Every person on the planet is affected by masculinity in some shape or form. This is why getting masculinity right is so important. If we get it wrong, everything falls apart. You might have noticed that everything seems to be falling apart... But the debate about masculinity rarely seems to progress.
On one side (I'll put my cards on the table here and say my side), progressive academic types mostly take a feminist position and talk about patriarchy and power, and how this marginalises women (and atypical men). Increasingly, these types also refer to queer theory, which is not solely about gay and lesbian people, rather resisting ways of pigeon-holing the identities of all people.
On the other side, are those who (often quite rightly) identify the many problems suffered by men in society, and simply do not see claims about patriarchy and power as valid any more, chiefly because they are looking at individual men who appear not to be enjoying the privileges of power, rather than the systemic and institutional nature of power. The very words 'systemic and institutional nature of power' will often make these types wince.
This debate has been going on for years: one side claiming they cannot state their watertight case about patriarchy any clearer, the other finding that case unrepresentative of the truth. We have to start finding different ways to frame this debate to make any progress. This is not about finding a middle ground; it as about finding a different ground. It is about finding a different lens through which to view the 'problem' of masculinity. Recently I have been using the lens of conspiracy logic.
The popular definition of conspiracy can be found in the idea of a cover-up, and to a large degree this is certainly the case. However, there are various aspects to conspiracy that are worth unpacking. In his book, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, political scientist Michael Barkun claims conspiracy is a method through which people explain the presence of evil in the world. They do this by viewing 'history as controlled by massive, demonic forces'. Conspiracies can therefore be seen as simultaneously frightening and reassuring: the demonic forces are at work, but at least they can be identified as the source of everything around us that is bad, as opposed to the true terror of random evil.
Barkun identifies three key aspects to conspiracy theories, which are worth spelling out. First, nothing happens by accident: there is always intent behind actions; the willed nature of reality is paramount. Second, nothing is as it seems: the source of a conspiracy tends to conceal its activities through the appearance of innocence or misinformation. Third, everything is connected: patterns abound in conspiracy; exposing conspiracy is about unveiling these hidden connections. Barkun sees this type of thinking as ultimately resulting in paranoia: a closed system of ideas that 'defeat any attempt at testing' due to the assumption that all the evidence countering the conspiracy must be part of The Conspiracy, and therefore rejected.
To be fair, Barkun is highly critical of conspiracy belief, and when you look at the examples he provides such as the Illuminati and extraterrestrial reptilian masters, it is tempting to agree with him. But because conspiracy theories can often be a bit flaky, it doesn't mean that they are always flaky, or that at the very least there aren't some reasonable things that resemble conspiracies, inasmuch as there being a widespread assumption that needs to be exposed as false.
And this is what I'm getting at with The Masculinity Conspiracy. Gender theorists have been claiming for some time that there is no such thing as a singular 'masculinity'. Instead, there is a vast spectrum of different masculinities, some of which look familiar, some of which do not. The problem, in this worldview, is that those different masculinities (and women) are oppressed and denied by that chief masculinity. Further still, this type of masculinity is responsible for a lot of the problems the world faces today: this type of masculinity needs to be exposed as 'false', inasmuch as it is not the natural and only option available to men.
Instead of thinking about this chief masculinity solely in terms of power and identity, let's try conspiracy. Let's assume there are certain people who are being oppressed (men and women alike, for various reasons). It appears that the way we define masculinity has not happened by accident. It appears that nothing about masculinity is as it commonly seems. It appears that a number of key themes in society are connected to form a legitimising framework for The Masculinity Conspiracy. I'm not, however, suggesting that The Masculinity Conspiracy is 'controlled by massive, demonic forces'. I use the term 'conspiracy' fully aware of its limitations, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It is about acknowledging that there is something going on with masculinity beyond the awareness of most people.
Can those who find the language of patriarchy and power too problematic adopt the language of conspiracy? I think it's worth finding out. Perhaps the language of conspiracy is more familiar and less judgmental? Perhaps it is simply more compelling (heroic, even) to expose a conspiracy than overturn patriarchy? This isn't a cynical attempt to lure innocent men's rights advocates into a feminist trap, rather a genuine attempt to consider the problems of masculinity in a different way. Perhaps in doing so we all might discover different insights.
In The Masculinity Conspiracy there is a clear challenge on the table when statements about masculinity are made which appear counter-intuitive: is that your intuition talking, or is it The Conspiracy? Following conspiracy logic, the fact that you don't believe me is proof itself that The Masculinity Conspiracy has you successfully conditioned. I say it only half-jokingly.
In the end, once The Conspiracy and its method of misinformation have been revealed, it is the choice of the individual whether or not to be misinformed. Either be spoon-fed the lies, or not. It has become a cliché of conspiracy culture, but the 'red pill, blue pill' scenario of The Matrix movie holds true here: 'You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes'.
So, what's it going to be: red pill, or blue?
PART 7: SPIRITUALITY
In our allegedly increasingly secular age it is tempting to think that spirituality is a rather niche subject to explore in regard to the masculinity conspiracy, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. To begin with, a number of the writers we have met in the preceding chapters have intersected with spirituality. In the History chapter, Ken Wilber’s worldview is dominated by a developmental–spiritual framework. In the Sexuality chapter, both David Deida and Robert Lawlor have what might be called a “cosmological”—if not explicitly spiritual—outlook on life. In the Relationships chapter, John Gray’s work is informed by his years as a monk and assistant to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation. In the Fatherhood chapter, Stephen James, David Thomas and Rick Johnson all have a Christian background. And in the previous chapter, while I have argued that archetypes are largely of a psychological rather than spiritual nature, the mythopoetic movement is commonly understood as the “spiritual men’s movement.”
Certainly, if I had selected the conspiracy texts differently, this “spiritual” aspect might have been less pronounced, but it nevertheless demonstrates that spirituality still has a profound impact upon modern life in general, and the conspiracy in particular. This fact is even becoming amplified as our understanding of the term “spirituality” evolves. A generation ago, spirituality had clear connotations of a relationship with a supernatural or creative principal in the universe. Today we are witnessing what is described as the “subjective turn” in which people turn away from external sources of authority (such as the church) and look instead inwards to their personal “values” as the defining site of their spiritual experience. This means that a lot of people are interpreting anything that involves contemplation and an exploration of their interiority as “spiritual” (typified by the Eat Pray Love phenomenon). I would argue this both dilutes the nature of spirituality and denies fruitful atheistic philosophical endeavors, but that’s another story. The point being, spirituality is everywhere.
As with all chapters, my selection of two conspiratorial texts excludes so many important points of discussion. I’ve chosen first No More Christian Nice Guy: When Being Nice—Instead of Good—Hurts Men, Women and Children by Paul Coughlin. This book is a good example of the Christian preoccupation with masculinity that has been bubbling away since the Muscular Christianity movement of the 1850s, and which shares many concerns with contemporary spiritualities that are not connected with any particular spiritual tradition. Clearly, such an evangelical Christian text glosses over the many important distinctions that could be made not just within different Christian denominations but also different faith traditions. Second, I’ve chosen The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine by Matthew Fox. The selection of this text serves three functions: it speaks to a spirituality less grounded in an orthodox tradition; it picks up the themes of archetypes from the previous chapter; it shows how even writers who intend to seek different forms of masculinity can get caught in the conspiratorial trap.
Paul Coughlin’s No More Christian Nice Guy relies heavily on the work of Robert Glover, a psychotherapist who identified the so-called “Nice Guy Syndrome” where men are said to suppress their own needs by seeking the constant approval of others. Coughlin’s task has been to map the Nice Guy Syndrome on to his experiences of the church. Coughlin’s main argument is that Christian men are being sold an incorrect image of Jesus as a nice guy when in fact He was not nice, but good in a proactive fashion. Consequently Coughlin identifies, “passive naïve Christian Nice Guys. We sit next to them in church all the time, not realizing their identity is being squashed, their will being broken.” “Valorous niceness,” says Coughlin, “is often cowardly passivity in disguise.”
Coughlin sees the typical Christian Nice Guy rendering of Jesus as a “bearded woman” as part of “woman worship: the domestic cult,” which shares a distinct similarity with Robert Bly’s comment about, “When we walk into a contemporary house, it is often the mother who comes forward confidently. The father is somewhere else in the back, being inarticulate.” Coughlin believes that men have been domesticated and that home life has become the exclusive domain of women. Indeed, he sees this as part of larger program of what he perceives to be “America’s feminized faith.” In Coughlin’s view, men need to toughen up in the home and in the church, and bring both back into line with more authentic Christ-like masculine values. Men need to assert their God-given masculinity. The typical form of Christian meek masculinity that Coughlin bemoans is what keeps men away from the church. He argues: “When we’re free from the myths that Jesus is the Supreme Nice Guy, that the Father is the cosmic teddy bear, and that the Holy Spirit is a docile, breezy presence, men will find the church more compelling and relevant.”
Consequently, asserting God-given masculinity is about rediscovering the real Jesus who, far from being passive, was very assertive. When opening up to the real Jesus, Coughlin highlights the following words and phrases that describe the tough Christly context Christian men should keep in mind when their faith suggests they be nice: “shouting, wilderness, sins, camel hair, locusts, slave, split open, tempted, Satan, arrested, the time has come!, possessed, evil spirit, destroy, be quiet!, screamed, convulsed, amazement, high fever, victims, alone, leprosy, begging, moved with pity, be healed!, examine, secluded.” Counter to the passive Christian masculinity Coughlin sees around him, he reminds readers that, “the gospel includes dirty feet, stinky hair, fish guts, bugs between the teeth, dirt under it’s nails … smell the adrenaline, feel your heart pound, taste the locust that lingers on your lips.” In short, Jesus righteously kicked ass—hard and often—which is what Christian men should be doing to embody their Christ-like masculinity.
But short of defining masculinity as whatever Jesus and other divinely-inspired Biblical men did, what does Coughlin actually mean by masculinity? Coughlin looks to the 1905 edition of Webster’s for answers: “virile, not feminine or effeminate; strong; robust.” It is also singular and particular in nature: he refers to “real men” and “true masculinity.” In the “masculinity defined” section Coughlin writes that “Biblical masculinity is guys doing what God wants guys to do, and doing it in line with their true identity—before it was marred by human sin and especially shame—leading to a virtuous life marked by redemptive creativity, protection, purpose, and love.” Further still we are told that “masculinity is spelled p-r-o-a-c-t-i-v-e … Accept these facts: Life is a difficult battle, demanding conflict and struggle … You’ll make much more progress when you’re offensive” (original emphasis). Christian men, writes Coughlin, should “embrace Christ’s tough, courageous, protective, assertive personality, which invigorates real male sensibilities.”
In The Hidden Spirituality of Men Matthew Fox presents a different form of masculine spirituality. While Fox was for many years a Catholic priest, his flavor of spirituality is not bound to any particular tradition, drawing equally on Buddhism and Judaism, as well as indigenous and pagan spiritualities. For Fox, the spirituality of men is hidden largely due to self-preservation. Society expects certain things from men, and anything that does not align with those expectations must be hidden and silenced. Spirituality, so often perceived as feminine, is one such element that men must hide and silence, both from other men and women, and even themselves.
But, contrary to Coughlin, Fox does not seek solely a conspiratorial vision of masculinity, in other words that assertive, go-getting combative manliness based on a militaristic vision of Christ. Instead he seeks ten “metaphors” for men to follow, by which he really means ten archetypes. The shifting of language from archetypes to metaphors is a signal that Fox is aware of the pitfalls of archetypal thinking, as outlined in the previous chapter. Indeed, he rightly critiques Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s use of archetypes as “bent on defining masculinity in a crazy macho way.” Fox is keen to point out the dangers of taking archetypes too literally, and connecting the “gender” of the archetype with actual gender. Instead, he sees the archetypes as “ten stories, ten images, ten ways that men and boys, women and girls can relate to the masculine inside themselves” rather than something men should specifically aspire to as a way of manifesting their masculinity. Fox is also aware of the problems of Christian masculinity, taking care to highlight the problems of Promise Keepers (who promote servant leadership, which I discussed in the Fatherhood chapter).
The ten archetypes of authentic masculinity of which Fox writes are: Father Sky; the Green Man; Icarus and Daedalus; Hunter-Gatherers; Spiritual Warriors; Masculine Sexuality, Numinous Sexuality; Cosmic and Animal Bodies; the Blue Man; Earth Father; Grandfather Sky. Father Sky refers to a range of ancient and contemporary “sky gods” which offer men metaphors for a masculine framing of the spiritual. The Green Man provides a masculine earthly complement to Father Sky (and Mother Earth), connecting men to the earth and providing an ecological consciousness more typical of feminist and women’s spiritualities. Icarus and Daedalus speaks to communication between the generations, either between father and son, or more generally in society which often undervalues the passion of youth while over-valuing the wisdom of elders. Hunter-Gatherers resonates with men’s historical and contemporary desire to engage with this activity, the need for ritual, individual and collective intelligence, and the ability to appropriately address shame and anger. Spiritual Warriors find appropriate ways for men to channel aggression with nobility rather than mindless militarism. Masculine Sexuality, Numinous Sexuality is concerned with bridging the gap between spirituality and sexuality and also between gay and straight men. Cosmic and Animal Bodies refers to a celebration rather than denial of the body within spiritual pursuits. The Blue Man resonates with an expansion of masculine spiritual consciousness, compassion and creativity. The Earth Father calls for a more generative and caring model of paternalism directed towards the whole community as well as our own children. Grandfather Sky is a metaphor for how older men are of value, of how they can both guide and learn from younger people.
After dealing with these metaphors, Fox offers a treatment of what he describes as “sacred marriages” which deals largely with the theme of complementarity and the union between masculine and feminine. Fox also expands sacred marriage to include other types of union: between dualism and non-dualism, East and West, humanity and the Divine, ecumenism, lay and monastic practices, indigenous and postmodern ceremonies, left- and right-brain thinking, gay and straight orientations, young and old. Fox’s particular use of archetypes certainly elevates them out of the purely psychological domain of those discussed in the previous chapter, and clearly calls for a more diverse and balanced understanding of masculinity. But, as we shall see in the following section, they still perpetuate the conspiracy.
In sum, the conspiracy mobilizes spirituality by presenting masculinity in specific ways, within both a traditional faith context such as Christianity, or a contemporary spirituality that both draws upon and transcends such traditional faiths. In particular:
- Christianity is presented as being a “feminized” faith that needs to reclaim its authentic masculine essence.
- Christian men need to become more masculine by modeling themselves not on an effeminate and meek portrayal of Jesus, but a wilder, angrier Jesus.
- Christian masculinity is about being virile, proactive and on the offensive.
- More generally, masculine spirituality may be thought of in relation to specific metaphors or archetypes.
- Masculine spirituality should be kept in balance and thought of in terms of complementarity with feminine spirituality, or a “sacred marriage.”
It doesn’t take much examination to discover that the foundations upon which Christian masculinity bases its concerns are rather shaky. The concern is that men are disappearing from the church as a result of rampant feminization, and that the church therefore needs to man-up to get back to masculine basics. The reality is that yes, men are underrepresented in church attendance (statistics of congregations being two-thirds women are commonly quoted). But a quick look at who runs the church (including even the most progressive of denominations) shows a massive weighting towards male leadership.
Also, it seems a rather selective approach to history to claim the feminization thesis, as some of the identifying aspects of the Christian era such as monasticism and mission have a very masculine flavor. It is interesting to note, too, that those forms of Christianity that buck today’s trend and flourish tend to be those which resonate more with conspiratorial models of masculinity (evangelicalism in the United States with its appeal to servant leadership, and conservative Anglicanism in Nigeria with its homophobia, for example). What we are witnessing is not a feminization of the church, rather an overwhelmingly masculine church responding anxiously to an increasingly vocal opposition that demands justice and questions the conspiratorial grip of masculine power (at a systemic if not personal level).
However, this doesn’t speak specifically to the kinds of masculinity promoted in the conspiratorial texts at hand. Coughlin wants men to be inspired by a tougher vision of Jesus, rather than that of a “bearded woman.” The obvious ramification of such a statement is the reiteration of conspiratorial models of masculinity, chiefly violent and combative. Coughlin can use more constructive words like “assertive” if he likes, but these gloss over the simple truth that contemporary Christian masculinity is largely a military masculinity. And just like the argument about “noble warriors” and “spiritual warriors” in the previous Archetypes chapter, there is no getting away from the fact that this is all about killing (whether spiritually/metaphorically or literally). Various forms of the Christian men’s movement are effectively paramilitary organizations, framing their language, aesthetics and even props (everything from symbolic swords to target practice) in military terms. Further still, I have recently undertaken a study analyzing how Christian masculinity is also framed by animal hunting and meat consumption, which puts a very real bloody spin on otherwise metaphorical activities.
The appeal to “Biblical masculinity” is itself also problematic. As demonstrated in the previous Archetypes chapter with the story of King David, the Hebrew Bible is populated by all manner of nutters, rapists and murderers, dating right back to the story of Cain and Abel. God Himself in this text is often wrathful, patriarchal and unforgiving. Following the critical points of the History chapter, just because we have seen such precedents for thousands of years, it does not mean they are natural and inevitable (let alone divinely ordained).
When we get into the New Testament, Biblical masculinity gets more complicated. Yes, just as Coughlin argues, the kick-ass assertive Jesus does exist (we all get a thrill out of him driving the moneychangers out of the temple, for example). But both Jesus and other men in the Gospels are also often gentle and wracked with doubt. Indeed, contemporary scholarship of masculinity across all Christian sacred texts (and historical periods) demonstrates one big counter-conspiratorial claim: Biblical masculinity is wildly diverse, encompassing almost every point you can imagine (including eunuchs and men who may or may not even be human!). So ironically, the contemporary Christian claim about there being some kind of singular and authentic Biblical masculinity does nothing by expose a fundamental lack of understanding when it comes to reading the Bible. (Don’t read this an anti-Christian statement, by the way. I’m largely pro-God: I just get annoyed by the kind of thinking that refuses to acknowledge the epic complexity of Christianity and most other faiths.)
Another interesting point is illuminated when we start to explore the nature of “masculine spirituality.” Two academic studies about masculinity and spirituality unwittingly highlight the issue of what is and is not “masculine” (and even “spiritual”) in these conversations. In an article, “Male spirituality and the men's movement: A factorial examination of motivations” in the journal Psychology and Theology, J. D. Castellini and colleagues identified the following motivations for men’s involvement with spirituality which are here ordered in a way that arguably moves from the most spiritual to the least: relationship with God; faith/prayer community; self-awareness, or relationship with self; isolation or existential emptiness; fear or grief; father–son relationships; coping strategies; male bonding, or relationships with other men.
The results of the study showed, “the factor accounting for the largest portion of the shared variances was that of Male Bonding, or relationships with other men.” Interestingly, of the motivations Castellini identified, only two (relationship with God and faith/prayer community) can accurately be described as spiritual. All the other motivations could equally be discussed in exclusively non-spiritual contexts. Of the motivations Castellini identified, only two (father–son relationships and male bonding) are uniquely “masculine” (in terms of pertaining only to men), and neither of these count among the two motivations that are uniquely spiritual. In Castellini’s findings there is no single variable that is at once uniquely masculine and spiritual, yet it confidently describes “male spirituality.”
Similar conclusions can be drawn from an article, “Ten Tenets of Male Spirituality” in The Journal of Men’s Studies by Ian M. Harris, who undertook several surveys among predominantly Christian men. The ten tenets identified are: finding inner wisdom; searching for truth; speaking from the heart; confronting the dark side; loving; working for a better world; passing a test; belonging to something great; following scripture; believing in destiny. Harris locates these tenets within a spiritual context, but even Atheist Fundamentalists (Richard Dawkins, I’m talking to you) could happily sign up for all but the last two (following scripture and believing in destiny). As it is, the participants of Harris’ study ranked those two tenets as the least important. The highest ranked tenet was “belonging to something great,” which is not inherently spiritual. Furthermore, not one of those tenets is “masculine” or “male”: they are simply factors that influenced the study participants who happen to be men. Rather than “Ten Tenets of Male Spirituality,” Harris has actually defined “Ten Tenets of Spirituality Perceived By Some Men”: a perfectly worthy exercise, but of a very different nature and one which again does not exactly describe a uniquely “male spirituality.”
What both these studies demonstrate is that the conspiratorial claims about “masculine spirituality” do not stand up to even cursory examination. Let’s put aside the issue of what does and does not count as spirituality, as this is another debate that rightly belongs in a different book called The Spirituality Conspiracy, and focus instead on masculinity. Six out of eight of Castellini’s motivations had nothing to do with even a normative understanding of masculinity (in other words, connected with being a man). Similarly, all ten of Harris’ tenets could be experienced equally by men and women.
Let’s then look at those aspects of masculinity tabled by Coughlin, such as assertiveness. Why is assertiveness masculine? Because the conspiracy says so? Because it is “natural” in men but not in women? Those are not compelling reasons to me. What we are seeing here is that the very meaning of what is and is not masculine is not just socially constructed, but also problematic in one of two ways: first, the meaning assigned to masculinity is completely arbitrary; second, the meaning assigned to masculinity proactively serves the ends of the conspiracy (the ultimate agenda of which we will unpack further in the next—concluding—chapter).
Fox’s book provides some good examples of this seeming conundrum. Remember those ten metaphors of which Fox writes: Father Sky; the Green Man; Icarus and Daedalus; Hunter-Gatherers; Spiritual Warriors; Masculine Sexuality, Numinous Sexuality; Cosmic and Animal Bodies; the Blue Man; Earth Father; Grandfather Sky. Fox has done a better job of making his metaphors “masculine” by connecting them specifically with men’s roles and images of men (albeit glossing over the sex/gender distinction we explored in the Introduction chapter). As such his “ten metaphors to awaken the sacred masculine” seem, initially, more intuitively correct than Coughlin’s values which happen to have been assigned to men. But this is simply a cursory gesture that is not immune to the fundamental question of why?
Why are the values behind Father Sky, the Green Man and any other of Fox’s metaphors masculine? Because they are values performed by men? This reasoning makes no sense. What happens, for example, when a man and a woman both embody the value of nurturing? Is nurturing a feminine value for the woman, and a masculine value for the man? If this is the case then there are no inherently masculine or feminine values, rather gender-free values that happen to be performed and embodied by men and women. Or is it the case that we are witnessing a man embodying a feminine value? If this is the case then please provide me with a compelling argument as to why nurturing is inherently feminine. I’m waiting… Remember, too, that we’re talking here within the context of nurturing, but this reasoning extends to each and every theme and value we have examined in this book.
Now here’s the tricky bit, but it’s an important revealing as it highlights the sleight of hand or slippage on behalf of the conspiracy between the natural and the artificial. There is a point where values become gendered, but it’s not the point being made by any of the texts I have analyzed here with you. Nurturing, for example, becomes gendered in a man or a woman’s experience of nurturing. By this I mean that men and women live under the conspiracy that treats men and women—via constructions of masculine and feminine—differently. A man and a woman may experience nurturing in a gendered way because the conspiracy has imposed on them a different relationship with nurturing. In other words, women’s understanding and experience of nurturing is gendered by the conspiracy to be natural and inherent in their biological function of childbirth. Men’s understanding and experience of nurturing is gendered by the conspiracy to be important but secondary to their social function of providing. It is the experience and conspiratorial context of nurturing that is gendered, not the value of nurturing itself. This is a really important distinction to keep in mind.
Another important distinction to keep in mind is that notion of balance and complementarity inherent in Fox’s writing. This is the same note of caution made in the previous chapter about the Androgyne archetype, which while being an initially optimistic combination of “male strength and competence” and “female sensitivity and feeling” only ever consolidates the original conspiratorial categories of “male strength and competence” and “female sensitivity and feeling.” Fox is a great example of many men I meet who genuinely want to get away from the kinds of conspiratorial masculinity this book is all about, but who remain trapped in conspiratorial binaries.
Thinking in relation to conspiratorial models of gender, even in order to mitigate then, usually results in the perpetuation of those binaries. As the feminist philosopher Judith Butler states in her book Undoing Gender, “to be not quite masculine or not quite feminine is still to be understood exclusively in terms of one’s relationship to the ‘quite masculine’ and the ‘quite feminine.’” If you do not like the way masculinity is defined by the conspiracy, do not look to balance it with the way femininity is defined by the conspiracy: reject both.
So to recap, there are various problems with the way spirituality is mobilized by the conspiracy:
The assertion that Christianity is being “feminized” is really a symptom of anxiety about the loss of male power within this particular faith tradition.
The Christian masculinity promoted by Coughlin is largely militaristic in nature, which in the end is distilled to violence.
Far from being something singular and definitive, “Biblical masculinity” is a diverse spectrum of masculinities that ironically counter conspiratorial claims to “real” or “authentic” masculinity.
The “values” behind masculine spirituality are often not masculine at all, and are assigned as such only to further the agenda of the conspiracy.
The desire to seek balance and complementarity within a conspiratorial understanding of masculine and feminine does little but consolidate that conspiratorial understanding of masculine and feminine.
There are two streams of thought that comprise the solution: one simple, the other less so. First, as we have seen above, a good deal of the conspiracy in the context of spirituality is exactly the same as we saw in the previous chapter in the context of archetypes. As such, the jumping off point of the solution involves not thinking archetypally. A small tweak to meaning—as we saw with Fox—is insufficient. It is not enough to offer a slightly less pathological archetype or change the word from archetype to metaphor and hope this will solve the problem. It requires radically shifting how we think about archetypes to mobilize the nuance suggested by the archetypal or elemental field, rather than the pathologically simplistic models of masculinity they otherwise suggest. Or you may just want to abandon all reference to archetypes or metaphors in relation to masculinity (my personal preference).
This rejection of archetypal thinking also extends to the Bible. Whether or not the stories of the Bible are real, we read them today mediated through a text that has been culturally and politically constructed over many hundreds of years. I really rather like the idea that Jesus was real and kicked ass in the temple with the moneychangers, but that account has to be seen for what it is: a Chinese whispers snapshot of Jesus’ character in the moment, not a representation of his full self (human, divine, or otherwise). And of course, if you are going to read the Bible as inspiration, it is rather poor reasoning to cherry pick conspiratorially masculine images of Jesus being wild, when there are just as many moments of humility and feet-washing. Further still, the story of men in the Bible is so much bigger than Jesus: what a glorious spectrum of masculine characters it contains: betrayers, doubters, lovers and any number of other positions that make men the diverse, broken and visionary things that they are. In short, the solution lies in reading the Bible with greater depth and sophistication.
The second part of the solution deals with addressing the anxiety that spirituality is a largely feminine phenomenon. On an intuitive level this concern is quite reasonable (but remember what I said in the Introduction chapter about intuitive responses often being little more than conditioning responses). Yes, it is true that there are fewer men than women sat in the pews of the average congregation. Yes, it is true that outside organized religion, spirituality appears to be “feminine.” For example, I recently gave a talk at the MindBodySpirit Festival in Melbourne, and noticed there were a number of stalls which referred to products about Goddesses and the feminine, but not one that referred to Gods or the masculine. And nearly all the stalls were built around a pastel or crystal-type aesthetic which resonates with a stereotypically feminine spirituality.
The intuitive response to this anxiety has been to counter those stereotypically “feminine” spiritual phenomena with the equally stereotypical “masculine.” Spiritual writers and men in leadership positions know that men have just as much need and ability to be spiritual as women, and in order to enable this they frame the spiritual as “masculine,” assuming this is what men desire. This is why we see Christian men’s ministries built around a wild Jesus, paramilitary themes and sport. This is why we see alternative spiritualities built around spiritual warriors and the erect phallus of the Green Man.
Let’s assume for a moment that this concern is valid (rather than there being innumerable men who, due to social conditioning, simply articulate and embody their spirituality in less obvious ways). The primary challenge is how do we bring more men to the table? The overriding answer, as we have seen, has been to make the spiritual more “manly.” But the danger with this is that it has a habit of consolidating all those conspiratorial models of masculinity. But there is another way of looking at this: instead of assuming spirituality is the changeable variable that can be shifted into line with men, why not consider that men are the changeable variable that can be shifted into line with spirituality? After all, we have already seen that masculinity is socially constructed: it is malleable like putty.
But, comes the outcry, this results in denying masculine values and turning men into pastel-colored crystal-wearing lady men! Even worse than Mansfield’s gender-neutral society, this results in an unambiguous feminine society! Not so, of course. Or rather, yes it is about denying masculine values, but only inasmuch as those values are described as masculine, rather than denying those values in themselves. This is a reiteration of the point made previously about nurturing, but I’m going to say it again slightly differently, because it is of fundamental importance to both thinking critically about the problem, and proactively constructing the solution.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that spirituality is defined by two values (clearly there are many more): immanence (which is generally perceived to be feminine) and transcendence (which is generally perceived to be masculine). In the current formula, immanence is considered to be the more popular value, it is considered feminine by society and therefore spirituality is more appealing to women. In the current formula, to win more men to spirituality, transcendence is beefed up to almost comical proportions and thus, goes the theory, we reach some kind of holism in which both men and women are having their spiritual needs met.
But what if immanence was not perceived as feminine and transcendence was not perceived as masculine? I am not talking here about doing away with either of these values, simply unhooking them from a gendered expectation. If immanence was considered equally masculine as feminine in orientation, and also a popular value within contemporary ways of “doing” spirituality, would we not experience those people of masculine orientation (largely—although not exclusively—men) being more involved in spirituality? I think we would. Certainly, if you are aiming to attract greater numbers of men to spirituality it is a more daunting task to change the way people think in general about gender than it is to make a few spiritual spaces more “manly,” but ultimately it is more useful.
In short, this results in there being no such thing as “masculine spirituality.” Importantly, however, this does not mean that what are perceived as masculine values are erased, simply that they are no longer described as masculine. But there is a further challenge here, especially for progressive-minded men and women. I suspect that I can sell you the idea of there being no such thing as masculine spirituality with relative ease because of the way I have presented it here: in other words, no one is that fussed if we do away with wildness, paramilitary themes and sport, as they’re often considered a bit weird anyway.
However, the other side of the coin is that there is also no such thing as “feminine spirituality.” Again, this does not mean that what are perceived as feminine values are erased, simply that they are no longer described as feminine. How does that sound, particularly to a second-wave feminist worldview? No more women’s spirituality, no more feminine nurturing, weaving, immanence, healing, and so on. Of course, this does not stop conversations about women’s experience of spirituality. Feminist spirituality, for example, still exists, but this would be about how women’s experience of the spiritual is regulated and liberated within a patriarchal culture, rather than some kind of spirituality that is inherent in women due to their biological sex. (There are some feminist spiritualities that already assume this to be the case, while others hang on to women’s biological specificity. Despite the claims of writers such as Mansfield who resist “feminism” as if it were one thing, feminisms—in the plural—are extremely diverse and sometimes even contradictory).
A similar process takes place when we look at “gay spirituality” in the context of masculinity. Have a look at this creedal statement about gay men that underpins gay spirituality as defined by Harry Hay (who is commonly understood as the founder of the gay men’s movement):
They are not, by nature, territorially aggressive and do not impose their political claims on others.
They are not, by nature, competitive but are passionately interested in sharing with others.
They are not interested in conquering nature but are interested in harmonious living with all of nature.
They are not interested in denying bodiliness and carnality but are passionately involved in celebrating all aspects of human sexuality.
Just as the “gay” Androgyne archetype in the previous chapter described by Toby Johnson did not involve any aspect bound with same-sex desire, so too Hay’s description. We see here a range of “gay” values that can easily be unhooked from gayness and applied to all people, a process which offers a powerful counter-conspiratorial solution. What such a process does is keep these values—along with nurturing, weaving, immanence, healing, transcendence and spiritual warriors—on the table, but open to people of both masculine and feminine orientation, open to both men and women, open to both gay and straight.
This process is a win–win. On the one hand, it provides a mechanism to enable more men back into the spiritual domain, easing the anxiety of those who believe there are not enough men in the church. (However, keep in mind that if those anxious men have a problem with this suggestion, their concern is exposed as not being about the number of men in the church, rather the absence of power that a conspiratorial masculinity wields within the church.) And on the other hand, it rejects the claim of the conspiracy that masculinity is defined in a particular way, enabling men (and, indeed, women of a masculine orientation) to choose whichever values happen to fit their character and spiritual worldview.
Spirituality (and I use the term as a shorthand to include both orthodox organized religions and the spectrum of unorthodox alternatives) is at once a prime site of regulation by the conspiracy and liberation from the conspiracy. For thousands of years spiritualities have perpetuated the conspiracy, whether it be their explicit patriarchal nature that excludes women from positions of influence and power, their encouragement of a militaristic and oppressive masculinity, or their rendering of “new age” products as stereotypically feminine. Yet what else is more appropriate when we are seeking solutions to liberate ourselves from conspiratorial constructions of masculine and feminine than a domain that is simultaneously inherent in but also points beyond constructions of self-identity?
Spirituality, at the very least, provides an extraordinary thinking space for how the self might look. Most people know, for example, that when they refer to God in a traditional bearded-man-on-a-throne way, that image is not literal, rather something that stands in for God, a concept that is far more complex and which may even extend beyond the limits of language and human understanding into the ineffable (that which cannot be articulated). Spirituality, then, is a domain in which we are already used to taking what we know, recognizing its limitations, and then striving to think beyond them.
We can employ this same process with gender. Yes, we have a strong imagine of masculinity as defined by the conspiracy, yet we know this is not literal (remember the “don't identify too much with the archetype” problem), rather something that stands in for masculinity, a concept that is far more complex and which may even extend beyond the limits of language and human understanding. I don’t say this just for literary effect. I genuinely find the more time I spend with this subject, the more I hit a wall of language and meaning about what gender is all about. Yes, I can identify clearly enough how it is constructed, regulated and even how it should be liberated. But it is a far more elusive task to identify what is real, and what is just some made up consensus, like the value of tulip bulbs in seventeenth century Holland.
Spirituality, then, provides us with a useful way of thinking about the self at the edge of meaning, peering into what may be real or what may be fantasy, but with the knowledge that the eventual answer to this conundrum is less important than the journey, the process of questioning, and the continually unfolding revelations that result. That’s a pretty good model to follow as we leave behind the masculinity conspiracy and begin to both individually and collectively discover who we really are.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the Part 7 of the series on The Masculinity Conspiracy by Joseph Gelfer. Chapters 1 to 6 of the book were reprinted in the October 2011, November 2011, December 2011, January 2012, February 2012, and March 2012 issues, respectively. Chapter 8 in the May issue. The list of references (below) is included with each chapter. To visit the book's web site and access the original online version, click here.
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Joseph Gelfer is a masculinities researcher in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University, Australia. He is author of Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the problem of Patriarchy, and editor of the Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality. His latest book is 2012: Decoding the Countercultural Apocalypse.