For several decades now, the women’s movement has successfully challenged traditional notions of the proper roles of women and men. Women have made major inroads into areas of life that were once the exclusive province of men: business, finance, law, broadcasting; even military service is open to women, and women’s roles in combat are expanding.
There are still more men than women in most traditionally male professions, and more women doing traditionally female work. But in our society the gender barriers are no longer as rigid as they once were.
This has caused us to do much soul-searching about what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man. In this article we’ll focus on changing views of men and masculinity.
Traditional models of manhood focus on strength and bravery. But there is more than one way to understand those qualities of character. A closer look at the essential nature of masculinity provides a new model of manhood that draws on the deeper realities of what it means to be a man.
This new model of manhood offers a more stable foundation for boys and men who are seeking to understand their identity as males in a time of gender confusion, when the roles of men and women in society are changing under our feet.
Man as warrior
One of the most enduring models of masculinity is the model of man as a warrior, whose prime characteristics are strength, bravery, and skill in wielding the weapons of war.
This ancient model of masculinity is found throughout the Bible, but especially in the Old Testament. In fact, there are so many bloody battles and wars in the Old Testament that many Christians prefer to ignore that part of the Bible, and focus almost entirely on the New Testament.
The battle of Jericho, recorded in Joshua 6, is a case in point. This was the very first battle after the Israelites crossed the Jordan and entered the Holy Land—and it was an especially indiscriminate and bloody one. The slaughter was not confined to enemy men of fighting age. The destruction of the city and its inhabitants was complete: men and women, young and old, even the livestock was put to the sword, and the entire city was burned to the ground. Only the silver and gold and articles of bronze and iron were saved, to be added to the treasury of the Lord’s house. We are left with the impression that the God of the Israelites was smiling down on this wholesale slaughter and destruction.
Although such scenes are repugnant to many civilized people today, back in the era when this battle was recorded such conquests were an occasion for celebration, not apology. War was a fact of life. The destruction of enemies was seen as the will of God. The people of those times believed that national conquest was a divinely sanctioned activity, and that the enemies of their nation were fit only for slavery or death.
Are men really all about war?
It has only been in recent centuries, and especially in recent decades, that there has been a widespread and sustained movement away from war as a legitimate occupation for men and nations. Yet even in the ancient scriptures the seeds of that movement are present:
He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Micah 4:3)
This passage draws on a universal truth about war: War means the death of many human beings and the destruction of their homes and communities, not to mention great damage to the world of nature. The people who lived in more warlike times may have exulted in battle when they were on the winning side, but they knew its terrors and devastation when they were on the losing side. And some of them—especially when they were on the losing side—longed for a reign of peace, in which war would be a thing of the past.
Many of us have this same longing, even as our nation continues to wage wars in various countries around the world. Some people long for the complete abolition of war, and the weapons and language of war, from human society. This longing becomes especially strong when we cannot even banish the weapons of war from our schools, and our places of learning are turned into battlegrounds.
And yet, for people who look to the Bible as the Word of God, there is the stubborn fact that the Bible is full of war and all its trappings. Much of the Old Testament is one long battle:
- first to wrest the Holy Land from its former inhabitants,
- then to enlarge its borders by conquering the surrounding nations,
- then to engage in civil war as the nation of Israel fell apart,
- and finally to become a conquered nation subject to the great powers of Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and Rome.
Even the New Testament has its climactic battles in the Book of Revelation.
How can we glean any redeeming social or spiritual value from this violent epic of human struggle? And how can the model it presents of man as warrior help us in giving shape to the new model of manhood that is developing in our time? What does it mean to be a man? What model of manhood can boys in our day and age look to?
Jesus addressed these questions when he used the language of war and peace to speak of spiritual realities. He said:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)
Yet the sword of which he spoke was not a literal sword. The only time one of his followers did use a sword, Jesus admonished him:
Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. (Matthew 26:52)
When Jesus said he had come to bring, not peace, but a sword, he did not mean the literal sword of war, but of the spiritual sword of conflict and struggle against all that would prevent us from living in the way that he teaches us to live. This is clear from what he said just before his surprising statement about not bringing peace, but a sword:
Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. (Matthew 10:32–33)
For Christians, this is the battle in which we must draw the sword that Jesus Christ puts into our hands. It is the battle over whether we will acknowledge Jesus Christ before others by living according to his commandments, or whether we will disown Jesus Christ before others by setting aside his teachings and joining in with—or condoning by our inaction—attitudes and actions that we know are wrong.
And within that battle, there is a deeper battle over whether we will allow God or our own blind thoughtlessness to control our lives. Will we be ruled by the higher self that God gives us, or by the lower self that values only material and personal gain?
Man as spiritual warrior
As we consider these deeper issues of spiritual peace and conflict, we can begin to build a new model of manhood. We do this, not by closing our eyes to the old model of man as warrior, but by and opening our eyes to a deeper model of man as spiritual warrior.
We can build a model of masculinity as strength, bravery, and skill in wielding the weapons of spiritual truth and genuine morality in the war against everything within and around us that tears down and destroys human life, and kills the presence of God’s love among us.
This deeper model of manhood helped me through my own adolescence. I was young for my grade and small for my age—the quintessential skinny little “brain.” The model of big, macho masculinity just didn’t apply! For many boys who didn’t fit that rough, tough mold, living with a constant barrage of macho men on TV and in the movies meant growing up with deep-seated doubts about their own masculinity. Many boys today continue to struggle with this kind of self-doubt.
Yet I was able to escape most of that self-doubt, not because I was better or smarter than any other non-macho boy, but simply because I had a deeper and more compelling image of what it meant to be a man. Despite the allure of the well-muscled warrior image of masculinity, I knew within myself that this was an external and temporary image of manhood. I knew that there are deeper qualities of manhood that were much more real, and that applied just as much to skinny little schoolboys and men who had aged beyond their physical prime as it did to those in the height of their physical prowess.
The essential nature of masculinity
This image of manhood came from the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). In his book on Marriage Love #32, Swedenborg boils masculinity and femininity down to their essence:
Since the essential nature of masculinity and femininity is unknown, I will briefly explain it. Here is the essential difference: The inmost core of a male is love, and this love is covered over with wisdom. In other words, masculinity is love clothed in wisdom. The innermost core of a female is that masculine wisdom, and this wisdom is covered over with love.
Here is a definition of masculinity (and of femininity) that does not depend on the outward, physical form, but relates to our inward form—to the parts of our being that make us truly human. It relates to the strength of love deep in the heart of a man. And it relates to a spiritual bravery and skill in expressing that inner love in wise and thoughtful ways that will bring improvement to our own life and to the lives of those around us.
What is unusual and even startling about this definition of masculinity is that it looks past the traditional identification of male with intelligence and female with love—a definition that Swedenborg himself uses hundreds of times in his theological writings.
Although the male does tend to express himself outwardly through the medium of intelligence, ideas, and physical skill, this comes from an underlying reality of love that is the essence of masculinity.
Conversely, although women do tend to express themselves outwardly through love—through relationships, through compassion and connection with other human beings—within that outward expression is a core of wisdom that relates especially to understanding the human spiritual situation at a deep level.
This image of male and female is expressed through the Eastern symbol of the yin-yang, in which the outward color of one element in the circle becomes the inward color of the other.
A new model of manhood
For boys and men who are confused about their identities in a time of changing roles for men and women, this new image of masculinity offers a welcome relief. It provides a spiritual basis for allowing ourselves to express the full range of our character, rather than limiting ourselves to certain parts of our personality, such as intellect and competitiveness, that are traditionally associated with masculinity. We can understand that concealed within that rougher and less beautiful exterior, the true essence of masculinity is a deep and driving love that is placed in our hearts by God, and that motivates everything we do.
This new model of manhood allows all men to exercise the desire for strength, bravery, and skill that we feel in our veins. We can develop the strength of love in our hearts, the bravery of standing up for what we know is right, and the skill of expressing these things in a way that brings about real and constructive good in every situation we face. When we express this kind of manhood throughout our lives, we can in the end leave our inner battles behind, and find peace in our souls. As Jesus tells us:
Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. . . . Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid. (John 14:23, 27)
(Note: This is an edited and expanded version of a talk originally delivered for Memorial Day on May 30, 1999.)
For further reading:
- What are the Roles of Men and Women toward Each Other and in Society?
- Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis
- What is the Wrath of God? Why was the Old Testament God so Angry, yet Jesus was so Peaceful?
- What about Violent Religions? Is God Really Bloodthirsty and Vengeful?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth