June 1, 2010

Unrecognized Love (2)

I want to say a few more words about Jonathan and David based on the comment stream in the preceding post. First of all, let me clarify that my distinction between love and friendship is based on the one that C.S. Lewis made some years ago. While he went too far in his efforts to draw hard boundaries between “the four loves” — failing to recognize how in actual usage there is significant immigration and emigration between the lands of Eros, Philia and Agapé in particular — his distinction between love and friendship is very usefully applied to the relationship of David and Jonathan. Ironically so, as it occurs in a passage in which Lewis was attempting to downplay any suggestion of Eros in that relationship. His mistake lay in trying to separate the categories of Eros and Friendship completely, even while he recognized that they can and do overlap. Beginning with that logical paradox, Lewis wrote,

[We] know that though we can have erotic love and friendship for the same person yet in some ways nothing is less like a Friendship than a love-affair. Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest. Above all, Eros (while it lasts) is necessarily between two only. But two, far from being the necessary number for Friendship, is not even the best... In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each has of God...

The homosexual theory therefore seems to me not even plausible. This is not to say that Friendship and abnormal Eros have never been combined. Certain cultures at certain periods seem to have tended to the contamination. In war-like societies it was, I think, especially likely to creep into the relation between the mature Brave and his young armour-bearer or squire. The absence of the women while you were on the war-path had no doubt something to do with it. In deciding, if we think we need or can decide, where it crept in and where it did not, we must surely be guided by the evidence. (The Four Loves, 91ff)

The passage degenerates into some rather dated language which demonstrates Lewis’ inability to distinguish homosexuality from effeminacy — really, Jack, “Pansies”? — an all too common cultural failing. The traditional patriarchal mind is horrified by the idea of a man acting like a woman, of a man treating another man like a woman, or of women acting independently of men. Ultimately, for the culture-bound heterosexist, homosexuality is “all about Eve,” and he finds it difficult to grasp that sexuality, biological sex, and gender identity are three different axes or spectra which may describe any individual person. For instance, not all gay men are effeminate, and not all effeminate men are gay — even though belief in the converse is the basis for much cultural homophobia or heterosexism, even today. It is this same cultural understanding that explicitly underlies the one biblical legal prohibition against male same-sexuality: it is understood and expressed as one man treating another like a woman. No mention is made of a man treating another as a man! Such sexual egalitarianism is inconceivable to a culture in which sex is about “use” of one by another.

In the present instance, Lewis is unable to conceive of David and Jonathan as homosexual because for him homosexuals are, as he says, “pansies.” Moreover, while intentionally setting out to “defend” David and Jonathan, Lewis outlines precisely the points of evidence which are key to reading their story. In addition to the “warrior setting” into which Lewis grudgingly and censoriously acknowledges that Eros “creeps” or can “contaminate,” the rest of the tale matches Eros far better than Friendship, by Lewis’ own description.

Jonathan and David are not simply two men brought together because of an intense common interest. They are in fact always talking to one another about their love — and it is the two of them against the world; or at least against Saul and the Court. The story begins with Jonathan’s intense attraction to David as David; he loved him as he loved his own soul, apparently on their first encounter. There is no such thing as “friendship at first sight” and this cannot be conceived simply as great admiration for a brave and daring military action. It appears that David eventually reciprocated this love — perhaps the only relationship in his life without ulterior motives. This is Love writ plain for all who care to see it. Call it “Platonic” if you will; but recall that Platonic love is based on Eros. Eros need not necessarily entail sex, since sex is one culmination of Eros but not its necessary companion, and sometimes is a stranger to it.

Finally, I want to take note of the discomfort factor that arises for so many when this possibility or reading is raised. It may stem from a need to protect the Scripture even from a hint of approbation of such a relationship. As Hooker taught, not everything in Scripture is of God, and this is an historical, not a doctrinal or legal passage. Why cite it then? Because it provides to gay men a positive image of a deep and caring love story, which happens to find itself enshrined in the tradition; and it represents and reflects the actual issues before us far better than the cultic legal prohibitions whose applicability to our present concerns is tendentious at best.

Meanwhile, it is the abreaction to the suggestion of a possibility that is so telling. Whether those who suggest that it somehow tarnishes or reduces or contaminates this love even to suggest the possibility of an erotic element are driven by heterosexism, homophobia, or mere prudery, I cannot tell.

But in closing, let me just point out that the biblical literature definitely and explicitly “eroticizes” the love of God for Israel and Israel for God — both in its successes and its failures — and no one seems to be bothered by that, or feel that it “diminishes” that love. If the church can model its relationship or that of the individual Christian with Christ upon those images, there is no reason for gay couples not to recognize in Jonathan and David something admirable for their own loving and self-giving relationships.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Murdoch Matthew said...

Tobias wonders whether resistance to the erotic element in the Jonathan-David story is "driven by heterosexism, homophobia, or mere prudery." Try obtuseness. Many people simply cannot imagine that others are different from themselves.

Regarding effeminacy, recall the film The Naked Civil Servant, in which Quentin Crisp and his friends dressed in scarves and big hats and affected feminine airs. There were no macho models for being gay -- if you were queer, that's how you were supposed to act. Here, in that era, people called one another "Mary," and "girl friend." There are realities out there, but we express them in ways we know.

I mention C. S. Lewis with trepidation, because I don't want to derail this discussion. Please, let's keep the focus on Jonathan and David. But our understanding of Lewis has been greatly furthered by John Beversluis's book C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, which holds that Lewis failed to bridge a gap between Platonism and Ockhamism. Check it out if you will, but not here.

Daniel Weir said...


Thank you for the mention of the discomfort factor. I was privileged to hear Union Seminary Professor Barbara Lundblad deliver the Kellogg Lectures at Episcopal Divinity last month. She reminded us that all of us experienced discomfort when we learned about sexual intercourse. How could do such disgusting things? But we got over it and, I hope, we'll all get beyond discomfort with this as well.


Grandmère Mimi said...

Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever about their Friendship.

Lewis' words don't ring true at all. Even lovers who are most madly in love don't always talk to each another about their love, and friends do, on occasion, talk to one another about their friendship.

As the years pass I've found that I agree less with Lewis' writings, than upon first reading.

And if the Bible is not to be besmirched with eroticism, why is Song of Songs part of the canon?

MarkBrunson said...

Lewis wasn't even a good fiction writer, let alone theologian, and his "logic" is so obviously self-serving and self-justifying that, while he may be no worse than the rest of us, he's certainly no better.

The only reason he became such a darling to Anglicans was that he wrote in a time in which Roman Catholics and fundamentalists had and still were producing fairly capable writers and apologists, and the rising interest in distinctly secular writers made the tepid theology (Cake-or-death theology) of the CofE seem like chewing on a dusty bone from an ancient tomb!

When we will be able to finally put away St. Clive-Staples-the-Mediocre's reliquary and move on?

Andrewdb said...

1. CS Lewis needs to read Deborah Tannen's _You Just Don't Understand_ about male and female communication styles before he goes off about friends concentrating on the task at hand, rather then each other. Tannen would say that is a very male model. (truthfully, her model is really about different communication styles, not purely delimited by gender).

2. Jonathan and David as positive role models for gays? Doesn't he run off and marry a woman in the end? Great model of commitment there.

Anonymous said...

Once again, argument from silence. Where, oh were, does Scripture describe David lying with Jonathan as with his many wives? It's just not there.

Even though I think one could make a case that Jonathan MIGHT have had a same sex erotic attraction to David, David's consistent lifelong pattern seems to be one of strong heterosexual erotic attractions, failing only on his deathbed.

Meanwhile, the idea that David would have brought this relationship to a priest to be blessed, abjured women for Jonathan if Jonathan had not been killed in battle, or consummated this relationship with some sort of sexual act is unsupported by the text.


Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks for the additional comments.

Murdoch, I class obtuseness as part of cultural heterosexism. As for Crisp, I also recall his line to the very "butch" bully who tries to bash him. As to Lewis, yes, easy to get sidetracked: witness some of the other comments.

Daniel, discomfort and prudery are an ironic inheritance of the strand of dualism and gnosticism that form part of the Christian heritage. Difficult to escape when not acknowledged.

Mimi, agreed. As with much, "Bluff Jack" simplifies sometimes to the point of error.

Mark, I don't want to get off onto a Lewis critique. Even bad writers (and I don't agree he was a bad writer) sometimes get things right, and the converse is true, too.

Andrew, sadly, Lewis doesn't do much reading these days. Tannen is correct, of course, and Lewis' own ignorance of women, and his ingrained misogyny, don't help. As to role models, I'm thinking more of Jonathan -- he's the committed one.

Fr. Michael, you are disagreeing with theses I have not advanced. Please reread and address, if you wish, points I've actually made. As to David, my thesis is that with him it was usually more about power than sex. As to consummation, that is actually one possible reading of 1 Samuel 20:41 -- you may reject that reading, but, there it is. You might also want to consider thinking about why the Latin bowdlerized 2 Sam 1:26. (a bowdlerization since removed in more recent editions of the Vulgate! Compare the Clementine with the Nova, for example.)

rick allen said...

Tobias, I don't think anyone has asserted it's impossible that there was an erotic relationship between David and Jonathan. "Impossible" is a pretty high bar, and frankly I don't see how one can show that any pair of friends isn't a gay couple, short of continuous 24/7 surveillance. But I think interpreting the text to find an erotic relationship far-fetched is hardly prudish or homophobic.

For example, in one of the comments to your first post you said that

"...there is a perfectly good word in Hebrew, as in Greek, to describe friends. More importantly in the current context, there is a particular office called "The King's Friend" -- and none of these terms are used of Jonathan and David."

I take it that the word you are refering to there is "re'eh." But, in fact, that word is used for the relationship between David and Jonathon, twice, in the very passage which, above, you say can be read to assert the consummation of a sexual act between David and Jonathan, 1 Samuel 20:41.

I also don't understand this claim that the Vulage was "bowdlerized." You invite comparison. Here's my text from the standard Vulgate:

doleo super te frater me Ionathan
decore nimis et amabilis super amorem mulierum

Here is the Nova Vulgata:

Doleo super te, frater mi Ionathan,
suavis nimis mihi;
mirabilis amor tuus mihi
super amorem mulierum.

I think the New Vulgate is a better translation of the existing Masoretic text, and the prior rendering a bit terse (assuming the exact same Hebrew text was before Jerome), but the first is hardly "bowdlerized"--the meaning is expressed in the first just as in the second.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Rick, not to prolong this, as I'm about to rush off to a meeting:

1. It is all of the denials of possibility that bring forth my comments. The strong reaction by you and others to my initial statement, which was of possibility, not certainty, is what is at issue.

2. I note the use of re'ah in my book: My source, the TWOT, doesn't make this note, though to cover all bases I do in R&H. (Don't always trust dictionaries.) Here it us used in the idiom for "each other" which is literally "the man and his mate/neighbor" -- this is an idiomatic usage, and doesn't have anything to do with friendship. Compare Exo 21:18; 2 Ki 3:23 for uses in reference to mutual violence and murder.

3. Check the Clementine edition, as I said. For some reason other Latin editions have "un-bowdlerized" the text which in the Clementine version adds: "sicut mater unicum amat filium suum, ita ego te diligebam." I think the old Douay-Rheims includes this. When years ago I checked the critical edition a footnote simply observed of this additional half-verse, in Latin (which I can't recall exactly) "not in the Hebrew or Greek."

Doorman-Priest said...

I love reading your work.

Murdoch Matthew said...

Some people cannot imagine that others are different from themselves, but it goes farther. If I represent the norm, what are those people doing who seem to be different? They must be rebelling against nature (me) or even intending personal criticism of my standards. How do gays offend? By existing, they call into question the worldview that left them out.