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.