by Russ Peterson:
Note: This is Part 4 of a multi-part post. Continued from Parts 1, 2 & 3 here, here and here.
The men’s movement has spawned a number of organizations dedicated to helping men reclaim an elemental wildness that is fundamental to grounded and mature masculinity. All of the groups with which I am familiar have something to offer, but the experience which has been by far the most meaningful to me has been the New Warrior Training Adventure, sponsored by the ManKind Project (MKP).6
In addition to being well versed in the work of Robert Bly and other literary luminaries, the founders of the ManKind Project were acutely aware of the aforementioned loss of traditions by which mature masculinity had always been passed from one generation to another. For example, prior to the Industrial Revolution, it was commonplace for fathers to apprentice sons in their respective trades. Native Americans had the “vision quest,” by which young men found their place among the men of their tribe. Most cultures had rites of initiation, passage, or ascension through which young men attained status as men and after which they were expected to share the responsibilities of manhood with respect to the rest of the community.
These traditions and rites having been lost to modern society, young men have been left to find their own way in the world of men. To add insult to injury, many boys grow up in fatherless homes devoid of grounded and mature male role models. The results have been devastating for the rising generation of boys. They wonder how to socialize purposefully and respectfully with the opposite sex; they even struggle to navigate the world of men, especially as it is increasingly dysfunctional in its values and expectations. They often feel isolated and alone, and their failures manifest in violence, crime, and suicide.
MKP seeks to address these problems simultaneously by building a community of men into which men can be properly initiated. Borrowing from history, tradition, literature, and metaphor, the New Warrior Training Adventure (NWTA)7 consists of a weekend of rites and exercises by which men are both challenged and supported in creating connection and accountability to other men. They are challenged to identify and face their greatest fears, and they learn community as they watch others do the same. The whole process is one by which men are called to access wild and primitive forces that have long been dormant within them, and which, once properly awakened, can bestow to each man uncommon strength and vitality.
My initiation weekend was perhaps the single greatest personal revelation of my life. Not only did it create an authentic brotherhood I had long sought, but it did indeed awaken deep and primitive voices that I had always thought necessary to suppress. Furthermore, and more importantly, it affirmed my faith and provided insight into the divine I scarcely could have anticipated.
As a boy my view of Jesus was incomplete. I saw Jesus as the meek and humble man who would never be angry, but I never integrated that man with the Jesus who could use anger as an instrument of righteousness such as we have previously discussed. In my mind these existed as two separate beings.
My initiation weekend changed that. As with every participant, I was challenged to face my “shadow,” the dark parts of my psyche from which I had always turned away in fear or shame. I was challenged to bring these into the light for rigorous examination and, paradoxically, for the strength they could provide.
By so doing, I gained a supernal insight into the nature and majesty of God, who does something very similar to what I was learning to do. Does God have a “shadow” that represents hidden elements of darkness? Definitely not, for the scriptures speak of God as a being “in whom there is no darkness at all.” Nor does God have anything to fear, for He is the embodiment of love, which “casteth out all fear.” That is not to say, however, that God doesn’t have a perfect understanding of both darkness and fear, because He does, and He uses both to accomplish His righteous purposes.
The scriptures are replete with examples of God’s capacity to comprehend darkness and manipulate it according to His will. During the war in heaven, Satan was cast out, and where was he sent? To earth, where he would later (not knowing the mind of God) tempt Adam and Eve, thus becoming an instrument whereby the conditions of mortality and its necessary probationary period were created.
The scriptures are likewise replete with examples of the wicked destroying the wicked. When the house of Israel is to be punished for disobedience, Isaiah describes God’s punishment as shaving “with a razor that is hired” (Isaiah 7:20). In other words, God turns one wicked people against another. Recall, for example, His punishment of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. Apparently God didn’t like to destroy the Nephites, so He usually got the Lamanites to do it instead.
While the righteous are called to unite under a single banner, there is no organizing principle or saving covenant around which the wicked can gather. Indeed, the ultimate end of the wicked is described in Ether 13:25, where “every man [was] with his band fighting for that which he desired.” The wicked may gain power for a time, but ultimately the Lord will turn them against each other. He is master of both light and darkness.
Finally, God is capable of irrational behavior in the service of righteousness, and in nothing is His “wildness” more evident. I’m speaking of the incomprehensible gift of the atonement, whereby God sacrificed a sinless Son to save children that were under the curse of a broken law and therefore did not deserve saving. Thus we see that God is not a being devoid of “body, parts, or passions”; rather He is a being perfectly possessed of all three. And it is precisely those passions that cause Him to act to save His children. Not only does He live, but He is alive and untamed. When He breathed the breath of life into the man Adam, it is clear that the body He had provided was after His own image, perfectly endowed not only with the intelligence of spirit, but also with the passions of the physical body. We learn in scripture that these two, combined, experience a fullness of joy and that without [that combination] there cannot be a fullness of joy (see D&C 93:33-34).
It has never been clearer that the doctrines of the Church regarding gender and related matters are provided for our instruction and salvation, especially as the world veers toward a future where gender is supposed to become irrelevant. But God doesn’t ignore gender; He treasures it as a fundamental part of individual identity and purpose. The scriptures teach that “justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own,”8 and that “…neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:11). This pattern neither had its origin in mortality, nor will it cease in the hereafter. It is fundamental to physical and spiritual life, and its essence has been captured by every major spiritual tradition since the beginning.
What of those who wrestle with same-sex attraction, gender identity conflict, and related challenges? We love them and want them to journey with us toward Zion. We seek to bear their burdens as they have frequently been saddled with ours. Most importantly, we pursue discipleship as we balance compassion and mercy for the individual with the justice and safety inherent in the law. This was considered in a previous article, “Gender Incongruence and the LDS Church: Frontier of Understanding.”
Essential Wildness and Eternal Potential
I conclude by invoking a metaphor to illustrate the connection between essential wildness and eternal potential.
Those who know horses understand that if a horse’s will must be broken before it can be useful, it will ever after be useful only as a service animal. The utility of a horse is found in its capacity for obedience, but its magnificence is found in its spirit—in its indomitable will.
Horse “breaking,” therefore, proceeds according to two vastly different paradigms. Some trainers have as their goal the establishment of dominance over the animal, and when this is the case there are few practices they will not employ in service of that goal. Training is complete when the animal, by virtue of its broken will, becomes unvaryingly obedient. At that point it has been “tamed.”
The best horse trainers take a different approach: they may demonstrate dominance, but they build the trust of the animal such that the horse can submit to its master of its own volition, thus retaining its essential wildness, including a capacity for dominion in due course. The horse thus trained is able to demonstrate obedience, but the obedience comes from a different place and for entirely different reasons than the horse whose will is purposely and externally broken.
There are striking parallels in the gospel context. Those who fail to lay claim on the Savior’s atonement through repentance must suffer even as He did, but to an altogether different effect. Their suffering is mandatory to recompense a broken law. It results not in eternal life, but in subjugation to the law of the kingdom in which the disobedient will eventually serve, and by which they will ultimately be tamed.
The Savior’s suffering and atoning sacrifice couldn’t have been more different; it was not required because of anything He had done wrong. Rather, it was wholly voluntary. In demonstrating submission to His Father’s will, the Savior retained His essential wildness and demonstrated His capacity for all the might, majesty, power, and dominion His Father had to bestow on Him. His was an ultimate and eternal victory, to which we may also lay claim when we voluntarily surrender the one thing God will never take from us: our will. In so doing, we retain essential wildness and are prepared to rule with Christ in His kingdom.
The future God wants for us as His children centers on understanding the kind of life He leads (“eternal” life). As we understand it, this existence includes the organization of the genders into eternal family relationships. We refer to the government of God as a “kingdom,” and we find our place in that kingdom as we learn to live according to the principles He has prescribed for our happiness. Neither the Church nor its leaders have ever represented the government of heaven as a democracy wherein each inhabitant can define or set the parameters of existence. That would be chaos; God’s kingdom is one of unity and order.
The order of heaven is increasingly unfamiliar to the inhabitants of earth. But that hasn’t stopped it from being the law by which the Church—and, we suppose, the universe—is governed. As we seek to make ourselves fit for the kingdom of heaven, let all of us who dwell below bear in mind the following principles:
- Gender is fundamental both to eternal identity and purpose. According to divine design, male and female are meant to complement each other and together form a whole more complete than the sum of the parts.
- Men and women are different. This is true in terms of biology and physiology, emotional constitution, and in terms of the capacities uniquely suited to each sex. This is also true regardless of how much we might ignore it or how much we might wish it wasn’t so.
- For all its intellectual and political appeal, the notion of gender sameness contravenes basic principles of human biology as well as eternal verities.
- The genders don’t have to be at war with each other; the extent to which they are speaks to a thirst for power that is increasingly endemic to society.
- Men have something to offer the world and need not apologize for wanting to lead and protect, especially when their actions are grounded and guided by principle.
- Emotions are shared between God and His children. They aren’t meant to be put off, repressed, or overcome, but governed and subsequently employed in the service of righteousness.
- Conflict is a necessary and eternal part of existence; it is not to be confused with the spirit of contention, which constitutes an appetite or desire for conflict.
- Tame behavior is not necessarily an indication of righteousness, nor is anger an automatic indication of wickedness.
- Submission of one’s own will to Deity does not constitute being “tamed.” It paradoxically preserves an individual’s capacity for wildness.
- The Church is meant to be a light to the world, and nowhere is this more evident or important than in its teachings regarding gender, family, and the sanctity of human life.
I want to be like that.
(to be published in full tomorrow) ...
6 Another venerable institution with roots in the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement is the Minnesota Men’s Conference, established by Robert Bly in 1984. See http://www.minnesotamensconference.com/.
7 See http://mankindproject.org/new-warrior-training-adventure.
8 Alma 42:24.
Russ Peterson grew up in Idaho Falls, Idaho and is an avid outdoorsman with interests ranging from astronomy to wilderness survival. When not camping or backpacking, Russ is a mental health counselor with interests in gender and suicide prevention. He lives in the Intermountain area and enjoys spending time with his five children. Reach him at rhpeterson <at> gmail dot com.