Sunday, January 29, 2006

Is Feminine the New Normal?

This morning the female student minister at my Unitarian Universalist church told a heart-warming story of how her previous church had welcomed a woman in distress. The woman’s partner had died three weeks before, and she came to this church looking for the kind of community support she could not find anywhere else in her life. At the door the greeter recognized her as a newcomer and started a conversation, during which the whole story spilled out. Some empathic parishioner was found to sit with her through the service. Afterward she was introduced to other sympathetic members, who let her cry when she needed to and supported her in letting her emotions out. Having been met with this kind of acceptance and compassion, the woman joined the church and was last seen singing in the choir.

This positive example of seeking support and finding it was contrasted with congregations where it is necessary to “wear armor.” In congregations like this, everyone pretends to have life well under control and engages in all sorts of do-good projects to help unfortunate others -- who of course resemble ourselves not at all.

I understood the point our student minister was making, and in fact I sympathize with it. We UU’s do have paternalistic tendencies, and we sometimes project our own pain onto distant others rather than deal with it in the first person. But I had trouble listening to the point of the sermon because I couldn’t get past the story. My wife has survived two different cancers over the last ten years, and has come close enough to dying that I could easily identify with the story’s recently bereaved woman.

And I thought: I hope to God no one treats me that way.

Because no matter how politically or socially liberal I may be, I am a man, and I deal with my emotions in a masculine way -- alone, or in front of at most one very trusted person. When hurt, my greatest fear is not that my pain will go unrecognized, but that having once plunged into the overwhelming depths of pain, I will never come back up. I fear being so broken that I will never stand up again and take my place in the World.

I think that's pretty normal for a man.

And so, if I am ever bereaved, my showing up at church will be a sign that I think I’m done processing my emotions, at least for now. It means that I believe, or at least hope, that I’m ready to take up my role again in some limited form. I’m going to show up with a few extra plates of armor that day, and be glad to have them. My goal will be to have more-or-less normal interactions with people, ones that don’t revolve around my woundedness and inability to function.

People who want to support me that day can do so by creating social situations that are easy to handle. Let’s talk about sports or the weather or whatever cute thing your kid did this week. I’ll be like a racehorse newly recovered from a leg injury. I’ll want to trot around the track gingerly and make it back to the stable without incident. Help me out. Don’t create any special opportunities for me to cry. If I break down, I’ll have failed in my mission. And the more people who see me fail, the longer it will be before I dare to come out again.

Contrast the minister’s feminine story with this masculine story from the Neal Stephenson novel Cryptonomicon. Goto Dengo is a Japanese soldier who has survived a series of disasters, each of which killed nearly all the soldiers around him. Though he did nothing wrong, he feels dishonored by his very survival. Rather than dying an honorable death like his colleagues, he now recovers helplessly in a Catholic hospital in the Japanese-occupied Philippines.

The Filipino priests and nuns who staff the hospital have been forbidden to proselytize, but Goto Dengo feels that merely by caring for him in his helpless condition, they are forcing him into Christianity. How? Because their care dishonors him. His Japanese religion requires him to maintain his honor, but he sees Christianity as a religion for “low people” -- people without honor. Now that his honor is gone, he fears he will have no choice but to become a Christian.

Does that story feel foreign to you? Good, it was supposed to. The moral I want to draw from it is that people who are different from you may need a different kind of care. Merely being good to them according to your own lights may not be good at all. In particular, the emotional process that seems caring and supportive and healthy to a woman may be exactly what a man does not need from his church.

Last summer I read the book Why Men Hate Going to Church by David Murrow. Murrow is a Christian, and his book examines a paradox: Why does a church founded by men, whose ministry is overwhelmingly male, attract about twice as many women as men to most of its activities? He finds a self-reinforcing cycle, in which the church’s message, environment, and activities are geared for women because they’re the ones who show up. (This matches my experience programming UU adult education classes. My wife once joked that the reading course I was leading was my “night out with the girls.”)

Murrow’s book is populated with many semi-fictional characters, including the Christian couple Greg and Judy. Judy loves their church, but Greg hates it. Partly, it’s the way the message is pitched. “Greg,” Murrow writes, “has no desire to fall in love with a wonderful man, even one named Jesus.” Hearing this message preached by a man every Sunday does not make it any more palatable. Worse, the whole church environment is stacked against Greg. The skills their church needs and rewards are typically feminine skills that Judy has but Greg doesn’t. “To really [succeed] at Judy’s church, Greg would need more than a conversion experience; he’d need a personality transplant.”

Murrow characterizes the men who fit in well at churches as feminized:

"Men’s ministry so often falters for this simple reason: it’s actually women’s ministry for men. When Christian men gather, they’re expected to relate like women and to enjoy the things women enjoy. Men’s ministry is built around the needs and expectations of women -- or more precisely, the soft men who show up for men’s ministry events. So the men’s retreat features singing, hugging, hand holding, and weeping. Men sit in circles and listen, read, or share. We keep our conversations clean, polite, and nonconfrontational. While there’s nothing wrong with men doing these things, it feels feminine to a lot of the guys. So they stay home."

Murrow is describing Christian churches, which are bastions of the Patriarchy by UU standards. At the Boston General Assembly a couple years ago, I attended a panel discussion on UU men’s groups. Someone in the audience commented on the difficulty men’s groups had addressing standard male topics, like sports. One of the panelists had an answer: A UU men’s group could discuss how it felt to be the last kid picked.

That’s great. Just fabulous. Hey, guys! Were you always the last kid picked? You ought to be a UU! We’re all losers too!

A couple years before that, the Massachusetts Bay District organized a meeting to promote the new Small Group Ministry program for UU churches. The male minister of a church in Maine told us how the program had revolutionized his church and could revolutionize the UU movement. Like the men’s ministry Murrow describes, SGM has a lot of quiet talking and sharing of emotions. It is supposed to build intimacy and relationships, two words men use only when they’re trying to impress women.

I had my hand up, but somebody else asked my question first: How did this minister get men to join the program? The answer, after a lot of hemming and hawing, was that he didn’t. “It’s hard to get men to talk about their feelings,” he explained.

So apparently the “revolutionized” UU movement doesn’t need men.

Almost a decade has passed since I heard the claim that UU’s had achieved gender balance in our ministry. I assume that is ancient history by now. Our older generation of male ministers is being replaced by a younger generation of female ministers; for a brief moment eight or nine years ago it all balanced. In my church, the senior minister is male and about my age (49), but for many years our student ministers have all been either female or gay. The only straight male I can remember left without completing the program.

What's wrong with that? There's nothing wrong with the individuals. I imagine our previous students are all top-flight ministers now, and I see no reason why they can't or shouldn't minister to heterosexual men, just as male ministers have served female parishioners in past generations. (The only reason I’m being so hard on our current student is that I think she has what it takes to benefit from criticism. She will no doubt have an excellent career also.)

The problem I see is that feminine has become the new Normal. More and more often femininity is the assumed common ground, and I find myself having to make excuses or beg exemptions for my perverse masculine reactions. Look back at the story from this morning’s service. Can you imagine any of the characters in that story as men? I can’t. Even the deceased “partner” seems to be female. It’s a story about women helping another woman in classically feminine ways. And it’s a story about how church is supposed to be.

And someday soon it will probably be that way. But don’t feel sorry for me, I’m sure I’ll be OK. I am unusually verbal and empathic for a man, so I should do well. No doubt the feminized UU church of the future will welcome men who know their place.

At times, though, I’m probably going to be like Goto Dengo: I will feel that I have no choice but to be in this church of women, because by then I’ll practically be a woman myself.


Kenneth said...

Wow. Thanks. I've always been uncomfortable with the emphasis on "soft" men in Quaker meetings (which I also see among UUs). As a gay man, I'm particularly aware that I don't want to become feminine (or to be with other men who have become feminine) but to become masculine in a wholesome, feminist way.

D.J. Prowell said...

I beg to differ about what women want from a church service. I may want to have access to my miniserial staff as a resource when sad or unhappy, and I have done that, but on the whole, I want my services to be stimulating to my intellect and to serve to make me more in service to the greater good. There are other women who feel the same way as I do. Personal therapy is best done in professional groups or with a trained individual. When I started the singles group, it was deliberately not about "being " single but about finding enjoyable activities. As a result, the turn out has been consistent with men and women and people have been positive. I think it is faulty to think that this is a gender thing. D.J. Prowell

Lynn said...

In one UU church I was in, there was a men's group. It played poker.

In spite of a lot of joking about this, and some concern that there were women who enjoyed poker, there was some intentionality that this men's group chose to have an traditional form for longterm male bonding.

Robin Edgar said...

Feminine Was The Old Normal. . .

Classically Feminine Monoliths?

Femininized Moon

The Happy Feminist said...

What an interesting post. I tend to start twitching when I hear the word "feminized" because it's usually used as a pejorative, but I understand what you are getting at.

One thing that I always LIKED about growing up a Unitarian was the fact that it seemed rather cerebral and buttoned-down compared to the more emotional, teary evangelical services that seemed to require admitting personal brokenness and vulnerability (yet are run by men). I am not sure that an aversion to admitting weakness is limited to just men.

I would note in the story that the woman in question seemed to invite the kind of empathy she received because she poured out the whole story and cried on people's shoulders. I suspect that if I'd been in the same situation I wouldn't have received the same kind of reaction because I wouldn't have acted in the same way.

Lots of food for thought here!

Jeff Wilson said...

Ah, I foresee a future UUA affiliate: UU Promise Keepers!

OK, that's a low blow, just joking.

This is a post that stimulates a lot of different thoughts. First, to put it in context, virtually all sects of all American religions at all times (Puritans till today) have been dominated numerically by women. Check out Ann Braude's "Women's History IS American Religious History," in Thomas Tweed's "Retelling U.S. Religous History" (I guarantee you'll be interested; you'll probably want to come back and write a whole new blog post about your thoughts following that essay) This has periodically freaked people out, resulting in such narratives as "the feminization of 19th century Christianity," a phenomenon that did not in fact happen. Other reactions include the "muscular Christianity: which has periodically grabbed the spotlight over the past 125 years or so. You may be aware of these things.

Second, I wonder if the opening story is even more gendered than you think. A woman came to church, apparently encountered some more women, and ended up receiving what seems to have been a stereotypical feminine nurturing experience. Now imagine that a strange, emotionally distraught man shows up for the first time at a UU church service. Will people smile and put their arms around him, bring him in and sit with him, letting him cry in the back through the service? Perhaps. But I can also imagine that a man might be treated rather differently. One of those different reactions I can imagine is hostility or suspicion--who is this man behaving erratically? Is he dangerous? Will he disrupt our nice sedate UU service? I wonder if people would be as quick to make physical contact, to accomodate a disruptive force, and to spend time emotionally tending a stranger if that person were male.

Third, I gotta agree with you on recognition of pain. I could not care one iota less whether anyone recognizes my pain. I would probably prefer they didn't. All that concerns me is not getting stuck in the pain, a process that does not necessarily involve its recognition by others. This may be a gendered thing, though I think there are probably many women who also think this way--I hesitate to give in to this stereotype (and imagine it cuts both ways, there may be men who think differently on this too).

Fourth, with tongue halfway in cheek, some of us may benefit from the gender disparity. I intentionally went to church to find a wife. I came home with a smart, talented, beautiful UU woman who, because of the gender disparity, had to settle for a schlub like me. Funny, now I don't seem to get to services very often anymore. . .

Fifth, many American men have been quite willing to "fall in love with a man named Jesus." We've got their emotional, pietistic records from the 18th and 19th centuries to prove it, you'd be amazed by some of this stuff. The gender thing never used to throw anybody off (you find it in Catholic monks in earlier eras too). I think what has changed for Mr. Murrow is the popular culture sensitivity about such things--expressions that once were deemed the pinnacle of Christian piety now seem gay. And that's apparently a bad thing that makes these people uncomfortable, even if they're from the relatively liberal end of the spectrum. We've lost a culture of male-male friendship and affection, largely because of the rise in fear over homosexuality and alleged threats to masculinity (and therefore male power and dominance). One of the losers in this cultural sea change is Jesus, who becomes a less acceptable object of male ardour. To the extent that we agree with Mr. Murrow, it may be because we buy into a homophobic culture--not necessarily homophobic in terms of hating actual gay people, but in terms of fear of being labeled gay ourselves (and therefore perhaps less male, i.e. less powerful, more vulnerable, etc). The concept of "soft men" plays into this in obvious ways too.

Sixth, I agree that if Female becomes the new Normal, that's a problem. I don't want a gendered church--be it male or female. Normal shouldn't be a man or a woman, a black or a white person, a straight or a gay person. That's what I always thought feminism was about, and why I called myself a feminist from an early age.

Very thought provoking post, I'll have to keep mulling it over. Do read the Braude and see if it stimulates you further.

Doug Muder said...

Last week Tom Little commented, this week Jeff Wilson. This is starting to rock.

I do know a little about the "muscular Christianity" idea, though probably not nearly as much as I will if I track down the references Jeff gives. William James' Varieties of Religious Experience is full of gender language of that sort. Masculine words are heroic and feminine words are wimpy. That's how he winds up wishing for "the moral equivalent of war."

Doug Muder said...

Murrow grants Jeff Wilson's first point (that women have always been in the majority in churches), and addresses the issue like this:

"Neither can we say 'Well, men are just less religious,' because this is untrue. Male and female participation are roughly equal in Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. In the Islamic world men are publicly and unashamedly religious -- often moreso than women. Of the world's great religions, only Christianity has a consistent, nagging shortage of male practitioners. What is it about modern Christianity that is driving men away?"

Given, he muddies the water with that adjective "modern" in the last sentence.

Murrow makes an interesting case that the Jesus of scripture is more masculine than Jesus as taught today. One detail he points to is that a man (or, more accurately, someone with a masculine identity) wants to follow a great leader, not "be saved" like a damsel in distress. The Jesus of scripture says, "Follow me."

But anyway, Christianity is Murrow's issue, not mine.

Kim said...

Some random reactions to the blog and the comments:
I have been re-reading The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, so that is influencing my thinking. He says religion was feminine (wholistic/right brain) until we invented writing, at which time we turned masculine(linear/left brain). Now, we are going somewhat back because we are reading (left-brain activity) less and looking at pictures (right-brain activity) more. He says this is why feminism is arising now, and intellectualism is falling.
In my readings I have come across ideas about hierarchy versus egalitarian systems equating with not only political right and left, but immaturity and maturity or self-actualizing.
Our church has a very popular and long-standing men’s group called “Men’s Steak Night” where they barbeque meat (all year) and do whatever they do – women aren’t invited except every once in a while for a special occasion.
When I, as a Worship Associate, have done a fairly intellectual Pulpit Reflection, it is women who come up to me after, saying, “I liked that you said something intellectual.”
Why not a UU “Promise Keepers”? – keeping promises is good. The rest of the stuff we don’t have to borrow; we make up our own. We should have something to say about the male role in today’s world. We should at least be brainstorming possibilities for a truly masculine role that isn’t cruel or oppressive. One item that has come up in discussion before is what is the man’s role in raising children? One answer is that he teaches logical thinking. He used to be the teacher of morals and self-discipline as well (as I understand it, one of the tasks of manhood is to learn self-control). Nothing wrong with that. We (or you guys) could be working on how to accomplish differentiation without repudiation: how a boy can separate himself from his mother without denigrating her and femininity. Perhaps it would spill over into learning how to deal with people who are different from you in other spheres….
Someone quoted, “…looking for the moral equivalent of war.” Have you all read Ecotopia? It has a great answer to that: small voluntary wars fought with spears until someone is wounded or killed. It fills all the positive functions of war without needing to stir up the populace with ridiculous rationales to start it. Go read it if you haven’t.
Tom Head made a good point – women have already masculinized so men could do a bit of feminizing out of fairness. We don’t want men and women to be alike, we want to make it ok for each person to be however they are on the masculine-feminine spectrum.
I remember a group gathered around the minister after a service, talking animatedly about the series the minister had just finished. It was on Humanism. The group wanted more on this topic, the minister said he’d “said all he had to say – I know, you can do a panel discussion about it for a service. Who wants to be on it?” And I looked around, and the group was all men except for me. What do you suppose this means?