Masculinity, Faith, and Trauma

There’s no glamour in being a traumatized male—no social media movement decrying the horrors men have faced in boyhood sexual abuse or combat violence. You don’t get social status points for being a male “survivor.” Under the surface, men who have experienced trauma wrestle complex realities with no guidance other than: “Deal with it.”

Under the surface, men who have experienced trauma wrestle complex realities, with no guidance other than: ‘Deal with it.’

When faith enters the picture, it only gets more complicated. Faith communities manufacture arbitrary timelines by which your so-called “healing” must comply—otherwise, "What's wrong with you?" Likewise, trauma therapists are usually antagonistic toward faith—it’s considered antithetical to a sense of personal agency and dignity.

Meanwhile, neither community takes seriously the horrific questions that can arise about God’s relationship to the trauma (“Why didn’t God prevent this evil?”), death (“Why does God allow good people to suffer and die?”), and resentment toward God (“Is God punishing me for my lack of faith?”).[1] Trauma and faith inevitably expose these realities—where God stands over the wound site, there are questions that must be answered.[2] 

Masculinity, faith, and trauma—These three realities are the elements of the traumatized male experience.

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These three realities cannibalize one another. For example, facing your trauma can feel like a “chick thing” (so does “talking about your masculinity,” while we’re at it). Christian pastors usually have nothing to offer but blank stares and bible verses (and are often fairly effeminate, whether or not that’s worth noting).

  • To be a typical male is considered hyper-aggressive by Christians and counter-productive by trauma therapists.

  • To be a genuine Christian can easily manifest itself as weird restrictions on masculinity and unrealistic expectations for when and how you ought to heal from trauma. They come into conflict in other ways:

    • Singing 80s-sounding love songs to Jesus doesn't necessarily bring all the boys to the yard.

    • Masculine scrutiny can become fixed upon the problem of God and evil relative to trauma.

    • The behavioral effects of trauma are fundamentally unacceptable and incompatible with Christian culture, so that all men are left to do is: (1) leave the church, (2) remain in secrecy, or (3) remain in public judgment.

  • To be traumatized is to be considered faithless by Christians and effeminate by men.

Masculinity, faith, and trauma require one another for the sake of recovery—but they instinctively cannibalize one another.

So, here’s the problem: Masculinity, faith, and trauma require one another for the sake of recovery—but they instinctively cannibalize one another without a strategy to integrate them. Avoidance is far easier than strategic engagement. We will not outline a strategy for recovery here, but rather outline (1) what ought to be recovered about masculinity, faith, and trauma, and (2) why their recovery can be very difficult.

Elements of the Male Experience

How can we make sense of these realities? What is the relationship between the abstract ideas and our very embodied experience of them? We can sketch it briefly here.

Masculinity is Ownership

Masculinity is taking ownership for the advancement of one’s own maturity.[3] If you outsource all of your moral responsibility for your own physical, intellectual, emotional, and social maturity, you will resemble a child at the level of personal competence. You will also remain weaker in strength—relative to men who do advance their own maturity—and therefore, by analogy, resemble the “weaker” sex, so to speak.

A man differentiates himself from women and children by becoming competent for their betterment—competent in physical skill, self-defense, work, provision, emotional maturity, sensitivity, and self-care (taking ownership for the advancement of one's own maturity can also be a feminine quality—but the lack of taking appropriate ownership is distinctively un-masculine).

A man differentiates himself from the women and children in his life by becoming competent for their betterment.

A man maximally fulfills his potential by working hard, prudently asking friends for help, and strategically deciding how to advance his maturity in a way that yields the greatest degree of personal autonomy. This masculine autonomy evolves in its moral responsibility as the man physically ages. Bearing too much moral responsibility too soon, such as a boy providing emotional care for a codependent parent, is intuitively unfitting. So also is a grown man who refuses to take responsibility to advance his own maturity.[4]

Masculinity can compel us to strive for a kind of control that both faith and trauma judge as impossible. The drive to secure is a good drive. It’s what gives men the instinct to protect and to provide. But both faith and trauma can require a man to relinquish a degree of control in a way that kicks against these instincts, forcing traumatized men to choose between advancing their maturity and facing their trauma. The truth is more circuitous—it requires a path that is not as straightforward.

When the words ’man,’ ‘believer,’ and ‘survivor’ become violently clashing identities, a man is forced to choose between ‘being’ a man, facing God honestly, and addressing his trauma.

Doubling down on masculinity can make us ignore post-traumatic emotions because of their effeminate packaging—even the word “emotions” can make us feel weaker, passive, effeminate. The submission therapists require emotionally, and the submission churches require culturally, can emasculate the inquiring trauma survivor. When the words "man," "believer," and "survivor" become violently clashing identities, a man is forced to choose between "being" a man, facing God honestly, and addressing his trauma. It can feel as if one must reconcile all three at once, or none at all.

Faith is a Relationship

Faith is relation to God. Theologian John Calvin spoke about faith in three senses—knowledge (theological ideas, notitia), assent (believing the truthfulness of those ideas, assensus), and trust (confidence in God’s good will toward you in Christ).[5] Conscious faith is elastic enough to be an act of knowledge, belief, trust, or any combination simultaneously. A more simple way to put is is: Faith is any conscious relation to God by a human.

However, churches have culturally capitalized upon faith by insisting on a its own necessity. Church has become a culture that insists on mediating the relationship with God through "membership," which is enforced by both formal and informal compliance metrics. Because of this, one's experience of God and church have become necessarily tangled.

Faith can threaten masculinity in several ways. First, competent trust is meritocratic—I will trust people who have earned that trust. Blind trust resembles a childish way of knowing, which would be incompetent for an adult, and therefore unmasculine. Faith in God can feel very much like this incompetent way of knowing.

Second, most churches in which men can exercise faith can feel culturally effeminate—they informally require orderliness, formality, and disdain for fleshly passions. Their preferred style of faith often conflicts with fundamental good realities of masculinity like aggression, ambition, and sex drive. Any signs of male-type traits are discouraged and rebuked, often confusing aggression for arrogance, and rewarding effeminacy with authority.

The church’s preferred style of faith often conflicts with fundamental good realities of masculinity like aggression, ambition, and sex drive.

Third, most Christian pastors act (and look) like reprogrammed psychotherapists from the 90’s. A high proportion of religious leaders appear physically weak, making it initially difficult for disciplined men to respect them. Their jobs hinge upon the appearance of moral perfection, which also makes it difficult for men to trust them in a friendly capacity. Men must always be “on guard” around Christian leaders, careful not to exhibit traits which disrupt the dominance hierarchy of the particular Christian community, at the top of which is often a male who would not garner respect in any other social situation.

Trauma is a Wound

Psychological trauma is a mental wound. Trauma comes from the Greek word τραυμα (trauma), which refers to a physical wound, but is applied in a psychological context to the effects of overwhelming suffering on the psyche.[6]

Trauma can mitigate against faith and masculinity in several ways. First, there is the obvious problem of whether God made the evil happen—or at the very least, why he did not intervene. If we take examples of horrendous evil, such as child sexual abuse, the terrorist mutilation of soldiers, or something common such as the untimely death of a loved one, it is hard to image a morally praiseworthy human being (a good person) who would not prevent such heinous evils if he could.

If a human was able to prevent, for example, the sexual abuse of a child, but chose not to, we would highly doubt this person’s moral fabric. The same legitimate moral intuition can evoke distrust toward God, pitting against one another assent and trust.

Second, trauma forces survivors to face the undeniable fact that they are not in control of everything. They cannot prevent every evil from occurring to themselves, their friends, and their families. More to the point, there is no degree of masculine advancement of maturity which can utterly negate the fact that the man was taken advantage of.

Whether he was sexually abused as a child or physically attacked as an adult, there is rooted in his consciousness the concrete possibility which all men fear—that he is a bitch. He can easily develop habits of behavior which he intends to overcompensate for this secret—that he is a bitch—which he desperately hopes no other man will suspect.

Most men find more therapeutic aid in the company of other men than the so-called “trauma-informed” professionals who have been licensed to help them.

Third, trauma therapists are trained by mental health professionals who see themselves as medical practitioners, even though their tool belt of competencies does not extend to all of the realities which trauma can disrupt—faith and masculinity in particular.

Facing trauma—whether that was from boyhood sexual abuse or military combat—can, again, plant a sense of intimate betrayal at the heart of faith: “Why did God let this happen—or decide for it to happen?”

Therapists are neither inclined nor equipped to engage this question deeply, nor the dozens of others that require deep philosophical reflection about death, family, manhood, fatherhood, male intimacy, dominance, or the existence of the soul. Most men find more therapeutic aid in the company of other men than the so-called “trauma-informed” professionals who have been licensed to help them.

Mutually Cannibalizing Realities

We don’t initially need to make moral judgments about these things. But we can begin here with these three realities—what it means for a man to face himself as a man, to face God, and to face his trauma. Each of these realities exist before us whether we like it or not. We will either suppress them, in which case they will manifest themselves in unconscious ways in our thought and behavior, or we will own them and advance our maturity with respect to them.

While masculinity, faith, and trauma remain actively operational realities inside our psychology and outside in our circumstances, we retain behavioral habits that function as sentinels to protect us from facing them. We will call these habits of ignoring these realities “resistance mechanisms.” Resistance mechanisms are excuses we use to ignore these realities such as the duties of life, lack of energy, lack of a therapist, indulgence in food or porn, or obsession with an arbitrary hobby or object.

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We dutifully enact these rituals of avoidance for our own sake. And we resist these three realities for several reasons.

1. We resist them because we lack a strong purpose for facing what feels too painful, effeminate, or embarrassing.

If our choice is between a drunken Pornhub binge and an ambiguous sense of long-term personal growth, there is a clear winner every time.

It’s easy to think that the problem of avoiding these realities is solved by facing them. But it’s not. There is a reason they are difficult to face. And like any hard thing, we must have a sense of purpose in facing them. What it means to be a man, or to face God as a man, or to face God as a man who has personally experienced heinous evil, are too deep simply to “resolve.” They are philosophical facts of our existence which we have been forced by circumstance to engage.

The frightening fact of our situation is that we rightly sense how truly alone we are, and how utterly incompetent we are at being alone.

These raise issues of self-honesty that may require us to be painfully critical of our current life choices. It may require us to face realities we hate about ourselves—or hate about Christianity, or the church, or God. And that requires more from us than most therapists or pastors are equipped to supply.

The frightening fact of our situation is that we rightly sense how truly alone we are, and how utterly incompetent we are at being alone. But there is a real path out of that incompetence. And it is found in our impulses to doubt, to question, to win, and to overcome—it is found in our masculine compulsion to take ownership for advancing our own maturity.  

2. They resist one another because they each require competing paths for their resolution.

Once we decide to face these realities, we must be critical about them. What are they, and what is the best way of being them? We must begin with the fact that we have likely already chosen one over the other two—masculinity over faith and trauma, for example. Do we tend in our identity to act as a man, as a believer, or as a survivor?

They all contain truths about one’s identity that impel different instincts. The man taps into his aggression, the believer taps into his agreeableness, and the survivor taps into his self-care. It’s almost impossible to begin by facing all three at the same time. This mitigates against facing any of them.

3. The words, strategies, and end goals for facing each one are not obvious.

How do they actually affect one another? What is the unified end-goal to which they all contribute in their fullest and best forms? What exactly can we get out of our trauma, or faith, or masculinity? And what are they? And how do we need to understand and utilize them? And where can they help us get practically? What can they help us to overcome? And how? And are they really the best avenues for overcoming those things?

Here are a few examples:

  • “I want to be able to regulate my unwanted emotions, to make decisions based on reason rather than those unwanted emotions.”

  • “I want to live my life fully conscious, with the ability to shape my life through taking action, without being inhibited by my past.”

  • “I want to be able to choose not to drink the alcohol if I know I shouldn’t drink it.”

  • “I want to be able to make choices that are hard when they feel impossible in the moment.”

How do you accomplish goals like that when they are to some degree tangled up with an entire archeology of habits, behaviors, feelings, and patterns that have your trauma imprinted on them everywhere? Do you have to resolve the trauma before you can acquire a sense of moral power and agency? Do you have to fix your doubts about God and legitimate misgivings about Christianity in order to be a good person?     

4. We perceive most other people as too careless or ignorant to helpfully engage these realities with us.

Most therapists and pastors are jackwagons who have a fetish for being at the top of a social dominance hierarchy. They usually think that issues of masculinity, faith, and trauma can be solved by a single strategy. In the same way, nonprofessionals (such as friends) either won’t know what to say or won’t understand what a traumatized man is going through.

What to Do with Masculinity, Faith, and Trauma

There are three things we can do with each of these three realities: Suppress, idolize, and own.

Most therapists and pastors are jackwagons who have a fetish for being at the top of a social dominance hierarchy.

How we relate to these realities shapes how we relate to the other realities. How a man chooses to face himself as a man, how he chooses to face God, and how he chooses to face his own trauma, will refract into every single area of his life. The reluctance to act is itself a choice—likely one of suppression. The “route” forward is not clear based on the considerations presented here.

However, the hope in outlining these issues is that by coming to terms with each of these three realities, we at the very least activate our existential GPS. No plan, strategy, tactic, therapist, or pastor will be able to help engage any of these realities meaningfully without a sense of where you are starting. The present outline is intended merely to supply a few categories for diagnosing why it is we keep getting lost.

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[1] After the Civil War, Georgian Presbyterian minister John Jones wrote that he was “brokenhearted, and tempted sometimes to rebel and then to give up in hopeless despair.” John Jones to Mrs. Mary Jones, August 21, 1865, in Manson Myers, ed. The Children of Pride: A True Story of Georgia and the Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972), 1292. Many men in the South lost their faith after the defeat of the Confederacy—the wound to their fabric of life, faith, and masculinity somehow entailed for them a loss of faith. The cause of the Confederacy was so inflated with divine fervor—with the myth of God’s favor toward the South—that the zeal produced by the union of the political and the theological was the coffin which nearly buried the spirituality of an entire generation of Southern men. See Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (Athens, GA: University of George Press, 2009; orig., 1980), 67.

[2] Judith Herman comments: “The study of psychological trauma has repeatedly led into realms of the unthinkable and floundered on fundamental questions of belief.” Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic, 1997), 7.

[3] In a sense, masculinity is nothing, in that every virtue one could use to distinguish great men could easily distinguish great women. In that sense, masculinity is simply taking ownership of one’s maturity in a male body. David G. Gilmore comments that while femininity is construed as a biological given associated with each woman, masculinity is rather something that culturally must be earned, sometimes “through … traumatic testing.” In fact, the adjectives used for men who do not advance their maturity assume a decline into femininity: “effeminate," "emasculated,” “effete,” and the like. See David D. Gilmore, Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), 11, 12.

[4] Carl Jung talks about the “seasons” of life, which each require different acts of bravery from men, and incline them to strive toward and struggle with different realities. There are four seasons, according to Jung, which are the Athlete Phase (self-absorbed, image-conscious), Warrior Phase (save the world, re-invent the self, fading vanity, concrete life-purpose such as family), Statement Phase (helping others, transcendent life-purpose such as God), and Spirit Phase (let go of material possessions, cherish friends, family, and perhaps religious community above all). These four seasons aren’t determinative for Jung, but they are archetypal, meaning that even major deviations from this sequence make themselves known as deviations, and acceptance of each stage supplies harmonious order to the chaos of inner life. See Carl Jung, “The Stages of Life,” in The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell (New York: Penguin, 1971), 3-22.

[5] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 3.2.6. Turretin proposes seven acts which constitute faith. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 562-563 (XV, q. 8). The seven categories are, summarized by Herman Bavinck: “knowledge, theoretical assent, fiducial and practical assent, taking refuge in Christ, reception of Christ or adhesion to him, reflexive act, consolation and confidence.” Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols., ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 4:113. See also Francesca Aran Murphy, Balázs M. Mezei and Kenneth Oakes, Illuminating Faith: An Invitation to Theology (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 48; Peter Lombard, Sentences, 4th ed., trans. Giulio Silano (Political Institutes of Medieval Studies), 37; Philip Melanchthon, Commonplaces, trans. Christian Preus (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing, 2014).

[6] The original writers who translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, creating the Septuagint, used the term “trauma” (τραυµα; τραυµατίας; τραυµατιζω) over 25 times. The lexeme is also used twice in the New Testament—both by Luke, a doctor (Luke 20:12; Acts 19:12).

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