Like some men do these days, I grew up with two fathers.
I wasn’t raised by two gay men, nor did my mom divorce one man and marry another. My parents have been married over forty years, and I had a pretty traditional family upbringing. But I still had two fathers.
My second father was not a human man. My second father was my religion, a small branch of protestant Christianity. For the first twenty-five years of my life, I lived in a religious household, attended church twice weekly, and eventually went to both a religious high school and its affiliated college. So for pretty much all of my childhood, my idea of a father encapsulated both the man married to my mother (whom I called Dad) and a divine parent (whom I referred to as God, but often addressed as Father when praying). But since my human father was religious and taught me how to practice our religion from a young age, there was relatively little confusion between these two fathers. If anything, I viewed them as two sides of the same coin: one was human, one was divine, but both loved me and would take care of me.
As I grew from a boy to a man, my understanding of manhood developed within the teachings of this religion. That is to say, a large portion of what I was taught was founded on the concept that being a good man meant being a religious man. While my father encouraged me to pursue activities I loved, to stay active, and to work hard, most of the discussions we had about manhood and growing up took place in a religious context. Faith in God and adherence to the teachings of the religion were what brought boys up into men.
As men went, my dad seemed like a pretty good role model: he was kind and caring to me, he clearly loved my mother and treated her very well, he worked hard at his job, he was smart and affable and well-liked, and he owed the development of those qualities and abilities to his religious practice and his relationship with God. As much as I could understand the idea of a role model at that young age, I could tell that my dad was a good one.
But around the same time I began to look at my human father as a man and a role model and not just as the person who was married to my mom and coached my after-school soccer teams, I also began to question my religion.
Like many branches of Christianity, the one I grew up in was very rules-heavy. The rules of my branch, however, were much stricter and more intensive than most. In addition to the usual complement of rules preventing smoking, drinking, drugs, and premarital sex, there were also rules of radical reliance on prayer as the solution to every possible problem. Following the examples of Biblical notables who healed people, defeated armies, raised the dead and defied the laws of physics through the prayer of absolute faith, members of my religion were and are required to abstain from all material medicine and counsel, trusting all to God and surrendering even our own thoughts and opinions to prayer and faith.
As a young man raised in that religion, I wanted very badly to be a good practitioner and live by these rules. But as a young man struggling with a number of physical and social issues, I felt that unquestioningly following impersonal rules was not the answer to my problems. And as I grew older and my increasingly desperate prayers did not solve or heal these issues, I began to wonder if practicing the religion in which I’d been raised was really helping me at all. My study of the religion’s teachings brought me story after story of how relying on the divine Father had saved and protected people from physical, mental, and emotional maladies. But since I was feeling neither saved nor protected, I came to the following conclusions: either divine protection and healing were meant for everyone but me, or whatever I was supposed to do in order to receive them was impossible or impractical for me to do. Because of these unsettling questions about my religion, the idea of a protective divine Father was losing credibility fast.
Trouble was, when I wanted to talk to my human father about manhood or even selfhood, let alone how to fix the issues which by now had dogged me for several years, the solutions he offered were invariably tied up with religious practice. Pray harder, dig deeper into the Bible and other religious texts, let go of myself more, trust the divine Father, etc.
I tried. For years I tried. But I couldn’t do it. And not only that, I found I didn’t want to do it. Ultimately, I was happier without this religion than I ever had been with it.
The more I began to understand how wrong for me this religion was, the more I began to see my divine Father as a neglectful or even abusive parent. While I never doubted that my human father loved me, I found myself resenting him for endorsing and representing a divine parent that seemed to care more about rules and rote study than about how much my heart and soul hurt. But because all of the other men in my life were also part of this religion, I had no other real role models to look to.
As I grew further into my understanding of manhood, I also began finding gaps in what my human father had taught me.
- I knew how to be a kind and sensitive man, but I also I wanted to be an assertive, confident man, and I had no idea how.
- I knew how to be a loving and caring man, but I also wanted to be a sexual man, and I didn’t know where to start.
- I knew how to be a hardworking and diligent man, but I also wanted to be a successful and wealthy man, and I was lost.
- I wanted to understand and love myself as I was, imperfections and all, rather than some abstract spiritual person I was supposed to become, and I had no frame of reference.
Most of what I’ve learned on these topics, I ended up learning either from trial and error, or from other male role models I eventually found outside of my family and my former religion. Most recently I’ve been very grateful for men like Mike Hrostoski, whose writings attracted me to a kind of manhood I really want to embody, and whose Conference For Men put me in touch with many highly conscious, supportive, and inspiring men—several of whom are role models for me now, and I for them.
But before I discovered Mike’s work or attended the Conference For Men, I spent several years in paternal limbo. I was moving further away from my religion by the day, eventually separating from it entirely. But I still loved my human father, and knew on some level I didn’t want to give up on our relationship.
Fortunately for me, neither did he.
It took a long time. There were a lot of frank and honest discussions. There were many times we had to agree to disagree. There were tears on both sides. And we’ve both had to accept our religious differences. But the more I got to know my father as a man and an equal, rather than an authority figure or a representation of a divine parent, the more I’ve begun to realize that he is even more of a role model than I thought he was as a kid. He’s still kind and caring and affable and pious, sure. But I’ve gotten to learn about sides of him I never knew of before.
When my dad isn’t being a thoughtful husband, parent, and dog walker, he’s a hardnosed and tenacious businessman who can stand up to the angriest negotiators without breaking a sweat. While he’s only been sexually intimate with one woman in his life, he’s built a sex life with her over forty years together that most pickup artists could only dream of. Though his confidence does have religious underpinnings, it’s also based in the fact that he absolutely knows who he is, and loves being that person. And he’s given as much blood, sweat and tears to reclaim his son as I have to reclaim my father.
In short, he’s a man I’m proud to call a role model, a father, and a friend. And I am grateful that by moving away from the idea of a divine father, I was ultimately able to move closer to my human one.
By James Ranson | www.heldforranson.com