Saturday, October 29, 2011

Arise From the Dust and Be Men

People hardly know what a man is anymore. I don’t mean that we don’t know the difference between men and women generally (although sadly this isn’t always true). I do mean that the traditional man, as seen as a role model for youth, is becoming an endangered species. Not only are we incapable of defining what he is, it’s not even politically correct to talk about it.

There are exceptions, of course. And one of the better ones of late is a book by Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield entitled Manliness. Mansfield argues that the most noticeable trait of manliness is assertiveness. Men are not only opinionated (so are women) but they are often assertive in their opinions. In some cases they’re even willing to come to blows over these opinions - which tendency they almost certainly didn’t get from their mothers.

And this is a big part of the problem. Those who insist on pushing for a gender-neutral society can’t tolerate this assertion. It can’t be trusted, they claim, and very often it leads to violence. We would be much better off getting rid of it altogether, or so they say.

And who can blame them? Any major city in the world (with few exceptions) is swarming with gangbangers and violent young men. Steven Pinker may be right that violence is declining in the world historically, but today it isn’t safe to be outside after dark in many places of the world. And the reason is because of big violent boys.

But let’s stop for a minute to consider what this means. If assertion is a defining characteristic of manliness, then there’s a pretty strong argument that it is part of human nature - at least that part of human nature carrying Y chromosomes. And attempting to change human nature is not a very good idea. Not only does it not work, it also causes a great deal of trouble.

In traditional Western society, improperly assertive men (as well as other delinquents) were dealt with in a way that was both appropriate and often successful. Manly men were put in charge of keeping them under control or of putting them in jail. Men-controlling-men was even more effective when an acceptable code of conduct was understood - as it clearly was in the age of chivalry.

The main problem with trying to do away with manliness is that it only succeeds in creating more delinquent boys, and immature men. For despite what modern feminists claim about raising boys in man-free environments, fatherless boys aren’t more caring and responsible than their peers. They are, in fact, much more likely to land in prison.

I am reminded of the story related by James Dobson a number of years ago about a greeting card company that decided to give free Mother’s Day cards to any inmate in a local prison wishing to remember his mother. The line for the cards was long and the kind gesture was seen as a great success. Everyone wanted to send a card to his mother. Then it was decided that a similar opportunity should be made for Father’s Day. This time, however, the result was much different. Not a single inmate showed up for a free card.

The truth is that our prisons are filled primarily with men, and over 90% of these men either hate their fathers or have no idea who their father is. This glaring reality begs for a better understanding than the broad anti-masculine brush stroke that is currently so popular. Clearly, boys that don’t connect with men – failing to become responsible men themselves – very often cost society a great deal. The push for a gender-neutral society is missing the point and it is costing us a great deal.

And I think that we need to pay more attention to what Mansfield has to say. Nonetheless, I don’t think that assertiveness is enough of a defining trait by itself. It serves to delineate a certain boundary in an academic fashion but it isn’t up to the task of dealing with the higher and lower expressions of manhood. This is something required of a higher value system. It is something that is required of revealed religion.

One of the best references I know of defining manhood is in Second Nephi (Chapter 1:21, in The Book of Mormon): “ …arise from the dust, my sons, and be men and be determined in one mind and in one heart, united in all things, that ye may not come down into captivity…”.

First of all, I am impressed with Lehi’s use of the word dust. This is a word with a fairly consistent meaning in sacred literature. We don’t see references of cleaning dust off the kitchen cabinet, or even from moldering scrolls. Dust is normally used as a contrast to the divine. It is used to describe that part of the world that decays – not just dry particulates. The Psalmist, for example, in describing the creatures of the sea (even Leviathan) says they will “die, and return to the dust” (Psalms 104:29).

Dust also has a very strong tie to the Creation. It is dust into which God breathes the breath of life and creates man. And it is in the Creation story that the contrast between the very finite (dust) and the very eternal (breath of God) are juxtaposed.

So when Lehi tells his sons to “arise from the dust and be men” he very likely has these images in mind. He is telling his sons that manhood requires moving beyond the mundane and mortal parts of their nature. It is a repudiation of the fallen world and a call to follow their divine natures.

Now in our post-Darwin world this has a lot more meaning. The reality of a mortal (dust) aspect of Creation now implies an animal nature as well. Survival of the fittest (to use Herbert Spencer’s summary phrase of Darwin’s insight) is something that might easily include an alpha-male hierarchy. It is also a neat explanation for male promiscuity (females, it is argued, would tend to evolve more caution in reproductive matters) and deception.

In short, Darwinian logic subsumes just about every form of human selfishness imaginable. For us today, considering Lehi’s plea, there is thus a higher sense of what a divine manhood should include. To “arise from the dust and be men” means to overcome the fallen world. It means to rise above the natural inclinations of selfishness and to shoulder responsibility. It means stepping outside the boundaries of natural selection into a higher order of divine potential.

This is a far different understanding of manhood than the one being pushed upon us by postmodern society, which sees only a continuum between healthy rough and tumble play in the nursery to the predatory male behind bars.

Which brings me to the second part of Lehi’s plea: “be men … that ye may not come down into captivity”. I think that Lehi is here recognizing that true manhood – the kind that has arisen above mortal selfishness – is the kind required to fight for liberty. This distinction seems to recognize the differences between true liberty and mere license (that ersatz liberty of libertines). And it is a task required of men.

In contrast, God has never expected his daughters to fight for freedom on the battlefield, although many of them have through the centuries. The womanly nature of nurturing cannot be asked to engage in a potential violence of freedom. This is a requirement of men. It is in men’s nature to fight for a cause – whether that fight be physical or otherwise.

Lehi’s manhood is thus a call to all the noble qualities that men are capable of. If we were destined to live our lives entirely under the constraints of Darwinian selfishness, then none of these higher aspirations would make any sense. And society would have every right to control the male social dysfunction any way it could. But we are not merely mortals, and we desperately need a manhood that will confront this reality.

Who could live in such a fallen world anyway – a world that denies our dual nature? We are so much more than just physical beings – so much more than mere animals. Our fights are not all against “nature red in tooth and claw.” Some of them are within - between a divinely inspired male and his Darwinian nature. But this is a battle that men have been fighting and winning for a very long time. And it is a battle that is meant to continue.

In the end we have to decide which kind of world we want to have. Our current postmodern and post-Darwin social constructs are experiments that cannot endure. They are neither grounded in the fallen real world or in the higher eternal one. And they have done enough harm already.

Our only real option is to stop stirring up so much dirt and sand, and let our higher natures lead us out of this storm. In the meantime we can let this dust devil die and look to stand a little taller. We will need some of Lehi’s men to do it.

Harvey Mansfield’s Manliness was published by Yale University Press in 2006. See also James Dobson’s Bringing up Boys (Tyndale Press, 2001).

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ecology and Dominion

Are Christians really responsible for our current neglect of the natural world? Many environmentalists think we are. Some even go so far as to blame Christians for the entirety of the environmental crisis. Controlling a river, mining a mountain, or felling a forest, they say, are just so many ways of “filling the measure of” – or exercising “dominion” over – the Creation, or so it is claimed.

Much of this thinking stems from a 1967 article written by medieval historian Lynn White entitled The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis. White's article was published in the premier American science journal Science and received a great deal of sustained attention. My teachers were still making me read it in graduate school in the 1980's. White's claim is that the many scientific and technological advances in Europe over many centuries owe more to the ideology of Christianity than they do to the more recognized events of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In particular, White claims that the Christian belief in an inanimate world enabled it to break free of disabling pagan fears of the supernatural and to "exploit nature for [God's] proper ends".

This has been fairly convincing in many quarters, especially to that academic species that claims to be so disinterestedly critical of Christianity. One of the problems with all this is that White pays little regard to Christian theology. In fact he uses the wrong word. Maybe he does so intentionally, then again, maybe not. The correct word is dominion not exploitation - two words I might add that are a long way from being synonyms.

The King James Bible tells us that on the Sixth Day of Creation “God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth…” Now at first glance, this “dominion” might seem to carry a sense of arbitrary power, or a call to coercion. But this is a biased view and one that, perhaps unavoidably, is constrained by linguistic history.

If someone is a lord or a master today, he might be able (given enough power) to destroy a hillside, a forest, or even a country. In ancient times, this was not the case. A master of a nomadic tribe might be able to control his extended family and perhaps a herd of cows but not much else. Having dominion over the earth couldn't mean much more than the burning of a few roods or the partial diversion of a local stream.

"Well," you might say, "the Bible was written for our time as well as for previous times and God must have known about the power we would have today." Maybe so, but consider where the word dominion actually comes from and what it used to mean. Its root is the Latin dominus meaning lord or master of a household. In fact the word dominus itself comes from the simpler domus which literally means house, or home.

Isn't it interesting (and not a little ironic) that this same regard for the hearth was the intent of early ecologists when they coined the word for their own science (using Greek instead of Latin). They joined the words oecos (meaning house or home) and the traditional logos (referring to words or study) into our English ecology, or the study of the household. Only in this case the "household" was understood to be the environment.

Without realizing it, both environmentalists and Christian traditionalists are fighting over the same household. Or at least they should be. Both the provenance and the importance of these diagnostic words are much more similar than we are recognizing them to be. If we could see this and stop fighting each other we might be able to start fixing some of our failing landscapes.

Christians might start by thinking more seriously about the Biblical meaning of dominion; which as we have seen, is much more about taking care of where we live than it is about arbitrary and extractive rule. This Biblical sense is one of stewardship and the Christian conception of the Creation is one of sustainability, much like the agrarian ideal of today's resurfacing nostalgia. It is also a practical sustainability.

Consider how it is used in the creation story. God has just intended to make mankind in His own image. Then (in the same verse) mankind is told to have dominion over the earth. It should seem obvious that reading a destructive form of dominion into this verse is forced. In fact such a reading implies that the Creator is Himself an exploiter of His own creation – like a French chef preparing dinner for the pigs. Clearly the Creation means more to Him than that. It was an act of beauty and of love.

And this brings me to another complaint I have with White’s essay. White (correctly) pointed out that the Latins (read early Christians) found salvation in doing things rather than just dreaming about them. This he contrasts with the Eastern theological preference for merely contemplating religion. But White should have known that the reality is much more nuanced than this.

For starters, Christianity was originally given to both orthodoxy (emphasizing correct doctrine) and orthopraxy (given to correct works). It did inherit from Judaism a strong sense of practical religious involvement in one's own salvation. And White is right that "Western theology has been voluntarist". But Christianity was also preoccupied with correct doctrine. Religions that do so (emphasizing doctrine) tend to evolve several splinter groups - call them heresies if you will. Anybody even faintly familiar with early Christianity can see that this was an oft-occurring reality.

And later, following the Reformation, Protestant groups strongly favored orthodoxy. They still do. And it is this branch of the Christian family, more so than the others, that is driving the capitalist exploitation of the environment. So for White to claim that our ecological woes are being foisted on us by the purveyors of Latin works-centered religion leaves one embarrassed by his history and perplexed by his logic.

What this means for environmentalists is that they should stop blaming Christians for our many environmental problems. Of course there are guilty Christians. There are also many guilty corporations but this doesn't make all Christians and all corporations unilaterally evil. Christian doctrine has always been environmentally responsible even if individual Christians have not been. And if you happen to be watching, there is a growing drive in the business community to make earth-friendly products. In fact some of our biggest retailers are requiring their suppliers to prove a level of ecological regard if they plan to continue doing business. It is very likely that the biggest contributors to a sustainable future will come from the corporate sector.

So let me end by giving a bit of advice to all you belligerent environmentalists who take such joy in brow-beating your Christian neighbors. Many of us are just as concerned as you are about the fate of our planet. After all, we are in this “home” together and it’s time to stop living like a dysfunctional family. Dominion, after all, is ecology – only with a bit more responsibility thrown in for good measure.


White's infamous article The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis was published in the March 1967 issue of Science (Volume 155: 203-207). For a discussion on orthodoxy and orthopraxy see Daniel Peterson's Abraham Divided.