The Vocation of Masculinity


Two or three years ago someone asked me to write an article on the vocation of masculinity for a themed issue of a magazine devoted to vocation. It didn’t make it into the issue, and I lost track of it. Since it’s still as relevant as ever, I decided to use it for this month’s newsletter. Enjoy.

Today’s question of the vocation of masculinity is not what it is but whether or not it exists. Although the Bible and human history assume a distinction between the sexes, often a radical one, industrial society and today’s new gender ideologies have very different visions. Though neither consistent with each other nor often formally articulated, these visions agree in explicitly rejecting both that historic gender distinctions are fundamentally real and also that they are moral. This puts the future of masculine vocation in grave doubt – so long as resources remain abundant.

Starting with Genesis, the Bible sets up an essential gender polarity. “Male and female He created them.” (Gen 1:27). Much of the Protestant debate about gender centers on hierarchy. That is, there is significant debate about such items whether or not men are the head of the home or only men can hold office in the church. Less attention is given to the profound gender polarity found throughout scripture.

Among many examples, God explicitly dictates the gender of various animals that are to be sacrificed. For example, the sacrifices involved in the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 are male. The purification ritual in Numbers 19 calls for a red heifer (female). An analysis of the specifics of these is beyond the scope of this essay; the important point is that gender is a matter of specific concern for God, right down to the specific sex of the animal to be sacrificed. The Bible even makes statements that today might be viewed as stereotyping, such as when it says, “In that day the Egyptians will become like women, and they will tremble and be in dread.” (Isaiah 19:16) Beyond the numerous explicit references to gender in the Bible, there’s much that is implicit as well. For example, Paul’s second letter to Timothy is arguably at one level a primer on masculinity sent to encourage a young leader in trouble who had historically under-functioned as a man.

Human societies have also exhibited pervasive gender polarity. Gender distinction was so fundamental that Jean-Louis de Lolme’s quip about British parliamentary supremacy was that “parliament can do everything but make a woman a man and a man a woman.” And as radical Catholic priest Ivan Illich noted in his book Gender, “Outside industrial societies, unisex work is the rare exception, if it exists at all. Few things can be done by women and also by men. The latter, as a rule, just cannot do women’s work. In early eighteenth-century Paris, you could recognize the bachelor from afar by his stench and gloomy looks. From notaries’ records, we know that solitary men left no sheets or shirts when they died. In the time of Louis XIV, a man without a woman to keep house could barely survive.” He also observes, “Hundreds of contracts between peasants and their lords from the ninth to the twelfth centuries tell us what rents were: partly produce and partly servitude. And traditional rent was frequently paid in a gender-specific way. A large number of contracts carefully determined not only the amount of rent due for the land but also the gender from whom it was due.”

Illich sees the elimination of gender distinctions as a precondition of the development of modern industrial society. This is a questionable assertion, but undoubtedly we’ve seen gender distinctions weaken as the industrial era reached maturity, which, in its present phase, now depends on those weakened distinctions.

Though pre-industrial societies may have discriminated against women by today’s standards, Illich points out that modern society is frequently no better. “I know of no industrial society where women are the economic equals of men. Of everything that economics measures, women get less.” What’s more, modern industrial society creates the new category of shadow work, uncompensated labor that must be performed in order to service the industrial economy. Commuting is shadow work, as is “some assembly required.” Shadow work, argues Illich, is fundamentally different from the household labor of the pre-industrial family. Shadow work is a mark of our dependence on the industrial marketplace for our very survival in a world where the poor but self-sufficient life of pre-industrial society has been foreclosed to us. And shadow work falls much more heavily on women than men.

The landscape of modern industrial society is thus foreign to that of the Bible and pre-industrial human history. Preindustrial men didn’t have to ask about the vocation of masculinity. It simply was. While we don’t live in a truly androgynous world, gendered distinctions have continued breaking down, and have, as previously noted, been ideologically delegitimized. For example, not only does our society reject the idea of men’s work or women’s work, but also finds the very concept of such a thing offensive.

Read the rest of this piece on Aaron M. Renn on Substack.

Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker and writer on a mission to help America's cities and people thrive and find real success in the 21st century. He focuses on urban, economic development and infrastructure policy in the greater American Midwest. He also regularly contributes to and is cited by national and global media outlets, and his work has appeared in many publications, including the The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Photo: courtesy Aaron M. Renn Substack.