What is Man?

Having explored the question “What is woman?” in my last column (July 9), it seems only reasonable to follow up, now, with the question of man. In asking about man, however, we quickly discover an interpretive problem that didn’t arise in asking about woman. In the case of “man” we have to clarify whether we are referring to the human in general (“what is man that you are mindful of him”) or man as a specific sexed/gendered being different from woman. 

My interest is in the latter question – man as a specific sexed/gendered being. But this interpretive problem already points to an important issue in any conversation about the identity of man/men. Specifically, that for most of history man has been defined as representative of the human. To speak of men was to speak of the human, and vice versa. At one level, of course, this has been no burden since it has meant a privileging of men’s lives and experiences. Yet it is a kind of burden since man must now learn to be himself without also being the measure of the human. 

Written in the body
Man is what my son is becoming as he learns to play the flute, forgets to shower after a soccer game, studies for an English exam, or talks and argues with his sisters. In these things and many others he is sorting out what he cares about, what he enjoys, what he finds difficult and what matters to him (or doesn’t). And in all of this we, his parents, encourage him to seek the way and service of the risen Jesus, since we believe that his identity and ours are found in Jesus.

Man is what he is becoming also as he inhabits a particular body – as his voice breaks, and he goes from being an alto in the choir to being . . . well, his body will soon tell him whether he is a tenor or bass. In becoming a man, he also faces the question of what it means that he has received this particular body; one through which particular kinds of intimacy and relationships (including fatherhood) are possible. As we said with woman (woman ≠ mother) so we must say with man (man ≠ father). Yet to become a man is to acknowledge and respond to this possibility written in the body.

My son is becoming a man, and will live as a man, in a context that has almost nothing to tell him about what a man is (though our culture has definite ideas about what a man should not be). He is also becoming a man in a culture that continues to privilege the male in important ways, but in which there is also real suspicion of, or antipathy toward, men. He will have to become himself, in this confusing landscape, with grace, humility and courage – attending to his own self, body and gifts as he does so.

Hidden with Christ
I also am a man, though I find there is little I can say about what this means. However, if the concept of “man” is to have any meaning at all, perhaps we must say at least two things: that it entails the particularity of the male body, and that man’s being and becoming is in relation to one (woman) who is distinct from him and autonomous in her becoming. That is, neither man nor woman is the human, but we are the human as these two, together with the not-insignificant number of persons whose received embodiment does not fit typical definitions of the male or female body.

In these few paragraphs I have said both a great deal and also almost nothing at all: We can say that man is, but we cannot say much of what he is or might become. I’d venture that the most important thing to be said about man, and to each man, is along these lines: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God. Become the man you are in his compassion, joy, strength and service.” What more important thing could be said? 

  • Roland De Vries is Director of Pastoral Studies at The Presbyterian College, Montreal, and a Lecturer in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University. He teaches in a variety of areas including Missional Theology, Reformed Tradition, and Global Christianity. He also has a keen interest in explorations at the point of intersection between church and culture. Roland and his wife Rebecca live in Montreal with their three children.

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