Monday, April 16, 2012

Paradox and Faith

It is very clear to me from the reading of Bernard de Clairvaux and Amadeus of Lausanne’s homilies, I will here focus on Bernard and his homilies to the Virgin, although much of what I write is applicable I think to both, that to the medieval mind there was no contradiction between the elevation of Mary and the omnipotence of God. In reading these texts one gets the sense that the two feed into each other creating a harmony that is the balance of the world. It is clearly the paradox that is the miracle, and the miracle God’s power. Everything created, constructed, and ordered as according to his divine will. However at what point does paradox stop being miracle and is simply a contradiction bordering on heresy?
            The first paradox to which I will refer is when Bernard tells us toward the end of Homily 1 that “God does what a woman says…A woman outranks God”. This first time I read this statement I literally stopped reading and reread the sentence. To be fair to Bernard it is in the context of Christ as child and him listening to her as mother. However the extrapolation seems a dangerous one. For it is one thing to say that God grew from child to man and that Mary was the one who oversaw this transition, safeguarding him so that he could reach his maturity. However to say that in doing Mary attained a rank higher than that of God is taking it seemingly leaps and bounds further. Bernard does continue to say that it is this subjugation of God to man is actually in some way a demonstration of salvation. That man must submit even as God submitted and that to do otherwise is to partake with the devil; an explanation that stretches reason but one that can be accepted through faith. I understand the reasoning, but it leaves me with a funny feeling that something isn’t quite right. It seems inconceivable that God the all-knowing and the all-powerful should be subject to Man. It is only when I put myself in the shoes of the faithful that I am able to leave this point and move on. 
            The next point that I take issue with is when Bernard opens Homily 4 by saying “There is no doubt that whatever we say in praise of the mother touches the Son, and when we honor the Son we detract nothing from the mother’s glory”. Once again this is something I can barely wrap my head around. It makes sense to me that Bernard should seek to rationalize the glorification of the Holy Mother by saying that in glorifying her we also glorify the Son, and thus nothing is taken away from the worship of God through the worship of Mary. What astounds me and befuddles me is his seeming concern that worship of the Son might risk detracting from the Mother. Mary who is clearly and most importantly HUMAN. She is a creation of God. It would seem to me that the worship of God be foremost, and that even as one worships the saints they also praise God in whose service they acted. The reverse I have a much harder time understanding. That the worship of God should not detract from the worship of Mary? A creation of God? I am only able to reason it out by thinking that Bernard does not want us to forget the important role that Mary played in salvation. And that although God is foremost, it is important that we recognize the role she too played. Perhaps that is in fact what Bernard meant. However in context I have my doubts and I feel as though I am creating excuses for Bernard which he would not have me make for him.
            The last and to me most striking paradox has to do with God and the creation of Mary. In our study of earlier texts it was clear that the key to salvation was the fact that Mary gave herself to God to be his vessel. The fact that she consented is what made her the new eve and ensured the salvation of Mankind. Bernard himself extolls this point in Homily 4 paragraph 8. He writes as though he is witnessing Gabriel tell Mary that God wants her to be his mother, and makes a really big deal out of the fact that there is a decision to be made, and that Mary says yes. However with this comes the implicit assumption that it was within Mary’s power to say no. She would have conceivably denied God and refused. However at the very start of Homily 2 Bernard talks about how: “God...was careful to prepare [Mary] on earth with a special grace…[That he] had to create someone whom he knew would be worthy to be his mother”. If God made Mary for the purpose of being his mother, and instilled in her the proper grace to be so, did Mary really have a choice? Was it predetermined by God that Mary bear Christ? The very fact that event is prophesized would suggest not. The very legitimation that Mary gains from the Old Testament would seemingly undermine her freedom of choice that was supposedly the critical factor in salvation. Perhaps it was within Mary’s power to say no and God would have simply tried again by making a different woman to be his mother. But what then about the birth of Mary and the miracles that we read about in the Protoevangelium of James? The theology really seems to set it up as if salvation occurs with Mary or no one. Mary was made for the purpose of bearing Christ who then saves the world. Is it possible for prophesies to not come true, that Mary say no and the world have been condemned to damnation? Then what about the omniscience of God who granted the visions?
            We as humans cannot fully conceive God, and that his workings are ultimately beyond understanding. After all “faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, or understanding” –Martin Luther. Ultimately does the fact that the irreconcilable paradox exists matter? Or is it simply a mystery of faith? I suppose that is a question we can only answer for ourselves. 

-Blake Alex


  1. Very good blog. You are correct: we truly cannot comprehend God as He is the ultimate, perfect supreme being, thus we cannot fully understand Him through imperfect, human reasoning. Let us again examine Bernard's quote you used: “God...was careful to prepare [Mary] on earth with a special grace…[That he] had to create someone whom he knew would be worthy to be his mother”. When God created Mary in His image, He blessed her with the graces that would be needed for her to conceive His son. However, these graces did not force her to agree to His plan, but they only influenced her in the same way every human being is influenced by his or her soul and its level of purity. For the sake of Mary, God blessed her soul with a special grace, but it did not CONTROL her. What makes it so difficult to wrap our minds around, however, is the fact that God is not subject to time and sequential ordering. God didn't technically foresee Mary saying "yes" and then create her in His image, but it all simply "was and is" at the same time because he is all-knowing. If she said "no", would the God have chosen another woman? The answer is no because God did not wait, observe Mary's choice, and then go from there. His all-knowing supremacy allowed him to know from the beginning, thus when he sent the Angel Gabriel, God already knew the answer Mary was going to give, even though it was still her choice.


  2. Blake: Good question about paradox as miracle and paradox as potential heresy. That “funny feeling” is very interesting to me, as I mentioned in an earlier post about the apocryphal texts and the tendency the class seemed to have to “sense” items that were not “authentic.” I think that you give a fair explanation for your feeling, as well as a fair attempt to give Bernard the benefit of the doubt. I appreciate your candor about your struggles with Bernard’s sentiment.

    When you get to the question of Mary’s agency–her ability to refuse to bear the Christ, you seem to be hitting on one of those necessary oppositions of the kind we saw earlier as the fathers worked out Christ’s humanity and deity. As we saw, these had big stakes. What does it mean for Mary to have the choice, though predestined and prophesied about, to say no? What would the (theological, doctrinal) implications be of declaring that she did NOT have a choice in the matter?

  3. Hi Blake. You touch on a lot of heavy stuff here! I’m no theologian, so I’m not going to distinguish paradox from miracle, but I was particularly struck by the first one you mention. I had the exact same reaction to the attention Bernard draws to Jesus’ obedience, although slightly earlier in the passage: “Nor did God disdain to be called what he had deigned to become. As the Evangelist tells us a bit later, ‘he was obedient to them’. Who? God. To whom? To men. God, I repeat, to whom the angels are subject, he whom the principalities and the power obey, he was obedient to Mary.”

    I had to read that a couple of times before I was able to move on. As a practicing Catholic, the idea of Christ’s humanity isn’t new to me, but Bernard really elucidates the ramifications of the Incarnation. The idea that the omnipotent, omniscient, almighty God become a helpless child who meekly obeyed his parents is mind-blowing. Even more mind-blowing, as Bernard would point out, is that God’s motivation to take such a humble status is His unceasing love for us, human kind. While I think that one of the reasons Bernard emphasizes this point to such a great extent is, as you suggest, to demonstrate the way to salvation, I also think he just wants us to think about the miracle of the Incarnation. Let it sink in. “Just imagine!”


  4. Actually, no, it is not a question that we can answer "only for ourselves," it is a question that we strive to answer in conversation with others with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, yes, it is something we just made up, however "rational" our answers might seem. But I don't think that is really your question. Exactly: Mary points us directly to meditation on the paradox of the Incarnation. Is it more difficult to believe that God emptied himself and took on the form of a servant or that that servant obeyed his human mother while a child? I don't think Bernard actually says that we worship Mary; he says that "when we honor the Son"--as God incarnate--"we detract nothing from the Mother's glory"--from Mary's role in giving birth to God incarnate. As for whether Mary's choice was real: yes, it had to have been, just as Adam and Eve's choice was real. But this doesn't make it any easier to wrap our heads around the fact that the prophecies were also real.