Masculine Spirituality

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Masculine Spirituality

As cultural constructs, understandings and practices of masculine spirituality have varied from one social group to another and within any given group over time. They have been postures at once private and public, personal and social, sacred and secular, spiritual and physical. Contemporary American religious life entails many models, all with deep historical roots.

Indigenous American concepts and practices of masculine spirituality have varied widely but generally addressed relationships among bodily experience, group survival, and the environment. Expressed in visions, dances, and other rites of passage, healing, sexuality, hunting, planting, and war, masculine spirituality—particularly that of the male shamans, priests, and secret societies who specialized in ritual—regulated personal and group relations with the spirits, mythic heroes, animals, plants, and people that inhabited and shaped the surrounding world. As Native Americans' physical and cultural environment was altered by white settlement, they infused traditional expressions of masculine spirituality with new meanings. Some have identified male religiosity with a red God of justice. Others have had visions calling for a vigorous physical defense of their communities, territory, natural environment, and traditional values against perceived external threats. Still others have promoted a male spirituality that emphasizes ethical and peaceful living and incorporates such white Christian values as temperance and industry.

Unlike Native Americans, the Protestant Christians who colonized America assumed a dualism between spirit and body in which the former was identified as masculine and dominant and the latter as feminine and requiring control. Seventeenth-century Puritan men therefore defined their pious submission to God as "feminine" while assuming their spiritual superiority and exercising religious authority in church, state, and the family. Male spiritual power was to be demonstrated in stern enforcement of moral law and in practices of piety, humility, self-control, diligent labor, and monogamous procreative sexuality. These practices endure as hallmarks of American male spirituality, but the social, economic, and cultural changes accompanying the growth of commercial capitalism and the modernization of American life rendered masculine spirituality more problematic by the early nineteenth century. Men became separated from the home; new models of manhood portrayed them as sexual and economic aggressors, urging them to the competitive, amoral pursuit of business success in the public sphere and a tightly controlled sexuality while identifying piety, purity, domesticity, and emotional expression as private postures best suited to women. The result was a tension between spirituality and masculinity, between Christian commitment, self-control, and humility on the one hand and material success and personal ambition on the other.

From the Victorian era to the present, American Protestant men have responded to this perceived disjuncture by seeking the meaning of masculine spirituality. Some radical Protestant men of the mid-nineteenth century found it by rejecting emerging gender and sexual constructs in favor of gender equity, communal living, and biblically based sexual practices ranging from those of the Oneida community, where Christian love meant a liberated yet controlled sexuality of multiple partners and male continence, to those of the Shakers, who sublimated male sexuality in celibacy, diligent labor, and ecstatic dance. Millions of liberal Protestant men turned from what they considered "feminized" churches and sentimentalized theology to fraternal orders, where they found Christian male fellowship, a masculinized theology of sin and rebirth, mystical initiation rites, and emotional release. (Though less troubled by a feminization of worship, Jewish and Catholic men likewise found in fraternal ritual an assertion of male spiritual identity.) Evangelical Protestants promoted a "muscular Christianity" that equated spiritual with physical virility and urged men to offset the enervating effects of office work and female sentimentalism with the masculine power of Christ. The Men and Religion Forward Movement of 1911–1912 combined muscular Christianity with male domesticity in all-male religious meetings that identified masculine spirituality with church leadership, businesslike social service, and marital fulfillment.

Muscular Christianity and fraternalism waned in the 1920s, but similar contemporary movements illustrate the continuing effort to articulate a masculine spirituality amid profound technological change, postindustrial downsizing, changing family and workforce demographics, and modern feminism. Self-proclaimed "Wild Men" reject feminist critiques of masculinity, assert a distinctly male spiritual and physical essence, and urge men alienated by modern society to revitalize that essence by seeking mythic warrior-hero models and the bonding and emotional release of all-male shamanistic rituals. In sports stadiums and small groups, the Promise Keepers, led by a football coach, have incorporated feminism by rejecting competitiveness, aggression, and careerism in favor of piety, male friendship, emotionality, and family commitment. Some evangelicals and athletes have revived the hypermasculine spirituality and brawny Jesus of muscular Christianity, while more liberal theologians offer an alternative model of masculine spirituality based on a feminine, feminist Jesus and a concept of God that moves beyond phallic firmness to embrace the realities of male physical desire and frailty.

Middle-class Catholics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have joined the Protestant effort to define masculine spirituality but have looked to Catholic thought as well as Protestant models, tried to establish Catholicism in American life, and addressed a working-class culture with limited economic opportunity and strong traditions of male celibacy and homosocial revelry. They and Protestants alike have assumed a tension between manhood and piety and have urged diligence, thrift, sobriety, regular worship, and marital sexuality as male spiritual ideals. But they deemphasized the spiritual benefits of all-male spaces, contrasted a manly Catholicism with a feminized Protestantism, and rejected the perceived Protestant premium on competitiveness, acquisitiveness, and ambition in favor of patience, honesty, humility, family devotion, and the preindustrial Catholic notion of acceptance of station. Much of this ideal endures, particularly among Irish Americans, although it has been counteracted by working-class resistance to middle-class standards and, well into the twentieth century, by resistance to an Irish-dominated church hierarchy among such non-Irish Catholic men as Italian and Mexican Americans. The movement of Catholic ethnic groups to the suburbs after World War II led the church to produce a burst of ethnically neutral literature urging men to seek the spiritual benefits of domestic devotion, but this literature has underscored rather than resolved the problems of male spirituality that Catholics share with other American men. Feminist challenges to the male church hierarchy and a rethinking of traditional gendered concepts of God in the wake of the Second Vatican Council have intensified attempts to develop new models of Catholic male spirituality.

For Jewish-American men, the problem of masculine spirituality has been tied to issues of ethnic identity and social marginality. Spirituality and masculinity are closely identified in traditional Judaism, in which sacred learning is an exclusively male duty, fathers are expected to lead family prayer and ensure their sons' spiritual well-being, and seating in worship is segregated by gender. Orthodox groups in America maintain these aspects of male religiosity, but Reform and Conservative Jewish men have anxiously sought to reconcile the male spirituality of the dominant American culture with that of tradition. Loyalty to the family—traditionally understood as the focus of ethnic and religious identity—is considered a crucial element of male spirituality by all of these groups. But American anti-intellectualism, hypermasculinity, and anti-Semitism have led some to question the Old Testament identification of superior spirituality with physical delicacy and maternal orientation, the male imperative to spiritual study, and the concept of circumcision as a supreme act of masculine piety. Some have also challenged a long influential model of manhood—developed in Europe as a survival mechanism—that rejects ambition, arrogance, and anger in favor of humility, restraint, emotional coolness, and conciliation. Reform men in Victorian America redefined male spirituality to embrace gender-integrated (or "family") worship; Conservatives followed in the early to mid-twentieth century. Many Jewish-American men have also embraced the ethic of achievement, while more recently others have seen in Israeli men a constructive reclamation of anger and a combination of spiritual with physical vigor. The patriarchal elements of male Jewish spirituality have also been challenged in an American setting, most successfully in liberal groups, by female challenges to male religious authority and by secularizing currents that have pulled Jewish men from sacred learning to professional ambition. But the endurance of such masculine spirituality, even in Reform Judaism, is evident in continued paternal leadership of such domestic rituals as the Passover Seder.

Even more than Jewish-American men, African-American men have built models of masculine spirituality on experiences of oppression and marginality. But their models, shaped by a legacy of slavery and resistance to white racism, have emphasized racial pride, dignity, independence, reclamation of the exploited and stereotyped body, and an agenda of social and political liberation. Slave religion idealized Moses the liberator as well as the more gentle Jesus as an appropriate model of black spirituality. The black spokesmen and emerging African-American denominations of the nineteenth century defined male religiosity in terms of strenuous, angry, and sometimes violent resistance to racial oppression and a celebration of physical and cultural blackness. Some urged removal to Africa on the grounds that the African male embodied a spiritual manliness impossible of realization in a white society. These positions remain central to black male spirituality. African-American Christians of the 1950s and 1960s fashioned a theology of liberation that associated masculine spirituality with Christian commitment and a vigorous but nonviolent struggle for respect and social justice. The Nation of Islam, nationally prominent since the 1950s, has offered an alternative definition of spiritual manliness that postulates a black God and black superiority, asserts black power, questions Christian nonviolence, sanctions righteous anger, counsels strict morality, and urges militant and if necessary physical resistance to white dominance. The recent Million Man March, which like the Promise Keepers urged male spiritual fellowship and family commitment, successfully combined both models.

Addressing men's religious, psychic, cultural, and social needs, masculine spiritualities have been and remain as dynamic and plural as American life itself.

See alsoAfrican-American Religions; Belonging, Religious; Body; Celibacy; Ecstasy; Feminist Spirituality; Feminist Theology; Gender Roles; Judaism; Liberation Theology; Mainline Protestantism; Nationof Islam; Promise Keepers; Ritesof Passage; Ritual; Roman Catholicism; Secret Societies; Shamanism; Spirit; Spirituality; Temperance; Vatican II.


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Boyd, Stephen B., W. Merle Longwood, and Mark W. Muesse, eds. Redeeming Men: Religion and Masculinities. 1996.

Brod, Harry, ed. A Mensch Among Men: Explorations inJewish Masculinity. 1988.

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Bret E. Carroll

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Masculine Spirituality

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