“Masculine Christianity” and Men

My husband has often remarked to me that the heart of the problems we have in understanding God is one of translation. No matter how we try, the words we use to express spiritual truths can’t fully capture the reality they describe. Especially for “people of the book” such as we are, words are the medium through which we explain God to ourselves and each other. But as powerful as words are, it is exceedingly difficult to translate the spiritual into the spoken (or read) without flattening what is being described – sometimes to the point of obliteration. It’s a bit like explaining sex to a 9 year old – you can explain how it works, but they will walk away with no concept of why anyone would want to do such a thing. Descriptions don’t always illuminate reality.

When it comes to our Christian/Hebrew attempt at translation, scripture relies heavily on that good writing maxim: “show, don’t tell”. So we have a book filled with stories, poetry, a couple of books of rules, genealogies and some letters of exhortation. Its more like giving a 9 year old a Danielle Steel novel in lieu of explaining the mechanisms of sexual intercourse. They may come away a bit fuzzy on the details, but with a better grasp of what it is they have to look forward to.  Better, but still not complete.

One of the oddities of Hebrew and Christian texts is the extent to which they avoid describing the spiritual at all. There is no attempt to really discuss the nature or substance of God. Very little is said of where we come from or where we are going to outside of this physical realm. Questions such as the relationship between the physical world and spiritual world are vague at best. While our stories and poetry help to flesh out the relationship between God and mankind, the reality of the spiritual is something we must seek to experience for ourselves. Christianity has always hinged on experience rather than belief. Few people come to a life-altering Christian faith because they got to know the bible and theology and decided to follow it. At some point, most people must have a spiritual experience of love or connection to bring the whole thing to life. Even the most lurid erotica is a poor substitute for the real thing, after all.

So, what does all of this have to do with “Masculine Christianity” and men? Well, instead the dense, amorphous riddles and descriptions used by the Buddhists, we get a lot of analogies. So God is variously described as a father, a husband, a potter, a mother, a master and even a friend. If we take all these descriptions of the nature of our relationship with God too literally, we end up with a hermaphrodite God who has impregnated itself and is committing incest with some pottery. There’s a lot of role confusion going on there. But of course, when scripture describes the nature of our relationship with God, it is translating a larger, more complex spiritual reality into something we humans can more readily understand. God is like a father. God is like a husband. God is like a mother.

But this presents a particular challenge for men – particularly men in Christian traditions which emphasize the supposedly masculine nature of God. Yes, men have spiritual experiences and may hold onto them for their entire lives. But it seems to be far rarer for men to have an ongoing, dynamic spiritual relationship with God. There is far more demand for spiritual direction from women then men, for example. And many churches struggle with an imbalance between male and female devotees, but rarely due to a lack of women attendees. There are those in the church who respond to this by attempting to present a more male-friendly church – “masculine Christianity” it has been called. Some fairly prominent pastors claim that equality between men and women – even in marriage and pastoral roles – has lead to a “feminized Christianity” which is unappealing to men. However, from a spiritual perspective, such notions almost certainly make the problem worse. How can a man who is practicing a masculinized form of Christianity understand himself as the bride? How can he internalize the words God speaks to his beloved lover when God must be seen primarily as male? A masculinized Christianity will have the tendency of making the deeply intimate, spiritual experiences which are the true life blood of a deeply enriching faith life less accessible for many men. The fact that these churches are also the ones most likely to demonize homosexuality almost certainly doesn’t help the matter any.

Whether there’s any awareness of the problem of being a man who is told to play the bride for a male God, I cannot say. But I do know that rather than using analogies of father and husband to illustrate intimacy and knowing, these churches focus on roles. In this way of thinking, the roles of God – father, husband, master – become stand-ins for hierarchy  Who is over whom? Who has what responsibilities? God is like a father because he is in charge and the provider and the source of life for his people – his family. God is like a husband in that he is the wise leader, guiding those entrusted to him. But in doing this, the power of these analogies used to translate who God is for us is lost. If a husband’s primary role is to lead and protect, what happens when there’s a war or hurricane? When he can’t protect, doesn’t know which way to go and has no sustenance to provide? And what becomes of intimacy, knowing and being known?

That’s what the spiritual experience is really about, after all – knowing and being known. But if we view these roles as illustrating order, rather than intimacy and love, we never have the chance to fill out those stories with a spiritual reality. And reading the bible with an eye towards order rather than intimacy simply exacerbates the problem. Instead of a Danielle Steel novel, we’re right back to a mechanical explanation of how people have sex. Which I think is why these Churches which favor a “masculinized Christianity” also tend to be legalistic. If you’re looking for roles, responsibilities and order in the bible, you can find it, of course. Only that’s exactly how the Pharisees read scripture. Only when Jesus read the same text he came away calling God “Papa”.

You don’t see many mystics coming out of “masculinized Christianity”. I truly do not believe that this is because men are less spiritual. But I think that the church has often done a very good job of cutting men off from the very thing which would give their faith true life – those deep, intimate, practically proto-sexual spiritual experiences of knowing and being known by God. (Worship being the spiritual version of sexual intercourse between husband and wife. “With my body I thee worship” as the old marriage vows used to say.)

Of course, the fact does remain that the analogies which scriptures use often are male. And the analogies used by Jesus and quite specifically for the church do put God in the male role – the husband and bridegroom. Obviously, I think it is a mistake to respond to this reality by resorting to roles and male-centric theology. But the reality remains that for many men, the analogy of God as husband is problematic in a way which it isn’t for women. This is going to sound rather strange, but I think that our growing tolerance of homosexuality is going to be helpful in this regard. I saw a photo essay a while ago tracing pictures of male friends through out the years. Many early photos were of men sitting on each other’s laps or physically draped all over each other. One man having his head essentially in another’s crotch was no big thing. But at some point, the men became less intimate with each other in the photo’s. Arms around the shoulders was about as physically close as they were pictured as getting. What had happened? Well, homosexuality had begun coming out of the closet.

It has long been noted that men in cultures where homosexuality is heavily repressed are much more physically affectionate with each other. Arab men frequently walk down the street holding hands, for example. But once the illusion that there are no homosexuals among us begins to be shattered, men become less comfortable with physical (and sometimes emotional) affection. They don’t want anyone to think that they might be homosexual. What had previously been seen as innocent begins to be seen as potentially sexual. The photo essay of male friends I saw had a kind of interesting ending – pictures of young men engaged in more intimate physical contact. They weren’t quite letting people take picture’s of them laying their head on their buddy’s lap. But there did seem to be a creeping comfort with contact between men. The photo essay attributed this to young people’s growing comfort with homosexuality. Whereas back in the day a man who was hit on by another man might feel compelled to beat the man in defense of his heterosexual credentials, most young men today would just say, “thanks, but I don’t swing that way.” It made me wonder if men who don’t have a instinctive, gut level reaction to the idea of homosexuality will also find it easier to think of Jesus as their bridegroom. Is it possible that men who attend a few gay weddings will have one less hurdle to overcome in their spiritual relationship with God?

It has sometimes been said that one of feminism’s failings was thinking that because patriarchy is bad for women, it’s good for men. That because the people with power were men, all men were benefiting. It just aint so, of course. Patriarchy presents a whole host of problems for men as well as women. Men have a need to know and be known just like women, but how can you allow yourself to be known when you’re supposed to be the one in charge who everyone else depends on and obeys? There’s not much room for the sort of vulnerability that being know requires to take place in that scenario. As glad as I am to see the attention paid to women and the growing acceptance of the full equality of women in the church, I do worry that we are in danger of making a similar mistake. Just because “masculine Christianity” is bad for women, doesn’t mean it’s good for men. And just because we can see that a hyper-masculine God alienates women, doesn’t mean it isn’t just as harmful to the spiritual lives of men.

So anyways, just some thoughts. I’d love to hear from some of you men on this issue. Has this been an issue for you? Has there been something which has helped you to over come it?

6 thoughts on ““Masculine Christianity” and Men

  1. One reason guys may be hesitant to respond to this one: Most of us believe there are two kinds of man: “gay” and “straight” — with “bi” being just another sort of perv.

    Or — we’re afraid that if we challenge this understanding, we’ll be sorted into that ‘perv’ class ourselves.

    My own life was much simplified by being able to rule out sexual relations with 1/2 the human race. So I could easily be friends with other guys, while friendships with women tended to dominated by considerations of “Could I? — Would she?” But this didn’t mean I couldn’t imagine other possibilities, and wonder “Did that thought make me ‘A Pervert’?!!!!”

    Men are very vulnerable to this sort of thinking, because while 1) We’ve got a probably-innate preference for female-type bods, 2) We also have an innate interest in anything with a potentially-friendly orifice, down to the barrel in that shipwrecked-sailors joke. Depending on what hostilities, dislikes, scruples limit us — and for many “gay” guys, that’s what rules out women — we’ll tend to avoid some forms of sexuality. “Whoever we think we are” — We’re at least somewhat nervous that other people will think otherwise.

    Reluctance to be openly religious? Probably more because it’ll make people imagine we’re ‘too nice’, possibly ‘sissies’, that maybe they can take advantage somehow, hang us on a cross if they feel that way. We’re supposed to be rough, tough, wild and mean; we wouldn’t want to be caught dead getting smooched by our mother.

    I think that Jesus’ use of the word ‘bridegroom’ was not meant to imply consumation in the literal sense. God stimulates people in myriad ways, through all our senses, through all our relationships with things and with each other… and takes the form of each person we love, I’d say. We can feel free to love that person because she is limited, imperfect — as well as being perfectly herself as God made her. And we can know God better by seeing how wonderful each human being can be.

    And I’m still working on: “What does it mean, to ‘love’ God?” Even though there’s far more to hope for from God than there was from any woman I’ve been in love with, even though I know God truly possesses all the qualities I’ve loved them for — it seems to be only individual human beings whom I can really wrap my mind and heart around. So far…

    1. Arg – I wrote a long response to you and some how it got eaten. Don’t you hate when that happens? Oh well – here goes.

      I’m sure this post will make some people uncomfortable, but I think that’s because I’m fiddling with the rather sharp boundary which most all of us have between our spiritual and sexual selves. However, I don’t think that it is correct for a Christian to allow that barrier to remain in place. I think we need to be pushing hard against ideas of sex as dirty or people as pervs for their sexuality. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t boundaries on our behavior. The extreme damage done by condemning someone to grow up without a father ought to be enough to let us know that there are things we ought not to be doing. But God labeled man and woman in relationship “very good” and “be fruitful and multiply” is a pretty open-ended instruction to go have sex. I think that it’s telling that the first sign of the damage of sin was shame in our bodies (and presumably by extension in our sexuality). If we really believe that Jesus’ work redeems us from the damage of sin, then our schizoid relationship with our sexuality cannot be allowed to stand. Of course this problem with our sexuality goes very deep, so I expect it will be the last to go. I think that given what has happened culturally, the time for us as Christians to do that work is pretty clearly at hand.

      Clearly, I’m no literalist in the usual sense of the word. But I have found that using a more literal approach when thinking about the poetic, literary and spiritual language of scripture is very helpful and fruitful. For me it has to do with the idea that Jesus will be made “all in all”. There is no part of our experience which exists outside of God. To put it another way, with Jesus there is no good experience we can share with another human being which cannot (or is not) also shared with God. Clearly, this isn’t always physically true, but spiritually. But if we believe that the spiritual is more real than the physical, this movement from physical to spiritual in no way diminishes its reality. So, what i experience in relationship with my spouse isn’t something unique between two human beings, but exists because it is a physical manifestation of a larger spiritual reality that i am taking part in. And this has to include our sexuality. Any understanding of our relationship with God which partitions our sexuality into a separate category is untenable in the long run.

      For whatever reason, i have always had an instinctive tendency to seek God as an actual reality. I have always wanted and worked to make my relationship with God as real (and hopefully in time) more real than any other relationship I have. I readily admit that given the blank slate nature of what Spirit or God is, this has often meant projecting my own desires or ideas onto God and working from there. However, as my desires and ideas about love and the nature of the world which God created become increasingly shaped by scripture and Christian thought, what i am projecting onto God moves closer and closer to the reality. I think it’s much like any other relationship. The better I know the actuality of a person and am able to let go of my presumptions and misperceptions about them, the better I know them and the more deeply I am able to enter into relationship with them. To a certain extent, this means relying on imagination, but the imagination doesn’t create reality – it can simply points us in the right directions (or wrong directions – but this is where taking all that poetic, literary and spiritual language/analogies and such in scripture is essential). One thing which was helpful for me to realize is that i can’t imagine anything better than God. Nor can I imagine anything good which has not already been conceived of by God – and therefor in some way is part of what makes God who God is. imagining a good in loving God in a real way is getting to know a good and loving God as well.

      Anyhow, now you can see why I was frustrated that my original response was erased – this is too long. If I had the time, patience and mental organizational ability, I could probably write many books on these themes. But I am a mere human woman and have other things I need to be tending to.

      1. I too wish I had your longish reply… but where we’re fuzzy abt this, I think: Everything gets included in our relationship with God, including sex.

        Our relationship with God does not logically need to experienced in sexual mode.

        But evidentally it can be — and since this is where people habitually invest most of our emotional intensity…. I’m getting driven to conclude that our relationship with God will come to be experienced as ‘either that, or something that gets equally intense, whatever that might look like’. [Like that St Teresa sculpture you used as an illustration awhile back?] Maybe everybody firing on all 7 chakras? But maybe not so much “intense” as “satisfying.” [Spiritual endorphins? “Whoosh!”]

        Rather than “‘How much’ can this get?” — How about: “What keeps each moment of this present experience of God from being more like that?”

      2. No – I don’t mean to say that our relationship with God will or should be “experienced in sexual mode”. But I think that a lot of people tend to fracture their sexual selves off from the rest of themselves. Which is no doubt how you can get seemingly good, upstanding people engaged in the most egregious sort of sex scandals. I think that at best, there’s a wholeness which we can allow to happen. So that perhaps being in prayer whilst also in congress seems like a natural thing to do, for example. Or where the pleasure of the heart is experienced as not-so-different from the pleasure of the body although with a differing locality, if you will. Fundamentally sexual pleasure is as much a chemical experience as physical and that chemical experience can be present in various permutations and intensities through other activities. Thus the intense enjoyment of particularly good chocolate can trigger the comparison with sex. I think that the tendency to compartmentalize sex away from everything else can deprive us of the full enjoyment which even when primarily emotional, we are capable of experiencing in our bodies. Many people do walk around as if they were primarily brains rather than integrated beings with mind and body sharing one life experience. But when that can come together and one can experience prayer as this sort of integrated person, And perhaps becoming a more integrated human by actively inviting God into all areas of our lives – including these physical bodies which we experience life in and through. I think can allow a profound experience such as has been spoken of by the likes of Teresa.

  2. I think you will always be uncomfortable until you admit you did something gay. I think you will always be uncomfortable until you actually love/are friends with a gay person, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person. And accept the fact that gayness has always had a place in this world. And perhaps entertain the idea that GOD creates people as they are. Not perfect, because that would be unfair. Maybe you want to try to be gay but lack conviction? Or maybe you need to forgive yourself? The Law of Freedom supercedes any Law in the OT. Almost anything done with love, consideration, and much deliberation is acceptable to GOD. Whether the Church can be made masculine is an interesting question. Church is what we make of it. If we can’t find that in the Church, getting it else where, in the World, is not a issue. Thank you Rebecca for allow me to speak,

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