Bromance may save your marriage

So, in light of having recently led a study on Genesis 1-3 and what it means for men (hence my post Biblical manhood?) as well as my three-part series about St Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship (part 1, part 2, part 3), I thought I’d finally write a thing that’s been inchoate in my mind for a long time, drawing on them both:

Bromance may save your marriage

Genesis – What is a human?

For this to make sense, we need to think first on what it means to be human. From Gen. 1-3, we learn (amongst many other things):

  1. Humans are made in the image of God, male and female (1:26)
  2. It is not good for the man to be alone (2:18)
  3. Living by the sweat of your brow is part of the man’s curse (3:19)

God is Trinity. Among the many things it may mean for us to be made in the image of God, many people believe that being made for communion is part of that. God is Three Persons. Human communions imperfectly reflect the consubstantial Trinitarian life. Metropolitan John Zizioulas goes farther and says that all of creation, in fact, rests on communion as its foundation — see his mind-bending but beautiful book Being As Communion.

We are made for connection — this is part even of the message of 1:26, where we are made male and female together, thus reflecting the image of God as male and female, not as solitary individuals. (I got that idea from Father John Behr somewhere.)

Fallen relationships

The problem is, we live in a fallen world (hence Gen 3). In many cultures, men live out the curse of Genesis 3 by overidentifying with their work. In our culture, as an ongoing outworking of the ill-health wrought by the curse and human sinfulness, by the world, the flesh, and the devil, men tend to have superficial relationships with each other.

This is typified by “bro culture”, the fullest version of which I have never been ushered into, having an aversion to a. locker rooms and b. sports. Without a hint of caricature, drawing on Peggy Orenstein’s article in The Atlantic, The Miseducation of the American Boy, bro culture seems to be a superficial realm of existence, where men relate to each other in a series of games of oneupmanship, mocking those who show ‘sissy’ emotions, and speaking ill of women. And speaking of doing ill to women, in fact.

Many young men find that they can only open to other young women, not their bros.

I am sure the variations are legion.

Now, it is worth pausing to note a salutary aspect of late modern life, which is that many men consider their wives their best friend. This is a good thing. If you read works from even a century ago, it was clear that to many intelligent, educated men wives were interesting creatures worth loving, having around, procreating with, and so forth. But having an intellectual conversation about religion, politics, art, poetry, or anything else like that — well, that was what the club was for, right? Thankfully, not all men have always been like that, and it seems fewer are today.

Yet the problem that I see arising is that our male-to-male friendships, even if not the perversions of Orenstein’s study, are shallow. We talk sports or movies or video games or art or even politics and religion. But our deepest hearts, our fears, our loves, our true hates, our dreams in shimmering gossamer — these precious selves we hide away. Our emotions don’t come into play.

Except, perhaps, with the wife.

What ends up happening, I think, is that all of our emotional burden is laid on our wife’s shoulders. There are no male friends to help with it. She carries it all. And it is too much to bear.

Spiritual Bromance

Bromance, then, is a way forward. That is to say, find a man whom you can trust, with whom you have things in common. But instead of only talking about how excited you are that Star Trek: Picard begins to air this Thursday, or the Superbowl or whatever it is normal guys talk about, you also talk about your real life — your hopes, fears, and dreams. Your struggles.

This is like an accountability partner, but with more than just, ‘Did you do your devotions? Did you look at naughty pictures?’ It is also about the bigger walk with Jesus.

This is where Aelred comes in — you have to test the waters, to see if someone has the character to be trusted with your secrets, to be loyal to you when you do wrong, to grow upwards with you. And to simply be compatible. If our non-spiritual conversation doesn’t move because I like Star Trek and my bro likes boxing, perhaps we should just be friends and find true bromance elsewhere.

Now, I’d like to have some of this in my life.

Wouldn’t you?

Biblical manhood?

I recently led a Bible study about ‘biblical manhood’. We looked at Genesis 1-3, focussing on specific passages, such as the creation of humans as male and female from the beginning, the fact that ‘it is not good for the man to be alone’, and what the curse entails for men and women, and what freedom in Christ should look like.

My inspirations were Fr John Behr on Genesis 1 when considering male and female together as comprising the fullness of humanity in God’s image, as well as Met. John Zizioulas, Being As Communion, for the fact that we are made in the image of the Holy Trinity, and St Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship for practical implications. Closer to my Protestant friends filling the room were Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, and Kelly Monroe Kullberg, Finding God Beyond Harvard.

Anyway, beyond these inspirations that lie beneath my interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis, chapters that are foundational for biblical anthropology and what it means to be male and female, I realised that there is not a lot in the Bible specifically about being male.

Now, there are many male characters throughout the biblical narrative. But these stories are a variety of things to us — some are good examples, others are definitely not to be copied, while still others are simply things that happened. And of the positive examples, it strikes me that very rarely are they specifically masculine examples, and if we might think they are, is that us reading masculinity into the text or is it already there?

Consider King David: Clearly adultery and murder come on the list of bad examples, whereas killing Goliath and playing the lyre were good things. But what does that say to us? That we are all to become literal warrior-poets? The one thing we know for sure was that he was a man after God’s own heart — so it is the inner life of King David that matters, I guess.

Although the list of good examples could go on, I don’t think that it’s that informative about the Christian view of manhood and masculinity. Generally, the principles we can draw from these examples are applicable to Christians of either sex, male or female.

Furthermore, I think there is a danger in reading the Old Testament this way, because it can reinforce a certain white Anglophone machismo, that real men are burly fellas like Samson, that the ‘great men’ of the Bible were soldiers like Joshua, Gideon, David, and others.

Christian history has actually tended to provide alternative masculinities, partly rooted in and inspired by the ‘household code’ passages of the epistles — you know, ‘Husbands, do x‘, that sort of thing. This alternative masculinity, coupling the household codes with the upside down kingdom preached by Jesus to persons of either sex, is full of men who fight on their knees, turn the other cheek, give up careers in the army, and die obscure deaths.

In the Middle Ages, alternative Christian masculinity found concrete form in the monk, the pray-er. The secular ideal of the Middle Ages is that of the Knights of the Round Table, who spent a lot of time involved in extra-marital sex and fighting with other people, not always for any good reason, or of Orlando/Roland (I’m reading Ariosto in my spare time). Orlando mostly just jousts with people and chases a woman who doesn’t really like him. He is big and strong and mighty. They were tough. They were macho. Knights were bros.

Monks were brothers. They were called to a different kind of life. Whether we’re thinking of monks in the strict sense — those cloistered ‘cenobites’ like Benedictines and Cistercians or semi-hermits like Carthusians — or of their more active brothers, the Franciscans and Dominicans (for example), members of religious orders abandoned their worldly responsibilities, their wealth, their power, the violent lives of their past, and romantic liaisons with ladies. Consider Francis, who went from fighting local wars to preaching poverty and salvation. He subverted the world of courtly love and called people to a better love, to the love of Lady Poverty.

I believe that the ideals of the monastic life are rooted in Scripture (so do monks), and I also believe that we are called to wage peace. We are to fight on our knees in the training of the holy life.

Back, then, to biblical manhood. The Kingdom of the Heavens is the upside down kingdom, where husbands love their wives sacrificially, where men submit to one another and, you will note, to their wives, where they do not provoke their children to anger, and where they give up all worldly pretension for their King. We have a high calling, but we have a mighty Leader.

What does biblical manhood look like? Turn your eyes upon Jesus. ↓

Fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre
Fresco in Sepulchre Chapel, Winchester Cathedral (my photo)

First thoughts upon finishing Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy

I recently finished the Celestial Hierarchy of (Pseudo-)Dionysius the Areopagite. This is the first work of the Dionysian corpus I’ve spent any time with, although I’ve read about him before (e.g. Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition). A few thoughts.

First things first, for readers of this blog: Ps-Dionysius is the author of a corpus of mystical-theological works, pretending to by the Dionysius of the Areopagus converted by St Paul in Acts 17:34. Despite the attempts of the translator of the version I read (Rev. John Parker), Dionysius did not write any of these. St Ignatius does not quote him — he quotes St Ignatius. And most of the other internal evidence is precisely what you’d do if you were writing a forgery. Anyway, that’s largely neither here nor there for my purposes; it’s just worth noting.

These treatises of spiritual theology appeared around the year 500 and were instantly successful in the eastern Church, on both (all three?) sides of the Chalcedonian divide. I am unsure, but I do not know of any Latin translation until Eriugena in the 800s. Enough introduction.

First and foremost, before discussing the idea of hierarchy itself, Dionysius is a good place to go to get embroiled in the philosophy of God and apophatic theology. Apophatic theology is discussing God by negation — God is infinite, immortal, invisible, etc. He is encountered in the cloud of Mt Sinai (Ex 24:18).

Writes the Areopagite:

And so Divine things are honoured by negations which teach the truth, and by comparisons with the lowest things which are diverse from their proper representation. For the reasons assigned, there is nothing absurd if they depict even the celestial Beings under dissimilar similitudes with misrepresent them. (ch. 2, p. 21 in Parker)

I really, really like the idea of ‘dissimilar similitudes’. God is the final cause of all that is. He is the unmoved mover. He is the Being that is ultimately beyond Being. Anything we can say about God we say through analogy, and all of our analogies break down — thus, dissimilar similitudes.

Later, when discussing what the Seraphim taught Isaiah, Dionysius writes:

The Theologian [Isaiah] then learned, from the things seen, that as compared with every superessential pre-eminence, the Divine was seated above every visible and invisible power, and that He is exalted above all, as Absolute — not even comparable to the first of created Beings. Further also, that He is the very Being of all, and Cause of all cause, and unalterable centre of the undissolved continuance of all, from Whom is both the being and the well-being of the most exalted Powers themselves. (ch. 13, p. 41 in Parker)

I imagine some people’s minds may be aching. Some may be crying out with Abba Serapion, when forbidden to imagine God anthropomorphically, ‘They have taken away my God, and I do not know where to find him!’ (A story from Cassian.) But I hope you will give the philosophy of God and Being and causation some thought.

Here is a reason, if you need one. I was once attempting to explain to a friend that not only do I find God as Final Cause a logical necessity, I also, nevertheless, believe that God can be considered personal, or, at least, not less than the personal. Now, most people who are unacquainted with the theology of personhood of, say, Met. John Zizioulas (Being As Communion) can only imagine person = humanoid. My friend thus proclaimed that by calling God ‘person’, it is the same as pigeons imagining a god who is simply just a big superpigeon.

I had to leave, but not having read Zizioulas, let alone any other philosophy of God, at that point, I am not sure how I would have answered him back then.

Apophatic theology and dissimilar similitude assert that God is beyond being, but that He is somehow like Being as we think of it. God is personal, but (to cite a chapter title of C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity) beyond personality.

Briefly on hierarchy. Andrew Louth tells me that this is the first instance of the word. And it is not what we mean. We see hierarchy as a chain of command, of those with authority commanding and controlling those underneath them, from the Field Marshal to the Private.

For Dionysius — and here we get a bit Neoplatonist — the hierarchy is about communicating knowledge of and grace from God from those higher to those lower. Each order of celestial beings has its own place in the hierarchy, and each position has its own capacity to know God and role to play in the economy of God’s universe. The celestial hierarchy is the means by which God manifests Himself to His creation in the way most perfect and most suited to each rank of the celestial beings.

This is not hierarchy as we know it, and we should think on that when we consider our role in the institutional hierarchies we inhabit. How are we helping those below us fulfil their own role? How do we relate to those above us? What is our role? Maybe a more grace-filled, Dionysian approach to our work and life would be beneficial.

Christ and submission

Annunciation by Antoniazzo da Romano, in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome
Annunciation by Antoniazzo da Romano, in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome

An interesting little piece recently appeared called ‘No More Lying About Mary’. It’s not bad, although it treads too closely to assumptions re the virginal conception (that is, I suspect [but may be wrong] the author denies it and thinks it is a story that tells Bad Things About Women and Sex, whereas it is a truth that tells us Good Things About Jesus) and verges on blasphemy on thinking that God would be pedophilic in choosing a teenage Mary to be the Mother of Our Lord.

Very little in the piece is new. The author rightly tries to take away the idea that Mary embodies a modern form of submissiveness, which is certainly not the case. Indeed, we see the Blessed Virgin carefully scrutinising the Angel Gabriel about his person and his news before she says, ‘Let it be unto me according to your will.’ And, as I like to observe, she is pretty much the only receiver of an angelic messenger in the Bible who, having heard all that was to be said, says yes without making excuses. None of the ‘great men of the Bible’ were so in tune with God that they were ready to embrace His will once they knew it.

So we need to praise St Mary, as the article encourages us.

Nonetheless, the author is keen to attack something called ‘submissiveness’.

‘Submissiveness’ seems to be something horrific imposed upon Mary by the patriarchy and used to subjugate women throughout history.

I don’t think it’s something I’m interested in.

And, given the long line of biblical and saintly women such as the warrioress Deborah, or Judith cutting of Holofernes’ head, or the BVM, or Sts Hildegard, Hilda, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, and Lady Julian of Norwich, I don’t think that traditional Christianity is actually interested in some form of submissiveness, and certainly not the subjugation of women.

Now, certain men throughout the history of the Church have clearly done their best to misuse Scripture and Tradition to that end, but that’s not the same thing. Just as we are to take neighbourliness, love, non-coercive preaching, and freedom to worship in synagogues from St Gregory the Great as the Christian approach to our Jewish neighbours, so we should look to the right thinkers in how Christian men and women love women (Christian and otherwise).

In the comments section, the author says, ‘Christ is never about submission, is always about raising us up and setting us free.’

Unfortunately, this isn’t true.

Christ is certainly about raising us up and setting us free.

But He is not never about submission.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m slowly working my way through St Augustine of Hippo, On the Trinity. It’s a good time. One of the issues that any reading of Scripture in relation to the Trinity and Christology must work through is what to do with statements such as, ‘The Father is greater than I.’ (Jn 14:28) (A more readable, modern discussion of such statements is Browne’s Exposition of the 39 Articles.) In his Incarnate state, as St Augustine shows, Jesus the Christ is clearly submissive to the Father.

Here are some of the passages where Christ, Who is God the Word Incarnate, mentions this submission to the Father (all NRSV):

for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. (Jn 12:49)

Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. (Jn 5:19)

Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. (Jn 4:34)

I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. (Jn 6:38)

Jesus Himself practised submission. What is remarkable is that these statements all come from the Gospel of John, which is notorious for having the highest Christology of the Gospels. John 1:1 says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ making it clear further on that Jesus is the Word. In this Gospel, Jesus says, ‘Before Abraham was, I am!’, and, ‘I and the Father are one,’ and, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father’, and various other similar things not at the top of my head.

Once we acknowledge that the Bible teaches us that Jesus Himself was submissive to the will of the Father, we have a couple of options. We can explain it away or maybe reject these parts of the Bible. Or we can read the Bible holistically and see what this submission to the Father tells us both about Christ and about submission. In so doing, I believe we will shatter the false dichotomy between submission and freedom.

My approach to the Bible, unlike (I imagine — I could be wrong) that of the author of the Patheos blog who, elsewhere in the comments section, embraces John Dominic Crossan as the foremost NT scholar of our age, is necessarily triadic and deeply Trinitarian. I blame John Zizioulas, St Gregory of Nazianzus, the Athanasian Creed, and my Dad’s confirmation classes.

The Holy Trinity is three Persons in one God. They are consubstantial. But there is only one God. There are three hypostaseis but only one ousia. For a biblical defense of the Trinity, I again refer the reader to chapter one of Browne. In the modern Greek reading of the Cappadocian Fathers offered us by Zizioulas in Being As Communion, the Persons of the Trinity are a communion, and this communion is the foundation of all being. It’s beautiful and profound; don’t forget my bit on why the Trinity matters.

By the logic of the Trinity, God the Word has always existed, being with the Father from all eternity. He, the Father, and the Holy Spirit exist in a union that can perhaps best be described as ecstatic, self-emptying love. If we can redeem the concept of eros, they are filled with a universe-creating desire for one another. They choose out of their love to make stuff — the universe we inhabit — so that there can be more stuff to love. Not because they have to. Creation is contingent on the Most Holy Trinity; not the other way around.

This mutual giving and receiving pervades the whole of their Creation.

And then, out reasons directly related to the overflowing love of the Trinity for the Creation, One of the Persons of the Trinity chooses to be incarnate as a Man.

But He is also sent. Sent by the Father. He comes to earth to do the will of the One Who sent Him. There is no clearer message of submission than that.

However, Christ our God and God the Father exist in a perfect love relationship. Each is perfect and holy. Each loves perfectly and holily (not a word, sorry).

Therefore, when Incarnation is on the table, One of Them submits gladly out of love, and the Other Two gladly send Him to us.

Biblical submission is not about submission to clerics or to forces of power or to men or to anything else. It is about perfect submission in perfect love to the one who loves you perfectly.

And this is why we, too, submit. We submit to the Holy Trinity not because He/They tell us to or because He/They is powerful or He/They is lording it over us, but because He/They love us perfectly and know us perfectly and know what’s best for us, so we, in a love relationship of trust, submit to Them and Their perfect relationship of perfect love and holy trust.

We are called elsewhere in Scripture to submit to one another, bearing each other’s burdens in love (Eph 5:21). St Paul doesn’t do so well in feminist circles today, but once again, the Scriptural virtue of submission is not the same as submissiveness. It is about willfully choosing to abandon self-love and self-will and self-fulfillment and self-importance to help others, choosing the obscure and uncomfortable path of service and love. It is about giving up myself and loving other people because Christ tells us that in others we will find Him. It is treating others better than ourselves, whether they are male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile, Greek or Scythian — and whether we are any of these things ourselves.

As Christ says, those who lose their lives for His sake will find them (Mt 16:25).

When we come against the perceived ‘traditional’ view of something, especially when it has been misused, we need to seek the true tradition and the biblical use of that word. Perhaps submission is unpopular today. But perhaps it is where freedom lies. Perhaps meekness is unpopular today — and that’s a shame, since the meek will inherit the earth! (Mt 5:5)

My stray theological thoughts

Last night, a friend was giving a wee talk/sermon/whatever at church about Q1 of the bigger Westminster Cathechism:

Q. 1. What is the chief and highest end of man?
A. Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.

He spoke a bit about the Trinity and the divine attributes, and why it is that God is always ‘happy’/’blessed’/’joyful’, and what it must mean for us to enjoy Him. It was quite good, full of references to Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin. Surprisingly, no Bavinck, though.

My mind being what it is, I also drew in the following:

  • In response to how we are created in God’s image, I said we are created for communion, since God is a communion of persons (thanks, Zizioulas)
  • God and creation are utterly different and separate, yet we are able to encounter God in specific ways on earth through his activity — couldn’t help but think of Gregory Palamas and the essence and energies of God, especially since there was a Venn diagram involved, with two unconnected circles but arrows going from ‘God’ to ‘creation’.
  • How do we most enjoy life? By finding the summum bonum, for this is where happiness lies. So far, Aristotle. God is the summum bonum — Aquinas. Christ is God, and He says that we will find Him by serving the poor.
  • Christ saves us and makes us able to know God as He knows Himself. Couldn’t help but think of Leo and two natures.
  • The goal of Christianity? To see God. I thought immediately of the beatific vision of St Bernard, Moses. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,’ I thought. This leads straight into John Cassian, Conference 1, where we learn that the goal of monastic (Christian) life is purity of heart as a way of achieving the end of the beatific vision.
  • Finally, he spoke about how living in knowledge and love of God, and actually enjoying Him and Christian life will transform all our relationships, and we will love others differently. I think, ‘Keep your heart at peace and a multitude around you will be saved,’ St Seraphim of Sarov.

Pretty sure the Free Church of Scotland (‘Wee Frees’) rarely has so many Eastern Orthodox, mediaeval, and patristic references running through parishioners’ minds. Except, of course, mine.