And so—as we continue to work our way through Aimee Byrd’s book, Why Can’t We Be Friends?—we continue to find stuff to talk about. In part I suppose that this is because life between the sexes is variegated and complex, and not a simple and straightforward relationship, like that which exists between Point A and Point B. Even Agur was outdone by the way of a man with a maid (Prov. 30:19), and when we add the complexities of multiple relationships—married and unmarried, flirting and not flirting, attractive and not so much, stupid and wise, and so on—we are getting into post-grad physics levels.
The Rousseau Rag:
There is some good stuff in this chapter, but there is also an unfortunate tendency to undo it all a moment later, like a comedian stepping on his lines.
For example, there was this promising section where she started in on Rousseau. “Rousseau sounds pretty self-absorbed, does he not?” (Loc. 1422). And then, quoting Alan Jacobs, “Rousseau’s self-deception is immense” (Loc. 1425).
Now I can take a good deal of this kind of thing, as I am sure most of you realize. In fact, I could eat it out of the can with a spoon. Rousseau is, in my view, the font all the even-numbered troubles of the modern world, and many of the odd ones. He was an intellectual pestilence who rode into human history on a sickly green horse. So right about this time, I am sitting up straighter in my chair, hoping in my heart that Aimee continues to lay it on thick.
But then she says this:
“Rousseau’s notion of friendship sounds an awful lot like the view of those in the church who want to impose restrictions on friendship between the sexes” (Loc. 1429).
So those who keep their distance from the comely Mrs. Schwartz are treating her “as threats to [their] imperial selves” (Loc. 1431).
In a moment we are going to be talking about a different category mistake, but this is just a sloppy one. She was comparing the different approaches to friendship taken by Rousseau and Samuel Johnson, Rousseau playing it selfishly and Samuel Johnson taking a much more Christian and self-giving approach. Thus far the comparison was great.
Selfishness is a motive that can operate in any realm. Speaking as a pastor with theological interests, I am here to testify that selfishness gets around. Sure, a person might stay away from Mrs. Schwartz for selfish motives (worried about threat levels), but is it possible (just possible) that someone might read Aimee’s book and cultivate a friendship with her for selfish motives? Is it possible?
And is it possible that men might observe the Pence rule because they are mortifying their own inclinations in order to love and protect others?
Friends and Family:
I mentioned category mistakes a moment ago. One particular category mistake is afflicting the argument of this book throughout, and here it is. A friend is not the same thing as a brother or a sister. They are not interchangeable terms. What Aimee is doing is this: she is getting authoritative scriptural voltage from the fact that we are a family, we are the family of God, we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and then she quietly transfers the mojo of all of that over to the quite separate category of friends.
But brothers and sisters are chosen for us. They are a given. They are assigned. We don’t get to be selective about our brothers and sisters the way we are supposed to be selective about our friends. We don’t pick our natural brothers and sisters, and we don’t pick our spiritual brothers and sisters. We do choose our friends. And even there, as we choose friends who will be a blessing to us in our sanctification—those who walk with the wise will be wise (Prov. 13:20)—we need to be reminded that this spiritual discipline might be confused with something that is purely natural. Natural affinity with certain others is a creational good, as Aimee Byrd recognizes.
“we have a greater natural affection toward some brothers and sisters in God’s household than toward others” (Loc. 1386).
This is why, in the family of God, precisely because we are dealing with brothers and sisters, we are called upon to love the unlovely (Luke 14:13). This natural affinity, in which birds of a feather flock together, is not a bad thing at all. God be praised for it. But it is not what all that household of God stuff in the New Testament is talking about.
I am prepared to agree with her on this point: “True friendship, or spiritual friendship, is not disposable” (Loc. 1342).
But I am not prepared to derive my obligations to friends from what the Scriptures teach me about my brothers and sisters in the Lord—because they are in overlapping categories, not identical categories.
Aelred of Rievaulx was a medieval thinker who has become the patron saint of those advocating “spiritual friendship.” In my recent interactions with the Revoice conference, I have had occasion to deal with this idea, which is, to remind you, a singularly bad one. Wesley Hill, one of the speakers at Revoice, and the author of Spiritual Friendship, relies heavily on the insights of Aelred.
Hill argues—persuasively to my mind—that Aelred was gay, and was a practitioner of what Hill lifts up as a better way for those who are same-sex attracted—celibate friendships, grounded in a certain approach to the spiritual disciplines.
It is striking to me that Aimee Byrd is drawing water from the same well. I am interested to see that Aelred comes up in this book too.
“For this reason, spiritual friendship among those of us who are united in Christ is eternal and is the highest form of friendship” (Loc. 1345).
“Aelred points to creation in order to teach us about the higher blessing of friendship” (Loc. 1366).
But to be fair to her, she does put some distance between the two approaches in a footnote.
“Some associate Aelred of Rievaulx with the contemporary Spiritual Friendship movement that has been popularized by Wesley Hill, a self-identifying gay celibate Christian. While I share Hill’s enthusiasm for Aelred’s work, I am interacting with Aelred outside the influence of that movement” (Loc. 1509).
Yes, I am happy to acknowledge that Aimee Byrd’s mistake was not derived from Wesley Hill, and that Wesley Hill’s mistake is not derived from Byrd. But they are both making the same mistake, and it appears that Aelred has something to do with it.
What mistake is it? It is the mistake of believing that because having the combustible materials all assembled is not the same thing as having a fire, you are therefore safe from fire if you are thinking correctly about the combustible materials you have assembled. It is the mistake of believing that those homeowners who are careful not to pile oily rags in the corner of the garage are somehow disciples of Rousseau.
Like So Many Dried Beetles:
I would like to make one more point in today’s installment, but I am sure it will be a point I will need to return to, if only to answer questions I provoked.
“Harsh boundaries pretend that ‘fornication is like the flu, and you accidentally catch it if you happen to be close to a woman” (Loc. 1438).
I believe that Aimee Byrd does not really understand how temptation works for men. This by itself is not a problem at all—I don’t think God wants men and women to understand one another at that level. So the problem is not that she doesn’t understand it. The problem is that she thinks she does, and she has undertaken to teach us all about it. The difficulty is her thundering naiveté, trying to pass itself off as theologically sophisticated analysis.
So when it comes to analyzing our temptations and lusts, we men need someone like John Owen to pin them to a poster board, like so many dried beetles, with all the parts labeled and with relevant scriptural passages attached. We don’t need someone to waltz in saying that they have sprinkled the holistic hooba dust of some contemporary thinkers over the top of it and it will be trust-me-totally fine.
Let us take one hundred men and one hundred women, and run a thought experiment. Let us grant all one hundred of those women telepathic powers, such that for one solid day they see, know, and understand the temptations that are going through the one hundred men’s minds, and without the men knowing they are being watched. Let us also suppose—to keep this thought experiment pure and high-minded—that the men are doing extraordinarily well in their walk with God, and that we are making the women privy to temptations only, and not to actual sexual sins. We are catching all these men on a good day. Nevertheless, these women are getting an eyeful when it comes to the frequency and nature of these temptations. They have a front row seat. Moreover, they are looking at these temptations from the side, and not from within, not from the man’s perspective—looking at them from within would make them too sympathetic, too much of a participant. So throughout the experiment they are and remain feminine spectators.
Now, what do you think the result would be—apart from those women never speaking to those men again?