed specifically at me and author Jonalyn Fincher, the female writer (not Prior) suggested this intimacy was a form of “emotional dating.” She suggested in strong terms cross-sex friends had to find intimacy not in any dyad but in the church.
In her mind, Christians who advocated close friendships between the sexes were crossing these lines that belonged solely to romantic love.
Hyperreaction to heterosexual intimacy between friends is what happens when you have conflated romantic closeness (read “exclusive”closeness) and God’s closeness between a man and a woman. Only the cult of two in romantic closeness is supposed to enjoy a deep knowing of God’s closeness.
But what does it mean for any two people (same-sex, cross-sex, queer, gay, bisexual, and so on) who deeply desire to know God’s closeness as a shared connection as mere friends? Can we distinguish between God’s closeness in romantic intimacy and God’s closeness in friendship?
How could we not expect to see God’s closeness in the best of friendships?
Nowhere in the Bible do we find God’s abiding presence is exclusively for the romantic two.
Nowhere in the Bible is God’s enduring love exclusively for romantic coupledom.
God’s immediate affection is not exclusively for romantic twosome (heterosexual, gay, queer, or others). To know God’s deep presence in physical presence (touch, taste, smell, hear, see) is not exclusively known through romantic closeness.
Why would any Christian be against two friends (gay, straight, queer, bi, lesbian) knowing the glorious depth of God's abiding, beautiful, and sacred presence experienced over years in close friendship?
What about those friendship stories in the Old Testament? Do you see romantic closeness when Ruth says to Naomi, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall people be my people” (Ruth 1:16)? Is there romantic closeness when God met Moses in Exodus 33:11, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man to his friend”? Both in the Old and New Testaments, Moses meeting with God was an extraordinary encounter. Do you see romantic closeness in David’s intense grief over the death of Jonathan? In his lamenting, David cries out, “Your love for me was more wonderful than women” (2 Samuel 1:26).
It appears that one of the anxious fears that Needham has toward same-sex friendships is that a deep intense affection is only supposed to be for a romantic cult of two. At some point for her dyadic intimacy turns sinful and is an idol. But she never addresses the intentional depth of Ruth’s commitment to stay with Naomi. She never offers any explanation for the intense bond between David and Jonathan. Nor does she offer any analysis of what it means for a friend to stick closer than a brother in light of those friendship stories.
Further, she doesn’t offer any wisdom on the depth of love and companionship the Psalmist portrays when he writes about the betrayal of an intimate friend: “But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship as we walked with the throng at the house of God” (Psalm 55:12-14).
So much anguish expressed by the Psalmist in this Psalm over the betrayal of friendship. Betrayal by an intimate is a “less-than-desirable side effect” that brings this intense sense of alienation and loss for the Psalmist. Needham never engages the dyadic rupture in Psalm 55. Of course, this Psalm assumes a deep dyadic attachment that Needham never touches.
But What About Romanticizing?
As far as I can tell, Needham is quite anxious and uncomfortable when same-sex best friends cross the line into “romanticizing.” In a tweet to me, Karen Swallow Prior said the post wasn't about healthy friendship but the romanticizing of friendship. What are these best friends doing for Needham to think they are becoming romantic? Of course, Needham’s response to same-sex friends in this post was similar to the reaction Her.menuetics blog had toward me when the writer thought close cross-sex friendship dyads were, “emotional dating.”
Now, forgive me, if I am wrong, but “romance” to me has a certain, intentional trajectory with a hope of joining the bodies in romantic sex. Yes, there are gifts, dinners, a certain courting, celebrating unique milestones, but all with a conscious trajectory of a romantic-sexual exclusivity. Their end goal is an exclusive romantic couple.
I was struck by how Needham followed a similar path that two other women did in responding to intimate cross-gender friendship in the Her.meneutics blog. Needham, in drawing lines around same-sex best friends, shows no awareness of multitudes of stories of deep closeness in friendship that reflects God’s heart within Christian tradition. She jumps immediately into asserting our culture is perpetuating this lie and nowhere in her post does she ever engage the richness of friendship in Christian tradition.
We cannot rush past this serious omission on Needham’s part. Professor Marianne Legault asks, “What woman has not, at some point in her life, decried the limits that society attempts, even today, to impose on her?... Female friendship is one of those realities that has been ignored or eradicated by patriarchal society” (Female Intimacies in Seventeenth-Century Literature).
In Deborah Tannen’s new book on female friendship, You’re the Only One I Can Tell, she writes, “I heard a seemingly limitless range of words and phrases that women used when referring to—and thinking about—the women friends they cherish…A close friend can resemble not only a romantic partner but also a sister, a daughter, a mother, a mentor, a therapist, a confessor—or all at once."
Now, I’m guessing that Needham would say Tannen’s book falls under the cultural lie. But in my research on friendships within Christian tradition (same-sex and cross-sex), I find many Christians describing their best friendships with Tannen’s words, “a seemingly limitless range of words and phrases.” Case in point, John Newman’s language to describe his friendship with St. John and others.
Needham, doesn’t want an unlimited language among “best friends” (and apparently Prior doesn’t either). I’m scratching my head over this one. What do they fear? Would they “romanticize” (or perhaps sexualize) all these stories of passionate, deep expressions of Christian friendship I have read in the past twelve years? In bypassing all these paired Christian friendships throughout history, Needham never distinguishes between a dyad which is not exclusive but still two people with a deep history of friendship and the marital couple which is exclusive.
For example, my research has ended up with the same kind of findings that author Marilyn Yalom did in her recent book about female friendships among nuns in the Middle Ages; “Over and over again in our study of female friends, we have found examples of women loving other women passionately and even physically, with caresses and kisses, though not necessarily sexually.”
Can contemporary women not tell the spiritual and psychological difference between romantic intimacy and a tender, loving, deep, dyadic friendship? Between a courting behavior and conversation with an end goal of exclusive romantic and sexual closeness as a couple versus two friends freely delighting in one another, enjoying God’s wild beauty and feasting on friendship? I would think healthy and wise Christian discernment would mean mature Christian women be able to tell the difference.
In my immediate community over the years no one has been confused as to where the marital boundaries are and where the friendship boundaries are. Joint decision-making in our marriage is still an exclusive attunement, moral sensitivity, passionate engagement, give-and-take between Sheila (my wife) and myself. No one else comes inside our marital attunement. It is fully mutual. There is mutual awareness and attentiveness for short-term goals and long-range plans that is exclusively ours. Now, on issues where we are looking for wisdom, we do consult friends but we are committed to us two. No one comes in between us in our ongoing decision-making process.
The fact is, my ongoing passion into deep friendships with women has been an ongoing joint-decision making process and discernment with Sheila every step of the way. Sheila and I both have intense friendships with others and these friendships have enriched our mutual discernment process instead of being a threat or a distraction. Thirty-five and half years into marriage, Sheila and I are in tune with each other with a moral sensitivity to one another and our relationship. We enjoy a special, tender-hearted, passionate, marital friendship with one another that no one comes in between.
We have had to both navigate through a couple of toxic friendships—friendships that did not turn out the way we had hoped and we had to move on. Yes, it is mature and wise to move on from toxic friendships. But in all our friendships we have been there for each other, first and foremost. My wife can tell the difference between beautiful committed marital friendship and a deep close platonic dyad. I believe many godly women can. I know differentiated women (single or married) who are not afraid of deep closeness with men in the public square.
Sheila is not threatened by an Oprah and Gayle King kind of closeness. She would see it as beautiful. I suspect Needham would be frightened by such a passionate friendship. Pastor and spiritual director Angie Schuller Wyatt in her book, God and Boobs, “Forming positive and nurturing friendships is much like dating and falling in love...Like romantic relationships, friendship is about us.” She then goes to add, “Of the positive contributions Oprah has made to the world, I’d put the role model of her friendship with Gayle King at the top of the list.”
What Happens When We Become Evangelical Gnostics
No question, I did have a great difficulty with Needham’s inability to distinguish best friend dyads from martial bonds, her complete disregard for the stories of friendship in the Bible, and her unwillingness to address friendship dyads throughout history. Perhaps my greatest difficulty though, was her evangelical Gnosticism.
It’s her Gnosticism that drives a wedge between exclusive marriage and friendships dyads. Did any of the Bible verses she quoted prove her case against healthy, deep friendship dyads? Stories of dyads where friends use a limitless range of words to describe the feast of their friendship? Absolutely not! It was her evangelical Gnosticism that is driving the wedge.
As author Tara Owens states in her book, Embracing the Body: Finding God in Flesh and Bone, “Gnosticism is used to refer to any time we privilege the spiritual over the material.” I’m so grateful for a number of good books by women and men that are now engaging evangelical Gnosticism. Owens’ book is a good book for the subject. But there are a growing number of other books, too.
We need female pastors, female spiritual directors, female therapists, female theologians, and other women in the faith to help us move past an evangelical Gnosticism that many Christians passively inherited from patriarchy. A Christianity infused with Gnosticism has not been good for women.
What do evangelical gnostics fear about close embodied friendships? Everything!
Before I go further, if you are still with me but thinking this is too long already, Needham’s post was quite substantial and long, word-wise. Hopefully, you’ll stay with me to the end.
Like most evangelical males, I tenaciously held to sex as the supreme end of physical connection; when I started to read about Christian women expounding the significance of the body in friendship, twelve years ago, I was, ah, caught with my pants down, so to speak. I loved sex! But the importance of body in friendship? I never gave it much thought back until I started to read Christian women on Jesus-centered friendship, on Gospel friendship.
Then the connection became quite clear.
Women’s bodies, women’s minds within their bodies, women’s desires within their bodies—the fullness of a woman’s physical presence—was not permitted to get near men in spiritual friendship. The great spiritual men of the faith who have written some great classic on spiritual friendship feared the presence of women’s bodies in the human closeness of friendship. They privileged the spiritual (i.e. which in many times translated the rational) over flesh and flesh represented women’s bodies.
Over the last fifty years you have all these books in the evangelical world emphasizing the connection of the body to sex with virtually no attention to the significance of the body in friendship. The most recent ones are Beth Felker Jones’ Faithful, Matthew Lee Anderson’s Earthen Vessels, and you have Rob Moll’s What Your Body Knows About God, for a brief sample. Meanwhile, you have a number of books written by men who write books on friendship like they were Christian gnostics—a body-denying spirituality, a body-anxious avoidance of friendship.
God loves the physical. God showed up in a body. The incarnation and the resurrection gloriously proclaim a God who loves the body, who loves sensuality, who gave Himself up for women’s bodies and men’s bodies. He gave Himself up not just so we could have passionate and romantic sex. Sex is good and important but it doesn’t even come close to exhausting a full-blooded embodiment in marriage or friendship.
Ponder how the words of John Henry Newman affirms an embodied spirituality in friendship that Needham wants us to avoid:
I praise God for having given me for 32 years not merely an affectionate friend, but a help and stay such as a guardian from above might be, as making my path easy to me in difficulties, and cheering me by his sunny presence…I cannot think how I could have done anything without him, and as, knowing how timorous and unready I am, therefore thankful God gave him to me….he came to me as Ruth to Naomi.
As long as we remain blind to our anxieties to the importance of God’s presence in our friendships, I am sure we are going to read more posts like Needham’s privileging the spiritual over the material in friendship.
But twenty years plus of neuroscience has caught many evangelical gnostics by surprise. This new science is teaching us all about the importance of attunement in physical presence in adult closeness not just in sex but in human relationships like friendship.
Neuroscience has kind of unveiled this neurotic kind of egalitarianism we have in the Western world at this hour. Women’s voices, women's bodies are becoming more and more recognized while an evangelical man and woman who are not married to each other are fearful of a tender, eye-to-eye, loving, deep conversation with no one else around. There is this deep anxiety among Christian leaders (and part of the fears our legitimate, for both women and men) to feel relaxed, safe, free, and expansive when a male body and a female body are behind closed doors with no one else physically present. This is not the shalom of Gospel friendship.
The simple response to this fear of romanticizing is to recognize there is a psychological and spiritual difference between romantic courting/love and God's abundant joy, pleasure, and shalom in friendship. It seems like the romantic cult of two wants to hoard God's abundant presence, pleasure, and delight for just this cult of two; they are frightfully nervous that no woman or man will be able to tell the difference between enjoying God's closeness in romantic love and enjoying God's closeness in friendship.
I've met some incredible men and women who have done the psychological-spiritual work to move past the paralyzing anxiety that is underneath the romantic cult of two. They understand the economic, spiritual, physical, psychological alienation that happens when we herd men and women into accepting this nervous cult of two. I have learned so much from women who moved past their fears and were fully present to me in their bodies in friendship. Female friends who have lovingly, tenderly, beautifully squeezed my hand as we were holding hands while praying. Female friends whose voices communicated affectionate and tender delight in me in the presence of others and behind closed doors. From a female friend who blew me a kiss while we were doing a conversation across the States using Facebook video. I have seen so much of the beauty and tenderness of Christ in women’s eyes. I have also been blessed by their passionate intelligence. A Gospel friendship welcomes a full embodied engagement of best friends.