“For you have made him a little lower than the angels, and have crowned him with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5).
Men have a natural desire to rule, to have dominion. Despite petty quips to the contrary, masculine dominion is not domination – it is service. To be manly is to be fatherly, to be fatherly is to not only plant the seeds of life, but to bring them up to maturity. Your life, in fact, is spent for that end. Aquinas said this is fundamentally why God is Father, because He plants and perfects life. Adam was given the command to have dominion over the garden, and to this day man has within his vocation the call to cultivate his world around him.
To have dominion over things in a fatherly and godly way is to bring them to maturity by respecting their created nature. This means we work within the limits and framework that the Creator planted in the thing. For example, a tree is well pruned when it’s natural shape and nature is augmented. A grapevine is well pruned when it produces more fruit than if it was not pruned. A child is well raised when he flourishes as a human, whose end is happiness and ultimately God.
We can see here the humility of true dominion, because it first acknowledges that it is not the author of nature itself, but a steward of it. Man’s dominion is always a subordinate and “co” dominion with and in God. To reverence the nature of a thing is to reverence the Creator of it. From Adam who worked an already perfect garden to Jesus who lowers Himself to raise up those He has full rule over, perfected masculine dominion is holy, tender, and humble, even as it exercises its power.
This is completely different from the dominating tendency of modern industrialism and the “global economy”, which forces into servile submission the nature of every piece of the machine so that the machine itself runs smoothly, regardless of the persons and things involved. This is not the “dominion” I am speaking of, that is domination. Such domination’s goal is more, higher, and bigger, not the perfection and flourishing of the nature of a thing. True dominion uses the machine to help the person or thing flourish; domination uses the person or thing to make the machine flourish.
This is why we speak of man as a co-creator with God. God plants Adam in the garden and Adam continues the work God began in creation through his cultivation of the world around him. That world is intelligible (can be understood, has meaning), and he knows that he is both part of that world as a creature, but also above it as man, the crown of creation. We do not gain that crown by dominating our fellow creatures and the world itself, but we share God’s dominion humbly because He crowned us with glory and honor. “Man derives his greatness from the fact that he is a creature” (Cardinal Schonborn, Man, the Image of God, 33).
Bringing it Home
Your home and whatever little bit of earth that surrounds it is your garden of Eden. Traditionally the home was the center of economy, work, and the very rhythms of life – the place and means to exercise dominion. Now we have to fight just to have everyone there at the same time. But on top of that, the technologies that animate the modern life have such complexity and arch-presence, that they fail to be a means of home-centered work. Let me explain…
Tools are a wonderful sign of human ingenuity and intelligence. Man uses tools to accomplish the tasks of his dominion and to connect to his world. Think of Joseph’s hammer, Moses’ staff, and David’s sling. We harness the capacity of materials to help us in our pursuit of sustenance and happiness, and through our vocation as men they help us bring glory to God.
The physical nature of work, including the use of tools, puts us in contact with reality and the transcendent world – we grasp the order of the world a bit more when we grasp the handle of a tool. Tools should connect us to the real world and are the very things we use to “bring to perfection” the created nature of the world around us. The pruning shears, for example, are a means used by the vinedresser to make the vine more fruitful. But, as tools and work disappear from use and we become more a part of the world of information, data, and computers, we tend to move away from the direct contact with the world that tools bring. The paintbrush hanging from a painter’s pants, or a sword in the scabbard for that matter, is not the same thing as a smartphone on the belt.
When our tools become impossible to live without yet impossible to fix or adjust (basically when we don’t work with our hands and only do “work” through things like computers) we lose our dominion and become dominated by the tools themselves. As the philosopher and motorcycle mechanic (a recipe for wisdom) Matthew B. Crawford put it while reflecting on smart technology and the eclipse of true tools:
A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: more passive and more dependent. (Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft, 2).
The difference between technology in the form of tools and modern technology in the form of data, amusement, and computing is the difference between exercising dominion versus being passively receptive and dependent on something (i.e. it has a greater dominion over you than you over it). The passive reception of the “tools” of smart technology has drastically different effects on our very presence in the world around us. For example, I have been with men that cannot get around their own city without GPS dictating every move – even after living there for years! On the other hand, if you use the tool of a map to come to an understanding of your bearings, your destination, and how to bring those two together, you come to an awareness of the place and how to maneuver it – you gain a freedom and dominion that you don’t have with GPS.
Crawford later points out that the rise of agrarians and tradesman (think backyard chickens and furniture building) among younger generations is a sign that we “want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it” (ibid. 8, emphasis added). To understand an intelligible world and to be responsible for it – that’s dominion. When we lose that, we lose a bit of who we were created to be – an important bit at that.
This is why it is so essential that there be some home-based activity that involves tools, responsibility, and the exercise of a masculine dominion. And again, dominion is humble service and in this case it is usually the father’s humble service to his family. To change your van’s oil, plant a garden, or fix the water heater is to enjoy and fulfill your manhood and your fatherhood. Your home, after all, is your domain, your castle. Be a good ruler in your kingdom as you serve those whom are “under” you.
If you lack the skill and experience to use tools – learn to! The very act is one of humility. Work at the service of others is essentially humble anyway. There is no room in the Christian ethos to come at this as a way to “prove” your masculinity, or to create it out of thin air. Do not feel inferior, but feel the humility you need anyway to begin the journey to learning these skills. The gift of masculinity is just that, a gift, and it must be received. Find a mentor, do some research, and start small. I can’t promise that you will become a master craftsman, but engaging in the work will help you be more of the man God made you to be. And if you are anything like me, walking into the tool isle at the hardware store will stir the soul itself, and for good reason.