The Chivalric Real: On Christian Masculinity
I have been thinking, in the midst of this confused and confusing cultural moment, about the possibility of a Christian masculinity.
I am well aware of what an anachronism such an idea might appear as we increasingly lurch toward a post-gender world, as absurd as such a notion is. But absurdity has never been a hindrance to human stupidity. Indeed, as we can see only too clearly, such is celebrated.
Both masculinity and femininity have been under attack for a good long while. Certainly it has been a constant presence in my life, but it has obviously achieved ludicrous speed over the past few years. Perhaps the anxieties promoted over the course of the pandemic (such as those just coming to light initiated by Britain’s despicable Matt Hancock’s “project fear”) have for some also loosened sexual identity to such a degree that “switching gender” (another absurdity) becomes a form of imagined empowerment (though it’s really enslavement) for some and participation in its Dionysian intoxication becomes a rite of expiation for many. This may, in fact, be an implication of René Girard’s mimetic theory that never would have occurred to the great thinker, though I doubt he would be surprised at the scapegoat mechanisms often triggered when people, for example, oppose sexualizing children through drag shows or indoctrinating them into gender ideology in elementary schools and kindergarten.
At least symbolically or rhetorically, our culture has more or less succeeded in disassociating gender from biology, including the notion of the terms “father” and “mother,” which appear to be on their way out of the postmodern lexicon. In his book, The Sibling Society, published in 1996, the late Robert Bly shares an observation he received from an acquaintance: “Having made it to the one-parent family, we are now on our way to the zero-parent family.” Here it comes. A world without parents is a world without mothers and fathers; and a world without mothers and fathers is a world without women and men.
What we are left with are simulacra of women and men: appearance without a corresponding reality, spiritual, psychological, or biological. It’s a lab leak of cosplay culture, and highly contagious.
This phenomenon has many cultural and societal implications, of which the Anglican Church’s recent proposal to “de-gender” God is but a symptom. As I have written many times before, the Church writ large is at least partially to blame for having omitted the sophianic from divine consideration, and the utterance of Genesis 1 “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness...male and female created he them” is better understood if we adopt the perspective that God is here speaking to Sophia, which reinforces a sound gendered typology. Unfortunately, Christian anthropology and epistemology has never removed the spanner of this misinterpretation from the works. And we’re seeing its telos unfold in real time.
But my concern here is primarily with the masculine. We see many caricatures of the masculine, from the machismo of Andrew Tate to the practices among some Eastern Orthodox and Trad Catholic men to turn prayer and fasting into an Iron Man contest—“Yea, they have had already received their reward.” We also see a symptom of the missing father, the missing masculine in the platoons of young men flocking to people like Jordan Peterson or taking up a Norse-themed neopaganism in order to access their inner warrior. I don’t think these are necessarily bad things, but I do often question the authenticity of such gestures.
There is also the polarity to these very butch expressions of masculinity. Bly, whom I met once in 1987 and made me really feel “met” as a man for perhaps the first time in my young life, was wont to call the counter to the butch masculine the “soft male,” a man feminized not by nature but by conditioning. Indeed, boys in many school settings are discouraged from, well, acting like boys. Climbing trees is “too dangerous.” Competition encourages “toxic masculinity.” And so forth. You’ve seen it. This obscene pedagogy is a recipe for neurosis and self-hate. It is no wonder, then, that so many young men are reluctant to enter the work force, or go to college, or leave the adolescent secure fantasy spaces of video games and pornography. They never grow up. Puer aeternus. And no one should be surprised, seeing the indoctrination in self-loathing they’ve been subject to.
In Jungian analysis, we might say that the hyper-butch masculine and its companionate soft male are both evidence of an unintegrated anima. That is, they are exaggerations masking the failure to integrate the feminine into the psyche. I think our culture is doing this at scale right now, and it seems to me that the rise and ready availability of medical services allowing men to “become” women (in no small part encouraged via propaganda) is a cosmetic intervention that ultimately fails to address the inner psychological need to integrate the feminine. I think this is why we see so many absolute caricatures of the feminine arise in this sphere, as if, in far too many cases, a Barbie doll is the essence of what it is to be a woman.
Maybe twenty years ago, a woman colleague of mine stopped me one day and said, “Michael, you have the most developed feminine side I’ve ever seen in a man.” I was a little taken aback, so I punched her. Just kidding. I don’t know if what she said is or was true, but I suspect it had something to do with my being a man who writes and loves poetry and literature, knows how to take care of flowers, is attracted to the Divine Sophia, and is comfortable talking to women. The first three are often construed as “feminine” qualities (I don’t know why), but my comfort among women has much more to do with growing up with sisters and a strong mother than it does with trying to develop any kind of lotharian skill set. But I also know how to work hard at manual labor, kill and butcher an animal, how to sacrifice, and how to be a husband and father.
I’ve known plenty of men who feign being feminists or “into the goddess” as a way to flatter women they plan on seducing. I’m sure you’ve met the type. I also know plenty that play the macho role to similarly impress women. I swear, sometimes it’s like a hetero Village People.
So, I’ve been thinking about the possibility of a Christian masculinity.
Yesterday, I took to Twitter to canvas people about what or who might be their ideal of a Christian masculinity. I didn’t get a ton of suggestions, but some were interesting. One guy nominated Aragorn, son of Arathorn (a good model), and another suggested Pa Ingalls from the Little House on the Prairie books and television series. A few people pointed to Richard Rohr’s work (which I’m not familiar with) and someone even pointed to Holy Week in the Orthodox Church. I even asked my two youngest sons (ages 12 and 14). The younger one chose Aragorn and his brother picked Kambei Shimada, the leader of the samurai in the classic film Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa (I thought that was a great choice). Only one woman joined the conversation! And she nominated chivalry.
I certainly share her admiration for chivalry, but not in the rather abstract way in which it is often sold. For me, the chivalric ideal gives way to what I might call “the chivalric real.” Its most complete realization is found in the character of Launcelot in Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur.
Launcelot represents the most noble expression of Christian masculinity because he is fully aware of his inadequacy. His love for Guinevere, the wife of his best friend, is not evidence of hamartia, but of his true humanity—and it also serves as an indictment of arranged marriage, the abandonment of which Denys De Rougement in his odious Love in the Western World laments as a great loss.
Indeed, the figure of Launcelot has haunted me since childhood, and then my early twenties, when a few of the young women I knew were convinced I was the reincarnation of Launcelot after they’d read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, in which he is rather a John Donne-like character, crucified between the trees of love and religion. Recently, I wrote this poem about him (from a forthcoming book that is moving along at a very slow pace):
When first I saw him: beautiful, noble of both mien and of bearing,
standing upon sunrise at the lake, the sun behind him and the water
like fire of crimson and gold, the ripples like flame reaching to his feet
the wind in his dark hair and his arms full of rushes for bedclothes.
We always knew him fearless, but more than that he was kind, humble,
feeling himself somehow unworthy of the accolades, embarrassed even
by his contrition, by his weeping when he prayed for the life of young Urry;
even more by our amazement when the lad’s wounds vanished like smoke.
So, after a time, seeing him at enmity with his dearest friend we found ourselves
all at enmity, with ourselves, with the world, and those who died not from despair
in the search for something holy lived in disdain for the abject failure of the Good;
and in our anger at this betrayal all was lost in the lust of blood and fire and ruin.
The failure of this vocation led him to another, but even then he failed to find solace,
forgiveness cruelly eluding him in this broken cosmos where all that lives can only die.
We followed, thinking if we found no comfort, at least we would refrain from harm;
yet the barley and corn grew very thin and the heavens were ever masked in grey.
One night he was bidden in vision to Almesbury, where he found the beloved already dead.
The women wailed and struck up the dirge as he bore the corpse and laid it in the chapel
offering the Mass of Remembrance while wax candles melted under undulant flame.
Even this was a betrayal, for betrayal is as much a property of the world as love.
The cloister is also a fellowship, but the dangers here are within and not in the wolds
or on the fields of blood. His loves and friends had vanished, but his vocation yet held
him in thralldom to sorrow. And he slept and did not waken. Then angels, they say, bore him away to a lake of rippling waters with waves the colors of crimson and gold.
What I think is important about the chivalric real is something many might miss: its ability to contain and positively direct the potentially violent drives that are intrinsic to male biology. Emma Jung and Marie Louise von Franz describe this both beautifully and accurately in their book The Grail Legend:
“The knight represents—at least as a concept—a higher, more differentiated form of the warrior, even though the individual knight might in fact have been undifferentiated enough. What the ideal of chivalry meant to that age has been given expression by poets through the figures of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. It is clear that a higher, nobler and more disciplined human being was indicated by the term knight. The virtues demanded of him—strength and skill in arms, valour, courage and loyalty, to the feudal lord in particular but also to the friend and even vis-à-vis the foe—were no small requirements. In the profoundest sense a religious idea was concealed behind all this. Arthur’s Round Table might therefore be looked upon as a symbol in which is mirrored the developing consciousness of Christian man in the first millennium.In those days the spread of Christianity was linked with the great civilizing task of subduing the aboriginal brutality and unconsciousness of the heathen peoples. This lent a higher meaning to the Christian knight’s aggressive masculinity, which was put to the service of a nobler ideal and a higher state of consciousness.”
This certainly seems a quality lacking in contemporary conversations about gender, where discipline of desires and urges is virtually non-existent and notions of loyalty and fidelity are all but invisible. And the lack of these things no doubt attracts mostly fatherless young men to the more severe forms of Eastern Orthodoxy and Latin Catholicism as well as to neopaganism, Freemasonry, or Jordan Peterson. Completely understandable.
Of course, I don’t expect Christian men to start buying swords or joining militias, though I do think acknowledging the violence beneath the surface is a healthy way to keep it in check, as a potential energy one might use at one’s disposal rather than be a victim of its unconscious psychic eruptions. I had to figure out what to do with this in my own biography. Though I do feel an attraction to an absolute Christian non-violence, I also know that if anyone came into my house intending to hurt my wife or children they would not succeed without a fight. I know people who would allow violence upon their own families rather than commit violence, but I know now that I am not of their number. And I am at peace with that, though it took a long time to arrive there.
Finally, I think it best to take the advice of one of the singing masters of my soul, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, certainly one of wisest of men, who offers this advice in his poem, “The Godlike”:
Noble be man, Helpful and good! For that alone Distinguisheth him From all the beings Unto us known.
One thing I do know is that a world without men is a world without women. And that’s not a world worth inhabiting.
Friendship, loyalty, forgiveness, stuff like that.
Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at email@example.com Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: Flesh & Spirit and The Regeneration Podcast. Twitter: @Sophiologist_