In his post on ‘Top Gear’ spirituality, John H identifies a number of the things that I find most frustrating about many attempts in the Church to connect with men and with the superficial analysis that often surrounds the ‘feminization of the Church’ narrative. It is profoundly depressing to witness the tendency to respond to the Church’s failures to engage men with some puerile masculine rebranding exercise. We are told that we need MAN hymns and MAN faith, just as we need MAN crisps, or MAN chocolate bars, or MAN drinks, or MAN yoghurt (heaven forfend that we get touched by those woman cooties!).
Behind all of these things, it seems to me, there lies a deep crisis in contemporary masculinity, which in turn is a symptom of a crisis of contemporary society. Unfortunately, few people have put their finger upon this. The crisis of masculinity is in many respects prompted by economic and political factors, resulting from the combination of several developments: the movement from a production to a service-based economy, the rise of a unisex workforce and society, the triumph of the model of gender neutral companionate marriage between individuals, the movement from labour to consumers, the rise of the ‘pink police state’ (with its aversion to risk and responsibility), the valuation of ‘empowerment’ over the responsible exercise and development of our own power (moving us from a population that responsibly exercises power in self-governance and over against other agencies to one that relates to state and business more as children might do to their parent), the ascent of a therapeutic understanding of human nature, the resistance to and diminishing of the figure and authority of the father, the shrinking of the size and realm of the family, etc.
The general effect of all of these things has been to infantilize the population and to create a situation within which masculine identity will find it hard to articulate itself. Whereas in most human societies masculinity is associated with adult traits, roles, and functions involving responsibility, agency, production, authority, protection, and provision, within our society masculinity and its associated forms of homosociality tend to be associated with an adolescent irresponsibility—with such things as sports, beer, ‘banter’, computer games, casual sexism and pornography. Masculine identity starts to become focused upon the things that we consume—the movies that we watch, the clothes that we wear, the music that we listen to, the beer that we drink, the games and sports that we follow, the pornography that we jerk off to—rather than upon the things that we produce and the responsibilities that we have. Even the ‘transgressive’ modes of masculine identity in our society tend to be puerile.
It is important to see, I believe, that the malaise of masculinity is a symptom of a deeper and more profound contemporary social and existential malaise, a malaise that affects everyone. It is one of the principal effects of a maternalistic society that instructs us all to ‘enjoy!’ and to ‘play nicely and be safe!’ This society infantilizes us in many ways. It infantilizes us by seeking to nullify the reality of sexual difference, establishing a unisex order of docile and childlike consumers, persons who retain childish modes of sexual differentiation, if they are sexually differentiated at all. The child is not sexually differentiated in the way that the mature adult is. The category of ‘man’ often stands in contrast, not so much to ‘woman’ as to ‘child’. As we move away from the realm of childhood, while many of the superficial differences once established between boys and girls lose their significance, deeper and more significant differences start to develop—the differences between men and women. The reality of sexual difference becomes a fact of profounder consequence as we become adults, rather than the more superficial ‘pink’ vs. ‘blue’ mode of sexual difference that pertains to immature stages of our development (and which is perpetuated in the MAN branding that I have mentioned).
Our society infantilizes us by marginalizing and reinventing the family. Our identities as fathers and husbands, mothers and wives are privatized and sentimentalized. We are taught to relate to each other in the public realm as detached androgynous individuals, rather than as those with the adult dignity of representing familial identity and as mature members of our sex. Marriage and the family are reinvented as modes of privatized lifestyle consumption, rather than being treated as the responsible form of life that corresponds to the activity of reproduction, a form of life which commits us to realities far greater than ourselves, and which ought to be granted public recognition and allowed to exert its power. Same-sex marriage is an important example of this development, rendering the reproductive potential of the family an accidental feature and identifying the telos of marriage chiefly as one of personal fulfilment and validation.
Our society infantilizes us by denying any differences that aren’t superficial. Gender-bending identities are celebrated as they supposedly neutralize the reality of sexual difference. Sexual difference implies that there is a particular difference that matters, rather than just a myriad differences in flux, a situation in which all differences are ultimately reduced to indifference, no one difference being any more significant than any other. An impotent and purely cosmetic diversity is championed. Whether you are a Buddhist, a Muslim, an atheist, or a Christian, it doesn’t matter. It’s all good and we are all the same underneath. All that really matters is that we are nice to each other.
Our society infantilizes us by constantly assuring us that we are OK. If anything is wrong, it is someone else’s responsibility and we just need to kick up a fuss until someone else addresses it for us. We are validated and affirmed, our wills massaged by advertising, our existential hunger assuaged by consumption and a sex-saturated media, our spiritual need palliated by therapy and pharmaceuticals, any desire for transcendence and escape from the crushing immanence amply answered in the faux transgression of sexual adventures, any reflection arrested by the opiate of a ceaselessly stimulating entertainment culture.
Our society infantilizes us through its supposed neutralization of the risks and stakes of life. Society is just play: nothing has deep significance. The culture of ‘safe sex’ is a particularly important example of this (married couples don’t have ‘safe sex’, nor—according to the way that the terminology is used—are they ‘sexually active’). This culture springs from the same sources that produce the academic belief in religion whose truth and power are matters of indifference, or interpretations of texts which amount to nothing more than labile mockeries of the wills of their readers. It is a world of a numbing acedia, of listless wills, of actions shorn of consequence, a world from whose sullen slowness of love we weakly seek to arouse ourselves through fleshly pleasures. Academia, like sex—like life in general—is a fundamentally masturbatory game that we are playing. No one is dying or being damned. This is life lived with emotional and spiritual prophylactics.
Many people seem to be oblivious to the significance of our culture’s hostility to the relationship between sex and procreativity and its dogmatic normalization of non-procreative sexual relations. Procreation means that sex is never just about us: it draws us out into the world in responsible and committed action. Procreation presents us with a world with stakes, where actions have consequences. Procreation means that we must approach sex—like life, like truth, like God—from a position of commitment and responsibility to something greater than our own will and pleasure. This is why the normalization of non-procreative sex is such an important battle for those who want to resist the notion that we live in a world with high moral and existential stakes, stakes that we don’t get to choose for ourselves.
This brave new world poses particular problems for masculine identity, just as traditional masculine identity poses particular problems for this brave new world. Despite the far greater social pressures and expectations that can accompany the latter, masculinity is almost always more fragile than femininity. While womanliness is more of a concrete reality expressed in the form and processes of women’s bodies (e.g. the possession of a womb and breasts and the experience of a menstrual cycle), manliness has less certain of a bodily grounding and consequently involves a more pressing existential need to be demonstrated in action, requiring a realm within which men’s mettle can be proved. Women naturally have the bodily capacity to bear and nurse a child, establishing and representing the most primal human bonds. By contrast, beyond the act of insemination—which could quite easily be done without him—the man plays little bodily part in the process of reproduction. Having hardly any share in the reproductive labour through which women typically demonstrate a unique and immediate importance of their own, the man must establish the significance of his existence otherwise. The reproductive significance and dignity of motherhood has a bodily immediacy and rootedness that is not so easily effaced. While our awareness of them has been dulled, the reality and significance of the inner bonds of society that women are particularly capable of forging and representing haven’t disappeared from view.
In contrast to women, men’s sexual and reproductive function belongs chiefly to the realm of external action and is of short duration, rather than being long-lasting reproductive labour that occurs within their own bodies. As men’s bodies lack the reproductive significance and power that women’s bodies possess within themselves, the value of men and their bodies must rest far more heavily upon external action and production (this is not to deny women’s identities are also implicated in this realm, but to state that women as a group have much less existential weight riding upon their achievement within it). Men are driven beyond themselves to produce meaning.
Men’s identity is more directly contingent upon, has thrived against the backdrop of, and is more fitted to symbolize an external realm of risk, danger, and meaning, a world with high spiritual stakes, of meaningful action and production, a world where differences and oppositions exist and matter, a world of authority and duty, a world that stands over against us, with its own moral order that we must uphold and advance, a world where claims are pressed upon us and which demands our loyalty and commitment. Men have a hunger for their work to have meaning: such a world answers this hunger. Such a world summons men to such virtues as they know that they were born for: to resolution, responsibility, strength of principle, confidence, assertiveness, determination, decisiveness, dedication, moral and intellectual seriousness, uprightness, firmness, dependability, bravery, courage, enterprise, honour, practicality, authority, dutifulness, heroism, daring, intrepidity, leadership, fortitude, perseverance, longsuffering, accountability, forthrightness, diligence, self-discipline, justice, self-controlled passion, independence, thickness of skin, self-mastery, strength of will and nerve, purposefulness, self-sacrifice, resourcefulness, loyalty, toughness of mind, grit, moral backbone, etc. Such a world calls us to become much more than we already are.
Strong masculinity depends heavily upon the existence of such a world and it also brings such a world to light, much as femininity has a unique capacity for bringing the world of society’s inner bonds and communion to light (this world has faced many assaults of its own, assaults that merit their own treatment, infantilizing women in different ways). Robust masculinity can reveal a world with differences, oppositions, and struggles that matter, with high spiritual stakes, with truths and authorities that demand our loyalties, with an existence that must be lived from a position of dangerous commitment, and with life and death decisions that must be made. In order to establish the new social order of indifferent difference, of playing nicely and enjoying safely, this masculinity must be stifled.
Genuine masculinity is thus a threat to the contemporary social order of nice and safe enjoyment, a sanitized social order predicated upon the denial of such a world. In order to sustain this social order, masculinity must be domesticated and infantilized. A neutralized masculinity will be socially and politically quiescent. Men must become preoccupied with such things as trivial differences between sports teams, and rendered less concerned about any differences that the truth might produce. Any masculine urge for world-engaging and world-changing action must be expended in the ersatz realities of sports, entertainment, games, and porn, thereby reduced to impotence.
The dynamics of this wider social order are also found in the Church. The Church often no longer represents a forceful presence in our society, as we become more preoccupied with petty differences amongst ourselves. We expend litres of ink commenting on trivialities of our entertainment culture while bemoaning the rudeness of anyone who might directly challenge heresy: they aren’t playing the game of theology nicely! A serious faith is exchanged for one that is entertaining, diverting, or otherwise appealing. As our sense of the life and death character of the spiritual stakes and consequence of our actions is dulled, our understanding of the faith becomes more therapeutic in character. Our sense of divine authority is weakened, especially as it is exercised in Scripture. The transcendence of God is gradually occluded.
This spiritual malaise in the Church, just as in the wider cultural order, depends in large measure upon the emasculation and domestication of men. As I have argued in the past, a strong male—and masculine—pastorate can have the salutary effect of bringing to light spiritual realities that the modern order seeks to exclude from our vision. Unfortunately, a preoccupation with a laddish Christianity—with the superficiality of MAN faith—merely perpetuates the problem. In our concern to recover a lost masculinity, we easily forget that masculinity will only ever be recovered indirectly—as we recover the reality that masculinity was about. The recovery of Christian masculinity will only occur as we commit ourselves to the restoration of biblical Christianity and the recovery of the weight and stakes of its moral universe. It is only within this moral universe that a healthy Christian masculinity—far from the macho posturing of many contemporary parodies—will thrive.