07: Spirituality cont’d

with 4 comments

But what if immanence was not perceived as feminine and transcendence was not perceived as masculine? I am not talking here about doing away with either of these values, simply unhooking them from a gendered expectation. If immanence was considered equally masculine as feminine in orientation, and also a popular value within contemporary ways of “doing” spirituality, would we not experience those people of masculine orientation (largely—although not exclusively—men) being more involved in spirituality? I think we would. Certainly, if you are aiming to attract greater numbers of men to spirituality it is a more daunting task to change the way people think in general about gender than it is to make a few spiritual spaces more “manly,” but ultimately it is more useful.

In short, this results in there being no such thing as “masculine spirituality.” Importantly, however, this does not mean that what are perceived as masculine values are erased, simply that they are no longer described as masculine. But there is a further challenge here, especially for progressive-minded men and women. I suspect that I can sell you the idea of there being no such thing as masculine spirituality with relative ease because of the way I have presented it here: in other words, no one is that fussed if we do away with wildness, paramilitary themes and sport, as they’re often considered a bit weird anyway.

However, the other side of the coin is that there is also no such thing as “feminine spirituality.” Again, this does not mean that what are perceived as feminine values are erased, simply that they are no longer described as feminine. How does that sound, particularly to a second-wave feminist worldview? No more women’s spirituality, no more feminine nurturing, weaving, immanence, healing, and so on. Of course, this does not stop conversations about women’s experience of spirituality. Feminist spirituality, for example, still exists, but this would be about how women’s experience of the spiritual is regulated and liberated within a patriarchal culture, rather than some kind of spirituality that is inherent in women due to their biological sex. (There are some feminist spiritualities that already assume this to be the case, while others hang on to women’s biological specificity. Despite the claims of writers such as Mansfield who resist “feminism” as if it were one thing, feminisms—in the plural—are extremely diverse and sometimes even contradictory).

A similar process takes place when we look at “gay spirituality” in the context of masculinity. Have a look at this creedal statement about gay men that underpins gay spirituality as defined by Harry Hay (who is commonly understood as the founder of the gay men’s movement):

  • They are not, by nature, territorially aggressive and do not impose their political claims on others.
  • They are not, by nature, competitive but are passionately interested in sharing with others.
  • They are not interested in conquering nature but are interested in harmonious living with all of nature.
  • They are not interested in denying bodiliness and carnality but are passionately involved in celebrating all aspects of human sexuality.

Just as the “gay” Androgyne archetype in the previous chapter described by Toby Johnson did not involve any aspect bound with same-sex desire, so too Hay’s description. We see here a range of “gay” values that can easily be unhooked from gayness and applied to all people, a process which offers a powerful counter-conspiratorial solution. What such a process does is keep these values—along with nurturing, weaving, immanence, healing, transcendence and spiritual warriors—on the table, but open to people of both masculine and feminine orientation, open to both men and women, open to both gay and straight.

This process is a win–win. On the one hand, it provides a mechanism to enable more men back into the spiritual domain, easing the anxiety of those who believe there are not enough men in the church. (However, keep in mind that if those anxious men have a problem with this suggestion, their concern is exposed as not being about the number of men in the church, rather the absence of power that a conspiratorial masculinity wields within the church.) And on the other hand, it rejects the claim of the conspiracy that masculinity is defined in a particular way, enabling men (and, indeed, women of a masculine orientation) to choose whichever values happen to fit their character and spiritual worldview.



Written by Joseph Gelfer

August 7, 2011 at 2:45 pm

4 Responses

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  1. A great book debunking the myths perpetuated by Cohen and Eliot is Cordelia Fine’s Delusions Of Gender. It’s amazing how just a little research can unravel the whole thing.


    May 22, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    • Thanks, yes. I attended a talk of Fine”s a few months ago. Good to mobilize science sometimes.


      May 22, 2012 at 5:13 pm

  2. I’m beginning to part ways with you a bit here Joseph, for the first time on our conspiratorial journey!

    of course everything should be on the table for everyone: that’s a given. And we don’t want gender essentialism or biological determinism either. But even if we accept this, its far from proven that there would not be tendencies that would roughly demarcated by biological sex. We really don’t know either way, or what these tendencies would be, if fully decoupled from patriarchy- it would be great to find out! What we _do_ know is that there are significant tendencies towards biological differences- see Lise Eliot’s ‘Pink Brain, Blue Brain or Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference (horrible titles, bleugh- but both neuroscientists)- but we don’t know how this plays out in spirituality, if at all. Or even if it’s relevant.

    I couldn’t be a black mother, even if I wanted to… let’s not leave embodied cognition out of this. Speaking of which, interested to read your autoethnographic thing you blogged about a while back. Sure you’ve been wrestling with a lot of these points already!

    Luke Devlin

    August 7, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    • Sure, I don’t deny there might be tendencies (although I find such scientific studies inherently fishy), but we can never unpick how much those tendencies are wholly biological (as we can never get a useful sample of people who have not been subject to the social construction of gender). And I find the idea of “proving” anything in this domain fruitless. Really this is about how to think ourselves out of a long-standing quandary, a process in which everything is up for grabs.


      August 7, 2011 at 5:33 pm

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