Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy


In my new book Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy (Equinox Publishing) I take a critical look at men and spirituality. Since the early 1990s there have been various waves of interest in what is often described as "masculine spirituality." While diverse, a commonality among these interests has been a concern that spirituality has become too feminine, and that men's experiences of the spiritual are being marginalized. Masculine spirituality is therefore about promoting what it perceives to be authentic masculine characteristics within a spiritual context.

By examining the nature of these characteristics, Numen, Old Men argues that masculine spirituality is little more than a thinly veiled patriarchal spirituality. The mythopoetic, evangelical, and to a lesser extent Catholic men's movements all promote a patriarchal spirituality by appealing to neo-Jungian archetypes of a combative and oppressive nature, or understanding men's role as biblically ordained leader of the family. Numen, Old Men then examines integral spirituality which aims to honour and transcend both the masculine and feminine, but which privileges the former to the extent where it becomes another masculine spirituality, with all its inherent patriarchal problems. Gay spirituality is then offered as a form of masculine spirituality which to a large degree resists patriarchal tendencies, suggesting a queering of spirituality could be useful for all men, both gay and straight.

In the following edited excerpt I look at how Ken Wilber's brand of integral spirituality plays out in the writings of another author, David Deida, who is a founding member of Integral Institute. Deida is selected not because he develops Wilber's thoughts in any particular way, but because he communicates them in a more distilled fashion, free from the density and scholastic aspirations of Wilber's writing. In a sense, Deida is the "real face" of integral thought. He does not employ any Wilberian theory as such in his books, but he does use notions of masculine and feminine in much the same way. Should anyone be in doubt of his feelings, Deida writes in one essay that Wilber is the most beautiful philosopher of our time who authenticates genius and is glorious in almost every way.

The title of his most popular book says a lot: The Way of the Superior Man: A Spiritual Guide to Mastering the Challenges of Women, Work and Sexual Desire. Wilber's blurb on the back cover, returning the above compliment, says the book is "a guide for the noncastrated male. . . . Few are the books that discuss strong sexuality within strong spirituality, instead of tepid sexuality diluted by a mediocre spiritual stance." The muscular motivational speaker, Tony Robbins, is also quoted on the cover, praising the book for helping men "fulfil their true purpose and to be authentically masculine." Language such as the "noncastrated male," "strong," and "authentically masculine" immediately reminds one of mythopoetic literature, and Deida continues in this vein.

Deida sets up the masculine and feminine as polar in the same way as Wilber and the mythopoets: "sexual attraction is based on sexual polarity, which is the force of passion that arcs between masculine and feminine." Deida claims people with a masculine sexual essence are driven by mission and "unless you discover this deep purpose and live it fully, your life will feel empty to the core." People with a feminine sexual essence, however professionally successful, "won't be fulfilled unless love is flowing fully in your family or intimate life."

Deida makes the appropriate noises about disconnecting sex and gender, noting that the masculine essence can belong to a woman, and vice versa, but he is clearly talking about men, or as Wilber says, "the noncastrated male." Similarly, Deida claims to be starting from a position of respect, where all genders and sexual orientations are treated as equals, moving into a new stage of sexual awareness, rather than reverting back to an old one. But repeatedly Deida makes statements which make it difficult to interpret his thoughts on gender as being anything other than a step backwards, another example of a supposedly integral presentation of gender falling foul of the pre/trans fallacy.

Throughout The Way of the Superior Man Deida repeatedly uses the phrase "your woman" which immediately sends first-tier alarm bells ringing. A significant amount of his claims about the nature of gender would be laughable if they were not so serious, such as "the feminine always seems chaotic and complicated from the perspective of the masculine." But more than this, other passages take on a rather sinister and misogynistic flavour: "for the feminine truth is a thin concept." Elsewhere Deida holds little sympathy with "no means no" campaigns: "what she wants is not what she says."

Deida also sets up a familiar distinction where women are connected with the earth (and, given his polar logic, presumably with men transcending it). Indeed, woman and the earth (world) seem to be synonymous for Deida: "Neither woman nor world are predictable. . . . Neither woman nor world can be second-guessed, or fooled." Deida suggests there are only two ways to deal with woman and world: either renounce sexuality and "the seemingly constant demands of woman and world" or "'fuck' both to smithereens, to ravish them with your love unsheathed."

Despite Deida's impassioned pleas for loving women in all their authentic femininity, the whiff of misogyny continues. Sounding particularly mythopoetic, Deida notes of a man's ability to take criticism, "if he doesn't have a good relationship to masculine energy (e.g., his father), then he will act like a woman and be hurt or defensive." Charging someone with "acting like a woman" hardly honours authentic femininity. Continuing this path, Deida begins to take on the unhinged persona of Tom Cruise's character Frank T. J. Mackey in the movie Magnolia, "You've had tit. You've had pussy. . . . It wasn't even that good, as long as it did last. Your need is far deeper than any woman can provide." It is simply unreasonable to claim, as Deida does, that he starts from a position of respect and gender equality, to then come out with such disrespectful and hostile statements, second-tier or otherwise.

In some less frenzied passages Deida could be mistaken for a Promise Keeper. Earlier we read of Tony Evans's suggesting to his evangelical brothers that they should turn to their wives and say, "Honey, I've made a terrible mistake. I've given you my role. I gave up leading this family, and I forced you to take my place. Now I must reclaim that role." The evangelical call to "servant leadership" was built on the idea that many men have abdicated their role as leader in the family. Deida writes, "If you want your woman to be able to relax into her feminine and shine her natural radiance, then you must relieve her of the necessity to be in charge. This doesn't mean you need to boss her around. It means you need to know where you are heading and how you are going to get there, in every way, including financially and spiritually."

This ability to make decisions (to be the servant leader) is what Deida describes as "the masculine gift." Deida asks us to accept that men making the decisions about money and God is a gift to "your" woman, so she is "able to relax." This is yet another reworking of patriarchy, this time saying, "don't you worry about a thing, let me make the decisions while you enjoy your natural radiance." The "superior man" is evidently an evangelical mythopoetic soft patriarch attempting to pass himself off as a sexual-spiritual radical by saying naughty words like "fuck," "tit" and "pussy."