Friday, May 11, 2012

Modern Thoughts of Sex and Gender

In class on Wednesday, Professor Fulton Brown presented a serious critique of the work of Karant-Nunn, Wiesner-Hanks, Williams, and MacCulloch, not only for simply erroneous scholarship in some cases (i.e. Karant-Nunn and Wiesner-Hanks’ insinuation that it was commonplace for “churches dedicated to Mary” to be built “on the sides of former Jewish parts of town”) but also for applying modern paradigms of sex and theological concepts on historic texts without accounting for the specific circumstances of the creation of the text. As we mentioned in class, it is very difficult to dissociate our own understanding of man and religion for our reading of the texts. But it is only by resisting the urge [to] reduce earlier texts into neat boxes of understanding that we can truly evaluate the development of Marian theology and devotion.

This quarter has been one of my first real forays into reading theological texts. However, I do have significant previous experience reading and analyzing gender and sexuality theory. What I plan to unpack and trace in this blog post is the assumptions about women, femininity, and sexuality in the analysis of Karant-Nunn and Wiesner-Hanks in order to give myself (and maybe others) a starting point to evaluate our own assumptions about gender in our analysis of Marian texts. I unfortunately was unable to go to the seminar about ‘The Unintended Reformation’ this week and feel like it could have contributed to this analysis.

I first want to think about Luther’s claim that “priests and monks have expanded the honoring of a woman and lifted Mary so high that they have made a goddess (like those of the pagans) out of a modest servant”(35). Karant-Nunn and Wiesner-Hanks interpret this as suggesting that that early church “wanted to differentiate their religion from pagan religions with female goddesses.” (32). However, as Professor Fulton Brown pointed out in class, in our readings we saw that early texts did focus intently on Mary and attempted to integrate Mary into the narratives and prophecies of the Old Testament. Where does their assumption come from then? I would argue it emerges from the rising focus on the Goddess beginning arguably in the nineteenth century and solidifying in the 20th century as feminist scholars, thinkers, and theologians tried to insert the feminine into understandings of God. Pagans Goddess worship preceding the establishment of the monotheistic faiths provided a useful narrative to explain the creation of the male Godhead of the monotheistic faiths, and the patriarchal structures of the Church. Furthermore, the conception of God as feminine provided the foundation for new interpretations of the Bible that emphasized women in the text (I would assume we will discuss this in greater detail when we begin to talk about modern conceptions of Mary). While I am not criticizing scholars who have participated in this sort of work, I do think it is important that we recognize that goddess narratives applied to Mary are certainly anachronistic. I think then that Luther’s critique was primarily to emphasize his new position that worship of Mary and Christ, as GENF points out, was a zero sum game – that is that any worship of Mary was not also the worship of Christ (as previously articulated in the Medieval period) but that her worship took away from the worship of Christ. Labeling her as a goddess, particularly as a pagan one, drives this home.

Second, Karant-Nunn and Wiesner-Hanks have assumptions about the way women interpret Mary, including the assumption that “Mary represented an unattainable ideal for all other women, for no other woman could hope to give birth to Messiah (32).” I want to address the face that the two scholars are focusing on Luther who seems to be arguing for the humanity of Mary without any sympathy for the symbolic and metaphorical ideas about the person of Mary developed for centuries prior to the reformation. The two again seem to forcing a modern paradigm about gender and about theological role of Mary onto earlier texts.

For one, I want to problematize the use of our modern conception of gender and sex in analysis of these texts. Thousands and thousands (maybe millions!) of pages have written about the development of our modern conception of sex but I want to quickly introduce two. One is Thomas Laqueur, who created the one sex, two sex model arguing that prior to the eighteenth century, sex was viewed along a single continuum. This means that a conception of woman as distinct from man did not exist. Instead, there was a sliding scale with femininity on one end and masculinity on the other and every human being fell somewhere between the two points. This did not mean that the feminine was not considered inferior. It certainly was. But femininity was merely a characteristic. On the other hand, post 18th century, he argues that man and woman were viewed as distinct species. What this means is that the characteristics of woman as passive, as inferior, as quiet, etc began to be enshrined as biological, inextricably tied to possessing a uterus.

Foucault (I know, we always have to talk about Foucault) provides a necessary compliment to this theory as he argues that conceptions of sexuality were created in the eighteenth century. I will not discuss his larger argument about power but I do want to include an example from Volume 1 of his History of Sexuality describing the significant change in the paradigm of sexuality in the modern period. He says, “the sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species (43).” I include this quote because I think it pairs nicely with Laqueur’s conclusion that after the 18th century, woman was also viewed as a distinct species, rather than a being with more feminine characteristics than masculine. I think this is particularly important for Marian theology because it retroactively places to label ‘Woman,’ with all its attributes, upon the figure of Mary.

I did not mean to digress so completely. All I meant to point out is that our conceptions of gender and sexuality that we often take for granted also have a long period of development. In the analysis of Karant-Nunn and Wiesner-Hanks, there seems to be an assumption that woman must connect with Mary specifically because she was a woman and that more analysis is needed in order to truly understand how Marian theology related to real women in the period. However, foundational is this is an assumption that women of the pre-modern period had the same conception of womanhood that we have today. I really look forward to reading more about modern conceptions of Mary in the next few weeks and would love to hear your thoughts about how modern thought has influence the way other have considered Mary. Maybe there is something beautiful in the fact that we all have our own lens through which we view and connect with the figure of Mary.


For reference, the books I mentioned are:

Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: A Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1990.


  1. I want to start off by saying that I completely agree with your view that much of the scholarship is anachronistic and maps onto the Medieval World our own modern conceptions of Sexuality. The point I really wanted to focus on was the lack of distinction in sexuality prior to the 18th Century and the concept that it existed on a sliding scale. I will confess to a general lack of knowledge to Gender theory, but assuming I understand what you’ve written I think there is an interesting correlation between this conception and the origin theory of Mankind in the bible. Eve was made out of Adam and so in some sense they share the same core essence that defines humanity, and are inherently linked by the creation out of the shared matter of Adam. This view of Man and Women as a linked entity, and therefore their sexuality not considered independently but together on the ‘sliding scale’ mentioned earlier. This view could then allow for a greater universality of access to the feminine figure of Mary than does out modern conception of two independent sexualities. It also explains, like you said, the temptation of scholars to relegate Mary to the role of a female goddess designed to fulfill a famine archetype that would provide access for women to a patriarchal religion (although I think we should revisit this conception of Catholicism as patriarchal and whether it also exists in the Medieval Era) or to act solely a mother figure for the male godhead. As we have read and learned Mary is so much more than just these things, although she is undoubtedly also these things. However in limiting the scope in which we view Mary not only do we lose other important factors of consideration, it also distorts the remaining ones as well.


  2. I found your point that the pre-modern notion of womanhood cannot be automatically placed on par with our own very interesting, as well as your explanation of Laqueur and Foucault’s theories on the history of gender. One of the common tropes regarding the Reformation is that it generally sought to make Christianity more personal, without as much church apparatus to distract the faithful from individual devotion. As was mentioned in our class discussion, in many ways praise fell by the wayside as people tried to reconcile and define an infinite God vis-à-vis a limited material “reality”. Although I risk over-generalization, it seems probable that this shift toward understanding religion on human terms may be connected with the shift in our understanding of gender Laqueur and Foucault describe. If those theorists are correct, the move toward woman as a distinct species from man seems to go hand in hand with an anthropocentric conception of the world in which the primary distinctions are between different humans rather than between mortal and divine. In this sense, the modern conception of Mary as passive feminine “vessel” (rather than mysterious and paradoxically powerful theotokos) we saw in the readings may fall in line with the new concept of gender differentiation. In the new model, it is easy to conceive of the Incarnation as an interaction in which the active, dynamic masculine (God) acts upon the passive feminine (Mary). The old model focuses on the necessary and active role Mary played in establishing Christ’s humanity, making the Incarnation an interaction between God and (un-gendered) human rather than between masculine and feminine. God and Christ’s divinity are integral in both models, but Mary’s role is more important (and grander) in the old one, in which she is not a member of some passive female species worked upon by male god, but is instead the human who worked with God to bring Him to earth.


  3. "I think then that Luther’s critique was primarily to emphasize his new position that worship of Mary and Christ, as GENF points out, was a zero sum game – that is that any worship of Mary was not also the worship of Christ (as previously articulated in the Medieval period) but that her worship took away from the worship of Christ. Labeling her as a goddess, particularly as a pagan one, drives this home." -- Excellent point! I think this captures Luther's motivation (or anxiety) perfectly: he cannot think of praising Mary as something that magnifies God rather than obscures, so he labels her as goddess to make it seem as if there is a competition when there isn't one (at least in the medieval tradition).

    I also think you are right to bring in the changes in ideas of sexuality implicit in Luther's critique, although I don't know enough of early modern biological theories to know how he might have been influenced by them. But Laqueur's discussion definitely helps us put MacCulloch's nudge-nudge about Aristotle into perspective. Interestingly, modern (i.e. present-day) understandings of the effects of hormones on embryonic development suggest that maybe Aristotle wasn't as far off as some would like to believe: the sex organs are the same in the early stages of development and only distinguish themselves in the presence of the right mixture of hormones (I would need to go back to my biopsychology textbooks to say this more technically, but hopefully the idea helps!).


  4. MCW: You have an interesting and thought-provoking central thesis here. A few questions or suggestions.

    I don’t think that Karant-Nunn and Wiesner-Hanks are talking about Luther’s statement when they open with their statement of the early church wanting to differentiate themselves from pagan cults. Instead, I would suggest that, the two scholars are steeped enough in Luther and subsequent pertinent writings that they are reading Reformation sentiments (originally expressed about the 16th century) into the ancient past.

    You are right about “goddess scholarship” in academia, but if the “goddess narratives” are all anachronistic, what do we do with Luther’s statement? Rather than anachronism, it seems to me that our medieval writings contain a subtle understanding of Mary and her relationship to the Trinity that Reformers seem not to appreciate.

    The “unattainable ideal” is definitely a concept that needs to be explored. I would not have expected it to be carried out the way you have done it here, but it is very intriguing and certainly provocative. I will have to think about it more in terms of the historical literature, but it has great possible implications for comparing, say Bernard and Bridget in their devotion to and experiences with Mary.

  5. This was a great post! I've been trying to respond to it for several days and having difficulty putting my thoughts into words because you really provoked me to think about these issues differently than I had before. The idea of "woman" as a category being an anachronism in this period seems very useful and plausible. It feels so simple that it should have occurred to me before, but it didn't.

    It is not clear to me what you mean by "goddess narratives." It seems like you might mean narratives of Christianity's male God replacing or conquering goddesses or you might mean narratives of Mary replacing/representing pagan goddesses. My initial impression based on your post was that you meant the latter, so for the sake of this comment I am going to go with that. Feel free to correct me.

    While I agree that certain types of feminist goddess scholarship tend to be inappropriate to describe Mary (or really anything, in my humble opinion...), you also framed this in an interesting way that I think speaks to some of the other assumptions going on. When you write that "feminist scholars, thinkers, and theologians tried to insert the feminine into understandings of God," the word "insert" stuck out to me. As a feminist and an aspiring scholar/thinker/theologian, before taking this class I would have agreed wholeheartedly that constructing or "inserting" feminine understandings of God was necessary and appropriate. It seems to me that part of the point of your critique is that to the extent that this attempt represents "inserting" rather than elaborating on or expanding, it is inappropriate and superfluous, because feminine understandings of the divine already exist to some extent within the tradition through Mary--not because she represents a "goddess," but because devotion to her entails devotion to God. In this sense, Karant-Nunn and Wiesner-Hanks' erroneus assumption that the early church wanted to distinguish Mary from pagan goddesses includes the same assumption as the "goddess narratives" in that both assume that the Christian God is male and that any female divinity in Christianity would necessarily be outside of the main godhead and the main tradition. I am not convinced by your claim that this assumption comes primarily from feminist scholarship trying to "insert" feminine ideas of God. It seems to me that both feminists and other scholars are here falling prey to assumptions about gender, categories, and the tradition that are perhaps more the product of the historical development of ideas of gender you are describing--as the categories of "man" and "woman" become more distinctly differentiated, it seems more and more clear that Mary (as a woman) represents a completely separate category of venerable being from God. Of course she does, no matter what, represent a different category in that she is human--but it seems that perhaps being sequestered in the other separate category of "woman," would further distance her from God in the view of modern scholars. If this is true, it remains the case regardless of how the scholar feels about the alleged lack of the feminine in the Christian view of God.

    1. Oh man, I forgot to sign my comment above!

  6. I really enjoyed your digression into the way the view of the man/woman dichotomy has changed over the years - I haven't read Foucault yet (I will soon, though!) and had no idea about his views on gender and sexuality. Laqueuer's views are also new to me. These views bring about this whole new dimension of the variation of views about gender, and the implications of something being “female” as opposed to simply just a “feminine being” are larger that I had given consideration to.
    This change is especially important when considering Karant-Nunn's and Wiesner-Hanks's ideas of the Virgin and how women relate to her. However, I'm not sure how much I agree that these ideas of gender are being forced onto texts as you mentioned – rather I think that these assumptions are taken for granted in the modern world and are not actively inserted but are probably just a part of the lens through which we view history.
    It is interesting to note – as you pointed out – that Luther is worried about worship of Mary as being incompatible with and destructive to any worship of Christ, which led to the labeling of her as a pagan goddess.


  7. I just want to clarify what I meant by the modern goddess narrative. I was referring more to what we saw in Daly - an attempt to 'reconstruct' a female Godhead by feminist scholars - by drawing on generally anachronistic understandings of the feminine and by poor readings of historical texts. Thanks ELM for pointing out that is it not just 'feminist scholars' who fall prey to this but many others applying modern conceptions of gender onto premodern texts.