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?