Friday, May 25, 2012

In Defense of Spretnak

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.” 



  1. MCW: Thank you for asking the important question “Does it matter?” I will chime in that I think it does indeed matter, at the very least historiographically. And beyond that it would seem to have tremendous influence on present perceptions and realities. As I have mentioned in earlier comments, *we* are *all* implicated in “modernity” (conversely, another scholar makes the cogent argument that “we have never been modern,” despite the stories we tell ourselves about stark differences between ourselves and those who came before us). These convictions (that we are in an epoch that is different and incommensurable with previous eras) involve us in epistemological and value judgments that influence the way that we receive wisdom and knowledge from the past and in the present.

    Isn’t this what we see bubbling around in H. Adams? In the face of his impressions of and experience with centuries of Marian devotion at Chartres, he seeks for a way TO CONTAIN THE CONTAINER OF THE UNCONTAINABLE within parameters that bolster his vision of a rapidly progressing present.

    As you note, your Spretnak arc leads you to answers to your own questions.(For what it is worth, there are smaller particles, but recall the suggestion Professor Fulton Brown has repeated in class that Mary “gets” them all. In fact, in a way this seems to resonate with your ultimate conclusions.)

    Do you think that you suggest with your conclusions that Spretnak really introduces us to “the postmodern Mary?”


  2. I agree: I think that you have answered your own question very well. It does matter! Perhaps not for the sake of the past (the past is, after all, past, beyond our ability to change it), but most definitely for the sake of the present. You capture well Spretnak's sense of the reductionism of modernity: how can we critique our own perspective if it has driven out the possibility of all others? *We* need to be able to see the tradition clearly so as to save ourselves from the reductionism into which modernity has fallen. Where I continue to disagree with Spretnak is in her characterization of the past with which she proposes to critique the present: her "past" looks to me simply like the shadow-image of the present, not the past that I see when I study our sources. Thus, Spretnak's image of the "cosmological" itself is (to my mind) compromised because (being simply shadow-modern) even in its image of the whole it does not include God.


  3. Dear MCW,
    Thank you for your post. Unfortunately, I missed the class on Wednesday and have been trying to catch up on the apparently lively and deep-cutting discussion that took place.
    Like you, I feel something compelling me to defend the effort of Spretnak. Spretnak attempted to lodge a critique of ‘modernity’ in terms of a remedy available in the cult of Mary. The 20th century, as Spretnak charted, the modern world experienced something close to suicide in several horrific wars, genocides, arms’ races and stand-offs. This is not accidental, for Spratnak, are results of “ungrounded [technological] trajectories” and “fragmented existence,” “industrial destruction” of the environment (29) and perceived maladies of autonomous individualism (38-39). For Spretnak, the remedy or corrective lies not in further technology, fragmentation of remaining structures, more industry or development, or re-conceptualizing the individual but a return; the post-modern discontent can and should turn to pre-modern Mary.
    I, a student of the middle ages and late antiquity, one formed by the scholastic and mystical thought of these periods, am naturally drawn by this set up of the problem and the solution.
    While her narrative is attractive, Spretnak’s details are highly troubling: her discussion of the Church’s demotion of Mary and the precise nature of the medieval solution seem problematic. I do not need to repeat here Professor Fulton Brown’s well-founded critique of the diminutive portrayal of the medievals.
    I have been lately been thinking over various other possible ways of fleshing out such a problem-remedy narrative, which does not fall into the same trap as Spretnak’s account. But I have yet to be satisfied.
    [Finally, I do think another critique should also be weighed into an attempted re-formulation of Spretnak’s narrative. Spretnak saw Vatican II as a capitulation and modernization of the Church into a “text-based” hyper-rational form. This criticism is a surprise for me; the (positive) narrative of Vatican II, with which I am most familiar, is that the reforms specifically aimed to bring the Catholic Church out of the dead rigour of manual-based theology of the Neo-Thomists (see Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange). According to this narrative, the fathers of Vatican II were inspired by the leaders of the nouvelle Theologie, which sought return to the cleansing fountainhead and to the pure fire of the Church Fathers. While I am no authority and do not have at my fingertips data to support this narrative, I do believe it is a well-supported view and that it would deeply challenge Spretnak’s view of the “deal cut” at Vatican II.
    Help on this, anyone?]


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  5. MCW, the "does it matter?" question is, I think, really crucial here. Thanks for asking us to stop and think about it. I very much agree with the conclusion you reach, and would like to add two brief ideas that build upon it.

    You say that "It matters that we understand and recognize how our own preconceptions and paradigms of thoughts shape the way we see the world." This is of paramount importance to keep in mind when we read any text, Spretnak in particular. She writes academically and theologically, but it's very evident that she has a personal relationship with Mary; she candidly discusses her involvement in the Christian faith and how she, at different times, has conceived of Mary. As readers, we must be aware of our own "preconceptions and paradigms" so that we can avoid brushing a text aside just because it doesn't mesh with what we already think, but we also must be careful to evaluate a text to see if the author's "preconceptions and paradigms" are tinting his or her ability to present information accurately. Spretnak is an author who we evaluated this way in class; she didn't hold up very well!

    Also, you ask in the beginning of your post whether it matters "if we read texts through our own modern lens and as stepping stones to the present, rather than as representative of their time." I think that to any person interested in deepening and developing their devotion to Mary, or to a person wishing to try such a devotion for the first time, it's imperative to avoid doing this. The amazing thing about reading this quarter's texts has been discovering a huge variety of conceptions of Mary; throughout history, men and women have expended vast amounts of time and talent in order to creatively understand Mary. Forcing all of the different ideas we've seen into one linear progression toward the present would be denying the incredible diversity of thought that can all be ascribed to the container of the uncontainable.


  6. Along with the comments above, I heartily concur with your conclusion that historical texts and sources must be read in the spirit of intentionally rejecting (or at least looking out for) modern interpretive frameworks. Throughout your piece, you characterize the modern era as primarily deconstructionist or “reductionist”, referring to recent interest in “breaking down” earlier belief systems and prejudices, usually by means of scientific logic and rationality. I think this is a powerful observation that aids in explaining the modern decrease in Marian devotion. After all, as you indicate, how can one seek Mary as theotokos or as the seat of wisdom if the inherent thrust of the modern intellect rebukes and explains away these “constructs” elsewhere?

    Along with deconstructionism, however, usually comes the desire to remake the world in a better form than the one deconstructed. Although postmodern intellectuals might trace the continuation of a traditional western progress narrative here, in the popular sphere a notion remains that technological and even social “progress” will result from abandonment of the old superstitions. A modern understanding of humanity as distinct from “nature” is a case in point. Spretnak maintains that “not only did modernity assert a radical break between humans and nature, but its champions convinced the West for the past four centuries that humans live in a glass box as if on top of nature,” (Spretnak, 39). While many of us appreciate the bond between ourselves and everything else intellectually, as either a matter of participation in the same Creation and/or participation in the same web of physical and biologic connections, it is difficult for the modern individualist to become fully engaged in the notion that these connections exist. For the modern mindset, taught to revere personal capacity and agency above all else, such engagement is humbling, if not unwelcome. But a historical viewpoint, especially with regard to the figure of Mary, suggests that full participation as another constituent of Creation is in fact an empowering experience. The power to be gained, however, cannot be utilized for the self, but only reveled in as one acknowledges that something greater and just as immune to real deconstruction as the conscious self both exists and that one is part of it. For the medievals, at least in my understanding, this activity was embodied in the rituals surrounding praise of God.

    The continuing modern inability to reconcile humanity and the individual human with his (the male pronoun seems appropriate) natural surroundings does not seem to have suppressed our religiosity, however. In a setting in which “God is dead”, and in which “humans live in a glass box on top of nature”, it comes as no surprise that many are embracing notions of “human enhancement”, preferably on the individual level. Having deconstructed the pantheistic, polytheistic, and monotheistic traditions of the past, some are taking faith in science to the extreme, with the intention of becoming gods themselves, to put it dramatically. And yet the whole enterprise remains constrained by the rational progress myth that most historians now deny. Is the end purpose of all this deconstruction to build up from the ashes a world in which the individual human (or collective human technocracy) must be god, for the lack of anything better? And can postmodern backlashes against the modern dynamo mount an adequate defense of the unity of Creation?

    Look up “transhumanism” to see what I mean.


  7. TA - I had not truly thought about Spretnak introducing a postmodern Mary in those terms. I need to think more about it.

    PWR - I am not sure exactly how transhumanism can be extrapolated from my comments about reductive scholarship. I think Spretnak's conclusion is actually a project of construction, using Mary as a way to build bridges between man, God, and the natural world.

  8. Mary,

    Transhumanism cannot be extrapolated from your post directly, I agree. I was just exploring the related issue of how modern or postmodern people might try to "find God" once all the previously meaningful bridges between man, God, and nature have been deconstructed. And why it is important that we revisit historical approaches toward building those bridges on their own merits.

    Sorry if my comment was long winded :)