Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In Praise of the One Who Contained the One Who Cannot Be Contained

The posts on this blog were written by the undergraduate and graduate students in Prof. Rachel Fulton Brown's course on "Mary and Mariology," taught at the University of Chicago in Spring 2012.  The posts were assigned as reflections on the discussions that we had over the course of the quarter in class, but the posts themselves regularly took on a depth and rigor far beyond that which we had been able to explore in class. The assigned readings for our discussions are listed in the syllabus; the blog posts themselves are labeled according to the theme of the discussion in response to which they were written. There is undoubtedly much more that could be said both about our readings and our discussions.  We offer these reflections simply as a glimpse at the beauty of the Virgin Mother of God and of the devotion that has been offered to her by Christians over the centuries.  We hope very much that you will enjoy reading our reflections.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

How Far Will They Go?

            After completing the final reading for this week's class, and ultimately the year, I can't help but wonder how far "scholars" will go to stretch and twist the teachings of their opposition in order to try and prove their points.  After reading Luther a few weeks ago, I was surprised to see his error in accusations concerning the medieval veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  After reading Mary Daly and most Marina Warner, however, I must say that I am more disappointed not because of mistakes in accurate detail, but because of how effective they allowed their bias to influence their writing to the point where they sound like conspirators.
            Let me first begin with Mary Daly's Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation.  It is made clear from the very beginning that she will allow her feminist approach to interfere to make her point, which doesn't surprise me coming from a woman who was at once forced to retire by her university for refusing to allow male students into her advanced woman's studies class.  Apparently, Daly thought (or still thinks) "women aspirations are not being taken seriously", thus she feels the need to twist Catholic theology in order to prove a point that is not even true, and make it seem as if the Catholic Church is cleverly using Mary as mechanism to passively ensure the subordination and inferiority of women to men. 
            The early parts of Daly's essay begin with sarcastic remarks such as: "Mary is 'good' only in relation to Jesus....the inimitability of 'Mary conceived without sin' ensures that all women as women are in the caste with Eve" to suggest the apparently "contradictory message" of the Church and its means of suppressing women.  She critics the Church theology of Jesus, regarding it as being built upon a "male savior", "male God", and "male theologians", almost implying a wish for a female deity, but then contradicts her obvious desire by criticizing the church with the exact opposite by saying it deems a "God-like status of Mary (always officially denied in Roman Catholicism of course)".  Thus, she accuses the church for not having a female held at higher regard, and then says that the church does so in Mary, but that it actually denies it - I'm not sure how this argument works. 
            Daly also attempts to cleverly criticize St. Thomas Aquinas and the Immaculate Conception:

"Thomas Aquinas, a fairly consistent patriarch in this matter, rejected the doctrine.  He insisted that if the Blessed Virgin had never incurred the stain of original sin, "she would not have need redemption and salvation which is by Christ....Aquinas taught that the Virgin was sanctified in her mother's womb..." 

Daly tries to make it seem that because the "doctrine" of the Immaculate Conception was so "contradictory" and ridiculous that Thomas Aquinas, a Doctor and Scholar of the Church, was even rejecting it because it was "unfitting" as it would imply that "Christ is [not] the Savior of all men", once again returning to her demise of the idea of God and salvation being in the hands of "males". While she does mention that it did take a while to become an official doctrine of the Church, she fails to state that specifically at the time of Aquinas that the Immaculate Conception was not a belief of the Church.  If it had been, Aquinas would not have denied it, and it thus it failed to measure up to the Vincentian Canon for the Faith and it thus could be rejected or accepted as a mere private opinion and not an article of faith (similar to the teaching surrounding belief in apparitions of the Blessed Virgin.  Just because they are confirmed as authentic does not mean they are  required beliefs).
            In the same token, Daly even goes as far to say that the Ascension is titled "The Ascension" because "Jesus 'went up' under his own power, whereas Mary was 'taken' up" in the Assumption, and did not enter heaven by her own means, but by the power of the "male God". Thus, Daly believes that this "jargon" is an act of sexual hierarchy. Overall, Daly believes that the "Roman Catholic Church's degrading of women" is so severe that it diminishes women to the level of evil, as she says they are both "excluded from the Deity of the Holy dogma of the Trinity".  Daly believes that Mary is intelligently used by the Catholic Church to obtain the "victory that is of the male." 
            Marina Warner's essay Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Marym,
 while shorter than Daly's, accuses the Catholic Church as using Mary to limit the freedom of choice of women:

"At one moment, a religion of this type declares that by obeying one moral code and performing certain rites correctly, the believer will prosper; at another, it spirits away this book of rules and substitutes another, contradictory one.  Catholicism operates in a similar fashion, for on the on hand it affirms the beauty and goodness of the natural world and insists that man's purpose is to cultivate fully his God-given gifts on earth; but on the other it endorses the most pessimistic world-denying self-sacrifice as the state of the elect, and it accords virginity, the symbol of renunciation, the highest accolade."

Warner is referring to the idea of embracing natural humanity and then goes on to say that the Church holds so sacred the idea of sex and virginity (through the use of Mary), calling it contradictory because it limits the "embracing of natural humanity".  Warner proceeds to contradict herself, however, in saying that "the Church's teachings on contraception and abortion stem directly from the same misogynist ideas about women's role contained in the myth of the Virgin, exacerbates the terrors of sex and childbirth by maintaining pregnancy as a constant and very real danger".  How is contraception in sexual activity "embracing the natural humanity"? Would not "maintaining pregnancy" also be natural instead of disgracefully murdering a child through abortion? Therefore, Warner swallows her own bullet with this attempt of an argument against the Catholic Church, and tries to conclude her essay by reducing Mary and her role to nothing more than a "myth".
            Mary Daly and Marina Warner are clearly extreme feminists, and the history surrounding their biographies and other writings support this accusation.  While I am by no means a sexist, I must say that these two writings were rather blown out of proportion.  Daly and Warner not only allow their biased language to push away the reader, but they also permit it conjure simply ridiculous arguments that accuse the Roman Catholic Church as using the Blessed Virgin Mary as a conspiracy method to maintain male supremacy and abolish women's rights and their roles in humanity. 


Ecce Mater Tua


“Behold your mother.” (Jn. 19.27)
 (Unable to find photo attribution)
“[Mary] is imbedded in literally everything, in every detail of all things visible and invisible.
That's why she is my mother. And your mother. And everyone's mother. She is the Mother of the Church. She is the Mother of the World.” ~LR (post ‘The Closing of the Day’ 5/31/12, 1:19pm)

What began in my mind as response and follow-up to LR’s inspired post has turned into a post on its own. With LR I share the desire to see in Mary hope for our world. Each of our postmodern authors have taken their approach to Mary in the face of some perceived problem in the contemporary world: Daly, Warner, Boss and Ratzinger each diagnosed the problem differently (sometimes vastly different); excepting Warner, each found in Mary a potential solution (even if only Daly’s “free-wheeling symbol,” 87). In a previous comment to MCW’s ‘Defense of Spretnak’ (5/25/12, 4:14pm), I expressed a shared expectation with Spretnak that premodern Mary can offer hope to our postmodern world. However, instead of Spretnak’s formulation of problem and solution, I have been meditating on another way thinking the problem and the solution. Here are my humble thoughts:
With traditional bulwarks being washed away, you and I, postmodern men and women all, stand on uncertain ground – perhaps, even, upon no ground at all. Our “crisis of meaning” results from a fragmented and chaotic field of knowledge through which the search for meaning appears “difficult and often fruitless.” As a result, values are found to have their value only by and in those who hold them. But, as many discover, values which are only valuable insofar as one holds them are no values at all. Release them and they drop into nothing. Our highest values, at our whim, fall into an abyss – upon which, I suggest, we postmoderns often find ourselves standing.

What is this ailment except nihilism? Who suffers from nihilism but the human person? Acutely aware, John Paul II wrote: “Nihilism is a denial of the humanity and of the very identity of the human being. …The neglect of being inevitably leads to losing touch with objective truth and therefore with the very ground of human dignity.” (Fides et ratio 90; previous quotes: 81) 

Present nihilism dissolves human dignity. (I do not think I need convince many of this, but if I am wrong, please speak up.) I wonder whether Mary can be the champion of the inherent dignity of the human person. 
In our course of reading, it appears we find many different Marys. We find the “Second Eve” who stands beside the “Second Adam” undoing the original knots of sin; Mary is young Jewish girl of Joachim and Anna, a primordial contemplative in the Temple; Mary is Ephrem’s Container of the Uncontained, Cyril’s Theotokos, Akathistos’ protectress, the Assumed Mother who gives comfort to the dying and guarantee of resurrection, Damian’s and Voragine’s jealous guardian of Her devotees, and so on.

But perhaps, these are not all different Marys. Perhaps, perhaps the heart of faith can see in all these one, multi-faced Mary who impossibly contains all the roles and functions of her tradition of devotees. In an earlier post, I mentioned the concept of doctrinal development: In each time, region, culture and state, devotees have seen and thought about Mary is various and different ways. The eyes of faith can see these developmental variations as gradual unfoldings of the single Person of Mary.

As we have seen, I think, each age find in Mary what or who that age needs. Our age, I suggest, needs the Person of Mary, that is, Mary the type, defender and advocate of the dignity of the human person.
Mary’s role for us as advocate of personhood, is not a new idea. Edith Stein wrote, “As co-redeemer by the side of the Redeemer, she emerges from the natural order. Both mother and son spring from the human race, and both embody human nature…they have lived for the sake of humanity.” (Works II.189-190; trans. FM Oben)

Ratzinger also saw Mary’s remedial answer: “Mary is the image of the Church, the image of the believing person, who can come to salvation and to himself only through the gift of love – through grace.  [Mary] – “full of grace” -  represents humankind, which as a whole is expectation… and which can never fill that void that threatens humanity when he does not find that absolute love which gives him meaning, salvation, all that is truly necessary in order to live.” (Introduction to Christianity, 280; trans. JR Foster)

While a Roman Catholic in creed, I have grasped the basics of the Marian doctrines. But prior to this course my imagination had never been fired with the richness and beauty of the Marian cosmos. If I have worn my heart of my sleeve in this post, it is my own confession of the wonder I am beginning to experience in the Blessed Virgin in the face of the grim “caduke”  universe (“Not that all disappears or falls, but all can fall and disappear.” J-L Marion, God without Being, 126; trans. T Carlson). 

For this awakening to the treasure of Mary’s mothership, I am grateful. She is our mother, because She is a gift to us from Christ. On the cross, Jesus spoke the words “Behold your mother” to a disciple. John Paul II noted: 
“It is not merely a gesture of a family nature, as of a son making provision for his mother. But it is a gesture of the world’s Redeemer who assigns to Mary… a role of new motherhood in relation to all those who are called to membership of the Church… Jesus wished to give Mary the mission of accepting all his followers of every age as her own sons and daughters.” (Jesus Son and Savior, 469; general audience 11/23/1988)

I take solace that Mary stands between me and nothing. I pray for her help against my and our ways of dissolving and wounding robust, healthy and joyous personhood:

Sancta Maria Mater,
advocata pro humanae personae dignitate,
ora pro nobis omnibus Deum!


Friday, June 1, 2012

Sifting for truth

The past couple of blog posts have commented on the far from perfect scholarship of our post-modern readings. While I agree that it is unacceptable for writers like Daly, Kristeva and Warner to make generalizing assumptions about Marian devotion and get their facts blatantly wrong, I still think that each and every one of them have something very valuable to offer.

Let’s start with Warner. Her personal experience with the Virgin is her truth. She explicitly tells us about her life-long relationship with the Virgin, from making her own Marian grotto as a child to feeling shame for her ‘impurity’ as a teenager. Without the anecdote in the prologue, how would we know the context of her argument? And even though several of us in class questioned Warner’s conclusion that Mary is an impossible model, I have to say that there is truth in that claim for her. And if it is true for her, than how many other Christian women without a voice is this true for? 

Kristeva starts her Tales of Love talking about how hard it is to write, but how important the process is if you love your subject:

“Words that are always too distant, too abstract for this underground swarming of seconds, folding in unimaginable spaces. Writing them down is an ordeal of discourse, like love. What is loving, for a woman, the same thing as writing” (235).

When I read Kristeva’s work the first time, I read it without reading the bolded words until the end. Poor choice on my part. Kristeva’s creative writing is chalk full of anguish, shame, and burning love to the point where really anything that I say about it would be inadequate. For Kristeva, writing this book was a soul baring experience. And even though she comes to some interesting conclusions (“The Virgin obstructs the desire for murder or devouring by means of a strong oral cathexis (the breast), valorization of pain (the sob), and incitement to replace the sexed body with the ear of understanding” 257), it would be disrespectful of us to discount all of Kristeva’s work. After all, according to the quote on page 235, this work is a work of devotion. Like many of the authors that we have read in this course, Kristeva uses her talent as a writer as a way to show her complicated love for Mary, to add just one drop to the vast sea. Without Kristeva’s personal anecdotes, how would we know that Tales of Love is also a devotional work?

Finding truth in Daly’s work is a little harder to do than Warner and Kristeva’s, because Daly’s book is full of incredibly biased language. She draws broad conclusions without providing us with evidence. Example:

“On a functional level, Protestant obliteration of the Virgin ideal has to some extent served the purpose of reducing “women’s role” exclusively to that of wife and mother…Concretely, instead of having ‘the nun’ as religious ideal, Protestant women have been offered the picture of ‘the minister’s wife’.” (85).

I had quite a bit of difficulty with this passage for a couple of reasons, mainly because Daly is NOT Protestant. She grew up in a ‘Catholic ghetto,’ so she calls it. This claim is not even based on personal experience, like Warner’s and Kristeva’s works, so how does it have any backing? Secondly, unlike Catholic women, many Protestant women can become ministers! How can Daly say that because Protestant women do not have Mary as a model in the same capacity as in Catholicism, that these women have a diminished role in the Protestant faith?

Still, does Daly have any truth for us? Perhaps the truth lies in the vehemence of her writing. She is a radical feminist for a reason. Daly must have met with some sort of sexism in the patriarchal structure of the Church in her life, and then reacted against it. Her personal experience of having Mary as an inadequate model is a truth for her, even if it does not make sense to us (well, me).

Now what about Ratzinger? As the almost-Pope, his motivations for writing his bit on Mary are pretty clear. He does a good job of reconciling ecclesiocentric and Christocentric Mariologies. It is obvious that Ratzinger spent a good deal of time thinking and learning about Mariology before writing the article. There may have been a little self-revelatory section in his work:

“If the misery of contemporary man is his increasing disintegration into mere bios and mere rationality, Marian piety could work against this ‘decomposition’ and help man to rediscover unity in the center, from the heart.” (36)

I can’t say that Ratzinger may have, as a ‘contemporary man’, fallen like many of us into the seductive ‘rationality,’ but it seems like if he had, he now realizes that Mariology allows us to find a middle ground between pure logic and pure affectivity.

Boss’s work, based on the class consensus, was what we wanted post-modern scholarship on Mariology to look like. No historical inaccuracies (that I could find, at least) and little biased language. I think that Boss provides many of us with an adequate account of Mariology, but in my opinion, that does not mean that that should be the only style of scholarship available to us. Part of the beauty of Mariology, as we have seen throughout the quarter, is that Marian devotion comes in so many forms. Poetry, art, academic writing, music, and so much more! There is truth in every act of devotion to Mary, even if it is not the truth we may be expecting. 


Militant feminism and shoddy scholarship - a potent combination

Assume I had not taken this class, nor had I done any of the previous weeks' readings, but had done the readings for Wednesday. [Comments from the “post-Mariology-course me” are in bold.]

As a non-Christian, I like to think that I passively participate in Christianity-specific theological conversations [like the one created in class between the five authors we read for Wednesday] from an unbiased point of view; while I might take a stance on a more broad religious debate – I do love a good argument – such a specific topic like “Postmodern Mary” would be one that I would watch from the sidelines, not knowing much about Mary, postmodern or not. I have no experience with the Virgin Mary and admittedly little exposure to several facets of Christianity in general. I think that my disinterest in the issue allows me to see both sides of the argument and draw my own conclusion. [In fact, this approach would probably work if the five authors had actually been put in conversation with one another.] It's easy in a debate to point out the flaws in your opponent's arguments, and this process illuminates a whole lot for a bystander who would otherwise have no idea what the perceptions of Mary are and have been over the hundreds of years gone by.

Scholars like Kristeva know and have read all that they need to, and are authoritative on the evolution of Marian devotion in all its aspects. After all, it's their job and duty as scholars to have a strong command over what they write and profess expertise in. I read the works by Daly, Warner, Kristeva, Ratzinger and Boss and end up confused because of the large difference in the postmodern conceptions of the Virgin. All of the authors make good points about feminism, power, divinity, and many other concepts relating to problems concerning the Virgin. But who is right? Is anyone right? If what all of them say is true, then why is there such a disparity between what Warner and Boss say?

Back to reality. After having read all that we read over the past quarter it was very hard for me not to side with Boss and Ratzinger (particularly Boss) about the perception of Mary in postmodernity. In short, their perceptions were beautiful and meaningful, using the history of Marian devotion to support their arguments in a way that highlights Mary's importance to her devotees.

After having been in a couple of history classes, I've come to realise that scholarship is often shoddy. Facts are treated as malleable, and even a simple word choice can dramatically alter the effect of a sentence. The problem that I would have faced when reading the excerpt Stabat Mater, for instance, is that I would have believed Kristeva when she wrote that Bernard of Clairvaux did indeed transpose the Song of Songs and, in doing so, glorified Mary in her role of beloved and wife (Kristeva 243). I would have, as an innocent bystander, expected that the scholars knew what they were talking about.
I'd like to talk a little about my problems with Marina Warner and Mary Daly in relation to some discussions we've had in class. Both Warner and Daly seem to be grasping for a female role model in Mary. Christianity seems (to them) to look at women as inherently and innately sinister, and that Mary achieves “serene” womanhood (Daly referencing Nikolai Berdyaev on page 91) in fulfilling to contradictory ideals – remaining chaste while still bearing a child.

Warner makes the following incredibly bold statement in the epilogue to her book, “(T)he Virgin will recede into legend (...) the Virgin's legend will endure in its splendour and lyricism, but it will be emptied of moral significance, and thus lose its present real powers to heal and to harm” (Warner 339). She and Daly seem convinced that the role of Mary as an “instrument of a dynamic argument (...) about the structure of society” (Warner 338) will be the undoing of devotion to her. Mary, to Warner, is only revered because of Jesus. This is hard to refute.

But isn't that the whole point, or am I missing something huge here? Would Mary be special without Jesus? There is clearly a distinction to be drawn between a pious, devout person and someone who is touched in such a personal and meaningful way as Mary was touched by God. I would not be sitting here writing this post about Mary in this context had she not miraculously borne Jesus Christ. There is a difference between Mary and other saints too, and this difference in holiness comes from her maternal connection to Jesus.

I thought the way that Boss explained her view of Mary was beautiful, and casts Mary as the person who was chosen to be able to contain the uncontainable – and then led her life in such a way that other people were able to find divine meaning in Christ. She is the fabric of the universe. As such, she permeates every single person, every single atom in existence. She is within us and without us. In Boss' interpretation, miracles that Mary performed can stand alone, while being supported by her divine connection to heaven and her all-pervading nature. I particularly liked this interpretation because, while maintaining the supreme importance of the Creator and of Jesus Christ, it gives Mary the standing she truly merits and deserves as the complex, mysterious and pious figure that we have come to know her as throughout the quarter.