Masculinity and Femininity in Christianity
Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in Art of Manliness which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.
Last week we began a series which which is exploring the relationship between masculinity and Christianity — mainly, why it is that the more a man embraces the former, the seemingly less likely he is to adopt the latter.
In our first article, we laid out statistics which show that all around the world, and in almost every Christian church and denomination, women outnumber men. Women are far more likely to be involved in the Christian faith, to participate in church, and to feel that their religion is important to them. In addition, we demonstrated that this disparity is not rooted in the fact that females are simply more religious than males overall, as Christianity is the only major world religion where men are significantly less committed than women.
One of theories as to why this is, is that the gender gap naturally arises from a theology and ethos that was inherently feminine from the start — that the issue is “baked-in,” so to speak. Today we’ll examine the basis of this assumption, as well as how Christianity could be thought of as primarily masculine.
The Code of Manhood & the Femininity of Christianity
As we have documented in numerous articles on AoM, the traits and qualities that are considered “manly” have been consistent for thousands of years, and universal to cultures around the world. While a boy was born a male, he had to earn the title of man, and he did so by proving himself in tests of skill and self-control, developing his autonomy, self-reliance, and toughness, embracing risk, struggle, and conflict, and competing with his peers to earn status. Physical strength was valued, along with other martial virtues like courage; battlefield prowess has always been central to the code of masculinity. Overall, a male had to excel in the “3 P’s of Manhood” — Protection, Provision, and Procreation — in order to be considered a “real man.”
Manhood was never a private affair — a boy was initiated into it by his community and it had to be repeatedly re-proven in the public arena thereafter. A man was thus primarily concerned with his honor — with having a reputation worthy of the respect of his fellow men. To maintain that reputation, if he got pushed, he pushed back.
Finally, a man’s primary identity came from his membership in a tribe, and his primary social unit was the gang — a small, close-knit honor group. Honor groups were exclusive in nature — not every man could belong — and were suffused with an “us vs. them” dynamic. A man’s loyalty was intense — the willingness to sacrifice, to bleed, and even die for one’s people has always been central to the ancient code of masculinity — but such loyalty only extended to a man’s comrades and kin.
It is little wonder then that some have seen the Christian religion as positively antithetical to the central components of traditional masculinity.
From this perspective, Jesus is the paragon of the “soft,” gentle virtues traditionally associated more with women than men, like kindness, compassion, forgiveness, caring, chastity, and humility. This is the Jesus who walks beside you on the beach, and carries you through trials.
Rather than committing violence and seeking to triumph over one’s foes, he asks followers to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies. Rather than glorying in competition and status, Christians are to beware of pride, to avoid comparing themselves to others, and to seek complete humility.
The body is seen as less important than the soul and earthly status is meaningless in the kingdom of God; worldly success doesn’t make you “better” than other people, as all are alike unto God. Not only will the strong be saved alongside the weak, power and wealth are, if anything, a hindering block to salvation, rather than an advantage. Jesus promised that the meek and poor would be exalted, while the rich and mighty would be brought low.
The Christian way is open to all — it is universal, rather than exclusive. It asks believers to overcome their inherent propensity towards tribalism in order to embrace the brotherhood of man. Strangers are to be loved as much as kin, as much as oneself.
The opinions of others matter little in comparison to the judgment of God. A man’s honor is thus primarily private rather than public in nature; it doesn’t come from the approval of peers, but arises from the possession of inner integrity and a clean conscience.
Finally, Christianity is based on submission — dependence on a martyr king; followers of Jesus must kneel before their savior and rely entirely on his merits to be saved.
An argument can be made for many of the above imperatives constituting the components of human excellence, but it would be difficult to say they’re distinctly related to manly excellence. In fact, one would be hard pressed not to view such tenets as direct contradictions of the ancient code of manhood.
Christianity, seen this way, might make you a good man, but it won’t make you good at being a man.
Christianity as Slave Morality
“The Christian faith is from the beginning a sacrifice: a sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of the spirit, at the same time enslavement and self-mockery, self-mutilation.” –Friedrich Nietzsche
It’s for this reason that some philosophers, most notably Friedrich Nietzsche, have dismissed Christianity as a weak, repressive religion, unbecoming of any man who wishes to truly “say yes to life.” While Nietzsche had some respect for Jesus as a unique individual who created his own values, the philosopher derided the fact that he denied reality in favor of looking to a kingdom to come, and went to his death without a fight. And Nietzsche had full contempt for the religion Jesus’ teachings developed into, arguing that Christianity was a faith developed by slaves who begrudged the power of masters.
Nietzsche wanted to resurrect the Homeric values of ancient Greece, and revive an aristocracy where might makes right. Humanity is inherently hierarchical, Nietzsche contended: some people are demonstrably better than others. At the top of the heap were the masters, the noble ones — unabashed egoists who asserted their will on the world and took what they wanted through strength, courage, and excellence. They had a will to power and the desire to rule. Masters loved struggle and risk-taking and approached life with vitality and energy. They heroically strove to be the very best and gloried in their individual successes and the accolades that came their way.
Those at the bottom of the totem pole were slaves — timid and spineless beings who weren’t able to exert their will, and resented those who could. From this resentment of “master morality” was birthed “slave morality” — the underlings’ attempt to turn the code of the powerful on its head. Slaves asserted that the values of the master class were not only offensive to God, but that it was actually more righteous and excellent to be weak, humble, and submissive.
Nietzsche believed that slaves eschewed risk and struggle, and played it small, safe, and mediocre — they didn’t embrace this mortal existence with true vitality and drive, because they were too busy dreaming of their mansions above.
Slave morality, he asserted, was a naked attempt by those who lacked the will to power and the ability to conquer to feel better about themselves and justify their weaknesses as strengths. Their whole identity and worldview was a mere delusion, and a truly pathetic one at that.
The Masculinity of Christianity
The inherent femininity and weakness of Christianity posited by Nietzsche and others has not gone unchallenged. Defenders of the masculinity of Christianity don’t deny that many of the tenets of the Christian gospel are “soft” in nature, but argue that they are joined by an equal, if not greater number, of “hard” virtues and strenuous requirements that align with the code of manhood in many respects. In fact, there are those, like Catholic scholar Leon J. Podles who argue that the way of Christ is primarily masculine in nature — that “Women can participate in this spiritual masculinity, but men could be expected to have a greater natural understanding of the pattern.”
Podles and others say that while the loving, merciful, nurturing, gentle side of Jesus represents one part of his character, he has another, often ignored side — a lion in contrast to the better-known lamb — marked by traits like justice, boldness, power, and self-mastery. This is Jesus the carpenter, the desert camper, the whip-cracker.
The man who said to “judge not” roundly condemned his critics.
The compassionate healer who championed children, cleansed the temple in a righteous rage.
The gentle sage who spoke of lilies and sparrows, rebuked his friend as Satan incarnate, and declared he had not “come to bring peace but a sword.”
The teacher who admonished his followers to “love thy neighbor as thyself” called Gentiles dogs, and at first reserved the teaching of his message for his own people. And while those “others” were eventually able to fully adopt his message, the Christian gospel hardly disavowed its “us vs. them” ethos; Jesus had no problem drawing lines between the sheep and the goats — those who were part of his tribe, and those who had no place in it. All would be welcome, as long as they lived a strenuous code of ethics.
Sharp of tongue, deft in debate, and unafraid of conflict, challenging the status quo, or causing offense, Jesus was anything but safe and predictable. Far from hiding in private solitude, and playing it small, Jesus was a public figure, a revolutionary who rigorously confronted the establishment, and who preached such a confrontational and audacious message that he was ultimately killed for it.
In fact, during his life critics called him a lestes — a word that meant an insurrectionist, rebel, pirate, bandit. Though the label was often associated with violent thievery, Jesus practiced what anthropologists call “social banditry” — groups of men operating on the margins of society who refuse to submit to the control and value system of the ruling elite, and who fight for the justice, independence, and emancipation of the common people. While the existing power structure considers them criminals, the exploited see these outlaws as their champions.
Like all bandits of the time, Jesus hung out with a gang — twelve comrades — and he invited others to share the same risky, subversive, challenging life with him — to become brothers in suffering and the fight against oppression and sin. Taking up one’s cross wasn’t for the faint of heart; physical courage was at times needed, and moral courage was required in spades.
While Jesus went to his death as a martyr, the ethos of laying down one’s life for one’s friends fits with the code of manhood, as does the way he bore that death (and its prior torture) with an ironclad stoicism.
While Jesus does not directly charge his followers with fighting human foes (though there have been those who have found an implicit justification for such in the name of a righteous cause), many of the faith’s adherents have seen the gospel as a call to continue Christ’s cause by engaging in another kind of warfare — one waged on the spiritual plane. The Bible is full of references both to contest — what the ancient Greeks called agon — and to war. Individuals wrestle with God (both metaphorically and literally), and the apostle Paul refers to believers as “athletes” who must “train” their souls and run the race set before them. Believers are to gird themselves about with spiritual “armor,” and wield the “sword of the spirit” in battling unseen forces and directly confronting the conflict between good and evil.
C.S. Lewis thought that Christians should conceive of the world as “enemy-occupied territory,” and of themselves as sort of secret agents. “Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”
St. Ignatius de Loyola, a Spanish knight who converted after being wounded in a physical battle, founded the Society of Jesus for “whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God” and organized the Jesuits around a martial ethos. Ignatius saw, in the call to the discipleship, something very similar to the summons of an earthly king who is assembling an army for battle, and is looking for those who will be willing to live hard and die hard in service to the mission ahead:
“Whoever wishes to join me in this enterprise must be content with the same food, drink, clothing etc. as mine. So, too, he must work with me by day, and watch with me by night, etc., that as he had a share in the toil with me, afterwards, he may share in the victory with me.”
This kind of battle summons, Ignatius felt, was just like the call of his heavenly king, who extended this herald:
“It is my will to conquer the whole world and all my enemies, and thus to enter into the glory of my Father. Therefore, whoever wishes to join me in this enterprise must be willing to labor with me, that by following me in suffering, he may follow me in glory.”
By, as Podles puts it, embracing “the inner life as a spiritual combat” and submitting to the discipline of the gospel as a soldier submits to the discipline of the military, a follower of Jesus gains greater power, can experience and do more, and attains a greater reward than he could have alone, or by giving free rein to his desires. By following the way of the ascetic warrior, he can become not just a soldier for Christ, but a hero like his king.
The Christian Way as a Hero’s Journey
“I quite agree that the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort, but it does not begin in comfort…In religion as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth — only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.” –C.S. Lewis
Part of the case against the effeminate or enslaving nature of Christianity can be made by showing how the religion and the life of its founder overlay with the components of the “hero’s journey.” The hero’s journey refers to a narrative pattern that has underlaid many of the world’s stories, rituals, and myths from ancient times to the present.
Different scholars have lent a different order, and more or fewer steps to the journey, but its three big stages are separation, initiation, and return, and these are some of the basics contained within those stages:
- Hero receives a call to adventure
- Leaves his ordinary life
- Receives supernatural aid
- Crosses a threshold that separates him from the world he has known
- Gathers allies for his quest
- Faces test, trials, and challenges
- Undergoes an ordeal
- Dies a physical or spiritual death
- Undergoes transformation and apotheosis (becoming godlike)
- Gains a reward or magic elixir
- Journeys back home
- Shares the reward and wisdom he’s gained with others
- Becomes master of the two worlds he’s passed through
- Gains greater freedom
The pattern of the hero’s journey manifests itself in the rites of passage that tribes around the world used to initiate a young man into manhood: a boy would separate himself from the comfortable world of his mother, gather with male mentors, undergo a painful test of skill and/or toughness, die to his immaturity, rise to his manhood, and return to the tribe both with greater responsibilities — committed to serve and to sacrifice — and with new freedoms.
The story of Jesus also fits the pattern of the hero’s journey. A son descends from heaven, and with the supernatural aid of his heavenly father, becomes a mortal on earth. He gathers allies for his mission, faces tests and trials, undergoes a sacrificial ordeal, dies and resurrects, returns to the earth to announce that the power of sin and death has been conquered, and then ascends back into the heavens.
The journey of Jesus’ followers can be seen to fit this pattern as well. A man receives a call to adventure in becoming a “soldier of Christ,” leaves behind his ordinary life for the path of discipleship, and ventures into an unknown world — discovering another reality and plane of existence he previously did not know existed. He is empowered in his quest both by the brothers he meets along the way, and by the Holy Ghost, a fiery force Podles compares to thumos, and which theologian Rudolf Otto describes as “vitality, passion, emotional temper, will, force, movement, excitement, activity, impetus.” He faces tests and challenges, suffers for and with his Savior, dies to self to live in the spirit, and is progressively transformed. He begins a journey back home, offering the “magic elixir” he now possesses to those he meets along the way, and becoming a savior with a small S onto others. In learning to balance the spiritual and material, and to conquer himself, he becomes master of two worlds, and gains greater freedoms — the freedom from death, and the freedom from slavery to his passions and physical desires. Ultimately, he will make his way to his heavenly home, and receive his final reward — eternal life as a joint-heir of Christ, and in some traditions, like the Eastern Orthodox, even theosis — full union with God. As the second century bishop St. Irenaeus explained: “God became man so that man might become god.”
Podles argues that “For all human beings, life is a struggle, but men know that it is their duty in a special way to be in the thick of that struggle, to confront the hard places in life and strive to know, in the fullest sense, what the mysteries of life and death are all about.” Christianity then, in his view, offers precisely the kind of epic, heroic struggle that appeals to the masculine soul.
Conclusion: Is Christianity a Masculine or Feminine Religion?
So is the Christian religion more feminine or masculine in nature? Is it inherently better suited for men or women? Is it the faith of slaves or masters? Milquetoast or heroic?
Well, that depends on how you look at it, and who you ask.
Clearly, there are two sides to the coin. Indeed, Christianity is like that optical illusion where if you look at it one way, you see a woman, and if you look at it another, you see a lamp.
Its emphasis on kindness, acceptance, forgiveness, and humility represent those traits traditionally associated with femininity.
Its requirements of suffering, sacrifice, self-mastery, conflict, and contest represent those traits traditionally associated with masculinity.
Most Christians would say that setting up a masculine/feminine contrast creates a false dichotomy, and believe that Christ represents the perfect synergy of soft and hard qualities — that in fact this harmonious blend of all that constitutes human excellence is part of what makes him a god worth worshipping.
(As a side note, that the standard of that excellence is too lofty, or goody-goody to be appealing to men can’t be the cause of Christianity’s gender gap, as a religion like Islam shares the same high standards of virtue ethics — including the elephant in the room, the requirement of premarital chastity — but does not evidence the same disparity between men’s and women’s commitment.)
The real question then, is not whether the Christian gospel is inherently more feminine or masculine, but why the former characterization has been privileged over the latter. It’s unarguably true that in congregations, in artwork, in media, in political debates, and in popular culture as a whole, the image of the “softer,” more accepting, more huggable Jesus prevails. There is not much talk either inside or outside the church, of his judgments, or his anger, or the hard, bracing nature of his way. Certainly, it’s rare to hear Christianity referred to as “heroic.”
Hypothetically, this might have been different — the lion thread of Christianity might have been ascendant, or equally yoked with its lamb side. And for a time, it was. To the forces that shifted the narrative of Christianity, creating an ethos which appealed more to women, than to men, is where we will turn next.