What testosterone levels can teach us about Christian living

A recent study found that men who spend three or more hours a day on childcare experience a drop in testosterone. When I first saw reports about this study, I wasn't sure what to make of it. Tweets on the subject seemed dominated by a “watch out, dudes” tone and the New York Times report opens with “This is probably not the news most fathers want to hear.” It proceeds to wax dramatic, saying that testosterone drops with each reading of "Goodnight Moon."

This all seemed a bit panicky to me, so I was relieved to find the interpretation sociologist Hugo Schweitzer offered on the website The Good Men Project. I was also struck by how much his perspective reflected my understanding of Christian faith formation.

Schweitzer writes that this research is great news for men because it means that being a good father doesn't require a man to fight his own body and its tendencies. While some seasons and events demand the aggression testosterone can promote, others do not, and our bodies adjust hormones to the kinds of behavior required. Men aren’t “hard wired” for aggression; the metaphor of “wiring” suggests a kind of permanence that this data denies. Instead, they are designed to respond appropriately to a variety of situations. Schweitzer doesn't point to the wisdom of our creator in making us so complex and flexible, but as Christians we can appreciate how much beauty and thoughtfulness is included in God’s design.

The abstract for the study also suggests that this testosterone drop might account for why partnered fathers tend to be healthier than single men. The authors call it a “likely explanation.” This suggests our bodies might actually be built to function better in response to a balance between seasons of aggression and seasons of nurturing.

This perspective on the data also reinforces my understanding of how Christian faith formation works. When we engage in the activities of the church - worship, prayer, service - we are shaping ourselves to be more the kinds of people God wants us to be. If spending time nurturing makes men more biologically inclined to nurture, it seems to follow that spending time in worship might also change us to be more inclined to worship. Many Christian traditions believe that a real, literal change takes place when we participate in sacraments like communion or baptism, though we disagree on how that change works. Given this research, it doesn't seem so outrageous to suggest that something material in us may change as we develop habits of devotion and a relationship with God.

This perspective is great news for Christian formation. It suggests that how we mold our behavior has an influence over what our bodies incline us to do. What a great gift God has given us for centuries by providing Christian practices to help form us closer to His image!

Bethany Keeley-Jonker is a blogger and PhD candidate in Communication at the University of Georgia. She is married to Justin and lives in Athens, Ga.

(Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.)

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Thanks for this article.

I feel compelled to note that the link between testosterone levels and aggression in men is not clear, though there seems to be a weak positive correlation (see, e.g., http://www.sciencedirect.com/s… ).  In fact, low testosterone is correlated with certain crimes (though I can’t recall the study that discusses that just now).

Nonetheless, it’s last two paragraphs that I find particularly interesting.  To me it is also wonderful and telling that all sorts of different actions reshape us in biochemical and neurological ways.  Some time ago I argued that social psychological biases are perhaps best eliminated by participation in institutions like the Church (see http://www.capitalcommentary.o… ).  So I think your suggestion is by no means off base.  It seems to me that practices, i.e., habits of devotion, are a key part in the renewing of our mind.


Thanks for your comment Jason, and the clarification. I suspect the reality of how our hormones interact is much more complicated than my current level of understanding.

A favorite poem from my world lit teaching years:

“Rocking”   by Gabriela Mistral  (Chile 1889-1957)

The sea rocks her thousands of waves.
The sea is divine.
Hearing the loving sea
I rock my son.
   The wind wandering by night
    rocks the wheat.
    Hearing the loving wind
    I rock my son.
God the Father soundlessly rocks
His thousands of worlds.
Feeling His hand in the shadow
I rock my son.

A coach as well as a lit teacher, to illustrate the poem I cradled a football in my arms (in lieu of actual baby).
Out of the classroom now, I count it all joy to be able to once again hold a young child in my arms, my granddaughter, and image the Rocker in this poem—-testosterone be darned.

The other side of this is that as testosterone drops so does your level of fertility.  Thus as the levels drop we have more problems with infertility.  It is an issue that I know from personal experience.  So, even though it might look good from your side it is not a positive from my angle.

This reminded me of Aristotle’s ideas about virtue that you see in the Nicomachean Ethics. He thought that to become courageous you first had to find a model and mimic that model’s actions. Then - because we have in our character the POTENTIAL to be courageous but not that trait in reality - our mind/soul would develop the character trait of courage, so in the future we could act the right way and out of the right character. That’s when we’d be courageous.

For Aristotle, there was something very real going on in our mind/soul. It was like building muscle mass through repeating certain exercises. You had to have the raw material (the protein from your diet, the body with an ability to turn that into muscle mass) and you had to do the exercises that built up that muscle. Those two together would give the desired result; but neither was sufficient on its own. I’m convinced Aristotle was on to something here, and I think your post hit on a very similar point.

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