Rebuilding Men with Symbolism after the Desolation

Paul Lloyd RobsonSymbolic World Icon
November 7, 2023

By the rivers of Babylon,

There we sat down and wept,

When we remembered Zion.

Psalm 137:1    

Imagine being a member of a people, taken captive by a hostile, foreign state, having the fabric of one’s life shredded, one’s family, friends, sports clubs, associations, political parties, all other intermediary institutions forbidden from meeting, and then forced to live under the bureaucratic control of the alien power.

Many men and women are increasingly experiencing this situation symbolically as a result of feminism’s monopoly on the mainstream understanding of gender identity. The popular formulation of feminism’s explicit goal is to “smash the patriarchy”. A fundamental assumption underlying much of the content in mainstream media can be formulated more or less in the following manner: Patriarchy = tyranny + oppression. Anyone who questions this formula is labelled as a bigot and sexist.

As a result, it is not easy today to find anyone who is willing to speak openly about the natural and beneficial aspects of male protection, provision and leadership. Young boys are increasingly lacking positive male role models as strong masculine figures are replaced by female, intersectional and transgendered characters. Men who do attempt to take a public stand against these changes are aggressively attacked, to the extent that the very word “strong man” has become a negative slur.

Those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia…

2 Chronicles 36:20

Increasingly, we are seeing attempts to create support cells to survive the exile. My job involves working for an organization that is making such an attempt. Maniphesto, an umbrella organisation in the men’s movement, is an explicit proponent of “virtuous patriarchy”1. Building on the analogy between our current situation and the story of the exiled Jews in Babylon, Maniphesto is determined to contribute to the efforts to return to and rebuild Jerusalem. This year’s EMG will take place August 5-8 in Denmark, and much of my engagement will be based on taking the Symbolic World project and injecting it into the men’s movement. Jonathan will be coming to join the event himself and will be delivering the keynote speech on the Saturday morning.

The Death, Burial and Resurrection of the Patriarchs

However, in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, King Cyrus issued a decree to rebuild this house of God.

Ezra 5:13

The theme of the 2021 EMG is “The Death of the Patriarchs”. This reflects the mainstream narrative of the need to “smash the patriarchy” and reject all forms of previous authority and structure, and to remake society in our own image. This narrative has captured the public sphere and it seems to thrive and gain more energy and momentum when people try to fight against it. So instead of doing that, we plan to accept it and live it out to its logical conclusion.

The Deluge by Francis Danby – also the image we are using for the poster for the European Men’s Gathering this year to symbolise the current state of society.

That is why the overall narrative structure of the EMG this year will correspond to a “Death, Burial and Resurrection”. Given our ambition to rebuild institutions and manhood for people from all backgrounds, we note specifically that the resurrection story is universal, and in no way a narrative on which Christians can claim to have a monopoly. The story of the phoenix rising from the ashes has passed from ancient Greek mythology and entered into the popular imagination. From our Scandinavian past, Odin is said to have thrown himself on his spear Gungnir in a kind of symbolic, ritual suicide before hanging himself on Yggdrasil, the tree of life, in order to gain knowledge of other worlds and be able to understand the runes. Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” is a modern attempt to summarize the repeating elements of all stories of heroes and reflects the very same pattern. And of course the buddhist idea of the wheel of samsara shows an eternal cycling through the realm of the humans, the gods and the realm of hell.

By modelling the EMG after this pattern, we are giving the participants the opportunity to participate in it. Anthropologist Rene Girard has described how the mob / scapegoating cycle of violence is a fundamental and inescapable aspect of all society2. The Christian narrative provides a way of neutralising the violence of this cycle, but not everybody is ready to sign up to a church to experience the ecclesiastical version of this. We have planned a journey which will transport every single man through the pain of a smaller death, allowing him to “re-see” and reinterpret the events of his own life, as happens when we are able to bury the past and put it behind us, and receive a new map of the territory through inspired resurrection, as well as an understanding of what is happening in society around us.

The Symbolism of Transformative events

The journey starts on Thursday the 5th August at a retreat center in the Danish countryside, far away from the city. The 140 attendees will have travelled from more than 25 different countries, but many of them will know at least some of the other men from previous events, and many will travel in groups together from their home countries.

A detailed liability form will be handed out and signed. It has little real legal value, but the ritual of signing over acts as a strong symbolic act of trust in the event organisers and a cutting off of the outside world. Normal rules do not apply here.  We will leave behind our normal identities and agree to a shared definition of and agreement on central principles for our time together, including confidentiality, respect, and taking responsibility for one’s self and experience. An opening ritual which breaks societal norms reinforces the sense of a separate, new temporal mode of being, and builds a sense of togetherness and shared communitas which will carry us through the next 4 days.3

On the first day, each man will be placed into a small “tribe” called a Core Team of the 10 men who live geographically closest to him together with one trained facilitator. This “tribe” has an important symbolic meaning, and will be the primary vehicle for navigating through the weekend and making sense of the journey. It will also be the most obvious connection point for him when he gets home after the event to ensure integration of what he has learned at the event.

Already on that first Thursday evening, we will start the work of re-orientating the participants towards the symbolic nature of reality. The first element of this is sharing the stories of their own lives up to this point. The team facilitators are trained by a symbolic storyteller 4 to help their participants clarify the concrete as well as symbolic elements of the story that they are living by using the structure of fairy story5.

Taking time to reorient and “re-view” one’s life as a story is a powerful and inspiring exercise. It starts with each man identifying himself as the main Character or the hero of his story. He symbolically represents himself as a mythical character, an animal or even an object. This could be the “exiled prince wandering in the desert”, a “wolf on the tundra”, or even “a seed in the forest”.

This “fairy tale” perspective enables them to see their story in a new light, full of enchantment. That perspective is strengthened even more when they are asked to identify the “Sacred Desire” of their Character — that which they are being called to an adventure, a holy grail to find or a task they need to achieve in order for everything else in life to be good — again represented through a symbol, such as climbing a mountain, rescuing a princess, or building a cathedral. This “Sacred Desire” serves as their personal call to adventure.

Ritualised Death

If Thursday is about setting up an understanding of a narrative structure, then Friday is intended  to get participants out of their comfort zone and more fully immersed in the narrative. Organizers of transformational events often refer to this as a means of getting participants into “liminal space”.

In anthropology, liminal space is a concept from the study of rite of passage events — ritualised events which are used to move participants from one state to another. Church confirmations, marriages and funerals are all rites of passage. Almost all societies have held specific rites of passage to mark the passage from boyhood to mature manhood. An industry for running “modern” Rites of Passage events for young men and their fathers has sprung up, and international authors and facilitators, such as Dr Arne Rubinstein 6, have travelled the world sharing this work.

In his work, Dr Arne takes up the theme from anthropologists Arnold van Gennep7, explaining that a rite of passage always has to include an element of death, pain or discomfort in order to induce an experience of liminal space. Sensory overload or deprivation, pain, hunger, temperature extremes and discomfort over prolonged periods of time are some of the most common approaches. This is the journey towards death. It is necessarily painful and there has to be resistance. It is Christ’s trial and carrying his cross to the crucifixion, being mocked and hated by the mob, experiencing betrayal. It is the journey down into the abyss, to the underworld, through the lands of Mordor. During this time, hierarchies can be reversed or dissolved, traditions and customs become doubted, and there is a general fluidity and malleability which will allow for new patterns to be established.

This is also the necessary training of the warrior. Humans automatically resort to a fear response of fight, flight or freeze when they are taken out of comfortable culture and put in a situation of facing direct uncompromising reality. A man who lives in comfort all his life will not know his warrior spirit or his power and will fight in an ineffectual and emotional manner. Or he will flee in cowardliness when he is needed. Or he will simply freeze. We want men to know their power and bring it under their conscious control. Not to stop feeling fear, but to act with purpose through that fear.

Returning to the allegory of the Jews after their return from Babalonian exile, Nehemiah 4:17 notes of the Jews rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem: “Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other.” This readiness to defend themselves reflects the same pattern which is required on the individual level for a restoration of the individual man. Given the desolation which has occured, a warrior must be attentive and prepared to defend against attack from forces that would hinder the return to strength.

The awakening of the warrior will be combined with each man identifying the tyrant in his own story, which is the unjust authority that is holding him back from his Sacred Desire. He will see the malevolent, selfish dragon sitting on his hoarded treasure. The anger that is normally kept under the surface will rise up and be felt. And expressed. Tribal loyalty and competition will play against each other. There will be a Bear and Bull. There will be a light king and a dark king. Food and drink could become scarce during the day. There may be betrayals. There will be a mob and there will be a scapegoat. Tribal effigies will be constructed and burnt to the ground. Each man will have an opportunity to feel his edge and establish his boundaries.

Finally, on the Friday evening, in a ritual setting, the gods of rebellion and patricide will be named and their stories told, the tyrannical patriarchs will be overthrown, stoned and burnt to make way for the new, and the journey to the underworld will be complete.

A New Symbolic World

And, as we stand on that cusp, we will pause. Stop, stand there, and notice. We broke down a wall. What is this like? We achieved what we had set out to do. We saw something that we hated, and we destroyed it. It was a success and we can celebrate. And as we stand there, in silence, and in rest, we will look at each other, and we will look at ourselves, towards our own hearts and our loved ones.

The story has reached a turning point and a new map of the territory has been revealed. There is a time of waiting, of making sense of things. As we move into Saturday, our Core Teams will again be the forum for finding meaning in the occurrences of the day before. The participants will continue to unfold their personal stories with each other, with each man identifying and sharing the concrete support and symbolic Divine Helper in his life. Is there a guiding star to orient towards? A compass which I can trust? Can I see the forces of light allied against the forces of darkness? Who are the shadowy creatures who have not yet revealed their true nature but hold a vital key for me? And is there an artifact which I have used before at a time when all other lights went out?

It is at this point, as the participants are at the event’s deepest point of “liminal space,” that Jonathan Pageau will take the stage and present to the audience a map for seeing the patterned nature of reality. This “Symbolic World” approach is based on a Christian cosmology, but with its simplicity and universality, it has proven to be a compelling perspective for people of all backgrounds, philosophies and religions. The prime message which we want the participants to understand, but also to experience, is that reality organizes itself around a narrative pattern.

Due to our science based culture and materialist conditioning, we have been blinded to the reality of narrative and its necessity in making sense of our own lives. This means that there is a gap between true reality and language, and we have found that this gap can be bridged most effectively through art. Helping others to break through limiting perceptual filters is the work of an artist. By presenting compelling stories and simple examples of pattern repetition and surprising participants by symbolically connecting levels which we intuitively recognize as being related, the arbitrariness and desolation of the religion of science is broken and a correct perspective on seeing material and abstract reality together is established.

Each man will consider where he needs to find forgiveness inside himself for others. And where he needs forgiveness from others for himself. He will have to weigh and consider the price that he must pay to move forward with his life. There are no shortcuts and there are no easy ways out. Reality must be faced. Alone, most of us would never have the courage to do it. But with the experience of standing with a “tribe” of brothers, men get a first hand experience of a fundamentally basic pattern of male responsibility and contribution. In the tribe, failing to take responsibility meant losing face in front of all the other men. But more than this, the very survival of the tribe was dependent on each member lifting their part and holding true to his integrity.

By creating rituals which draw on these tribal dynamics, we are able to connect men to a direct experience of this tribal reality. As described by Orthodox Archpriest and elder at the European Men’s Gathering, Fr Michael Butler, rituals in the men’s movement function as “a safe space for men to open their hearts, which creates an opportunity for a moment of grace and transformation, so that something new and wonderful can happen in our lives.” 8

Living Symbolism

So on the Saturday evening the participants will ritually and symbolically bury the one they killed on the Friday evening. And they will see him far more clearly than before. The tyrant father is now recognized for what he represented — the projection of the darkness of my own heart onto the world around me. I can withdraw the projections back into myself. Stop being afraid of all the shadows around me, and realise that they are merely shadows cast from the masks I place over my own heart. The real shadow that needs to be harnessed lives within and is a part of myself. Through a ritualized act of symbolic violence, this reality is incorporated into the individual man9.

And now, having put our fathers to rest, we will be able to fully experience a true rebirth, a resurrection of body, mind and soul. We are now ready to step out into a new world, where we are no longer the victims of circumstances beyond our control, but rather the synergistic mediators between the chaos of raw existence and the wisdom we have received. And importantly, each man is no longer an atomized individual, standing alone as a single tree in the desert, but an integrated part of the forest of existence and community, finding our contributive role and enjoying the shade, shelter, and nourishment of our community.

That is the story of the EMG this year, and the state we want to send the participants home with — a state of empowerment and inspiration. But not only that. We also want to send them home with the concrete connections with real men living in proximity to them, as well as a concrete plan of action to engage in men’s work, by starting a men’s group, bringing in members of their community, and then spreading the vision.

By connecting men and engaging them in men’s work, our ambition is no less than to disrupt the therapy and coaching industry, which, to put it bluntly, we see as having largely abandoned and failed men and boys. Much of modern psychotherapy is a product of an individualized and fragmented society of men who are separated from their tribe and therefore weak. No one benefits from weak men. Everyone benefits from strong men. We need more strong men. We men stand strongest when we are able to take our place as a contributing part of a team or community.

We see joint action through men’s work in the world as the optimal path right now to the betterment of men. By committing to shared goals with others and working towards them, men meet difficulties and create opportunities for growth. By building the strong relationships required from joint action, we create the network of support that we need to get through the tough times and face our shadows. Making stuff happen in the world is not easy. Men’s work is a space where men can ensure they are gathered around an explicit vision and purpose, and where they can try, fail, learn, and try again.

Finally, it should be mentioned, men’s work is not a goal in itself. Our communities benefit from being diverse and inclusive, and certainly from including men and women. Given the current political climate, however, and the attacks on masculinity and manhood we are seeing from the woke movement, there is a need for men to set themselves apart, meet other men and strengthen each other in our masculinity. To call each other to account, inspire each other, challenge each other, and face our fears. And to come back to our partners, our work, our communities and society with renewed strength and focus.

That is why we are members of men’s groups. That is why we do men’s work. That is why we are going to the European Men’s Gathering this August.

Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work. -Nehemiah 2: 17 – 18

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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  1. See Principle #7 in the 10 Principles of Maniphesto). As an Orthodox Christian and one of the co-founders, I base my work on a Christian cosmology. Together with the other co-founders and elders, who come from backgrounds as varied as Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Jungian psychoanalysis, we work intentionally to create space for diverse worldviews. We are centered around an international network of men’s groups, who meet every week and support each other in reaching their goals. We also host The European Men’s Gathering (EMG), where we meet once a year to expand our vision and deepen our collaboration.
  1. I have been following the Symbolic World videos since the early days of Jonathan’s conversations with Jordan Peterson, then increasingly following Jonathan personally since 2019, and speaking regularly with him since January 2021. In their last in discussion in March 2021, Jonathan Pageau compared Jordan Peterson to King Cyrus ((Peterson, Jordan. “The Perfect Mode of Being | Jonathan Pageau – Jordan B. Peterson Podcast S4 E8.” YouTube, March 2021
  2. Girard, Rene. 1977. Violence and the Sacred. Translated by Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press
  3. For a detailed analysis of how rituals and symbolism may be used in this manner as a key to understanding social structure and processes, see: Turner, Victor. 1969.‎ The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Routledge.
  4. storyteller Anna Conomos from is running a training program for all the team facilitators before the event
  5. Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in delving into the world of Færie: Tolkien, J.R.R. 1939. On Fairy-Stories.
  6. Rubinstein, Arne. 2015. The Making of Men: Raising boys to be happy, healthy and successful
  7. Gennep, Arnold van. 1909. Les rites de passage.)  and Victor Turner((Turner, Victor. 1969.‎
  8. See video on rituals at the 2020 EMG with Fr Michael:
  9. The theory behind this dynamic is detailed in: Maurice Bloch. 1991. Prey into Hunter – The Politics of Religious Experience. London School of Economics and Political Science
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