By Helena J. Sturnick, PhD, Contributing Writer
Have you heard the term, “Muscular Christianity” before? The movement began in the mid-19th century in England and then spread to America, a reaction by some cultural leaders who feared that religion had diminished its moral power by the feminizing of faith and good works. The antidote, its adherents believed, was to emphasize “primal” masculinity, virile virtues, masculine language, and—as Teddy Roosevelt declaimed—to maintain “the barbarian virtues.” Perhaps those words don’t make you chuckle, but the fierce seriousness sure does give me pause.
Although this article intends to focus on Spirituality more broadly than the narrower aspirations of Muscular Christianity, that movement offers us a sense of how urgent was their cultural need to represent Strength and Action Principles as superseding gentleness and passivity. How compelling was the need to find a new way to define the intensity of faith! Spirituality is not weak was the subliminal 19th Century message.
Masculinized Faith and Social Reform, 1850-2018
Why did the American and English Christians hold this viewpoint? Because they believed, right or wrong, that vigorous faith had diminished over the centuries. It is not too strong to say that they perceived the powerful faith of the Crusades had dissipated into a domesticized Christianity. The mysticism of the middle Ages, so the thinking went, had feminized faith, making it softer and gentler—much to the detriment of contemporary religion. The robust Victorian male leadership determined to create images of God, Church, Congregants and every aspect of the ministry which were vigorous. The impact of the masculinist leaders was felt mainly in the institutionalized church, especially in the pathways of Christianity.
Not all aspects of Muscular Christianity, however, were presented so crudely. Not only Roosevelt, but Social reformers like Jacob Riis, Charles Putney, and Charles Kingsley, expanded the messages of Muscular Christianity to include the “Social Gospel” movements: that is, to call for a wide array of social justice reforms, to support child labor law reform, to develop strategies for the eradication of poverty, to expand and improve education, and to implement other social reforms. These proponents believed, consciously and unconsciously, that human spiritual evolution (in this case, Christianity) could not happen on the backs of spiritual weaklings.
Defense of Faith: Expressions of Muscular Christianity
Whether we are aware of it or not, these philosophies were a major factor in the 19th and 20 century churches’ definition of the perceived dichotomy of the feminized Christian church and the masculine Christian church. These are not simply philosophies. They are an ethos, an ethical platform for perceptions of our modern faith-based institutions and the manner in which defense of faith is presented. Such thinking further plays a role in our contemporary efforts to attract male congregants through an emphasis on sport, athleticism, and brotherhood organizations. Even the image of Jesus comes under scrutiny; see, for example, Jenkin L. Jones’ “The Manliness of Christ.”
There is neither time nor space to discuss how this affected gender and the rights of women. Not until the 1970’s were strong women’s voices effectively raised in America and England to promote Feminist spirituality (which included Goddesses and witches).
Reshaping Muscular Faith Today
Not merely a 19th century phenomenon, the ideas of muscular Christianity have been reshaped by church leaders and some theologians in recent decades. Yes, there are still Churches that sponsor fighters and fight events and “fight pastors,” as well as athletic teams and training, and exercise ministries (churchfitness.com). However, “Spiritual Strength Training” is now considered part of one’s whole spiritual practice. Women, as well as men and children, participate in physical training which strengthen the whole self—“Whole-Hearted engagement”—in order to perform not just physically, but spiritually, at peak performance levels. ”Spiritual Fitness” is the phrase of the day, encouraging participants not only to push themselves beyond physical limitations, but to go beyond cultural limitations as well. Exercise the body in order to train the mind, the soul, and the heart. Popular books by Robert Lundin McNamara, for example, are useful resources here. And the American Council on Exercise named faith based fitness one of the Top Trends of 2016.
The Fully Engaged Spiritual Self
Implicit in this important history is a perhaps fearful reframing of faith with the question, “Is Spirituality Weak?” Of course it cannot be. For if it is, then wherein lies our strength? (American men, according to a recent editorial in the NY Times [April 1, 2018], have separated themselves from the controversy by being “twice as likely as women to call themselves atheists.”)
There are many answers, I believe, to the above queries. Moreover, the array of responses are not defined by gender or cultural limitations. They lie within us as we explore our inner selves’ potential to become fully human by discovering the fully engaged spiritual self. These profound matters of morality and faith are given clarity and strength by actions taken by each of us as we develop the following spiritual strengths and practices. None of these will surprise you. They may, however, reinforce the insights you already have.
Aspects of Spiritual Strength for Modern Believers
Know yourself is a truth at least as old as the ancient Greeks. Faith, Belief, are the products of a rich inner life, one in which discovery and nourishing of the true Self are how we come to know the Divine. The Universal Spirit which is within each of us is both universal and specific to our own natures. The Great Intelligence surrounds us, while it also distinguishes our unique presence in the world. The God seed within our hearts is the beginning and end of all knowledge (as Spirit tells us, “I am the Alpha and the Omega”). As we seek to dwell mindfully within, we learn our heart’s realities; we learn to comprehend and to feel the authentic pulse of that unconditional love which animates the universe. As we allow ourselves to be genuine and real, we become intrinsic to Spirit’s purpose for us in the world. We are then congruent with the Divine. Lacking this self-knowledge, we are ciphers, rather than souls.
It is easy to acknowledge our strengths—they allow us to celebrate our place in the world. Yet, to acknowledge our weaknesses is painful. It means that no matter how hard we try, we are rough drafts, a work in progress, a long way from perfection. Nevertheless, the strengths and the weaknesses, the good and the bad, the powerful and the powerless are all aspects of our authenticity. The polarities are real, and they can be reconciled within ourselves. It is not Chaos, but Spiritual Unity, that Universal Spirit intends for each of us.
Therefore, accept yourself as you are. Universal Spirit does, completely without judgment. So take a leaf from God/dess: accept others too without judgment. Each of us is here to develop our higher consciousness so that we may serve goodness. And sometimes, that action is electrically challenging. Let yourself be shocked alive by the discoveries you encounter about yourself and others. If you don’t accept yourself, then no one else can either. God-Force, on the other hand, embraces us all.
Cherish your uniqueness, as the Divine cherishes it. The mission and temperament you bring to this earthly life change the vibrational energy of each day. You are, then, not only the creator of your own life, but you help the Universal Divine create the world anew every day. Over a billion human beings exist, yet you are the only you. There is no replication of your heart’s identity, only the singular consciousness which is yours alone. The power in that statement is incalculable, if you dare to embrace it. Remember Joseph Campbell’s statement: “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”
Do not be an imposter; the world is already filled with enough of them.
Practice gratitude. Make your daily gratitude lists, join the millions of other human doing the same thing. Yes, being unique is sweet. Yet sometimes there is strength in practicing a Universal ritual of thanksgiving. Comfort without end may exist in spiritual communities.
Forgive. The power of releasing grievances is cleansing. As we learn from Universal Spirit and our divine teachers, when we release s grievance or a heartache, we make room in our lives for greater good to enter our hearts and souls.
Have faith. As we know from the brilliant lessons of Alcoholics Anonymous, we restrain our egos by accepting that there is always and forever a power greater than ourselves.
Each of us has days when we feel weak, and we think too many funky thoughts. Each of us has days where, if we have to make one more gratitude list or define our character strengths and weaknesses one more time, we’ll jump off the nearest bridge. Some days we don’t want to concentrate on spiritual development—we simply want to be, with nothing more expected of us than the joy or the stillness of the moment. Honor those days too.
Spirituality is never weak. Infused with the boundless power of Universal Creation, It is in the strength of our beliefs, in every breath we take, and in every loving impulse we share with other human beings across the Universe.
Dr. Helena Judith Sturnick is a trained scholar, published author, university professor, national and international leadership coach, and global speaker. She’s earned a reputation for practical and creative leadership, and for speaking about the spiritual side of leadership. This reputation has accompanied Dr. Sturnick as the transformational president of five colleges and universities, a Vice President at the American Council on Education (ACE), and the Director of the Office of Women in Washington, DC, as well as into her newest venture as the author of Fire in the Soul: Finding the Divinity Within Each of Us. During her career, she also received two honorary doctorates, as well as numerous national and international leadership awards.