The question, “What does it mean to be a man?” has occasioned a severe crisis in modern masculinity. It is a crisis first of all because men are largely uncertain of the answer. In turn, men who crave fulfillment of their masculinity search for answers both from culture and other sources. The answers are almost always inadequate, and in the resulting uncertainty these men grasp onto to anemic, misplaced, or exaggerated masculine tropes to resolve the crisis. The result, often as not, is either a powerless, flaccid masculinity, or an exaggerated, blustering masculinity. Neither truly satisfies the heart.
In my last post I highlighted this current crisis in masculinity and evaluated an inadequate answer to that crisis, the one offered by Jack Donovan’s The Way of Men. While, on the whole, I found the arguments of that particular book troublesome, there was nevertheless within it an important kernel of wisdom. Donovan challenged me to think of the difference between “being a good man” and “being good at being a man.” This key distinction highlighted the fact that many modern visions of masculinity begin with the wrong question—they have failed to acknowledge that goodness alone is insufficient to answer to call to masculine identity. They have also failed to acknowledge the degree to which “being good at being a man” is culturally determined.
Nevertheless, I believe that there is a core identity for masculinity that transcends culture and time, and I believe this especially because I am a Christian. I believe that masculinity was created by God for His own good pleasure, and that there should therefore be something constitutive of my specifically Christian masculinity. What, then, are the God-given, God-designed factors of my gender that contribute to my unique identity and mission in the world? I am well aware of what it means to be a good man after the pattern of my faith, but what will it mean for me to be good at being a man after that same pattern? When I ask this question, however, I come up immediately against a problem, because in this circumstance Scripture does not easily provide answers. Scripture readily informs me what it means to be a good man, but has nothing direct to say about being good at being a man. I am left, then, to attempt to imagine some answers by means of introspection, and then to test the validity of those answers against the cultural witness. If my reflections are close to the truth, then I expect they will further illuminate the crisis in masculinity.
So, when I consider my own soul, desires, and needs as a Christian man, what things do I think are constitutive of that identity? I believe I can perceive two things.
First, to be a man I require a purpose. More than simply a goal or a dream, I need an overarching drive to which I can submit my strength. Strength, here, is critical. Often I perceive that theories of masculinity focus on strength as an area of unique masculinity. This is undoubtedly accurate, and yet as a Christian I cannot accept a thesis which presumes that power exists for its own sake. Strength is always for a purpose, and more critical than acknowledging my strength is identifying the purpose to which I am designed to subsume it. We might think of this as illustrated in the difference between potential and kinetic energy—potential is energy in possibility, kinetic is energy in use. To simply acknowledge strength is to acknowledge a potential, whereas to identify a purpose is to identify a place of kinesis—of pouring out, of expense. Therefore I am aware, as a man, that in my body I have been given a kind of energy for work. To the degree that I am able to marshal that energy into the service of that work, and to the degree that I can perceive the ultimate end of that work, to that same degree I expect I will find some fulfillment in my manhood. If I find that I am spending my strength on things that are of no real value, or of wasting it, or of not utilizing it, then in time I despair in my masculinity. This explains in part why men feel less like men when they are out of work, and also why certain trades are valued as meaningful above all others. The carpenter uniquely expresses purpose in all he makes—his energy generates tangible and identifiable products. For him, purpose and work are simply and clearly aligned.
Second, to be a man I require the company of other men. Society is insufficient to transmit manhood to me, what I need and crave is the company of other men. The roots of this, I believe, are in the fact that masculinity in itself is something transmitted from man to man, men to men, from the mature to the immature, and especially from fathers to sons. To view this from another perspective, and to be further explicit, a woman simply cannot give me masculinity—only other men can do this. Men need other men to be and become men.
Once we have found the company of other men, one of the things we will do together is compete, and this aspect of competition is important in the extreme. In the company of other men, we naturally compete with one another in order to discover our limits, to push ourselves farther, to discover new goals, to uncover areas of particular strength, and to learn our particular weaknesses. The competition is both physical and mental. In the most elemental sense, boys need to wrestle with their fathers to learn these limits and boundaries. This competition produces self-awareness—it is a critical part of my own identity that I know what I am capable of, what parts of my strength I can trust, and it is only in the iron-sharpening-iron crucible of male friendship that I truly test myself. It also provides space in which men can learn what it means to take risks. In the end, my need for the companionship of other men points to the reality that manhood is a thing handed on. The man who strives to discover his manhood on his own always flounders—like a son without a (or with an inadequate) father-figure, he is always fighting against an invisible enemy, never satisfied or relaxed in his identity. To be fully men we require the gift of a blessing from another man. And this fact in turn illuminates the universal and almost elemental desire for initiation—men, striving to be men, create tests and conditions which can ‘prove’ their manhood.
If these two needs are accurate markers of masculine identity (and I believe they are), then in reflection they render all the more striking the cultural changes which aggravate this crisis further. Consider, for a moment, how for the majority of recorded history men have been men in these kinds of communities. In fact, men were able to be men because society itself was structured in such a way that it favored these elemental needs in masculine identity. Women, up until the industrial revolution, were house-bound to the children they reared. Mistresses of the home and family, women had a place to exercise that unique function to which their gender drew them. In turn, men worked, converting their strength into provision for the family. Socially and governmentally, men formed companies with other men, and in these companies they governed, challenged one another, discussed, invented, and performed those tasks necessary for society. Thus, purpose and community were uniquely expressed in social conditions which allowed men to be men and know what it meant to be a man. It is critical, therefore, that we acknowledge that the changes brought about by the industrial revolution and the women’s rights movements fundamentally changed the field where heretofore men had expressed their masculinity. Society has been architecturally reshaped according to new structures and needs, to the degree that anything that smacks of the old masculinity is immediately rendered suspect under the aegis of the new. Transitions from male-only leadership to male and female leadership have been married to contempt for the old order and for manhood itself. This means that today’s articulations of masculine identity—those offered by culture specifically—are generated by a society which in many ways is inimical to manhood itself.
This has generated a climate which is not only suspicious of masculinity, but one that pleasures itself on ridiculing it outright. Think of a representative television man, or father, who is not the butt of most of the jokes, simple in his desires or a captive to his sexuality, never exercising in strength but ever in foolishness. The very idea of a “man-cave” is stated as a kind of concession to the liability of masculinity—this place you might be allowed to have, the one secret, tasteless place where you’ll be able to “be a man” (but please keep it all there). There is a tacit dismissal of male hobbies as wasteful or ridiculous, ever open to a kind of social criticism. Further, there has been persistent ridicule of the male-only friendships. Men who seek out other men in fellowship and exclude women as a precondition of the friendship are considered with suspicion. The strength of men is today considered a liability. Not only are men dangerous and untrustworthy, the rise of a machine age and a diversified workforce (read: women in the workforce) has had the consequence of reducing the number of places where men can exercise their strength for a purpose as men. With all of these together, the crisis is further intensified because our culture actively and progressively communicates that there is nothing either distinctive or particularly worthwhile about the male gender, and that the male gender in exclusive community is a liability. Other than our ability to sire children, as a gender our purpose and our communities are ridiculed. The crisis is therefore acute because everything around us appears to be against us.
Lest you accuse me of chauvinism, this is not a simple complaint that we’ve lost our playhouse—the playhouse, unexpectedly enough, was actually critical to our identity in transmission. This is not to say that there were not abuses in power, nor that change was entirely ill-conceived, merely that we have not sufficiently accounted for the social cost of the changes. C.S. Lewis once said the following in his magnum opus on educational philosophy, The Abolition of Man: “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” Men, without their masculinity, will perpetually struggle to bear fruit in life. The man without purpose will struggle to utilize his strength for any good means. The man without the company of other men will never know himself or his limits well enough to exercise them. At the same time, we must acknowledge that the climate of the world has changed to such a degree that it is useless to wish that the clock be turned back. We cannot attain masculine identity by attempting to reassert a kind of mastery over others. We have lost that battle, there is no going back, and we must now uncover new ways to express our elemental masculinity.
What do we need, then? We need a place where we can be men in companionship with other men, challenging, pressing toward excellence. We need a place where we can discover our purpose, that special place where we are called to utilize our strength for some good end. And through this we require the blessing of other men both on our purpose and our strength, to be initiated into manhood by the structured and ceremonial actions of older, mature men.
It seems to me that these kinds of actions are uniquely possible within the Church. First of all, it is possible because we draw our fundamental identity from the Fatherhood of God. God as Father is a more elemental necessity than perhaps we have yet acknowledged, for in the same way that all male identity is passed on from man to man, we receive our identity from God in the same way. He gifts it to us, and we in turn wrestle with Him (which is the meaning, after all of Israel). Second, it is possible because in the Church we have the unique opportunity to bind together as men willing to compete for excellence. We can gather, and test, and grow, and rebuke, and challenge, and call out, and be iron-sharpening-iron for one another. Third, it is possible because as men in the Church we are given unique access to the understanding and development of purpose—of identifying a call, a vocation, and of pursuing that vocation with all possible strength. Lastly, (and I say this with what I recognize will be the least amount of popularity) it is possible because men in the Church are given the unique mandate to lead after the image and pattern of Christ.
Will this sufficiently answer the crisis in masculinity? It would be presumption to assume so, and yet if I feel a burden both to be a good man, and to be good at being a man, then perhaps this is a sufficient start. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go find some male friends with whom to go be a man.