As the concluding conversation of our final class made abundantly evident to me, there can be no discussion of the Church without some inevitable recognition of and appeal to the Mother of her Lord. For that matter, this is so not only for the Church, but this quarter has proven that there is not a single aspect of the Christian Faith that can be considered apart from the Blessed Virgin Mary: from what translations of Scriptures are used, to why daily prayers are performed as they are, to the manner in which the Fall and Redemption of humanity is accomplished, all of Christianity looks to Mary to see Jesus. As such, this quarter has demonstrated to me in a new way the inescapable expansiveness of Mary. And postmodernity, to put it simply, seems to explore this expansiveness of Mary against the very real boundaries of who she is, asking if the two are harmonious or if the development of Mary as a figure has created a tension within her own identity.
Appreciating the relationality of all things to Mary within the Faith as it was demonstrated through the arc of St. Irenaeus, St Bernard, Sister Mary of Agreda and many others, it seems that the final impasse of our study this quarter is addressing the matter of what of Mary slips into the realm beyond reasonability, or more specifically in what sense we can possibly discuss Mary independently of her womanhood and her meaning to Christianity, independently of her relationship to the Church in particular. This dilemma might be summarized then as the difficulty of answering two questions posed by postmodernity: the first about Mary’s gender, and the second about her relationship to the Church. While these interests seem distinct, both inquiries flow from the inevitable angst of the postmodern thinker when posed with Mary’s expansiveness as the Mother of God, and the finite weight of both her personhood and her Church insofar as it is an institution. Our authors ask questions like: is Mary not, in fact, so bound to her Son as to eliminate the distinctiveness of her gender, and in doing so to minimize the necessity of femininity in God’s plan? Or, might Mary be even greater than her Christian articulation? That is to say, is Mary not so majestic and eminent that no institution, not even the Church, can fittingly reflect, encompass, or be symbolized by her? After centuries and centuries of meditation and contemplation, has postmodernity finally made the realization that Mary challenges the us to think beyond potential “bounds” that Christianity set for her, in terms of gender, ecclesial significance, etc.? Our readings through the quarter have paved the way for us to see what Christianity did with Mary, and if nothing else postmodernity reviews this development carefully. [Granted, our third week of readings included passages from the Qur’an that were certainly illuminating in their own right and in some way reflective of a non-Christian encounter with Mary, yet even those passages seemed to reflect an understanding of Mary that depended on a pre-existing and distinctly Christian tradition.]
In our postmodern authors, who either critique or innovate the Christian tradition within their respective fields in order to respond to these questions, we have become acquainted with the fruits of impulses unique to modernity. If taken in respect to the postmodern fascination with the Mother of God’s feminine gender in Daly and Warner, we might laud one of these postmodern impulses as a long awaited analysis of (I contend, an artificially flattened) “woman-ness” (a term which in this case seems to be burdened with utterly modern baggage and almost no definitively Christian denotation). Daly and Warner, as an academic and as an articulate observer respectively, claim that the femininity of Mary is so swallowed up in the centuries of her growth toward Christ that the conflict apparent between her gender and her stature implies a neglect of women within the Christian religion. To respond to these claims, I confess that I find this point made distinctly by both Daly and Warner unconvincing, especially on account of their colored reading of the history of Mary as a “woman”, as if this is a category of set meaning and interest for those whom these postmoderns judge so critically. “Woman” – this term employed by Henry Adams with an unfortunately unqualified denotation, fails to appreciate the terminology of previous Marian rhetoric. Mary’s femininity is of little to no interest in the theological dialogues of the ancient and medieval Christian – the Eve typology of Mary as a theological lens for her role in soteriology or the Virginity of Mary in a Bernardine metaphor of humility or the Motherhood of Mary in Hildegardian language of creation are all concepts of great significance, but these are completely overlooked in the criticism of postmodernity that claims Mary is at odds with her own femininity. So in this respect the desire to take Mary into the infinite beyond of postmodern, self-referential criticism turns up unsatisfactory in respect to its obligation to reckon with the history of the woman Mary.
If taken in respect to the postmodern theological motivation in Ratzinger and Jane Boss that looks at Mary through an ecclesiological lens, we might criticize this movement as a mere attempt to stretch Mary’s distinction like a skin over the Church (and to do so in a suspiciously symbolic rather than typological fashion). Yet, these authors if nothing else manage to innovate a new aspect to the ever-growing Marian portrait without contradicting or misunderstanding the Marian tradition. Ratzinger posits Mary’s expansiveness in a two-fold manner that has followed our studies from the first week of the quarter – to Ratzinger, insofar as Mary is a historical figure she contains “history A” and “history B” qualities – Mary as a person and in her person both mothers the Church as she also concretizes the Church. Ratzinger marries the expansiveness to Mary with her own complexity as a creature born in time yet Assumed into timelessness in order to reconcile the postmodern fear of the infinite in tension with the finite. Jane Boss makes a similar theological motion to square the expansiveness of Mary against her theological shape by forming a new image of Mary: Mary as the created and fully potential chaos of Genesis being glorified by the Incarnation of Christ. Rather than as an insult to her womanhood, Jane Boss finds Mary’s glorification by the Incarnation of Christ within the longer tradition of Marian devotion.
In conclusion, our postmodern writers demonstrate that postmodern readers of the Marian tradition stand at a similar crossroads that the early Christians stood at. That being, our postmodern authors seem to desire to reinterpret their own antiqua traditio just as first Christians and Jews did: as Christians found the birth of Christ within their Scriptures as the fulfillment of God’s covenant while Judaism set itself upon a different path, so Daly and Warner reinterpret the Marian tradition in a separate and arguably ahistorical fashion to the manner of interpretation sought by Ratzinger and Jane Boss which realizes the potential of the whole tradition. To continue to find the expansive weight of Mary in every image and symbol is the principle of devotion to the Blessed Mother, as this reconciliation is the first step to finding the harmony within the paradox of the God who becomes man. To set the two against one another is to tragically mistake the nature of the Christian’s love for Mary, and arguably the Christian faith.