Herbert Anderson – « A theology for reimagining masculinities »

5. A heuristic postscript  

Until recently, gender construction has been determined mostly by a simplistic sense of biology. We now understand more clearly how gender is both ascribed and learned; biology itself complicates any simple sense of gender in both human and animal worlds. The new era of non-binary, gender fluid, gender expansive descriptions of being human will vary inevitably cross cultures. Even so, the Christian story offers one universal liberating perspective despite its history of misogyny and male domination. The defining metaphors for the human one in relation to God are gender neutral. Being a ‘child of God’ transcends gender. Sainthood is not gender specific. Nor is discipleship dependent on preserving gendered distinctions. And because of God’s incarnation, hegemonic masculinity is a ‘non-essential luxury’.

I am indebted to W.H. Auden’s Christmas verse drama For the Time Being for an alternative expression of masculinity.Although the biblical narrative does not tell how or when Joseph was informed of Mary’s pregnancy for which he was not responsible, Auden imagines the consequence of this startling news for Joseph: ‘Today the roles are altered; you must be the Weaker Sex whose passion is passivity.’[9] Joseph is given no reason or proof that Mary’s pregnancy is God’s will. He must simply believe and ‘choose what is difficult as if it were easy.’ Auden’s description of what Joseph (and so all men) must give up reads like a clinical definition of toxic masculinity.

‘For those delicious memories
Cigars and sips of brandy can restore
To old, dried boys, for gallantry that scrawls
In idolatrous detail and size.
A symbol of aggression on toilet walls,
For having reasoned – “woman is naturally pure
Since she has no mustache,” for having said
“No woman has a business head.”
You must learn now that masculinity,
To Nature, is a non-essential luxury.’

W.H. Auden’s creative rendering of God’s Incarnation does not eliminate human biology nor does it eradicate the necessity of socially constructed roles for men and women. 

‘Forgetting nothing and believing all,
You must behave as if this were not strange at all. 
Without a change in look or word, 
You both must act exactly as before; 
Joseph and Mary shall be man and wife
Just as if nothing had occurred.’

In Joseph, traditional masculinity was transformed. He acted justly, gently, bravely, selflessly so that the mystery of the incarnation could unfold. Had this been an early interpretation of Joseph, the Christian story might have championed the liberation of men from hegemonic domination and presumed patriarchal privilege from the beginning. In that moment and for Joseph’s life, traditional masculinity was transformed and no longer necessary. In so doing, Joseph provides a new and liberating vision of multiple masculinities ‘as if it were not strange at all.’

[9] W.H. Auden, Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson, New York: Vintage International, 1991, pp. 364–365.


Herbert Anderson is a Lutheran Pastor and Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Theology from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He is the author or co-author of several books and numerous articles on a wide range of topics from men’s grief to the wisdom of Dr. Seuss. His most recent book, written with Karen Speerstra, is The Divine Art of Dying: How to Live Well While Dying. After 50 years of teaching pastoral care in theological seminaries, he is retired and lives among the vineyards in Sonoma, California.

Address: 19495 Laurelbrook Ct, Sonoma, CA 95476, USA.

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