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A Future for Men?

Richard Rohr

RICHARD ROHR surveys the future of the soul of the 21st-century male.

Fmen.jpgTake a typical woman, educated or uneducated, of almost any race or ethnicity, and try giving her the following agenda: 'You are not to have any close friends or confidants; you are to avoid any show of need, weakness, or tender human intimacy; you may not touch other women without very good reason; you may not cry; you are not encouraged to trust your inner guidance, but only outer authorities and "big" people; and you are to judge yourself by your roles, titles, car, house, money, and successes. People are either in your tribe, or they are a competitive threat - or of no interest.'

Very few women would choose that kind of agenda. And yet after 20 years of working with men on retreats, in spiritual direction, and even in prison, it has sadly become clear to me that this is how the average male feels most of the time. He has almost no inner universe of deep meaning to heal him or guide him. There are only winners or losers, no in-between, and little chance for growth or redemption once you are deemed - or deem yourself - a loser. In the West, even the gospel is largely taught in terms of a giant reward/punishment system, which I guess made sense to a largely male clergy.

Feminists and social engineers were right when they said that the typical male in most cultures has many more options and chances for advancement. But few pointed out that they were largely talking about outer options. In describing inner feelings and states, and in talking about what they really want and need, women have many times the size of vocabulary that men do. They have a much more nuanced emotional life in most cases, and in general they are more skilled at relationships than men.

We are getting used to troubling news reports of men who kill their whole families, their wives, their children, or their fellow workers. We are, of course, appalled and saddened, and suspect that these men must have been mentally ill or drunk or on drugs. But I believe there are much deeper causes.

One of my most surprising but revealing discoveries has been that much male anger is actually male sadness. Men often have no way to know this themselves, and many probably even think of them­selves as 'angry men.' They are often very sad men, but they have no differentiated feeling world, no vocabulary, no safe male friends, no inner space or outer setting in which to open up such a chasm of feeling - not even in their churches or with their partners.

I know I am walking on sacred ground here, but I am going to say it: The church often does not really encourage an inner life. It substitutes belief systems and belonging systems and moral systems for interior journeys toward God. As a result the outer behaviour is weak as well. In fact, the reason that external hierarchy, simplistic and dualistic readings of scripture, and heady fundamentalism exist at all is primarily because of the male unwillingness to feel, to suffer, to lose, and to stand in the place of the outsider with even basic empathy. Which, of course, is exactly where Jesus stood and suffered, 'even to accepting death, yes death on a cross'. How do we dare to worship a 'loser' and yet so idealize winning?

Throughout history many varied cultures, all over the world, have recognized that men would not go inside themselves until and unless they had to - so they guaranteed and structured an inner journey called 'initiation.' It involved both extended soli­tude and silence, and ritualized sacred suffering - that was the cauldron of transformation for the male. Many cultures, in a wide variety of times and places, came to the inescapable conclusion: There was no other way.

If our churches do not find ways to validate, encourage, struc­ture, and teach men an inner life - as opposed to mere sys­tems of belief, belonging and morality - I am not sure what the church's reason for continued existence might be. We are failing the test with one half of the species, which means we are failing the other half too. Organized religion is not doing its job of transforming people at any deep level, it seems to me. And I say that after 40 years as a priest.

If the coming decade is to see any reversal in this tragic situation, we need to help our men move beyond the self defeating game of either-or, and to find the open and gracious space of the limitless, alive, and God-given world that is in-between.

We can live without success, but the soul cannot live without meaning.

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