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In Psalm 8, an awestruck King David asks, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” Modern translations substitute “humanity” for man, but even if the intention is to cover both sexes, the question applies equally to men apart from women. Men apart from women – it’s an interesting phrase in this day and age of gender fluidity.
It’s clear that the Bible, biology and anthropology all agree that there are only two sexes. Terms like “non-binary” or “gender non-conforming” don’t have any theological meaning, and they don’t actually relate to sex biblically, biologically or anthropologically. Terms such as these were invented, in the long road of human history, about ten minutes ago, and they refer only to superficial cultural expressions of manhood or womanhood. They operate at the surface level of appearances and stereotypes. Far more interesting, and revealing of God’s purposes, is the level of substance. We can’t really say that man is not woman and woman is not man unless we can define what man is substantively, apart from woman, and what woman is substantively, apart from man. Since this podcast episode is being released near Father’s Day, we’re going to tackle the substantive man first.
The simplest answer to the question “What is a man” is: an adult human male. That is true, of course, but men come in all shapes and sizes, and in all different temperaments, such that simply being a male of the species gets us no closer to understanding the male’s purpose within God’s purposes. If all that makes a male a man is simple biology, then men are reduced to being nothing more than the suppliers of genetic material for procreation. If God thought that sex, at a substantive level, was non-binary, why make the procreative process binary? And if God’s purposes are confined to procreation, why supply humanity with the consciousness of God? That which brings meaning to life is not separate from that which brings animation to life. No amount of drugs or surgery can separate the human spirit from its biological wrapper.
Folk singer Malvina Reynolds once sang about how “we don’t need the men.” The lyrics claim that single women are far happier than married women, suggesting that men aren’t even biologically necessary. All men are good for is moving the piano. It’s a sarcastic song – I think – but in an age of test-tube babies and sperm banks, do we actually need men beyond their biological contribution?
Clearly, God thought we did.
In Genesis 1:27, God creates humanity, male and female, as coequals in creation. Genesis 2 has a slightly different account, but in the oldest creation story, man is not above woman, and neither is woman above man. When Adam and Eve are tossed out of the Garden of Eden, they are both given punishments for their collusion with the serpent. Eve – all women – is condemned to bear children in pain, and Adam – all men – is condemned to work the ground for food. “in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.” Each is given their own distinct region of suffering, but unlike in Buddhism, in the Judeo-Christian tradition suffering is not an essential state of being: it’s more just a fact of life. Instead, as the Biblical narrative continues, God leaves breadcrumbs for us to follow back to the garden – if only we would. Our existence is, therefore, aspirational, not monolithic. We are not simply the sum of current, immutable attributes; we are our future selves, transformed by a loving God who sees us as more than our suffering.
For example, men are often granted the attribute of strength. Being, on average, larger, stronger and with more muscle and bone mass than women, strength would seem to differentiate the sexes. Does that mean that small, or weak, or disabled men are not able to participate in God’s purposes, or that man’s ultimate purpose is in physical strength? As St. Paul would say, “Certainly not!” Nevertheless, the strength of men has played an important role in the kingdom building process: in defense of home and family and in the harvesting of food, as two examples. And strength is not limited to physical strength, as men throughout the ages have demonstrated moral courage in the face of chaotic temptation and outright evil, sometimes at the expense of their own lives. There is also creative strength. I doubt Michelangelo would have made much of a wrestler, but his art changed the world for the better because it powerfully glorified God.
Yet strength alone does not provide a complete description. The displacement of this strength into abuse and violence is very real and very disturbing but does not come about because abuse and violence are inherent, immutable attributes of masculinity; it comes about through the sinful misuse of God’s gifts. And we can’t forget that sometimes strength is used in self-sacrificial ways, difficult ways that are hard for some men to deal with and result in after-effects like stoicism or emotional distance. It is not a sin to be stoic or emotionally distant – in some cases, it might be a blessing, or at least a necessity – but it is a sin to use those mechanisms as an excuse for abuse.
While the male contribution to procreation is not a definitive definition of manhood, we have now so decoupled the sex act from procreation that we have forgotten its original purpose. Licentiousness has been a problem since antediluvian times, but freed from the consequences of pregnancy, the meaning of sex has been converted to only its physical expression. Sex was intended not only to spawn a child, but to create intimacy, relationship and ultimately God’s greatest gift: the family. When we consider the act of procreation as our most relevant contribution, we degrade one of God’s great purposes for men: fatherhood. It is true that not all men become fathers, but through the illusion of consequence-free sex we have seen a marked rise in fatherless homes and single-parent households. Free love encourages men to be promiscuous, and this not only has a devastating effect on the lives of children, it engenders, just as much as the abuse of strength, a sin of profound proportions. The abandonment of responsibility for children goes directly against the basic, biblical foundation of society upon which God has rested his hopes for humanity: the family. A man who abandons the child he helped create is no different than if God abandoned humanity on the eighth day of creation.
This is made plain throughout the Biblical narrative, which admittedly seems to include more dysfunctional families as a warning than normal families as an example. Nevertheless, the point is clear: through God’s authoritative narrative the family is held up as central to God’s purposes for humanity, and the father alongside the mother is central to the success of the family.
In spite of the multitude of dysfunctional families in the Bible, many men of faith become excellent fathers, far beyond their initial contribution. For an excellent adoptive father, fatherhood isn’t even based on that initial contribution. Fatherhood is a sacred responsibility, one that even men deeply flawed in other ways can execute for the betterment of their children, their family and therefore the betterment of God’s purposes. To put it bluntly, no one thanks their father for sleeping with their mother: they thank him for the guidance, wisdom and strength that followed. It is a responsibility often carried out away from the spotlight, by men who will never be famous or even be remembered by their descendants. Yet with each succeeding generation, nurtured wisdom and well-controlled strength become like bricks laid into the road that leads to the kingdom of God.
A cornerstone to the strength of a family is fidelity. Sexual and emotional fidelity among the parents has deep rewards unto itself, and it also sets the example of fidelity to God. Just like the substantive woman, the substantive man is deeply faithful, trusting in God and living as best as possible within his precepts. This too is part of the aspirational aspect of our being: a constant desire to live closer to God. We aren’t simply stuck in a miasma of the sameness of now: bettering change is possible through a relationship with God. This is a shared attribute across both sexes, but often men and women seek or implement this change differently; neither way is better than the other if they both lead to God.
Yet, as predicted, simply listing attributes does not bring the sense that we have completely defined the substantive man. This entire article seems incomplete and unsatisfactory, like we haven’t reached the goal we set out to achieve. Perhaps the fault lies in our original thesis, “man apart from woman.” Is there man apart from woman?
In the second chapter of Genesis, God realizes that Adam, in spite of his dominion over everything on earth, is incomplete, and brings forth woman from Adam’s rib. Adam clings to Eve, and they become one flesh, completed by each other. The two sides of a coin may be very different, but they remain one coin. And like a coin, inseparable. When Tom Cruise tells Renee Zellweger in the movie Jerry Maguire, “You complete me,” he is uttering a deep, fundamental truth about manhood – a truth that could have been uttered by Adam.
In the end, a man is a compendium of things bound together and completed by woman. A man’s biology is inextricably wound together with his soul, which is inextricably bound to God’s purposes. Attributes that are shared with all other men are joined with a uniqueness of being that sets every man apart from every other. Fatherhood, in its fullest sense, is the ultimate expression of substantive masculinity. It exists even when separated from biology, as in a stepfather, or adoptive father, or even a father-figure, but always achieves its fullest flower when bound in relationship to create family. Fatherhood can involve sacrifice, yet no man dies embittered, no matter how impoverished, if he has left behind a strong family.
While a Biblical worldview may in many ways be distinct from other worldviews, the presence of a father in a household is a nearly universal virtue. The strength of men, whether physically, courageously or creatively, has been a bulwark against evil throughout the Bible and throughout history. We can clearly see both in the Biblical narrative and in our own times that when men – and particularly, fathers – are diminished, or when men or women are reduced to only their desire for sex, society suffers. Children suffer. The kingdom suffers. In the end, it turns out we actually do need the men, and for far more than moving Malvina Reynolds piano. We need men who hear God’s call to strength and faith, and transformed by the grace of Christ and in partnership with woman, help us find our way back to the garden.