Thursday, December 3, 2015

To Infinity and Beyond: What Postmodernity Gets Right (and Wrong) about Mary

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.

- W.K.


  1. I agree that the gendered language of postmodern scholars (Daly and Warner) is exaggerated. They seem to read in a lot of modern notions of “woman” into their thinking about Marian devotion. However, I don’t think that they completely make up the gendering of Mary. Mary’s comparison with Eve seems to take on a gendered nature in some medieval sources. Tertullian argues that “so that what had been reduced to ruin by this sex, might by the selfsame sex be recovered to salvation” (Chapter XVII). With more comparisons of Jesus and Mary with Adam and Eve, Tertullian further posits the gendered dynamic between the two pairs. Importantly, female Mary makes up for the sins of female Eve. This trend is also seen in Irenus’s work when he says, “virginal disobedience [was] balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience” (1348). Here, Irenus uses Eve and Mary’s virginity to comment on disobedience and obedience to God. Throughout this and other sources, descriptions of virginity often seem to apply to women. Thereby, Irenus’ use may suggest some gendered rhetoric. This type of description may not necessarily match the the ideas of Warner and Daly. Nonetheless, the comparison between Adam and Eve with Jesus and Mary suggests some thinking about gender in the medieval sources.


  2. (Sorry, I forgot to include a byline so I deleted my own comment. Here it is reposted.)

    I appreciate your interpretation of the messy matter of defining and applying “woman-ness” to the Virgin Mary. However, while I do agree that to some extent, Daly and Warner are committing the historical fallacy of applying modern viewpoints on old traditions, they make valid points on the role of femininity and feminism in today’s church. As was discussed in class, perhaps their choice in utilizing the Virgin Mary as the model for their discussions was unfounded, but to be fair, this is the rather obvious selection for a discussion on femininity. And certain teachings, responses to scripture, and/or theological writings can be interpreted from a gender relations perspective. This being said, Daly and Warner’s arguments are clouded by the modern idea of femininity as well as their own experiences of the Virgin.
    On the other hand though, I also think Ratzinger falls a bit short in trying to reconcile “woman-ness”, femininity, and the Virgin. As you discuss, in today’s world, there is almost too much baggage with gender defining terms. But on pg 25, Ratzinger clearly defines the “masculine” and “feminine” qualities of the church by introducing the idea of the church as effeminate. At the same time, he is utilizing this idea of Mary as the model of femininity in the Christian faith. The result is a forced attempt at trying to compare the church and Mary. Not only does this limit the characteristics of the church, but it severely limits Mary to both modern viewpoints of femininity and only being the Church.


  3. The conclusion of this post is an interesting reflection on how Daly's and Warner's projects differ from Ratzinger's. While the author does not seem quite convinced by the Mary/Church paradigm, he appreciates that Ratzinger is working within the tradition, whereas Warner and Daly are "ahistorical." Definitely with Daly, possibly with Warner, I think this an accurate analysis, but it fails as criticism. Daly explicitly does not care about history (or religion) as handed down to us by the patriarchy. What the author here senses rightly is that this puts a wall between her and Ratzinger. The reference to the Qu'ran here is very appropriate. Islam thinks about a lot of the same people and events as Christianity and Judaism, but it also redefines them in ways that makes the common ground almost non-existent. To any Christian, being told by a Muslim that he reveres Jesus as a prophet is hollow because Jesus as Muslim prophet has very little overlap with Jesus as incarnate logos. Whether Islam or Christianity or neither is correct in its claims, the two traditions and their interpretation have little to contribute to each other. If the Qu'ran's Mary tells us something about pre-existing Christian beliefs in Arabia that is helpful, but Islamic Mary for her own sake is really a separate course with separate goals.

    So, to answer Professor Fulton Brown's question from class, I think the entire project hinges on faith. Christians can debate the appropriate role for Mary within their tradition and Mary Daly can debate whether Mary can be a free-wheeling symbol of the mother goddess, but these debates can't overlap. (A Christian could argue that Marian devotion is unacceptable because it is really a holdover from pagan days, but that isn't quite the same.)

    Ultimately, I think Catholics like Ratzinger would agree with Daly and Warner that Mary plays symbolic roles to the people that don't map on 100% to her theological roles. For example, I think it is very believable that mothers identify with the Madonna on a gut level - Mary as the devoted, suffering mother has something to say to the experience of many mothers. While I think Ratzinger would embrace that, it is ultimately of limited importance to him because he is oriented towards a tradition and developed truth claims that he accepts. Because Daly and Warner have moved beyond that tradition, the symbol is the only thing they can see. Daly makes it obvious she thinks a number of Catholic beliefs are absurd, and her writing is laced with contempt for them. If you join her for a moment in thinking that those beliefs are false and so obviously false that they could not be sincerely or intellectually believed, I think it is clear that system only allows Mary to be seen as a tool in a struggle for power.


  4. You have done an excellent job here, I think, in summarizing the question that our final set of readings posed (and pushing back against my difficulties with Ratzinger!). After our discussion in class and reading through the blog posts reflecting on it, I think you are absolutely right: we stand at a crossroads of interpretation arguably as significant as that which divided Christianity from Judaism, perhaps even more so given that for many modern readers, God as Creator no longer features, which makes it difficult to talk about Mary as the creature who makes the Creator visible. For myself, I am frankly not sure where to go from here, although as you all know from the course, I am greatly attracted to the medieval understanding of Mary. I wonder, however, after our discussion, whether it is possible simply to recover it in a meaningful way (what I see as Boss's project). Modernity has opened up concerns, most particularly about gender, but also about corporateness, that the older tradition simply does not address in terms that most modern [fill in the blank--Americans? Christians?] find persuasive. Can we find a way to see Chartres other than through Henry Adams' eyes? RLFB

  5. Part of this post and the discussion in class this week left me with questions that I'm still wrestling with. Quite a few people argued against Daly and Warner because of what they saw as the misuse of the history of Marian devotion for a different (perhaps political or personal) purpose. There were also people who tempered those comments with defenses for aspects of the two authors' arguments, particularly Daly's, if I remember correctly. I think what left me wanting further discussion was the very positive reception of Ratzinger among many of those who spoke in class.

    I agree that there are problems with the respective arguments of Daly and Warner and that they could be rightly accused of ignoring or selectively choosing evidence about devotion to Mary in earlier periods. However, I also want to defend them to some extent. First, I want to say that neither author had the benefit of some of the translations and research that we've had, as Professor Fulton Brown mentioned. Both women wrote in the 1970s. Feminism and ideas about history have changed in that period, even if it is recent in the scope of this class's timeline.

    Also, they were both writing in a genre removed from those we've focused on; these aren't devotions intended primarily for those with similar beliefs and traditions. They certainly had political purposes and personal histories as motivations and perhaps biases, but so did every other writer. Think of the Christological debates from earlier this quarter. This doesn't mean that Daly and Warner should be excused from contributing well-researched scholarship, but it also doesn't mean that their projects should be rejected entirely.

    On Ratzinger: his reflections were very thoughtful and, as the author of this post showed, they brilliantly bring together aspects of Mariology that are beneficial to the Church. I can absolutely see how his essay would be meaningful from the perspective of faith and personal reflection, but we can also analyze it for what it accomplishes for Ratzinger and how he, like Daly and Warner, has biases. In his case they happen to relate to his livelihood, vocation, and identity, as they presumably also did--perhaps to a lesser extent--for Daly and Warner. The sense I came away with from Ratzinger's reflections was that of cautioning and reigning in excess, a response that shows the influence of Protestant critiques. He seems to be treading a careful line between praising the distinctly positive aspect of Mariology and making sure it doesn't get out of hand. These are understandable concerns, but while there have been a few figures in early or medieval Church who were similarly preoccupied with Mary "overshadowing" Christ (which is my reading of Ratzinger's anxiety and not something he overtly mentions, by any means), the majority of Mary's devotees didn't seem to be concerned about this. Ratzinger has, like Daly and Warner, brought his contemporary point of view to his interpretation of Mary. If Daly and Warner have artificially flattened the identity of Mary as "Woman" with a capital "W," I think they certainly aren't alone, and they did it in an attempt to mend what they saw as an intolerable power imbalance. -JF