Friday, June 1, 2012

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.



  1. I think you "but isn't this the whole point" speaks to a major issue I had with Daly (and oh did I have a lot of issues with Daly). I complained in class of Daly's basic interpretive framework, which essentially makes her argument for her regardless of the data which is put into it. With the weapon of false consciousness it simply doesn't matter what the history says, because we can say "oh they thought they were doing X, or saying Y, or advocating a position Z, but REALLY they were just reinforcing the patriarchy, even if this seems explicitly contrary to what they say." Mary exalted as Queen of Heaven, Mirror of All Creation, Seat of Wisdom? Reinforces the patriarchy. Mary considered as human mother, a concrete historical individual? Reinforces the patriarchy. Mary glorified? Well she's only glorified because of her motherhood, thus it reinforces the patriarchy. Not a particularly good approach if one wishes to produce good scholarship.

    The last claim (re: Mary's motherhood) particularly bothered me. Aside from the fact that it's not really true (facts never being particularly necessary for post-modern "feminist" reads of the world), it raises, I think, a paradox in Daly's thought. Why would it be a bad thing, a sexist thing, for Mary to be exalted as a result of her motherhood? Because motherhood is a traditional gender role imposed by the patriarchy? Then what do we do with the fact that her motherhood of the Son of God is the most notable thing about Mary's life (all due credit to Mary's virtues, but "super pure, virtuous virgin" as opposed to "Mother of God" seems to be no contest)? Daly seems to be content to simply strip away any facet of Mary as a historical individual, in favor of vague "Mother Goddess" image (which can conveniently, because it's an invented construct merging any tradition which seems to fit, be absolutely anything Daly wants it to be [it's, of course, not "contrived" like every other image of the divine, sigh]). However, doesn't this do to Mary exactly what Daly complains that traditional theology has done to woman in general? Namely, stripped away their individuality and person in order to force them to occupy specific roles regardless of their true identity? Must we sacrifice the historical Mary in order that the "mother goddess" symbol be rescued from the grasp of the patriarchy? How can this be justified in Daly's system? It seems that Daly's system fails, at least one of the ways it fails, is by making a mistake no medieval would make: it tries to describe the woman who cannot be described, to contain the container of the uncontainable, to force Mary into a shape, a symbol, without recognizing her transcendence of any symbol we can shoehorn her into.


  2. From a purely contemporary perspective, it is easy to see why Daly’s image of a resurrected “Mother Goddess” is attractive. As super-individualists devoted to contrarian thinking (for its own sake?), we post-modern people like to embrace any image that seems to conflict with dry established custom. We want to resurrect images that have been historically “suppressed”. And there may be a kernel of anthropological truth in asserting prehistoric devotion to entities not entirely circumscribed by more recent “patriarchal” gender norms. Some examples are natural spirits thought to be present in certain trees, landforms, etc. as well as “trickster gods” like Loki (for all you Avengers fans), some of the Irish Tuatha De Danann, and the Pueblo Kokopelli. In addition to gender ambiguity and sometimes hermaphroditism, these types of deities/otherworldly creatures are often highly sexualized, connected with fertility. Another example is the Germanic pair Freya and Frigg. Although factual information regarding devotion to or fear of these entities is sparse, my point is that precedents exist for deities exhibiting feminine sexuality (rather than the highly masculine sexuality of later pantheons).

    To return to Mary, some of the feminist writing we’ve read indicates that Mary as Great Goddess somehow preserves femininity in a religious context under the fist of patriarchy. We have amply discussed why this interpretation is grounded in a modern context, and does not do justice to a medieval focus on mortal versus divine status rather than masculine versus feminine gender. In class, Professor Fulton Brown pointed out that while Jesus was a biological male, it does not make complete sense to view the Trinity or even God in that way. The elegance of a monotheistic supreme being is that It need not be confined by human category (indeed should not be), and though it might be convenient to speak of God in certain ways, we are necessarily incapable of fully comprehending Him (It). As DAY points out, the medievals truly understood this concept and, as we have seen, used the figure of Mary as a way to exalt the true incomprehensibility of God and Creation. As a final note, the image of Great Goddess seems superfluous in a Christian context, because God is already father and mother of the universe. Perhaps all feminism really requires is a change of semantics when referring to the Creator to reflect the fact that It cannot be comprehended along the lines of gender distinction, or any other category for that matter.


  3. "In fact, this approach would probably work if the five authors had actually been put in conversation with one another." I am a little confused here--I thought that that was what we did! What kind of conversation are you imagining? It sounds to me as if you have further thoughts that you are still working on articulating: what kind of conversation would Daly, Warner, Kristeva, Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), and Boss have if they sat down together? (This would make an interesting paper!) It is also interesting to imagine how one might make an argument for Mary's importance without referring to God. "Would Mary be special without Jesus?" It seems that Daly would want her to be, but how? And why is it wrong (as Warner seems to want to suggest) to focus on Mary's unique experience of maternity when, indeed, without that she would be just another human being in relation to God? Part of the answer could be, of course, that Daly and Warner want nothing to do with God and they see Mary as a problem (or, for Daly, a double-edged problem/solution) because she forces them to consider what it might mean to be in relationship with God. How, as historians, do we make sense of their frustration with the tradition? Is is simply that they really don't know it, despite their apparent research?


  4. I had the same issue with the Warner passage you point out on page 339 above. It's interesting to see that ultimately, Mary disappears in the conceptual framework that Warner perceives for the way Mary is understood. She basically blames Mary or at least the Church's use of Mary as a means of perpetuating a kind or type of consideration of women. But, is she simply this because she is presented as a model of chastity and "purity," etc? Mary can not be a model for the New Woman (338) for Warner because Mary stands as the model for all women (within the context of this text and supposedly Christianity) and since she must bear great suffering and she is exalted for her grace and perseverance through it, she automatically opens up grounds for men to abuse and demean all women and for women to accept this behavior on their part. (?) Perhaps this is highly simplistic, I realize this, but ultimately even though Mary finds meaning in God, especially through Christ, I think the genderizing of Mary as woman causes such conclusions regarding the way she should be perceived.

    I guess, this is somewhat difficult for me as well because coming from the Eastern Tradition, such genderizing of Mary is totally foreign to me. She is the mother of all and she is never more exemplary for women than for men although I can definitely say that women, for obvious reasons, relate themselves to certain aspects of the Virgin's life. When the previously mentioned kind of relation is maintained (with men and women alike) I think a number of issues such as the ones you raise can be avoided. At the same time, I suppose that this move on the part of Warner, Daly and others is a sign of the continued change in interpretation and consideration that happens in and over time.

  5. AC: Excellent choice of technique to begin with! We all know that the discussion is going to be fraught and have perhaps even made up our minds, and so you come in with this approach as if you had were completely new to the historical background of the debates. I wish you had followed this throughout your post because it highlights the difficulties and politics of historical interpretation.

    Your summary of Warner and Daly and which of their chosen historical aspects of Mary “will be the undoing of devotion to her” is expressed very well. I think you are right, you are not missing anything. But I do believe that most scholars of, say, Daly’s persuasion would hear your summary and reach the same impasse as before. I’m not sure that this interpretive problem is going to go away with them. I agree with RLFB that Daly seems to want Mary to be special without Jesus because she doesn’t want/isn’t interested in an historical Mary, but rather a generic Catholic/Christian/Western female role model.* This raises the question, “Why does this formulation of Mary and Christ present a problem for them, and why does it not seem to present the same kind of problem for some of the men and women posting or commenting on this topic here?

    *Conversely, you could, as I think ELM touched on, read Daly as assuming that it is ALL “made up” or at least intentionally constructed history and that, therefore the figure of Mary could have been differently-constructed.