I recently caught up with a friend to discuss chapter 2 of Augustine’s confessions together. It started smooth but we derailed towards the end of the chapter when Augustine began talking about the story of his disordered loves. Like many good stories it all started with a piece of forbidden fruit.
As a young man, Augustine took a pear from a farm. But to be more precise, he stole it. And as he reflected back on his life, he was puzzled at why he would do such a thing. It’s one thing for a man to steal a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. But Augustine realized that he had done it for no reason at all. There was nothing attractive about the pear other than the sheer pleasure of stealing itself and the joy of doing it in company.
We were both confused. Not just because Augustine had previously described the human condition as a case of loving the wrong things. But now he was pointing out that there was something wrong about our love itself. It sounded much worse than what we had originally thought about people’s motivations. Can you imagine forgiving someone who admits to hitting your car not because he was in a rush but simply for fun? The sympathy we feel towards those who wrong us often come from seeing them as noble people with misplaced intentions.
But Augustine is honest about you, me and himself. I can see what he means. There’s a certain mystique that draws you in to sin. It’s alluring. Lustrous. Forbidden. Scandalous. Just look at a Tim Tam ad. Remember the old msn status? ‘If loving you is wrong then I don’t ever wanna be right.’ There’s also the sweet, sweet feeling of vengeance – that feeling of being gloriously right and no apology will ever be good enough for you. We don’t just love badly but we love the bad.
I think Augustine provides some hints to help us understand the difference between the 2. When we sacrifice our lives for money we show how desperately we want security. When we sacrifice children for the sake of our jobs we show how much success matters to us. We’re enslaved by whatever we sacrifice ourselves for. That’s worship, the ‘for God’ part. And as Bob Dylan says, ‘everyone’s gotta worship something.’ And though our hearts are restless seekers until they find God, they’re also restless imitators of God. Even perversity doesn’t stop us imitating the one we were made for. We enjoy the freedom that comes with exercising autonomy and control over what we want, when we want, how we want, where we want. McDonald’s all day, everyday. Children when I want and how I want. So we become like gods.
This unlimited freedom we’re exercising is simply a superficial imitation of the one who is truly free. This cheap copy of God is what Augustine had in mind when he stole the pear. And I think this role of playing god is probably more destructive because by doing it makes its doers accountable to no one else. But as I spoke to my friend over the burnt raisin toast of a late night McDonald’s, I was reminded that God’s work is not so much to make us what we’re not but to remake us into who we truly are. We are what we love after all and we love best when we love what is true, good and beautiful.
What is a man? Over the last 2 weeks, I’ve been challenged to think more about this. It wasn’t a challenge because the concept of masculinity was previously unknown but because such a clear idea was being undermined. Recently, Gillette released a type of ad that I’ve been seeing more and more of. Rather than featuring a product, the ads center around who the company is rather than what they do. As a men’s razor company, the ad was addressed to all males but it clearly expressed a narrative that Gillette wanted to identify with and would cause controversy — toxic masculinity. Within 2 minutes I was treated to ‘manly’ behaviors from cat calls and mansplaining (someone still has to explain what this is to me) to kids wrestling and dads barbecuing. The message was that this isn’t ‘the best men can get.’ Instead, Gillette called on men to hold one another accountable to behaviors that have long been justified as ‘boys being boys.’ This was obviously a good ad right?
While some applauded Gillette and saw it as an encouragement towards male accountability, many more could do little but roll their eyes. ‘There goes another attempt to demonize men.’ As for me, I had 2 initial impressions of the ad. I didn’t have any idea what the ad had to do with their actual product nor did I feel the urge to buy more of it. So it simply seemed a bad ad from a marketing standpoint. But I’m not a marketer nor a critic so writing about this aspect of the ad wasn’t going to help anyone. My second reaction is what I wanted to write about and it was directed towards a deeper problem — the message of the ad. I was concerned because it reflected the confusion around sex and identity that has engulfed so much of the society I live and breathe in. In life there are certain things that you just have to live and let live. Toothpaste squeezed from the top rather than the bottom? You just have to grin and bear it. But the confusion around sex isn’t one of them. Being confused about sex doesn’t just hurt women but the men Gillette claims to help. Not knowing how to relate one’s self as a man or a woman means not knowing how to relate to each other. It means people without differences, unity without diversity and existence without meaning. Categories are how we understand being and male and female have always been a part of it. As a Christian, being unable to understand my design means being unable to relate my self not just to others but to God. So gender confusion hurts people because it doesn’t just affect lifestyles but existence and meaning itself.
The 2 Natures
In the book of Genesis, the first two human beings are created by God in his image. As his image, their responsibility would be of mediating between God and being, ordering the chaos of creation into the paradisical garden of Eden. But the first two human beings disobeyed God by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The reward of having their eyes opened is for themselves a curse. One of the curses for Eve the first female, is ‘your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.’ One result of that curse was the splitting of humanity into 2 natures – good and evil. So while Adam the first male was designed to order creation, the goodness of that order would now be twisted and perverted. The loving order and stability of Adam would now become the iron fisted ruling of a tyrant and it has continued in this way. In me there exists the wise king. Yet behind him lays the dark tyrant. They both look similar and at times it can be hard to tell who’s who. The courage, strength and aggression of our fighting men have often been the turning tide of wars. Yet these very same traits have caused the rape, pillaging and destruction of whole cities.
It seems to me that men are capable of heroic displays of virtue but are at the same time, history’s most destructive force. But I don’t think such a design was accidental. I have often looked up at the night sky to observe the beauty of the stars. But it was only when the sky was darkest that their light shone the brightest. Augustine himself recognized this when he observed that God would often use prosperity to remind us of his goodness and great calamities to remind us of our need. What we needed was something stable and unchanging. It was a reminder that what we needed was God himself. What men need therefore is true masculinity and the very God who restores them to it. I do not think the present threat in our society is excessive masculinity but rather a lack of it. When men protect those under their care the world is a safer place. When men create meaning rather meaninglessness the world is a truer place. And when men live as men the world is a more beautiful place.
With further reflection, I’ve become more sympathetic towards Gillette’s attempt to address this social problem. Let me be clear – I don’t endorse it. But I think it was their way of saying that there were wrong behaviors that males had justified as being intrinsic to who they were. This was badly expressed through the phrase ‘boys will be boys’. When I think about the encouragement to ‘suck it up’ as though stoicism saved anyone, I can see Gillette’s point. But harmful behaviors that are usually expressed by males does not mean that males usually express these behaviors. And I think this is what confused people and caused the controversy. Sexual harassment is no more a product of masculinity than lying is to femininity. Unless Gillette and those under the sway of toxic masculinity understand man’s two natures, they will only be able to address it by eradicating maleness itself. When you realize that men die on the job more than females, that they are the most frequent victims of homicide and that they account for 97% of war casualties, that’s not a great idea.