Lastest review of Numen, Old Men

A reasonable review of Numen, Old Men in the British Association for the Study of Religions Bulletin (No. 115, 2009, p. 20):

This book is an insightful and useful work particularly suited to our emerging postdualist times. In it Gelfer explores the spectrum of ideas related to male spirituality and concludes that most previous views and theories have, even if attempting to break free of what he called our ‘heteronormative’ attitudes, been stuck in patriarchy. His arguments for this are extensive and convincing, even suggesting (as per David Tacey) that Jungian archetypes have more to do with social conditioning into patriarchy than any underlying divine trait.

Chapters and themes includes ‘The Mythopoetic Movement’, ‘The Evangelical Men’s Movement’, ‘The Catholic Men’s Movement’, ‘Integral or Muscular Spirituality’ and ‘Gay Spirituality’. From analysis of all these views of ‘spirituality for men’ (my phrase), only ‘queer theology’, he argues, offers any hope of breaking free of patriarchal influences: because it encourages its proponents to question what is normal.

Whilst extensively referenced (as one would expect, this book being based on Gelfer’s PhD thesis), a few more ‘real-life’ examples of the theories and ideas discussed might have been useful: We can probably guess what is meant by ‘heteronormative’, but what is normal for each of us, particularly in areas concerned with spirituality or with sexuality, depends greatly on our personal upbringing. Likewise his widely used word ‘mythopoetic’. But such a criticism merely highlights the key point of this book: much of what has been written on male/masculine spirituality is based on tired theory: it bears little relation to what men think and feel, and even less in relation to what they need to think and feel in order to feel whole, spiritual and ‘real men’.

On page 156 we read: “sexual difference charts the difference not between man and woman … but person and person” (his italics). Far more, I would suggest, could have been made of this key point: is not being a spiritual being about allowing the divine to live in and through us as unique beings? Isn’t spirituality about being true to the ‘here and now’ rather than any defined idea of sexuality? The author unfortunately fails to consider these questions. Likewise, both sexuality and spirituality, when ‘unpacked’, would seem to relate to a significant degree to love: to human and divine love respectively. Thus one would expect a discourse on spirituality in the context of sexuality to discuss love at some length; looking (for example) at the interrelationship and interplay between love of God and love of our ‘significant other’. Other than a brief mention of ‘agape’, however, this topic receives little attention.

Dr Gelfer’s key point is clear: despite many attempts to redefine ‘man’ in a spiritual sense, a predominant patriarchy continues to aggravate the expression and understanding of male spirituality. Minor criticisms aside, this book is eminently readable, well-structured and will provide food for thought to theologians, social scientists, therapist and counselors alike. Such interested parties may also be interested in the on-line journal that Gelfer has established and edits: Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality (

Keith Beasley

Bangor University

4 thoughts on “Lastest review of Numen, Old Men

  1. ah david tacey…another fave of mine…thankyou for reminding me, via this review.
    i am looking forward to finding the time to dip into numen old men.
    in the meantime i appreciate these posts coming my way.

    sara josephine

    1. I find Tacey a mixed bag. Primarily, I have problems with the way he sacralises everything in his framing of the “spirituality revolution”: this simultaneously denies a genuinely atheistic exploration of ultimate concerns (we have to allow for contemplation in non-spiritual terms) and dilutes spirituality to anything which implies a search for meaning (to me, it should contain at least a vague sense of a divine/supersensible reality).

  2. The book is great! And poignant. I am loving how you point out the classism that is endemic to the mythopoetic obsession with “the king”. This is what I felt strongly in both MKP and with Moore. And by saying it like: whiteness within: Accessing the Caucasian in the Male psyche further hits the mark. But Really in America we know racism exists but we ignore classism even if we are negatively effected by it.

    1. Thank you, sir.

      I’d actually forgotten the point about class and the King, which is a bit disturbing: it feeds well back in to my most recent article about the aspirational and capitalist economics behind LOHAS and its adoption of spirituality (should have cited myself there!).

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