Monday, February 13, 2012

Interview with Dan Brennan

One of the best books that I read last year was Dan Brennan's book Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions. In it, he discusses the history of cross-gender friendships. I've been in touch with Dan and am really looking forward to meeting him in April at the Sacred Friendship Gathering.

Today I'm happy to be sharing an interview I did with Dan about his book, about the conference, and about overcoming cultural biases against male-female friendships.


Alise Write: Why did you settle on “sacred” for your description of cross-gender friendships?

Dan Brennan: First, I wanted a description which connected with a reverence for God’s presence in the midst of the relational experience but also something beyond a specific tradition like evangelicals, Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox. I wanted something which suggested there were God-honoring parameters for intimate friendships within marriage and community. Second, I wanted something that spoke of a deep sexual reverence and integrity within marriage and community.

My intention was to explore something that would be considered provocative, controversial, and out of the box. But love can be provocative and still be sacred. Jesus was definitely provocative. Sacred fit for not just the friendship angle but for the passion angle. In our hyperromantic culture, passion in romance is good or sacred. Passion in friendship is suspicious or inappropriate. I wanted to challenge that cultural bias.

AW: What kind of push-back from the evangelical community have you received because of your stance on cross-gender friendships? Where have you found encouragement?

DB: On the push-back question, these are some responses I've received. I’m na├»ve. I haven’t come to grips with the danger story and the slippery slope. I don’t understand the pastoral issues involved. I don’t have a clue how many pastors fall into sexual sin. Don’t use your freedom for your own personal agenda. Friendship is defined by the church/community. I have to be willing to die to my cross-gender friendships for the sake of the church/community.

Some of my greatest encouragement has come from people who have read my book and have felt like a whole new world of freedom has opened for them. Some have felt so isolated from their community or wrestling with shame for innocent but close friendships. I have so many stories now of people sharing with me their tears of joy and relief.

I must not fail to mention though, I’ve received such ongoing encouragement from those closest to me as well as my friends who see good in this. The deep blessing of Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions is the community of friends it has birthed.

AW: In the book you note that there is a difference between those in the evangelical tradition and those in the Catholic tradition when it comes to cross-gendered friendships. What can those of us in the evangelical community learn from our Catholic brothers and sisters?

DB: There is a rich stream of cross-gender friendship stories in Catholic tradition. Not all Catholics would embrace intimate friendships with the opposite sex beyond marriage. Many Catholic communities feared any closeness between men and women. Nevertheless, there are a number of sacred cross-gender friendships among Catholics throughout history.

Next, Catholics appeal to the Trinity as a Communion of Persons. That community is Love. And both men and women are created in the image of God who is this Partnership of Love. What this means for Catholics is that we, as men and women, single or married, find our deepest meaning, happiness, and fulfillment when we imitate a life of ongoing intimacy and communion (God’s image and our identity) with others including our cross-gender friends. We were made to be in communion with each other. This oneness for us includes marriage but also happens outside of it (singles) and beyond it (transmarital).

Third, I believe Pope John Paul II’s books on Love and Responsibility and Theology of the Body have much more depth cultivating an attraction for the sacred and the beautiful in male-female friendships than typical evangelical books on male-female relationships. In Love and Responsibility he puts forth his foundational principle: “A person must not merely be the means to an end for another person.”

In other words, we should never treat persons as instruments for achieving our own agendas. This has immense implications for cross-gender friendships. This is foundational for a life-giving, holiness and reverence between the sexes in marriage and friendship.

AW: How have your female friendships shaped your view of your relationship with Christ?

DB: I’ve experienced the deep beauty of Christ in my female friends. I’ve discovered a profound beauty in Christ through my female friends. My language has changed in the sense that the reality of beauty has become part of my daily vocabulary I use to describe other things. I attribute that to seeing the beauty of Christ through my friends.

To elaborate on the beauty of Christ, I was shaped by Eastern Orthodox David Bentley Hart’s explication of beauty. To see the world (and your opposite sex friends) as beautiful from God is a “moral education of desire, the redemption of vision” as he puts it. Christ’s beauty comes through my friendships.

I’ve also come to see Christ’s heart for deep freedom and justice for women. As my friendships with women deepened, I read and reread the Gospel stories where Jesus engaged women, talked with women, touched women, and revealed himself to them. Jesus interacted with women in a way that was utterly different from the sexism in his culture.

AW:  How do you think that sexism in the Church plays into cross-gender friendships?

DB: In Christian tradition the telos of any healthy, life-giving friendship is not sacrifice, but mutuality, equal-regard, oneness, and unrestricted flourishing. If you were a male that is. Only on rare occasions have women had that opportunity. For men what has distinguished friendship from marriage was a voluntary choice to enter into a relationship freely with a telos of unrestricted flourishing and equal regard.

Sexism in the Church undermines cross-gender friendship when there is no freedom for unrestricted mutuality, unrestricted flourishing, equal-regard in love and oneness in marriage, friendship, or community. It is friendship with a telos that offers a deep relational and communal path out of centuries of institutional and social sexism in marriage, community, and leadership.

Sexism happens (from either gender) when we are unable to seek the full good and beautiful of the other’s particularity because of conventions and rules of the old order. Love compels us to move beyond sexism to embrace a deep ethic of responsibility to openness, beauty, and mutuality.

Women perpetuate sexism when they see men with nothing but sexual intentions beneath the surface. When they are unable to enter into a deep communion of mutuality and trust with men (husbands or friends) they were created for and use them for their own purposes.

Men perpetuate sexism when they seek to dominate women, fear them as sexual temptations, or avoid intimacy with them because of their own immaturity. In the current evangelical sub-culture men are taught to win women by intense romantic intimacy or avoid intimacy with them altogether. At the heart of sexism is seeing the other as a sexual object and not able to see them as a whole person with gifts, freedom, and dignity. Certain romantic scripts perpetuate sexism in our churches.

AW: How would you encourage people to move beyond the danger myth with regard to cross-gender friendships?

DB: If we are followers of Christ my first response would be to read afresh the Gospel stories of Jesus as he encountered and engaged women. By no means am I advocating a simplistic WWJD approach. But as followers of Jesus, both men and women, we are to be imitators of Christ. This is what sets us apart from all others. He never used others as a means for an instrumental end. This is why he called disciples his friends and why he was a friend of sinners.

Second, I would encourage men and women to cultivate an attraction for the good and beautiful in members of the opposite sex. We are nuturing an ethical responsibility by beginning to nurture an attraction for the good and the beautiful toward our spouses, toward our cross-gender friends in the appropriate context. God has poured out a distinctive and utterly unique beauty into those particular people we meet who are members of the opposite sex. You may have to start slow and be patient. You may have to practice. But begin cultivating an attraction for the good and beautiful in your opposite sex neighbor.

AW: Tell us a little bit about the Sacred Friendship Gathering. Who is this for? What are some of the topics that will be discussed?

DB: This is for everyone who wants to nurture goodness and beauty in cross-gender friendships in their marriages, churches and community. God’s goodness can be tasted and his beauty can be experienced in cross-gender friendship. We don’t have to compromise a deep sexual integrity within our marriage or cross-gender friendship. If you are interested in sexual integrity within marriage but wishing to extend it beyond marriage into friendship and community, this gathering is for you!

We’re going to have some seasoned perspectives from those who practiced cross-gender friendships. They’re going to share some powerful stories from their own experience. We are going to talk about healing, intimacy, leadership, and wholeness. We are also going to have some time for Q & A and to hear other stories too.

Seating is limited by design. We want this to be something special and significant for all who come. Don’t wait until the last minute to register. We want to reach out to all who are deeply interested in this and want to gather together for this ground-breaking event.


Thanks, Dan, for sharing with us today! Register for the Sacred Friendship Gathering here. You can follow Dan on Facebook or on Twitter or check out his blog. And be sure to pick up a copy of Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions for much more about this topic.


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