Masculinity in the Church

“It doesn’t matter who my father was, it matters who I remember he was.”

~Anne Sexton

 

Degrees of Glory

I want to quickly debunk the common belief within the church that, unlike men, women can achieve the highest degree of glory in the celestial kingdom without the covenant of marriage. Here’s a quote from a talk by Gordon B. Hinkley from Oct. 1991 that quickly puts the matter to rest: “in attaining the highest degree of glory in the celestial kingdom, the man cannot enter without the woman, neither can the woman enter without the man. The two are inseparable as husband and wife in eligibility for that highest degree of glory.”

I think the misconception that women can achieve the highest degree of glory without marriage comes from D&C 131:

1 In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees;

2 And in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage];

3 And if he does not, he cannot obtain it.

4 He may enter into the other, but that is the end of his kingdom; he cannot have an increase.

The assumption is that these verses apply specifically to men, but we should keep in mind that the scriptures often use masculine pronouns to refer to humanity in general (2 Nephi 2:25 and Moses 1:39 are some good examples). Some non-gender-specific pronouns would do a lot of good in clarifying the scriptures in my opinion, but oh well.

I think it should be clear that this belief that women can reach the highest degree of glory without the new and everlasting covenant is false. I also think this belief has done some harm in the hearts and minds of young men and women in the church as has been a contributing factor in the condescending attitude towards men who hold the priesthood. I speak of the general vibe: “the women of the church are wonderful and sacred, and priesthood holders are trash.” I’m exaggerating, but I think we all know what I’m talking about. Women’s session of General Conference is full of praise while Priesthood session is full of reprimands. Mother’s Day is celebrated in excess, while Father’s Day is barely mentioned—or if it is, people hardly know what to say about it. There is an attitude that priesthood holders are careless and inherently flawed, especially when compared with the women of the church. We are right to praise women for their divine attributes, but never at the expense of men. I think this attitude is unfair and needs to change.

There is something to be said about the inherent goodness and beauty of the male gender—especially of worthy priesthood holders and father figures. And this should in no way rob women of their inherent goodness and beauty. That notion is a logical fallacy if I ever heard one. Men and women are both divine, sacred, and beautiful. Why would we assume anything different if we are all created in God’s image?

Masculinity

I want to make a quick point about the importance of feminism and how it applies to men. The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti once said, “women’s liberation is men’s liberation.” The more I think about my role as a man and as an ally to women, the more I see the truth of this statement. As Jackson Katz, an educator and expert in the field of ending violence against women explained in a Ted talk, there are boys and young men who never asked to grow up in a society that oppresses women. Feminism has done so much, and continues to do much, to free men from the pressure of having to be emotionless and barbaric, freeing men from harmful traditions of our fathers that define masculinity in a careless and sometimes harmful way. In other words, everyone benefits from resisting gender inequality.

Defining masculinity for myself has been an ongoing process. I think most men don’t spend enough time talking about what that word means. What is masculine? It may be easier at first to say what masculinity is not. Masculinity is not flannel, flapjacks, and motor sports. Such a perspective of masculinity is just as shallow as the assumption that femininity is dolls and pink dresses. Masculinity is not the sum of men’s interests, and I think we should demand more from each other than an overly simplistic view of our gender.

On the other hand, some people go so far as to say that masculinity is entirely a social construct full of arbitrary binaries that are not inherent but learned. While a lot of what we learn about gender is arbitrary, we cannot dismiss all distinctions between the genders as meaningless. The church’s document The Family: A Proclamation to the World says, “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” I don’t have all the answers, but I think that if we are to continue to tie our eternal identity closely to our gender, we should spend more time pondering and honoring the innate characteristics that define our gender. And simply having a “manly moment” at the beginning of elder’s quorum does not count.

Fatherhood

The Family: A Proclamation to the World also says, “By divine design, fathers are to… provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.” Many stay-home fathers in the church feel delegitimized as parents or feel like they are somehow less masculine for their life choices because of the interpretation of these few words that values men insofar as they make money. I take issue with that. Anyone who would shame a father for caring for his children or determine a man’s masculinity by the size of his bank account is clearly in the wrong.

Much has been done in television and other media portrayals of fatherhood over the last few decades to represent fathers as lazy, brutish, ugly, or stupid. It has set a standard so low of what society expects from father figures that men scarcely strive to excel at the sacred calling of father. Many people go so far as to say that father figures are completely superfluous to the family unit, that they aren’t needed. I think this could largely be the result of too many bad examples of father figures.

I think Cheryl Strayed in her book Wild sums up the role of fathers perfectly well: “The father’s job is to teach his children to be warriors, to give them the confidence to get on the horse and ride into battle when it’s necessary to do so. If you don’t get that from your father, you have to teach yourself.” This is all figurative, of course, and demonstrates an attribute of fatherhood, and masculinity, that is easier to see with some examples.

There may still be great examples of great fathers from fiction like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Mr. Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, and Mufasa from The Lion King. A more contemporary example of an impressive father figure could be Ben from Captain Fantastic. While these characters are all very different, they all have something in common. They are all fathers that have the talent of seeing divine potential in their children and they take on the responsibility of teaching them by words or by example the courage it takes to reach that potential. It is not about being emotionless. It is not about dominating others, looming over them like a frightful cloud. It is not about great displays of strength. It is about courage to be true to oneself and helping others to have that courage, too. As C.S. Lewis wrote in the Screwtape Letters, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” I think this is what fatherhood means. It is a much higher standard than what the world offers, but it hints at the divine nature of this calling and the eternal implications of what it means to be a man.

“The way of a superior man is three-fold: virtuous, he is free from anxieties; wise, he is free from perplexities; bold, he is free from fear.” –Confucius

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! In form and moving, how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a God.” –Shakespeare

 

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