I want to use this post for two purposes. In class for the last few weeks, we have been critiquing scholars (and ourselves) for not leaving their (and our) own ‘modern’ worldview at the door when researching and writing about Mary and Marian devotion. When thinking about this issue, my first thought is: does it matter? If we conceive of modernity as ‘rational,’ and reasonable; if we characterize the Medieval period as diminutive, irrational, mystical, and childlike; if we conceive of gender and sex as a construct; if we read texts through our modern lens and as stepping stones to the present, rather than as representative of their time, does it matter?
I can partially answer this question: Of course it matters. However, I do wonder how historiographical shifts shape our own understanding of the past. If we conceive of the Medieval period of childlike, the teenage years of our adult present, does it make it true? Does it matter the reality of history or how people conceive of themselves and narrativize the past in response?
I don’t have an answer. I truly invite comments.
Second, I want to defend part of Spretnak’s argument that was heavily criticized in class. I do disagree with her argument that the Church has been working for centuries to ‘contain’ Mary as our readings plainly debunk this idea. But I think she is on to something in terms of her narrative of modernity and its effects on our concept of Mary. I do think she doesn’t give enough credit to the work of the Medieval period, and I think she goes too far to suggest that the Church actively dismissed Mary as a figure of devotion in an attempt to assert the patriarchy. But I think she primarily critiques modernity itself and that that critique is important to unpack.
I think Spretnak’s assertion that the Catholic Church moved to a faith that is more “text-based, rational, and – in a word – modern” is actually not what she is arguing. Instead, I think she is pointing to the fact that the understanding of life, society, and everything really in modern thought requires one to deconstruct texts, relationships, and even biology. It is necessarily a process of reduction. She points out the history of this phenomenon, from Newton to Smith to Darwin. We recognize now that we are not merely a whole but a sum of cells made up of atoms made up of electrons, protons, and neutrons, made up of quarks, and I don’t know if there are smaller units because I am not majoring in Biology. She points out that post structuralism in the last forty years has even deconstructed those things taken for granted, arguing that every ‘experience’ of a man is shaped by societal constructs of language and relationships and all constructs are merely conduits of power. She even points this out this in terms of Mary, that is she points out the “radically reduced recognition of the spiritual presence of the Blessed Mother” (44).
I think then that she is not arguing that the medieval period was also not rational and text-based even though she makes that claim. I think she is arguing that the ‘modern’ period is reductionist and is characterized from a “shrunken modern focus on the human in isolation from the larger context” and the Vatican II pronouncements about Mary reflect this. (53) The Medievalists were able to access, accept, and examine the Cosmology of Mary, the whole that is greater than the sum of her parts. Moderns on the other hand, I think she is arguing, recognize only the sum, but not the whole.
This is particularly interesting in light of our readings on Monday. I think the fact that apparitions and their stories gained such prominence in the 19th century might reflect this to some degree. In each, Mary appears to an individual. She appears in human form and seems to be small enough for humans to touch and grasp. Bernadette even sees her as a child, like herself. I wonder if this reflects the trend that would be set into stone at Vatican II. That the cosmology of Mary has given way to an understanding of her as a person, as the example of piety, as a member of the Church instead of the woman who was the container of the uncontainable, the Co-Redeemer, the Mother of God, the Intercessor for Mankind. People needed to think of her as a person, rather than a symbol.
Spretnak seems to be critiquing our reductionist tendencies as citizens of a Modern era and instead advocates for a “spirituality that is multivalent and evocative in its symbols, metaphors, and rituals” (54) I think what she gets wrong is the assumption that this is not in line, nor has ever been in line, with the Catholic Church. We know that to be incorrect. I also think, ironically, that in arguing against the tendencies of the Modern period to only see the parts, she often generalizes about the Catholic Church, devotion, and Medieval thought and does not take a more nuanced approach to her scholarship.
Maybe then I have answered my own question. It matters that we place Marian texts within the philosophical thought of their time. It matters that we understand and recognize how our own preconceptions and paradigms of thoughts shape the way we see the world. Recognizing our tendency to deconstruct everything gives us the opportunity to embrace a more mystical approach. In her words, “the all-embracing, poetic approach to the ineffable is compelling because it reflects the cosmological magnificence of which we are a part.”