A significant amount of chatter has occupied social media about masculinity, manhood, and why men, both young and old, seem to shy away from these concepts. And just like the platforms from which these discussions arose, there are as many answers offered as are problems identified. Prudence demands narrowing one’s conclusion on such a broad topic and making sure your judgments are sober minded. And yet some solutions offered strike me as a kind of mirrored recklessness.
On one side we see mere dismissal of the concepts on grounds that such notions are only ‘cultural’ and that concepts like “masculinity” only have meaning insofar as they are filled with these cultural shibboleths. So, one draws the inevitable conclusion that what makes up a man has no original content. I don’t find this conclusion to be compelling. In the 20th century, CS Lewis would describe this precise malady among men in The Abolition of Man. They are “men without chests” having virtue and enterprise expected of them without the requisite categories to fulfill these demands.
We should be able to say something about what it means to be men that is not merely culturally informed. On the other hand, we should be able to say that there are some notions of manhood that might look different given where one stands in history or even geography. These unique manifestations do not collapse the idea of manhood into cultural relativism, but it does recognize unity of concept with different kinds of expression.
Perhaps the failure here is not so much with its distinctions but instead with its demands that they serve the purpose of demoting masculinity instead of situating it in a broader context, story, and teleology. We might consider a similar question Alasdair MacIntyre pondered of those in the shadow of the Enlightenment, who paid the price of their own liberation by stripping their words of persuasive force: “Why should anyone else now listen to [them]?” What seemed like a plausible retort became a mere showcase, where innumerable successes were ironically a demonstration of failure.
On the other side of this mirrored recklessness is the fatal conceit that suggests manhood or masculinity must take a certain kind of external posture. Frequently it invites a connection between manhood and machismo, where exertion of strength becomes the sum, substance, and totality of what it means to be a man. We might want to say this kind of connection confuses moments of necessity with the ends of manhood.
This confusion often suggests men are to be a certain shape, where emotional clarity is rendered less important than, say, physical strength or a capacity to protect those around you. Often this kind of masculinity will find its exemplars in great literary characters producing feats of strength or laudatory moments of protecting the vulnerable. Certainly, in critical moments we should be grateful for this kind of exertion of strength and protection. But manhood does not always, or even frequently, take this form of strength. For what profit does it gain a man to stand up to a bully if he loses his own self in bravado and vanity? Countless stories through the halls of history show what seem like strong, brave men who destroy what they love in the wake of their own self-interest and self-deception.
But alongside this troubling dichotomy is the ubiquitous problem of male connection. A global pandemic forced the world inside or at a distance and in doing so, drove men to consider the nature of their relationships. Without a common locale (a bar, a field, a gym, etc.) many men wondered what it meant to be friends if not for enjoying these things together. It is often said that men bond in actions that require them to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and so, shared activity becomes a critical piece of male friendships.
But precisely what this entails and how one fulfills this opaque notion is unclear. And in Christian contexts, men’s ministries flounder under the weight of this kind of ambiguity. Build enough bonfires, campouts, and wild meat fellowships and…they will come? It’s not clear that such pathways are the road to masculinity. The point here is not to cast aspersions on the ways in which men, inside and outside the church, have gathered; the re-opening of our economy demonstrates so much of this has picked back up without a hitch and for this we should be thankful. Instead, it is intended to ask what categories are needed to strengthen men. I want to suggest a concept that is often discussed but less frequently when considering masculinity: friendship.
There is a longstanding classical and Christian tradition on friendship and its importance for self, society, and common good. Aristotle quips that friendship holds states together, and without friendship, one would hardly choose to live. The Roman statesman Cicero penned an essay that became the central definition of friendship for both Christians and non-Christians. A short time later the philosopher and antiquarian Plutarch would write that friendship is a ballast that promises refuge and protection from the many storms of life.
Early Christian theologians would frequently mention friendship as an essential piece of the good life God has granted his children. Gregory of Nazianzus’ eulogy for his friend Basil the Great demonstrates how important friendship was to this era (Oration 43); Chrysostom wrote he would rather live without the sun than without a friend (Homily II); Augustine mourns the loss of his friend in The Confessions and wrote letters to friends and letters discussing friendship (see for example Letters 73, 130, 192, and especially 258). And of course a few centuries later a Cistercian monk would write an entire book about the nature of Spiritual Friendship (with our lovely Roman statesman Cicero taking a starring role). The consensus view among Christians and non-Christians alike has been that friendship, far from being an interesting-but-ultimately-unimportant topic, is something that makes life worth living. If this is indeed the case, what might it have to say to us and the current malaise of masculinity?
Put simply: friendship is a fabric of created order that shapes both person and place. This conclusion and potential implications require patience to see and more than empty policy promises or teaching men to locate enemies with simplistic bromides. Men’s existence is good, they are more than mere utility and their life is valuable. Friendship offers the promise of showing men these things, if only they will have the ears to hear. It offers a window into a world of sacrifice, love, courage, and vulnerability, where dying to self means taking up responsibilities.
But the beauty of friendship is the capacity to learn these things from friends. It allows for corrective measures to be enacted by other men who are committed to another man’s good; to help them hear, maybe for the first time: it is good that you exist. The goodness of that existence is in part a declaration of their status; they are image bearers, accorded dignity and so they are worth someone’s time and effort. A recovery of manhood is a recovery of a unique expression of human dignity. Friendship allows for these beliefs and others to be embodied in our life rhythms; to see in friendship the sacrifice of self for another—even to the point of death, to see well-wishing and goodwill extended, and courage fulfilled.
If the sum of male friendships is reducible to transactional relations where men feel as if they are only as good in so far as they are useful, it will be difficult to uncover the riches of masculinity. There is something good about masculinity that cannot be reduced to its function. Friendship allows for the possibility that masculinity is guarded by the goods of creation and the bonds of society. In this we see both the demands and the promise of masculinity: it is not for you because ultimately you are not your own. And if the demands of rugged, John Wayne individualism can be discarded as well as the dangers of living as a Lone Wolf, perhaps friendship can offer some assistance in showing men that their life, worth, and mission is to become fully human and thus to become more than consumers. They are meant to be lovers, givers of their own lives, guardians of the Good Deposit. What more can we ask except to invite men into this kind of life? Perhaps the solution is not enticing because those offering this new path sound as if they are only interested in their good to enlist them in their pet projects and oh-so-small proxy wars that need foot soldiers.
Let us take an example to see these possibilities fleshed out. What might it look like in a current crisis if friendship was encouraged and modeled across generational divides? How might the growing shadow in the US of, say, physician assisted suicide be fought back with friendship? Perhaps our fears and concerns would be heard more clearly if they came from a friend. We are shaped not just by friendships where we are similar to one another in likeness, virtue, and disposition; we are also shaped by friendships and their shared bonds even when there are significant differences.
Maybe investing in the elderly, enjoying the bonds of common humanity, suffering, and joy engender in men the goods of friendship. Maybe the way to learn how friendship might shape masculinity is playing checkers at a nursing home or befriending a retired teacher who has lost most connection with the outside world. In these men might learn the dangers of reducing life to ‘use’ or ‘function’; in these they learn what it means to hope against hope for the good of another; in these they might learn justice and right order; in these they might learn what it means to be a friend and how their life is enlarged by being one. What might these moments teach men about the goods of their own existence as they care, love, and share in the common humanity of those with gifts reserved for age?
Perhaps it won’t be enough to say to the elderly who wishes to die “with dignity” that they are valuable, and they still have a life worth living. Perhaps those words will be hollow unless they come from a friend. Perhaps their care will be truly ennobled when they are given by a friend.
Even so, lasting friendship requires substantial amounts of what might be considered ‘dead time’, or those moments where a person is able to stand before another in full awareness of both strengths and weaknesses and just enjoy one another’s presence. There is no set agenda, no end or purpose beyond just being together. It is in these spaces where bonds of affection, especially as children, are learned and adapted as men age and it is this kind of affection among men that has weakened enormously, and scholars have various perspectives on precisely why. Whatever the conclusion, a common thread is woven throughout: friendship is, in part, where boys and young men learn the goods of masculinity. Conceivably, then, a recovery of teaching, modeling, and extending friendship might help young boys grow into men, and men into friends.
I am not suggesting that Friendship is the droid we’re searching for; a multiplicity of problems caused our current crisis of masculinity. But, friendship is a balm. And once applied, we can begin the slow remaking of what has been unmade. It can become another tool we wield to begin the process of making men with chests that withstand the measures of the moment because they understand masculinity is more than bravado and cannot be explained away by cultural mythos.
I suggest friendship can guard manhood from the rabble-rousing platforms that force it to become best expressed by strength and bravado Rorschach tests or rejecting the notion entirely because cultural measurements have drowned out what seems obvious: men do have something to contribute uniquely to society. By invoking these goods of existence and inviting men into their participation we begin the slow work of removing their chains, inviting them out of the graveyard and into a life of cultivating the goods of friendship and in doing so, becoming more human—and more like men.
Masculinity cannot be fixed by presidents, politicians, or platformed theologians clamoring into the void that “they alone can fix it.” It will take slow, deliberate work that recognizes men are good for society, they are worth the time and investment, and there are mediating institutions worth investing one’s life and energy into forming and building for the common good. That message, true though it is, might be heard best not from a pastor or professor, but from a friend.
Teach them friendship and you might start to make men with chests once again.