In October 1939, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a speech in which he famously likened Russia to a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, and then pondered over the likely key to understanding that country’s motivations. In Chapter 4 of Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions, Dan Brennan’s argument changes gear. It is as if he is approaching open country after having had to negotiate the civic roadblocks and pot-holes that Freud, Hollywood and an overly cautious evangelical approach have put in the way of a frank discussion of relations between the sexes. Or to follow Churchill, Brennan at last feels comfortable enough to suggest a key which might unlock the mysterious compulsion that exists within human beings to encounter or know (in all its rich shades of meaning) the opposite sex. That key, in Brennan’s own words, ‘a rich relational and theological concept’, is union. By union or oneness, he appears to mean a spiritual progression for humans in their relationships towards embodying the unity experienced by the Triune God.
Knowing that he is opening up a huge field for discussion, Brennan focuses on theology and scriptural interpretation to ground his arguments. He comes up with twelve reasons (if this seems dry, the reality is different) why the concept of sacred union should impact upon our understanding of gender relations. The Genesis story describes man and woman as made in the image of God, and their human spirituality and sexuality as ‘very good’. The new order in Christ ushers in new social possibilities in all relationships, and the brother-sister metaphor used by Paul sanctions healthy intimacy. Furthermore, the metaphors employed by Paul in his letters for the close solidarity of the Church are not segregated by sex, nor are the ‘one anothers’ of welcome, prayer, holy greeting and confession. Marriage is a human, rather than heavenly sacrament and points to a transcendental union. And attachment in friendship can be stronger than some familial bonds. The ‘breathtaking beauty’ of triune love celebrates the difference of persons, and if the role of women has historically been undervalued, it is still possible to uncover examples of female spiritual leadership in the Old and New Testaments, and most importantly there are feminine metaphors, as well as masculine, for God in Scripture. Lastly, there is the example of Jesus, whose close friendships with women prefigure the possibility of intimate but non-sexual association.
So far, so good, but it will be obvious that in what is only a 28 page chapter, there is little space to explore these lines of enquiry in great depth, nor indeed to support them with historical research. In any case that isn’t really Brennan’s style. The most strongly developed argument in the chapter – that mature Christians will have to learn to accept that sexual desire is present naturally within male-female friendships and does not equate to a desire for bedroom sex – emerges perhaps a little haphazardly from these twelve themes. But then again, this over-arching argument for a healthy blurring of agape and eros in non-marital friendship between the sexes has to compete with several other themes that are picked up, explored and fairly quickly dropped; the importance of developing a sexual language within marriage, the strengths to be derived from women-only friendships; and the inevitable development of cross-gender friendships as women move increasingly on an equal footing with men in the workplace.
If Brennan’s argumentation is a little discursive this is not really a problem, because for my money he is at his most engaging when dealing with the elephant in the room – whether as ‘embodied sexual beings’ we dare to handle the risk of friendship. This is a subject that he keeps circling back to, and calls forth his most courageous and passionate prose. The chapter concludes with an appeal for Christians to be sexual mystics, as there is, he claims, a deep ambiguity to sexuality and male-female intimacy that cannot be contained within the husband-wife relationship.
Personally I applaud his courage in suggesting this, and am convinced on the intellectual level, but on a personal level, I would have liked some examples of how Dan Brennan views his women friends, or indeed how his wife viewed her best friend during graduate days who was a married man. I guess this would call for an extraordinary degree of honesty, since the ‘creative tension’ of maintaining strong cross-gender friendships outside marriage inevitably means in some cases (but not all) dealing with – that is acknowledging and transcending – sexual attraction. In reality this will be an everyday occurrence for most Christians in modern society, but the ‘how-tos’ don’t appear to be dealt with so far in Sacred Unions. Or am I missing something?