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The masculine-feminine spectrum in spirituality

© Andrew Knock (2000)


Dictionary definitions

Dictionary definitions of spirituality concentrate on a distinction between sacred and secular spheres of human activity. ‘Spiritual’ activities are concerned with sacred things and with the soul or spirit as opposed to matter or external things. 

It’s reasonable for us to begin from this kind of definition.  We can recognise that in popular culture a church or a temple is taken to mean a building, a sacred thing, and people are deemed ‘spiritual’ by their association with the thing.  For example, early in Israel’s history the ideas of worship and priesthood developed at particular shrines – places deemed holy as a record of some historical dealing with the divine and the supernatural.

What is left unsaid in the dictionary definition is whether the sphere of the spiritual includes a different kind of value system, activity and lifestyle from the secular, or merely identifies different social groups which may use and involve themselves with distinctive sacred things and places, but in fact exhibit more or less identical lifestyles, value systems, etc to ‘unspiritual’ groups. 

Asking this allows us to acknowledge and leave open for consideration the continuous and reforming strand of religious radicals as diverse as St Francis, Luther, Martin Buber, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Gustavo Gutierrez and Jim Wallis to break down the dictionary division between sacred and secular.  As we will see, this is a key feature of today's spiritual searching. 

By refusing to locate ‘spirituality’ in sacred things, this reforming strand gives greater weight to the sacred community’s distinctive values, priorities and lifestyle as it lives in exactly the same world as everyone else.   Characteristically, this reforming strand is also invariably more concerned with relationships between people – often in community – than with the protection and preservation of sacred objects, rituals and institutions.   The strand is less concerned with 'religion' and religiosity than with fullness of life.  Grace, forgiveness and compassion are defining issues and values in spirituality at this level.

Having begun here, I think we need to begin by going a little deeper than descriptive classification, and I would start to attempt this by emphasising the terms ‘inspiration’ and ‘animation’.


Attracting men and women

In other words, first and foremost spirituality deals with whatever inspires human beings to act in different ways than before, the animating spirit that gets someone moving. 

This is a large-scale definition.  It leaves room for some elements which traditional ‘churchy’ spirituality finds difficult – for example, prosperity, success and achievement, numerical growth, structural or organisational efficiency, and so on.  Painted in very broad strokes, these can be referred to as ‘quantitative’ elements, rather than ‘qualitative’ ones.  I think it is also correct to say they cluster at a ‘male’ or masculine’ end of the spectrum of inspirers and animators.   The much higher percentages of women rather than men in most Christian congregations (internationally, not just in Britain) reflect the way spirituality has tended to ignore ‘male’ animators.

I have sometimes found myself in groups where I have raised this issue, and found some people, more usually women, very opposed to what they see as gender discrimination.   So I want to open this topic carefully.  Let me illustrate what I have in mind by turning to the new Stanford University research programme into forgiveness, Training in Health and Healing.  Linda Berlin introduced the programme in the San Francisco Chronicle (24.9.99) by writing:

To attract more male participants for a study on forgiveness, Stanford psychologists were forced to adjust the wording of the project. Stanford professor Dr. Carl Thoresen says the word ‘forgiveness’ easily attracted women to participate, but men weren’t calling. In an effort to figure out why, Thoresen randomly asked a group of men about it.

The consensus was the word ‘forgiveness’ is too soft and acquiescing, like a doormat or someone who turns the other cheek. The men suggested the psychologist use the word ‘grudge’ instead, since it’s harsh and seems more masculine.

Thoresen took their advice and created flyers saying, ‘Got a grudge?’ and the calls from men began pouring in.

About 260 participants are in the study, and nearly half of them are men. The results highlight gender differences in the training.

In other words, to speak of a ‘male’ spirituality is to speak of a language and a set of insights which communicate particularly well to men. Some women may find that a ‘male’ spirituality speaks particularly well to them – and so too some men may find a ‘female’ spirituality speaking best to them. (Indeed this has been part of the sub-culture of Christian church-going world-wide.) But a ‘male’ spirituality would be one which can be seen empirically to attract men particularly well, and so on.


Spirituality and Spirit

Many recent forms of spirituality take the form of courses. A very successful New Age 'bible' was called A Course in Miracles. They are creative human structures which aim to bring participants into contact with inspiration and an animating spirit. In doing this they are continuing what organised religions have sought to do, but without the same demand of permanent commitment to an institution. This is often called the ‘pick-and-mix’ approach to spirituality – which is a feature of almost all aspects of 21st century culture.

It is helpful to see that the ‘animating spirit’ which the spirituality seeks to bring participants into contact with may or may not be God or ‘the Spirit’. This is left open. Indeed the attraction to many people today of speaking about spirituality rather than religion is that it does not commit you in advance to a set of doctrines or dogmas, but allows you to explore, test against experience, gradually discover what is ‘real’ and what is ‘traditional,’ and so on.

The elements in spirituality are one face of the subject.  In themselves they are still ‘things’, and can be institutionalised, possessed, fiercely protected, etc.   The other face of the human creation of spirituality is the manner and style of leadership (largely male until recently). 

Much of what leadership involves is the ability to produce followers – i.e. people who are inspired and animated into action by the promise and the power (charisma) of an individual, and who find him or her articulating a story (a ‘modern myth’) that seems to give direction and energy to our lives.  (I have looked at this second main element under the term ‘authority’ – authoring a situation or people’s lives – in the feature article The power to initiate forgiveness.)  Spirituality has to take leadership very seriously.  It is the most common form in which an animating spirit communicates itself to other people.  Leadership enlarges spirituality to extend beyond fretting and fussing about sacred things, books and rituals, and leads people into living relationship issues.  It is therefore also a complex area for being aware of the creative uses and also the abuses of power.  Most leaders, being human, do both.

In this article I want to explore some the first of these two faces of spirituality, meaning a topic, language and set of activities.  I will explore the dimension of leadership elsewhere.


Humanly holy

The rapid increase in popularity and credibility of today’s highly syncretistic, ‘pick-and-mix’ approaches to spirituality reflect an issue that Christian tradition has managed to bury.  Whether or not they yet want to articulate it in these terms, it seems to me that many, many people are seeking what could be called a ‘sexy’ spirituality. 

For example, Celtic spirituality seem to offer this to many seekers in Britain – a spirituality that makes sense of human bodies and sexuality without embarrassment.  The  Vajrayana and Mahayana traditions in Buddhism appeal to many sensitive seekers awakened by feminist values. Many New Age groups, and the re-establishment of Paganism as a rapidly growing religion, illustrate a determination to place the human body more centrally in spirituality. 

It would be incorrect to reduce this simply to the label of a ‘this-worldly’ spirituality, as if seekers were missing the great big world of the supernatural, or divinity. Martin Buber seems to me to be a wonderful forerunner of this trend. He explicitly wanted to break down the barriers between sacred and profane, and discovered in the Hasidic traditions in Judaism the command is to be ‘humanly holy.’

This is a good phrase.  It does not ignore personal holiness, but it also does not polarise or separate the holy and the profane. This is where many spiritualities today are leading. They want to celebrate the holiness in the gift of life itself, in the processes of human life, including experience and the senses, ageing, sex, work, and landscape. Many seekers inside and outside the Judaeo-Christian traditions have found resonant inspiration in the divine command at Deuteronomy 30.11-19:

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, "Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?" The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it … Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.


Masculine-feminine spectrum

Recognising and affirming this trend, I want to explore the masculine-feminine spectrum as a helpful way to ensure a holistic and well-balanced approach to spirituality. 

I want to be careful  first of all in saying that I fully accept that a man or a woman incorporates a complexity of masculine and feminine elements, and that the admixture of these differs from person to person.  Further, the particular blend of elements does not also represent a degree of gender-based or sexual attractiveness, potency or identity in day-to-day relationships.  A woman with many ‘male’ animators may be extremely feminine in personal interaction, and vice versa. 

Spirituality is not how we relate to other people.  It is what inspires and animates us to relate in a different and ‘better’ way (whatever criteria we apply here).

I would suggest again that talking of spirituality needs to include reference to behaving/living in a distinctive way.  Clubbing, holidaying, attending concerts and movies, gardening, learning to cook, conversation in a pub, etc, all sometimes have inspirational effects and are sought for those reasons – but the inspiration is to feel better and to be more refreshed within day-to-day social life.  Jurgen Moltmann calls this the Coca-Cola philosophy – ‘the pause that refreshes you best.’  Instead, a full spirituality should always in some sense be subversive or ‘conspiratorial’ (breathing together), always questioning or evaluating or deepening normal social life.

The first area of concern for speaking of masculine and feminine ends to a spectrum of spiritual animators is the research into numbers who choose to participate in ‘spiritual’ activities, whether in organised religion, or mass communication (TV/Internet), or occasional public commemorations, or through short-term courses.  

Although little research has been done on the relative breakdown of men and women participating, the work of John Finney in the UK on coming to Christian faith indicates that women are between twice and three times as likely to elect to participate in the first two and the last.


What is offered as spirituality?

This then leads to the second area of concern: what is offered as the ‘spirituality’ which attracts men or women?  For example, in Christian church-going, the largest proportion of men attends evangelical churches, and is aged between 20 and 45.  The qualities offered are ‘life management’ skills … in the nuclear family, in business ethics, in the encouragement towards values of career success and (generous) prosperity, and in the church’s own methods of dealing with its membership, including clear financial management, pastoral discipline, and volunteer management. Political activity is also a concern for these churches in the UK, though not as extensively as in the US.  The focus is again on ‘life management’ issues such as abortion and homosexuality, not on, say, justice or international affairs.

Mainstream religion offers an emphasis on liturgical worship and prayer/ meditation which does not attract many men.  It is a reflective spirituality, not necessarily introverted but relying on processes of providing words, images and spaces which participants can use to ‘get in touch with’ God, a presence, an inner journey through loss or forgiveness or whatever.  It has a more liberal, tolerant worldview, and incorporates elements from many different religious traditions, spawning pan-religious and artistic/ creative courses and workshops.  However, such religious institutions tend to be far worse than the more conservative evangelical ones at clear financial management, pastoral discipline, and volunteer management, because they rely largely on antiquated and unevaluated organisational processes.

So I am positing a (very crudely sketched) distinction between ends of the spiritual spectrum which concentrate on developing management/control skills and issues, and which concentrate on reflective, receptive, artistic and listening skills and issues.  I want to urge that from an initial definition of spirituality as inspiration and animation, both these ends and their broad middle have to be dealt with under the heading of ‘spirituality.’


Representing the whole spectrum

And here we have to ask:  Given the suspicion which often exists between the concrete forms of these two extremes, can a spirituality of daily life management skills which seems to speak more naturally to (many) men be incorporated into the more liberal, artistic strands of spiritual course and tradition?   And can a more liturgical, reflective approach to spirituality be incorporated into the more evangelical, nuclear (and heterosexual) family course and tradition?  And if either can, how?

Perhaps they don’t need to, although I don’t see how we can sit light to the issues of reconciliation, collaboration, and growing into unity here.  To reduce two ends of a spectrum to a uniform structure would kill off the dynamism the spectrum represents, but different parts of the spectrum should become better able to communicate and interact freely and without misunderstanding.  This is why I believe forgiveness is such a defining characteristic of any genuine, value-changing spirituality, and why it implies a whole value system of creativity, freedom and good judgement.  (See my article Good judgement and bad judgement.

People will begin at different points on the spectrum, but the more mature approaches to providing spiritual resources for people/seekers should always seek to make available the widest possible band of the spectrum.  Because most of us only want to go so far into spirituality before we start institutionalising and possessing the source of our inspiration (turning the animating spirit into an idol and thereby effectively limiting our future growth), pastoral and educational leaders who can actually do this are rare.  n

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