Manhood is a bad word in many quarters these days, denoting intellectual narrowness, misogyny, or even brutality. So confusing or negative are these characterizations that many now believe manhood is dangerous, or anachronistic.
Such negative perspectives are based on false depictions of manhood as unconstrained self-will or a suit of clothes that can be put on and taken off at one’s pleasure. These false depictions have been refuted using theological, anthropological, or biological arguments—all valid—but I believe a better way is to hold up examples of authentic manhood, letting the authenticity and attractiveness of these men speak for itself.
Men like William Wilberforce, G.K. Chesterton, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Desmond Doss, Solanus Casey, and Pope John Paul II, and while those with different cultural perspectives might propose different lists, they would include men with similar qualities.
First, some objections.
Objection Number One: These exemplars weren’t perfect, they had shortcomings and blind spots; therefore, they aren’t worthy of esteem or lofty praise. At best, this all-too-common objection is bad logic. At worst, deceitful. If the bar is perfection, no one is credible, including the detractors.
Objection Number Two: These exemplars were steeped in their cultures; therefore, their lives are irrelevant in our time and culture. Everyone is steeped in a culture, whether they are willing to admit it or not. Cultures differ, many significantly, but the idea that different cultures wall us off from others and their experiences denies our common humanity and common yearnings.
Objection Number Three: These exemplars don’t speak to everyone. Personality and experiences attract us to different people, so the fact that this person speaks to me more strongly than another person is to be expected. Reason and our common humanity ought to inform us that exemplars who don’t speak strongly to me may speak strongly to someone else.
Objection Number Four: Because many men behave brutally, manhood is bad. Conjoining manhood with bad behavior, and then insisting this false depiction applies to authentic manhood fails the tests of logic and honesty.
Objection Number Five: Some men having qualities or behaviors that are more commonly associated with women, and vice versa, implies that manhood and womanhood are irrelevant or interchangeable. Our common humanity does not imply that maleness and femaleness are unimportant. Beavers share qualities and behaviors with otters—affinity for water, sources of food, furry bodies—while retaining their beaver-ness and otter-ness. Their common animal-ness doesn’t mean that a beaver is interchangeable with an otter.
My exemplars of authentic manhood:
William Wilberforce: longtime Member of Parliament, worked for decades to abolish slavery in the British empire, championed other social justice causes, the father of six children.
G.K. Chesterton: writer on almost every imaginable subject; good and faithful husband; joyful champion for clear thinking, common sense, and life transforming faith.
Dietrich Bonheoffer: tireless searcher for truth; theologian and fertile writer; anti-Nazi, who was tried and executed by the Nazis.
Desmond Doss: pacifist who served as a medic in World War II, faced ridicule and abuse for his beliefs, carried dozens of wounded men from the Okinawa battlefield to safety.
Solanus Casey: simplex priest who wasn’t allowed to preach at Mass; served as doorkeeper at a monastery in Detroit; counseled, encouraged, and healed those who sought him out.
John Paul II: witness to hope, spiritual father to hundreds of young people as a young priest and teacher, survived and leavened Polish society during the Nazi and Soviet occupations, elected pope and leavened the world.
Though these men differed in many respects, each exemplified self-giving and self-sacrifice—for others, and for truth. They followed the perfect example of Jesus Christ, who explained that he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28).
In their lifetimes, all had detractors and enemies; several had mortal enemies. Today, many still attack their legacies by insisting their shortcomings or “narrow minded” views make them unworthy of respect. Ironically, many of these detractors look the other way when like-minded comrades like Fidel Castro and Mao Zedong murder and imprison thousands or millions.
Though none of these men were perfect (far from it, they would insist), though they don’t speak to everyone, though they lived and moved in cultures that differ from our own, there is something that links them with each other, an authentic manhood that is easier to observe in action than describe in words.
Moreover, countless husbands and fathers dedicate their lives to their wives and children, often sacrificing their own dreams, resisting many temptations to go their own way when times are difficult, holding on to their commitments in spite of reversals, disappointments, and other trials. Not trumpeting their virtues, not often recognized as being anything special, going about the business of exemplifying authentic manhood day in and day out.
We are often subjected to the modern view of an androgynous humankind where gender, maleness and femaleness, and physical characteristics, are interchangeable, like clothing. Such a view promises fulfillment and contentment, but produces superficiality and alienation. Due to relentless propaganda in the media and from other elite circles, aided and abetted by ideological foot soldiers determined to bring down anyone who holds different views, many men and women are confused about what authentic manhood entails.
Let’s face it, the false depictions of manhood as unconstrained self-will and manhood as dangerous or anachronistic are both closely connected to the belief that there’s nothing bigger and better beyond the veil of death, that pleasure or happiness must be grasped in the here and now.
The modern effort to re-make manhood is akin to others who have sought to redefine the human person: as a self-contained thinking machine (Descartes), or a comrade in a proletarian utopia (Marx), or a super-man at the vanguard of a master race (Hitler), or by defining “better” people as those who are healthy, smart, and productive (many modern intellectuals). The way to counter these disordered images of man is to loudly—and courageously, in these times—proclaim authentic manhood as embodied in these exemplars, these men for all seasons.