Herbert Anderson – « A theology for reimagining masculinities »

4. A theological framework for multiple masculinities

Ongoing attempts to diminish the male dominance of biblical, liturgical, and theological language have made progress but a gap remains between the traditional male-dominated imagery used on Sunday worship or common Christian practice and what theologians regard as inclusive language necessary for gender justice. This chasm was evident when Christian theologians and church leaders in the sub-Sahara African nations challenged the structures of patriarchy that funded destructive male behavior in the HIV crisis. They agreed that patriarchy was the problem: they did not agree on the solution. Conservative African churches favored reforming masculinity within a patriarchal framework (preserving notions like male headship and male responsibility) while African feminist theologians insisted on transforming masculinity beyond patriarchy. That difference is replicated among those who may agree that toxic masculinity is a problem. If Raewyn Connell’s observation that ‘familiar images of God draw specifically on hegemonic constructions of masculinity’ is correct, and I believe it is, the challenge to fashion a new and more inclusive theological framework for masculinities is both essential and daunting. This essay suggests some dimensions of a theological framework to support reimagining masculinity in a less hierarchical, more inclusive way.

1) Toxic masculinity will not be transformed unless patriarchy is diminished. More than three decades ago, feminist theologian Mary Daly identified the connection between Christianity and patriarchy with a single line that has almost become a cliché: ‘If God is male, then male is God.’[2] Despite abstract formulations that insist God is beyond gender and neither male nor female, most of the names and images of God have been drawn from the world of ruling men.

God as Father, as Lord, as Divine King and Ruler, as absolute Monarch who is omnipotent and unmoved are all images that reinforce male privilege and domination. Rehabilitating masculinities while preserving patriarchy may generate a kinder, gentler patriarchy but it is still patriarchy. Therefore, the challenge for theologians is to purge Christian theology of deeply rooted ideologies of patriarchy and promote masculinities that forego notions of dominance, and presumptions of privilege. 

2) Eliminating patriarchy from social institutions is particularly problematic. Social institutions are susceptible to embedding hierarchies that undermine human well-being for their participants. For example, Frank J. Barrett has described how naval officers used hegemonic categories of independence, aggression, and risk-taking to create a hierarchy of masculinities with aviators at the top and supply officers at the bottom.[3] In a challenging essay in The Atlantic, James Carroll links the continuance of celibate clericalism in the Roman Catholic Church with theological misogyny that excludes women from the priesthood and preserves male power.[4]

Moreover, pedophilia and decades of ecclesiastical cover-up within a rigid male hierarchy embodies hegemonic masculinity’s crime against young men. The reform of the Catholic Church, as James Carroll envisions it, must include the end of male dominance. James Carroll has it right. The theological challenge for all Christian communions (including Roman Catholicism) is to redefine the Church without perpetuating its patriarchal underpinnings. The redemption of hierarchies begins with empathy and the recognition of commonality despite the differences that separate and reinforce the impulse to marginalize.

3) Adding feminine images to traditional language for God is a useful transition but insufficient long-term goal. Some Christian denominations have mandated the use of feminine as well as masculine images for God in worship. For example, the Lord’s Prayer is addressed to ‘our Father and our Mother in Heaven’. New hymns include feminine images for God. God is still gendered but imaged as both feminine and masculine.

Thinking of God as feminine may be a helpful or even necessary transition out of a male, patriarchal father God but it will not help us discover vulnerability or tenderness or nurturing in men that we also know in God. Traits like nurturing, intimacy, vulnerability can and should be considered as masculine – or even better, as human – traits and not as feminine traits to be borrowed by men. The incarnation reveals a loving God whose care for humankind is so great that God was and is willing to risk everything for loving the world.  

4) Words and symbols about the mystery of God and the mystery of being human begin in humility. Although we cannot not speak of God, we begin all speaking of God with humility. God who is always more than we can know. Moreover, God cannot be tied to any name. God is the unspeakable and unknowable I AM who transcends all categories. Language that restricts God to male images is idolatrous. Humility is appropriate for our language about God and it is equally significant for descriptions of the human person. Descriptors of men that tilt toward an essentialist perspective diminish mystery by supporting a narrower view of being human. 

The mythopoetic movement in the last decade of the 20th century attempted to rehabilitate masculinity with ancient archetypes like king, warrior, magician, and lover. I proposed four additional images that have their roots in a Christian understanding of being human: sage, peacemaker, gardener, and friend. If we begin with humility, then many names, many images, many adjectives can be used to refer to both divine and human being. God as the Holy One is nurturing, vulnerable, patient, generative, compassionate, creative, courageous, determined, loving. These same descriptors become emerging masculinities for the many selves of men. 

5) Fostering openhearted and just regard for multiple masculinities and establishing a just bond between women and men are mutually interdependent. The positive changes made in the larger society and in many marriages today have not eliminated injustice from marriage or eradicated injustice toward women in the church and at work. Nor have patterns of discrimination and injustice among men been eliminated. Equal regard among men and an equitable redistribution of power between women and men are reciprocally connected.

Gender justice redistributes power and seeks to eliminate oppression between men and women and among men. If it can be established that gender equality is in everyone’s interest, then men will be more likely to join with women in working toward the goal of gender justice. Even so, equal pay for equal work, as one expression of gender justice, may be mandated before it is internalized. Gender justice is first of all a vision.  

6) It is both difficult and necessary for men to acknowledge the unspoken grief they feel for the loss of privilege or unimpaired power or job security. Because grief for what men have lost has not always been accorded moral standing, it was buried and became a major source of smoldering resentment among many men. The strategies for diminishing male dominance or violence have been ineffective in part because the patriarchal heart has not been transformed from within. Rita Nakashima Brock has proposed the image of ‘brokenheartedness’ as one approach for transforming male dominance and the abuse of power.[5]

It is not enough, she argues, to disrupt patriarchy and privilege. Before hearts can be tutored, they must be healed. Before a heart can be healed, there must be a recognized need for healing. For men, this begins by admitting that the patriarchal heart is fearful and broken and full of hidden grief. The agenda for the modern men is not easy: to mourn their losses while imagining a new future without the presumptions of privilege and power they once enjoyed.

7) The capacity to embrace the interdependence of all creatures is a corrective to domination in every form. The misinterpretation of the creation narratives not only promoted male dominion over female human beings, it also fostered a hierarchy of the human one over creation. Under this rubric, dominion and domination were supported as appropriate patterns of human activity.

If, however, we understand creation as a complex ecosystem in which the human, animals, and plants all mingle together interdependently, then there is little justification for dominion. All things belong to God. Interdependence is the norm. The relationship of mutuality between men and women, between men and other men, and between men and creation mirrors the interdependence of all things.  

8) Discovering and embracing multiple expressions of masculine humanness is more likely if men embody a paradoxical posture between knowing and not-knowing, between being on the way to fuller humanity and not being there yet. In Christian theology, the Cross embodies the paradoxical presence of power and vulnerability in divine as well as in human life.

The One whose power fashioned the universe entered human life as a vulnerable infant and was willingly executed in a humiliating death. The crucifixion of Jesus is the crossing of power and vulnerability for the sake of freedom and compassion. Sam Keen says it well in Fire in the Belly: 

‘The image of Jesus on the Cross is central to the Christian notion of manhood because it dramatizes the issue of will, a recurring theme in any discussion of manhood. […] The lesson of Gethsemane is that a man is most virile not when he insists upon his autonomous will but when he harmonizes his will with the will of God.’[6]

The boldness and virility of Jesus will seem far away from men today if they understand autonomy as self-will or self-preservation or winning rather than obedience to the will of God. If, however, men embody the contradictions of the Cross by holding on and letting go, by acting

and being acted upon, by embracing ambiguity with certainty, by noting the unexpected crossing moments of daily dying, by leaving the door to the soul ajar to be surprised by God, they will exercise power while embracing vulnerability.

9) Sharing power and acknowledging vulnerability are unavoidable dimensions in reimagining masculinity. I came to that conviction the hard way. I had learned early in my marriage about sharing power for the sake of justice. Then, in May 1999, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and I became aware of vulnerability in a new way. Having prostate cancer was a tangible reminder to me that men are susceptible to being wounded at the locus of their sexual power. Prostate cancer (or the fear of it) touches deeply the masculine center of power for most men.

This connection between power and vulnerability in the male anatomy is a useful metaphor for reimagining an alternative to hegemonic masculinity. I have explored this theme more fully in my reprinted book Jacob’s Shadow: Reimagining Masculinity.[7] In the ancient myths, men presumed power without vulnerability. What we know more clearly today is that men (and women) are in fact most powerful when they acknowledge and act out of human vulnerability and most vulnerable when presuming the invulnerability of their power.

10) In order to redeem hegemonic masculinity, the language we use to speak of God should balance images of power with metaphors of vulnerability. The manly ideal, Dorothee Soelle has observed, is opposed by the Crucified Christ. ‘The masculine myth of the invulnerable hero is opposed to the unarmed carpenter’s son from Galilee: there is nothing here to harmonize.’[8]

Some approaches to the Christian faith emphasize invulnerability and success as signs of God’s presence but they are false promises that can only be sustained by also denying the abundance of suffering in the world. Insisting on an all-powerful God who promises prosperity is a human temptation when we feel powerless. We need to learn to live consciously with human and divine vulnerability as one hope for the transformation of hegemonic masculinity. 

[2] Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Woman’s Liberation, Beacon Press: Boston, 1973, p. 19.

[3] Frank J. Barrett, ‘The Organizational Construction of Hegemonic Masculinity: The Case of the US Navy’, Gender, Work and Organization, 3.3 (1996), 129–142.

[4] James Carroll, ‘Abolish the Priesthood: To Save the Catholic Church, Return it to the People’, The Atlantic, 323.3 (2019), 76–84.

[5] Rita Nakashima Brock, Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, New York: Crossroad, 1989, p. xv.

[6] Sam Keen, Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man, New York: Bantom Books, 1991, p. 102.

[7] Herbert Anderson, Jacob’s Shadow: Reimagining Masculinity, reprint, Eugene:Wipf & Stock, 2019.

[8] Dorothee Sölle, Window of Vulnerability: A Political Spirituality, translated by Linda M. Maloney, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990, p. xi.

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