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Should Men Exist?
Ideal Masculinities in the 21st Century and the Christian Gospel
I was happy recently to discover ContraPoints, the ongoing artistic cultural commentary of one Natalie Wynn, a trans woman with a graduate background who, to my great pleasure, cites the quotes she uses in her videos. (This is, by the way, the special psychosis of anyone who has been to graduate school; it’s a tick by which we are able to recognize one another.) Wynn has achieved Internet fame for “de-radicalizing” men who trend towards the explanatory value of the alt-right by engaging them in a winsome and, frankly, therapeutic manner, taking them seriously as individuals whose intellectual sickness and social isolation more than any particularly special genetic depravity makes them susceptible to the idiocy of reactionary movements online. And as she admits in this video, men seem to have two options that are both destructive for the male psyche and for male participation in contemporary society, without a third option of a credible, compelling, and constructive masculinity for the present. Men can either rage against social transitions away from the masculinities that have prevailed in the Modern West for the last few centuries, seeking to preserve them however possible, or they can listen deeply to the struggles of women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ people for liberation and seek to curtail their masculinity for the sake of accommodating them and in repentance for their passive or active complicity in oppression. Option #2 is obviously superior to Option #1, but equally obviously, Option #2 does not actually chart a path forward in terms of providing aspirational ideals for men. Men who take seriously the voices of the historically victimized are often paralyzed by fear of such complicity, and struggle to know where to place themselves on the board of contemporary society, since, on the one hand, it is not the responsibility of victims to comfort oppressors with a new sense of identity or mission and, on the other hand, part of the point of liberation is that the heroic aspirations of straight, white men are minimally to be qualified by a more even playing field with other such aspirations and, maximally, sublimated entirely as already having enjoyed an oversized amount of cultural air time.
So what is Option #3? Religiously, politically, socially, economically, and in the media, it seems like most men are floundering between Options #1 and 2, in part because what is on offer to them from our most important cultural resources trends hard in one of these two directions. Restricting myself to religion, about which I am least likely to sound stupid, it is certainly true that there is not currently much of a middle ground for men in terms of messaging, especially in the Christian world. At one pole is the traditionalist mentality, which insists on male dominance of women and the world as the divinely and naturally instituted order of things, against which contemporary society (and in many cases contemporary churches) have rebelled and which can only be set right by some strong, paternalistic, monarchic figure to come, if it is to be set right at all. Hence the love of Catholic trads for French monarchical messianism or of some Orthodox for the halcyon dream of restoring Byzantium; hence Protestant glorification of the 1950s (the closest thing to “historic Christianity” much of the Protestant world gets) and its clearer adherence to “biblical manhood and womanhood” or “masculinity and femininity.” At the other is a push for more radically egalitarian Christianity, with greater shared roles of leadership between men and women, more creativity in our constructs of God, and more deconstruction of inherited gender roles in ecclesial and non-ecclesial society. And of course, many people find themselves somewhere in the middle; plenty of Catholic, Orthodox, and otherwise conservative Protestant Christians find themselves in communions that, against their preference, empower solely male leadership and either gently or harshly patronize the desire for women to have some kind of ecclesial agency. Hence all the hem-hawing of Catholic and Orthodox hierarchs and theologians over modern attempts to restore the deaconess, despite the fact that it is obvious and inarguable that such existed in the ancient churches; hence Catholic hardlining about the impossibility of ordaining women as priests (or priestesses, as Alison Milbank would have it) despite other advances in the Church’s theology of sex and gender in society. In each of these communities, there is something dissatisfying about the notion of being a “biblical” or “Christian” or “Catholic” or “Orthodox” or whatever man that’s on offer: at best, it is often a kind of cosplay that has little or nothing to do with the lived experience of such men, especially in relationships and marriages with empowered and liberated 21st century women, and at worst, it can leave men feeling hopelessly confused about the distance between their received ideology and their reality on the ground, whether right-leaning or left-leaning. Trad men can face as much a crisis of faith in realizing that the social niche they desire to inhabit in the Church and outside of it has been dead as dirt since their grandfathers were alive and what it therefore means to connect such a gender role to the essence of the Christian faith, if one is logically honest with one’s self, as can more liberal or progressive men in finding that nearly everything either natural or nourished about their sense of masculinity is problematic, toxic, or bad.
“Should men exist?” is not principally a question that radical feminists ask—it’s a question that intelligent men ask, when they face squarely the prophetic truth-telling of the classes of people their forbears have ignored or actively harmed, and when they consider how much damage unexamined masculinities continue to wreak in homes and on the streets. Religiously, traditionalist masculinity enforced as Christian doctrine often has a poor effect on a marriage. Trads of any communion do not advertise it—because it is not good for business—but the trad way of life can destroy as many marriages as it supposedly supports. Coming out of a more conservative Orthodox world, the messaging of much convert-based Orthodoxy in America around young marriage—traditional young men will find traditional young women and raise traditional young families in the Orthodox Church(TM)—leaves out the fact that often these ideals are imposed on women who are chafed by the expectations they bring and who, in many cases, end up leaving Orthodoxy, and possibly their husbands, for safer shores after a period of longsuffering in it. This doesn’t happen to everyone—some women like the trad model—but it does happen, and it is something that young converts are unlikely to hear in their informal marital catechesis. Likewise, if this model of masculinity really works, it is surprising how many people who grow up in homes dominated by it end up bailing at the first possible opportunity: Abraham Piper, son of the evangelist of “biblical manhood and womanhood” John Piper and unofficial leader of the “exvangelical” movement, is perhaps the most relevant contemporary example. Any set of ideas is able to be judged in part by its transmissibility across generations; that so many contemporary young men as well as women flee the expectations of traditionalist masculinity implies that it is not working, just as, however, the attraction of young men raised in more liberal or progressive environments to the toxic idealism of the alt-right implies that there is little constructive being offered men in that model, either.
It is worth pointing out that, at least from within the stream of biblical interpretation common to the Christian East, “male and female” as a binary, together with the social expectations of “men” and “women” that we call gender, are not supposed to exist; in this sense the answer to the question “Should Men Exist?” is, for patristic theology, as much “No” as is the answer to the question “Should Women Exist,” at least if by “men” and “women” what we mean are human identities defined entirely by biological sex and social convention. For the “orthodox gnosticism” of the Greek Fathers, running from Origen through St. Athanasios, the Cappadocians (especially St. Gregory Nyssen), Evagrios Pontikos, and St. Maximos the Confessor, God’s creation of the human being in his image and likeness is dimly echoed in his creation of a male and female creature in Genesis 1:26-28, and the bifurcation of sex—which comes, we should remember, from the Latin seco, secare, “to cut,” meaning that to be “sexed” is to be “cut off”—is a divine palliative in foreknowledge of the Fall. That is to say, God creates a human being in his image and likeness from eternity, but what he begins to mould from the ground is a male and then a female from the male; the male and female are expected to both grow into the fullness of true humanity, but God, knowing that they will stumble in the progress towards this end, bifurcates them at their first coming to be and then gives them “skins of flesh”—that is, mortal, sarkic bodies rather than angelic ones in the traditional reading of the Greek Fathers—to match at their exile from Paradise. It is only upon the opening of their eyes by the disobedient presumption of taking from the Tree of Knowledge that they realize that they are naked, in other words, that they realize their differentiation from one another and seek to hide by means of clothing; it is only in the divine curse pronounced upon them that the subjugation of strife between the sexes is enjoined upon them (Genesis 3).
So all that follows of “biblical manhood and womanhood” in the scriptural corpus—which is, by the way, a good deal more subversive than traditional programming about that suggests, what with the abject vulnerability of Isaac’s aqedah or Jael the Kenite driving a tent peg through Sisera’s temple or Samson letting himself be tied up by Delilah or the decently homoerotic relationship of David and Jonathan or Jesus’ feminine gendering as Wisdom on at least one occasion in the Gospels, etc.—is the product of a fall, an excursus in the saga of creation that is, from the divine perspective, neither willed by God nor good in se, but rather the economic means by which God desires to reconcile all creation back to its primordial, eternal calling to be the habitation of God, in which he is “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Indeed, for St. Maximos the Confessor, this very economy was praeparatio evangelica in the sense that the virginal conception and birth of Jesus Christ from the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, reversed and obliterated the curse of sexed existence (see Ambiguum 41).
The main distinction between this kind of “orthodox gnosticism” and the “heretical gnosticism” which we typically mean when we use the word—that of Marcion or Valentinus or Basilides—is that orthodox gnostics confess what the heretical gnostics deny: the selfsame God is both the Creator of the universe and the Father of Jesus Christ, and so the corporeal creation is good insofar as it is God’s creature. But where they agree is in the notion that corporeality as we currently experience it, entropically locked down by time, space, and matter, opaque to the divine glory, and subject to generation and decay in a fleshed state, is a product of a cosmic fall of angels and humans that, in its final reversal and conquest, will leave behind a corporeal kosmos that is much more spiritual and original than the present one, one in which distinctions in this kosmos, even those perhaps temporarily instituted by God—Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female—do not obtain, since they are mediated by the cosmic stoicheia which Christ has conquered in his crucifixion, death, burial, descent, resurrection, and ascension. In Christ, we transcend the binary of “male and female,” defined by our separateness and diminution from a full humanity, and we become “men” or “women,” that is, true human beings under the idiom of maleness or femaleness which continues to be inscribed in our flesh.
I am hardly the first to notice all of this, or to say that if we simply, straightforwardly read Paul and the Fathers, especially the martyr stories,1 where male and female martyrs often transition to the opposite gender role in the course of their dying, whether through St. Perpetua becoming a man in the arena or male martyrs in the Roman army becoming “brides of Christ” at death, then it is obvious that a good deal of our inherited morality around sex and gender is more or less baseless. To clarify, I do not by that mean that Christians have resources within their tradition for sexual immorality, about which the Tradition is fairly clear, or that ordinary Christians should ignore or rebel against their ecclesial teaching about proper sexual activity. Further still, I do not mean to suggest that there are resources in the Christian Tradition available for supporting Christians in the practice of chemical, surgical, or social transitions from being men to being women.
I mean something more basic than any of that, which is that mainstream Chrsitian teachings about “masculinity” (in Latin, literally, what-it-is to be male) and “femininity” (what-it-is to be female) are generally, across the board, out of touch with the Tradition’s ancient and medieval sources. Sarah Coakley has said this better than I ever will,2 as did John Behr,3 as have many others. And to my great shame, I continued the intellectual gymnastics of insisting that deep reading of the New Testament and Early Christian literature lent itself to the continued privileging of patriarchy much longer than the evidence permits, and have only, through a second round of graduate school and three years of marriage, come around to seeing just how fictitious much complementarian theorization of gender is. But I think these realizations can help us with articulating a Christian response to male identity crisis in the 21st century, by reframing the nature of the conversation. We are not looking for a new option within the binary of the fallen world, belonging to Adam, whether for “reclaiming” masculinity or for “extinguishing” it; we are looking for how best to live the one call of Christ that lays upon men and women alike in the midst of the fallen world.
Let me, then, ask the question slightly differently: “Should Christian men exist?” The answer to that question depends entirely on what we mean by being a “Christian man.” If what we mean is a kind of worldly masculinity, reactionary or progressive, thinly baptized with a certain Christian idealism—a contemporary chivalrous tradition, a new chauvinism—then no: such is not Christian, whatever else it is or fails to be. For whatever Christianity there may have been to the medieval ideal of the knight, for example, “Christian knights” were as impossible in reality as “Christendom,” and for the same reason, that the moral demands of the Gospel transcend the strictures of this world and its structures; if you do not believe me, go read a good translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (preferably Tolkien’s) and meditate on the moralistic message of that particular Arthurian tale, which is precisely that the expectations of perfect honesty and chastity are impossible for someone who has to function in the world as a worldly warrior and noble.4 Substitute the knight for any subsequent ideal of masculinity—the early modern gentleman or the 20th century nuclear paterfamilias—and the same will ring true: each of these definitions of being men, together with their corresponding definitions of being women, are rooted in standards defined by the stoicheia.
For the Christian, conversely, the one and only aspirational ideal of identity and character is Jesus Christ, who shows us, as Behr never tires of putting it, what it is to be God and what it is to be a human being in the very same act, that is, his volitional death on the cross, the culmination of his kenosis in the Sanctification of God’s Name by martyrdom, his self-emptying or voluntary diminution (Phil 2:6-11). What then should be the ethos of Christian men in the 21st century? The same as that of women: kenosis and cruciformity, which baptism effects and commits us to (read Galatians 3 very, very carefully, and preferably in Greek). There are no separate paths to holiness: there is the one sanctification of learning to take up the cross in egoic death to find our life in Christ.
Christian men, like Christian women, have to function in the real world: that means that they will have to, beyond ecclesial walls and structures, find a healthy and productive way to exist in our society that does not trend towards self-destruction or destruction of the other, and that keeps pace with the changing currents of time without being swept under or away by them. I am not in lauding Christ as our exemplum attempting to absolve men from the conversation of what it means to be a man in a social moment when historic male roles as providers, protectors, warriors, leaders, and so forth have become largely irrelevant and in which our historic abuses of privilege are being fairly criticized, especially in the West with respect to straight white men. But perhaps for men who have done the appropriate examen of their assumptions and privileges, who have listened, who desire to repent and to be allies, and who do not know what that leaves them in terms of resources from which to construct an identity that will be meaningful for them, the kenotic character of discipleship to Jesus by taking up the cross (Matt 16:24-26) can be liberating. The answer is not to try and fight for a world that has already been long gone, that is not coming back, nor to go back to the drawing board and develop something utterly novel: the answer is to let go of the delusion of identifying the true self with the conventions of fallen existence. While somewhat quietistic, this posture is not socially irresponsible: the voluntary forfeit of the self and the soul which Jesus commands (Matt 10:39; 16:25) also has the advantage of placing Christian men at the ready for service to prophetic calls for justice against the powers that be, against worldly standards and forces of oppression, for the very kind of radical egalitarianism and sharing that defined the earliest communities possessed by the Christ-faith, and for liberative causes in wider society. When we build our identities around the way of the cross—cultivating internal emptiness, detachment, and receptivity toward God, and the world that God creates, and abstaining from the ways of the fallen world (including the ways defined by sex and gender)—then men can wield masculinity, maleness, as a means of martyric witness just as women can femininity, or femaleness. On the other side of baptism, what is raised is the human being, and what is left behind in the sight of the world are the scars of crucifixion: they are apodeictically useful for demonstrating Christ’s resurrectional power in the midst of our death to worldly identity, but like Christ’s wounds, they are there as a sign for the doubtful, not for the faithful. Sex, in other words, and gender, can become means of martyrdom, but they are otherwise, for the Christian, vestigial, whether within or without Christian marriage. This is effectively the assumption that runs throughout monastic literature and life, since monks in theory embrace the “angelic life” of heaven (hence the etymology of the word “celibacy” from the Latin caelum, “heaven”), and so male and female monastics are no more defined by sex: consider the iconography, for instance, of St. Mary of Egypt, whose breasts have been reduced through her extreme asceticism. And in comparative monasticism, this is also how serious devotion to the spiritual life is often understood. I remember once reading, for a seminar on Theravada Buddhism, about attempts to restore orders of bhikkunis, female monastics, in Southeast Asian communities, and in response to questions about how such bhikkunis felt about women’s issues, one of the head monastics simply replied “We are not women anymore.”
Perspectivally, the same is true for the Christian: if we are using “men” and “women” as code for “male and female,” then this no longer applies to us, and living as though it does is to resubmit ourselves to the powers that Christ has vanquished. We learn to posture, to “present” or “pass” (to use the terminology of gender theory) as men and women for the sake of being able to speak the Word of God in the words of the world; they are external signifiers that can have no internal resonance, for to be deified in Christ is to transcend the strictures of fallen existence, to be human rather than to be male and female. If, on the other hand, by “men” and “women” we mean the martyric transcendence of maleness and femaleness through the life-in-death of Christ, then we possess our true, Christological humanity as men and women, but with no other qualitative difference beyond this. Per Behr’s adaptation of Origen’s metaphor concerning iron in the fire to explain deification, two distinct ores of iron are not visible when they both stand in the fire: only the qualities of fire subsisting in the iron are. Likewise, Adam and Eve vested with the divine glory in Paradise cannot see their nudity, which might reveal to them their distinctions: gazing in love upon one another, they only see God.