High-Demand Religion and Male Loneliness

I recently watched the Netflix documentary “The Family”, based on religion journalist Jeff Sharlet’s books about a covert Christian supremacist network that seeds the highest levels of government with right-wing evangelical allies. Hiding in plain sight, these folks are the force behind the National Prayer Breakfast and send congressmen on unofficial junkets to change the hearts (and secure the petrochemicals contracts) of authoritarian leaders from Russia to Libya. The Humanist magazine has a good summary here.

The show opens with a dramatic reconstruction of a younger Sharlet’s stint in an intentional community called Ivanwald, an idyllic suburban mansion near Washington, D.C. where wholesome young men are groomed for future leadership. Like a Christian version of the boarding-school lads in Dead Poets Society, the “brothers” play football, share their innermost feelings, study the texts that are supposed to change their lives, and subject newbies to surprise hazing rituals.

Watching these scenes was a bittersweet reminder of the evening at Harvard Hillel, over 25 years ago, that sealed my desire to try living as an observant Jew. It must have been Succot because we were eating dinner at long picnic tables outdoors under a lantern-lit tent. The Orthodox boys had a camaraderie with one another that was mature, tender, and close-knit, a visible contrast to their jaded, slick, competitive counterparts in the secular world of elite schooling. My three imperatives in my 20s were (1) find a husband, (2) don’t fail physics, and (3) survive one more day of living with my mentally deteriorating mother. (Two outta three ain’t bad, kids.) But the yearning in my heart, as I looked at those young men, wasn’t for a future father of my Jewish babies.

I was in love with a kind of homosocial bonding that seems to flourish in high-demand communities–some alchemy that makes loud insensitive boys into reflective young men, a pressure that forces affection out of them like weeds pushing through a cement sidewalk. I devoured books like Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline (doesn’t that title just make you tingle?), a semi-autobiographical novel about the military academy The Citadel. Later, in my 30s, married and recently moved to this very female-centric Western Massachusetts town, I went along with a teenage friend to her charismatic evangelical church. It was remarkable to see white working-class men weeping, trembling, and embracing as a matter of course–a space of respite from the bluster and gruffness that such men perform with each other in the outside world.

The appeal of places like Ivanwald can’t be reduced to covert homosexuality, however tempting it is for liberals to take that cheap shot. In his essay collection Undergoing God (Continuum, 2006), gay Catholic theologian James Alison suggests that sexual desire may be a subset of men’s stigmatized need for emotional intimacy, rather than the reverse. (Alison is a follower of social scientist Rene Girard, referenced below; the blog Teaching Nonviolent Atonement explains Girardian theology in layperson’s terms.)

Imagine a Freudian or a neo-Freudian looking at a rugby scrum. We can hear such a person commenting, after a bit: ‘Hmmm, lots of latent homosexuality around here.’ Now imagine a Girardian or neo-Girardian gazing at the goings on at a gay sex club. Such a person might say, after a bit: ‘Hmmm, an awful lot of latent rugby playing going on here.’

Funnily enough when I have talked to gay male audiences on retreats and made this comparison, they’ve always smiled and got it immediately. The Girardian comment rings much truer to our experience than the Freudian. And this is not, I think, because it is ideologically more flattering to us. But because you can’t hang around in such circles for very long without realising how much of the apparently sexual activity which is going on is to do with touching, with bonding, being with the tribe, with affection and with playing games. (pg.160)

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis contrasts eros, romantic love/lust, with philia, friendship. Whereas lovers look at one another, friends stand side by side, looking in the same direction at something they both value. In the classical and medieval worlds, philia was considered a higher-level love because freely chosen and not tied to bodily needs such as reproduction. (Sounds kind of queer, no?)

It stands to reason, then, that philia based on shared spirituality would be especially deep and meaningful. The stronger the pressure to face in the same direction, as in high-demand religions like Orthodox Judaism and evangelical Christianity, the more that bond is reinforced. The men’s passion for one another–again, not necessarily sexual–is given cover by their passion for God. Because these religions are punitively heteronormative and patriarchal, these men can have it both ways, being vulnerable and devoted to one another in “feminine” ways without losing status.

I wonder if this is a particularly masculine flavor of friendship, to be more object-oriented than personally intimate. In the past decade I’ve had several intense female friendships where our conversations revolved around psychological growth and relationship processing. We had common interests, such as literature, but that wasn’t our strongest bond. It was partway to eros, without any sexual desire, but with that love’s characteristic shadow side of jealousy and engulfment. One element of my masculine transition is the attempt to shift towards a male style of philia, which I’m currently pursuing by attending every available queer nerd convention.

The shadow side of worship-oriented male philia is, of course, the Christian supremacy that is all around us in America. Non-Orthodox Jews and Palestinians in Israel might tell a similar story about the deadly consequences of believing that your in-group is chosen by God. In another essay in the same book, Alison contrasts non-idolatrous worship with authoritarian group bonding exercises, epitomized by the Nazis’ Nuremberg Rally. Boldface emphasis mine, and some paragraph breaks added for ease of online reading.

One of the things in Nuremberg-style worship is what I referred to in my initial description as ‘Bruderschaft’. This is the sense in which, as they gradually become worked up in their enthusiasm, so those involved in the crowd begin to discover a special sort of love for those who are there along with the, a deep camaraderie, a sense of being one with, and delighted to be with, these others who, but a few hours previously, were entirely unknown to them, and, in a few hours’ time, will be just as unknown once again.

Part of worship is a sense that love enables you to leave behind the tedious banalities of the particular, the petty irritations, the timidities, the quirks, and instead find yourself together, and in communion, with these people whom an outside viewer would describe as strangers, but you, at the time, would swear that you were united by a special and mystical bond. And that ecstasy, that ek-stasis, can be quite overpowering, and indeed quite addictive.

Now I want to say that, from the perspective of True Worship, this is all completely ersatz. True Worship leads to a slow, patient discovery of being able to like people in their bizarre particularities, and see the beauty in those things, not abstract from them. Just as true friendship requires time and stretching and self-examination, and trust building, and vulnerability and time wasted doing nothing in particular. This is part of the sense that we don’t need to hide from each other if we are all being forgiven together by the forgiving victim [Jesus], and that un-hiding, that discovery, happens very slowly.

Worship requires the suppression of the particular because it requires all those involved to share in a lie which will lead to a new form of unity creating a new sacrifice by casting someone out. All those involved in the unity are automatically, by the mere fact of being involved, abstracting from their particular stories and sharing in a lie, a cause that is beyond them. The love, the friendship, the real brotherhood which comes with and through True Worship, is a certain sort of being able gradually to bask in particular beauties discovered without any cause beyond themselves. (pgs.46-47)

Preach! I read this book a decade ago during my spiritual crisis about writing a gay novel. Re-reading these passages I bookmarked, I now understand how the ecstasy of friendship with my Christian women’s group could have felt so real, and how it was inevitable that my emerging gay transmasculine self would subsequently be cast out. The main virtue of Julian, my novel protagonist, is his anti-ideological bent. This slutty but sensitive fashion photographer is an expert on “bask[ing] in particular beauties…without any cause beyond themselves.” I believed then, and even more now, that the Holy Spirit sent him to me.

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