Friday, October 9, 2015

Wrestling with Faith: Puzzlements and Tensions Surrounding the Theotokos

Paradox! Crisis of faith! Divine mysteries incomprehensible to the mind of mere humanity, unable to transcend their mortal bounds to the perfection, the wonder of God on High. These are the sorts of struggles that underlie the arguments and discourses in Thursday’s discussion on Mary the Theotokos, or at least, so it seemed to me. As I listened to the back-and-forth judgments on Cyril, Proclus, Nestorius, and Barker, I couldn’t help but feel the same sort of internal tension and anxiety that inspired Proclus’ homilies and drove Nestorius into exile.

For what is at stake in this discussion? Nothing less than the very foundation of faith: the nature of God, and perhaps even more importantly for some, since God cannot be truly understood, the nature of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Most High. Were He not both man and the Word of God, how could He have paid the greatest debt for our salvation? But if He suffered at the cross and tasted death, how could He be the perfect Savior?

Of course, Mary becomes critical to this discussion when one considers that it was she who gave birth to the Son, the Theotokos, birth-giver of God, or perhaps, as Nestorius would have it, merely the Christotokos, birth-giver of Christ, the temple of the Word. I find it curious that for Cyril, Nestorius, and Proclus, Mary’s identity and the way in which we honor her is predicated on the nature of Jesus, whereas for Barker, and perhaps less explicitly in the Akathistos Hymn, far more attention is devoted to Mary herself and what she delivers to the world, whether as Barker’s wisdom or the Hymn’s long list of titles praising her.

Let us first examine the former case, in which the title of Theotokos rests on who Christ is. The Homilies of Proclus that we discussed in class were all astonishingly beautiful (and thus all the more convincing, as someone pointed out), but the one that actually moved me on a personal level was Homily 5, On the Holy Virgin Theotokos. In II, Proclus claims:

“But even though all the commemorations of the saints are marvelous, none of them can compare to the glory of the present festival” (259, ln 33-4).

He is, of course, referring to the Festival of the Virgin, which Professor Fulton said was celebrated shortly after Christmas. Proclus goes on to list many of the famous patriarchs and forefathers of biblical history – Abraham, Moses, David – but actually honors Mary above them all:

“But there is nothing as exalted as Mary the Theotokos, for the one whom all beheld enigmatically in their visions, she carried incarnate in her womb.” (47-9).

In fact, Proclus claims that Mary has brought blessings to all women, for through her offspring all humankind has been saved. This argument resonates with some of the claims we discussed on Tuesday regarding the link between Mary and Eve, but I find it interesting that similar to Christ’s redemption of all sinners now and forevermore, Proclus says that Mary redeems and honors all women in the past, now, and all to come. In other words, as Christ changed the potential of humanity’s soul, Mary changed the nature of femininity.

This sort of argument actually reminds me of the mystical, powerful characterization of Mary as Wisdom in Barker’s argument, where Mary seemed far more than just a virgin who gave birth to the Christ (as impressive and miraculous as that is!), but is portrayed as a being who opens the eyes of priests, who was there with the creator from before the beginning, who is the bride, or perhaps the mother (?) of Yahweh (who is, if Barker’s claim concerning God’s many previous titles is accurate, just one aspect of God?). I actually found Barker’s paper quite puzzling – something just felt off. And then I realized the keyword: Asherah. I remembered reading in the Bible a passage where a king (who I now know is Josiah) chopped down Asherah poles while cleansing Judah of idol worship. Now, Barker describes Josiah’s actions as a purge, but I don’t remember reading them in a negative light. Here is some context from 2 Kings 23 as to what happened:

“The king ordered Hilkiah the high priest…to remove from the temple of the Lord all the articles made for Baal and Asherah and all the starry hosts… He took the Asherah pole from the temple of the Lord to the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem and burned it there… He also tore down the quarters of the male shrine prostitutes that were in the temple of the Lord, the quarters where women did weaving for Asherah.” (2 Kings 23: 4, 6, 7, NIV).

Josiah goes on to destroy similar structures across Judah and other cities, burning Asherah poles and tearing down monuments to the gods and goddesses of “the starry hosts,” which I presume is some ancient Parthenon including Baal, Asherah, Ashtoreth, etc. On one hand, this does seem like a purging of a past faith to establish a new religious doctrine, as Barker recounts the event. But on the other hand, there are two issues with this narrative:

1.  Everything Josiah does is in the name of the Lord, who in chapter 22 explicitly reveals to Josiah His anger at seeing His temples defiled by idol worship. It is the discovery of the Book of the Law that reminds Josiah of how far his people have diverged from the Word, and he precedes the beginning of his purges with a public renewal of the Covenant with the Lord. So isn’t it a righteous thing that he is doing in the name of God? How are these purges different from when the anger of the Lord burned against the Israelites who worshipped the Golden Calf? (also, am I making a strained assumption in thinking that “the Lord” refers to God, who gave His only begotten Son the Christ?)

2.   Barker states that “Asherah” is the queen of heaven, known as “Wisdom,” who she believes that Mary actually represents. However, as far as I can tell, Asherah was the consort of Baal, a god of fertility who actually appears in other parts of the Bible, such as when Elijah challenges a hundred priests of Baal to a public contest where he and they each sacrifice a bull and pray to their god to burn the offering. The priests of Baal prayed all day, but failed to elicit fire, while Elijah’s prayer was immediately answered, resulting in the subsequent slaughter of the priests and the cleansing of Baal-worship from the area. It seems that the Lord was pretty set against this ancient Parthenon – so would the devotion of Mary really be based on a goddess associated with this tradition?

Of course, there is a simple explanation to my concerns: the narrative in 2 Kings was written to promote a specific sort of doctrine that espouses Yahweh, instead of older divine names like El Shaddai or God Most High (Barker 93). In that case, Barker’s argument is much more compelling in unraveling the buried connections between an ancient practice and what became the faith of millions today. But I wonder if it is so simple as that. Food for thought, and, of course, our thoughts lie with our Holy Mother, the Theotokos.




  1. You have hit on the problem that Barker raises exactly: which tradition was it that the early Christians were drawing on? Barker is in fact trying to make sense of where Christianity came from when, as is well known, the Jews (specifically, the scribes and pharisees) of Jesus's own day denied that his coming fulfilled the scriptures in the way that they read them. Barker's larger argument is that there was a split in the ancient Hebrew tradition going back well before Jesus's lifetime, which we can see in the description of King Josiah's purges. It is a bigger argument than I can give here, but the main claim depends on a tradition that Yahweh himself had a consort, a Lady who stood beside his throne. According to Barker, it was this tradition, which had been preserved in the Jewish diaspora in Egypt and elsewhere, on which Christianity drew. RLFB

  2. Very interesting to conceive of Mary as the transformer of femininity. If Christ reverses the sin of Adam and Mary the sin of Eve, where does that place her in our understanding of salvation history? Do we risk exalting Mary beyond an "acceptable" letter in these considerations?

    Might we also, in line with some of what Barker writes, see her as transforming wisdom as well? And what shape might that transformation take? Is Mary wisdom or is it that she gives birth to wisdom? Both? Neither? It seems that the paradoxes of a creature containing the creator, who in turn contains all creation within, recur in the question of how Mary relates to wisdom, perhaps in an even more complicated form. This might be a question to ponder as the course goes forward and we consider the image of Mary as the Seat of Wisdom.