Saturday, November 21, 2015

To Show Oneself a Man

Recently, I read Leon Podle's The Church Impotent that attempts to tackle the question of why men, in almost all forms of Western Christianity, find Christianity insufferable. This is not whether or not men identify with being Christian, there are plenty who do. Rather, it's about a functional rejection: "going to church" is womanly, spiritual practice is unbecoming, etc.

At first a preliminary:

I really enjoyed this book and Podles is pointing out a problem that may be easy to overlook depending on who or where you are. He whirls through history, starting from the 12th century and going onwards till the modern. He cites a lot, and it can get your head swimming if you don't have a command of the timeline. It's a good survey of his topic that keeps a big picture. This is despite imbibing somewhat bizarre psychological presuppositions, and bordering on a psuedo-fascism (he speaks highly of fascism in contrast to the nihilism of the Nazis).

However, the key point of the book is his discussion on the binary of masculine-feminine. Most people, Christians or not, recognizes it exists as a cultural construct grounded in something real. But what is it? Podles posits that Western society has fully adopted Aristotle's bifurcation:

The Male is Active; the Female is Passive.

This is the source of many problems, both in acceptance or rejecting. In accepting, we have men who are uncomfortable being put into a 'passive' role and reject Christian involvement. I understand this in the modern "Jesus is my Boyfriend" pop-songs that exist. But this is not a modern phenom. It goes back to Bernard of Clairvaux, who revives Origen, with his bridal mysticism; that is God is the Groom-Lover, and you/your soul is the Bride-Beloved. The sensuality borders on the erotic, and is off-putting. I recall never really picking up the Divine Romance by Dallas Willard because of the overtones. I do not desire to be a Juliet awaiting her Romeo to woo her from her balcony.

Podles ascribes the above to the reason why many church-communities function as male-led 'sowing circles'. I doubt that's the only reason, and I doubt that the situation is truly as bad as Podles makes it sound. But it is bad and it is a problem.

The rejection comes in men thus refusing to engage in the life of their church-community, to reject spiritual disciplines (where they exist!), and generally spending their energy and life in places that keep such Christianity out. Again, this is not only because church-communities are geared toward the feminine. We are sinners and Christ remains a stumbling block against the arrogant. We don't like to hear that much of what we do is at odds with God's will. But again, he's right, and it's a problem. Podle's articulation of masculinity and femininity stands perhaps to begin to fix the rift:

The Male is Separator; The Female is Unifier

I still haven't given this the thought that it warrants, but allow me to explain. Both of these roles require action. The Male has desire (at whatever level) to break-bonds and stand-out. It manifests in the need, in every culture that I'm aware of, to have a coming-of-age for a boy to be a man. There is some kind of test, commission, sacrifice, etc. that initiates from one into the other. The boy separates from the world of women into being a man, only to then later be unified to a woman. For Podles, this is a way that men break bad unity (absorption) and enter into a true unity (I-Thou, respect of the Other). The balance of the genders keeps one from overwhelming the other. Femininity unbalanced ends in Eastern mysticisms, mother goddesses, the One. Masculinity unbalanced ends in sky-gods, Wholly Other, Allah.

Take all this worth a grain of salt, though it's interesting to consider.

However, Podles' definition is a good starting point. In God we see both the Masculine and the Feminine, but we relate to Him as a 'He'. Not because God is a Man (though, in the Person of the Son, He is a man), but He is the Holy One, literally the Set-Apart. To the creature, God is a He because we are not Him. But the Church is a She, because in Her Unity, the Body of Christ, we participate in God. The Bridal motif applies to the Church, not the individual Christian or his/her soul.

What does this actually mean for the problem of men in the Church? Well, it certainly doesn't look like a lot of men's programs that are out there. Most of these either valorize sin or play make-pretend. The former end up boosting for sports obsessions, physical violence, drunkenness, patriotism, sexual immorality (yes, married couples can be sexually immoral with each other). For these I think about some Christian biker-groups, Mark Driscoll, and the so-called Christian militia groups. For the latter, well, I've been among enough of these. It never gets towards sin because it is so foppish in its self-consciousness. It involves images of knights, watching war movies, beer, burgers (YEAH!! MANFOOD!!), and lots of self-conscious talk about being men.

The former are wayward, the latter are moronic and pitiable. The insecure man still trying to prove his masculinity is truly a wretched sight. But then what is the solution if not the above? Well, for one, we ought to worry less about being men, and instead get on with doing it. Well, how do we do that? What am I to do?

There is no quick solution, but let's consider, in seriousness and not fantasy, the Apostolic images of a soldier and an athlete. Both of these come from St. Paul, and I'll summarize and expand on his points. The soldier is one who must give his focus to the task at hand, and not be caught up civilian affairs  This metaphor is one for the Christian to be attentive to what is truly important. For a soldier to stay on duty is not merely waiting, but an active sort of patrol. We wait to see who might come, who might be there. Is it a friend or foe? Discernment is a huge part of this. Without discernment, a soldier might be foolishly chasing shadows, a soldier might get distracted by things going on around him, whether alluring or chaotic, a soldier might fall asleep as nothing occurs.

An athlete is one who trains vigorously, day after day, striving to win the prize when the contest arrives. It is only when considering the end goal does all the activity make sense. If there was no event, if there was no prize, then all of the training may seem only as vain struggle. But if there is a prize, then the exercise and training makes sense. In fact, it is a burning requirement. An athlete may feel tired or sluggish, but he knows if he doesn't maintain his regiment, then he will slip behind and risk losing it all.

Both of these images St. Paul uses to articulate the Christian life. This is not an endorsement of sports or soldiery. Instead, it's considering how these things make sense to us as we go through our days living in This World. Christ is the Warrior-King who sends us out into the world to carry out His message. Christ is the Judge who crowns us with eternal-life as we win the race and enter into glory. These are metaphors, they are not definitive, but instructive.

What if spiritual practice was conceived as war? We war against our flesh. We pray to do battle against spiritual darkness, to tear down principalities. We read and meditate on Scripture to be given the weapons of our warfare, particularly a shield to defend against a constant onslaught. For the silly manly-men prayer meeting, this imagery appears as buffoonish. For one who has truly struggled with lustful thoughts, who has fasted, who has kept a vigil, who angry at his contempt, this is no exercise in pretend.

The image of the soldier or athlete are not necessary. We don't need to talk about doing this or that, but as men reaching other men for Christ and His Kingdom, we do not need to resort to the world with the praise of violence and debauchery, whether in the form of the American military or sports-stars who commit all sorts of vice and vanities (whether self-obsession, camera hoarding, lying, cruelty, sex with minors, rape, murder etc.). Instead begin by your own practice.

There are all sorts of other changes that might help in regards to the life of the Church generally (liturgical, pastoral council, community presence etc.), but right now, the first step might be taking up (or continuing in) the practices of walking the Road of Life. The Greek term is askesis, meaning 'exercise' and giving us the word 'ascetic'. A brief aside:

The theological concept of Merit, which poisoned the Latin church throughout the Middle Ages, doesn't enter into this. We are not 'earning' our salvation. One cannot 'earn' their salvation. Christ's blood does not contain a 'value' that is 'accredited' to me. Instead it effected the shape of the world and the destiny of mankind. Jesus didn't pay any price, except in that His death undid the demonic system of accounting charges. Jesus throws the accounting book out. His Death pardoned us. He dropped Sin into the Grave. That's what being accounted righteous means. It is doing away with any kind of merit-debt, positive-negative, system.

Anyway, committing ourselves to being 'ascetics' is a task that calls for sacrifice. It calls for bearing one's cross and dying. It means rising with the only Risen Son of God. It means working out our salvation with fear and trembling. It means fasts, prayers, spiritual warfare, it means protecting the innocent with words, posture, demeanor, and touch. Christ fashions us into the men that we are to be in Him, no longer bound by Adam's road to perdition. This is the path Christian men have before them, and it is both easy and hard. It is life-giving and endless joy. This is Royal Road is where we show ourselves a man.

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