Thursday, December 3, 2015

What Is Our Context?

What I have found especially interesting in this week’s readings and class conversation was being challenged to think about the ways in which our modern world appropriates the cult of the Virgin into our own context.  As Warner puts its, “A myth of such dimension is not simply a story, or a collection of stories, but a magic mirror like the Lady of Shallot’s, reflecting a people and the beliefs they produce, recount, and hold.”[1]  The theme of a refractory of light off of which people are to learn the ways in which they can become better Christians is more or less imagery that we have seen throughout the range of time periods out of which our assigned readings have been thus far.  The platonic quality of the myth of the Virgin is paradoxically something one must work ceaselessly to imitate, while on the other hand, knowing that no mortal can ever fully imitate the Virgin Mary (and/or Christ) in her entirety. 

Today, feminist[2] theologian Mary Daly calls out the tension within the doctrinal theology of the Virgin Mary which leaves women in a sexual caste, fundamentally different than men; a sexual hierarchy which extends to everything from church leadership to gender/sex roles within the private family system.  Woman is essentially stuck into a class of human who, like Eve, is stuck in a state of sin that can only be salvaged by God.  In this system of salvation, what constitutes being a “good woman” relies her relation and dependence on a man.  While the Virgin has been able overcome original sin as the doctrine of Immaculate Conception teaches, according to Daly, Mary the Virgin is still not deemed “good” without her connection to Jesus as his birth-giver and mother. What further makes the theological system sexist in Daly’s observation, is the fact that a woman’s salvation is only possible through her service to God and toward man.   The service to God Mary offers is only possible through her absence of sin through her own Immaculate Conception is ontologically superior to any service any earthly woman can give, including Eve. “The inimitability of ‘Mary conceived without sin’ ensures that all women as women are in the caste with Eve.”[3]  This well known Platonic reading of the myth of the Virgin Mary highlights well the theologically unequal nature woman has compared to her counterpart.  What is lacking, however, is a working definition for what is “inimitable” in today’s context with regards specifically to the systemic oppression of women.  In other words, before we appropriate a feminist reading onto these ancient texts and dialogues, we must first ask whether or not the images and descriptions of Mary being used fit our world today.  What is it about Mary today that we cannot imitate?  Since Daly is comfortable with admitting that the work being done is not about historical Mary but rather about the contextual Mary, these questions are important to address in order to understand the complications associated with superimposing something as nuanced as women’s equality onto an ancient tradition that has evolved as many days as it has existed.

By way us describing the contemplation and worship of Mary as an model that is inimitable, while helpful to her definition of the role Mary plays theologically, leaves much for those following Mary to interpret for themselves.  In the context of contemporary issues with gender, both in greater society and within the church universal, Daly does a fine job explicating the inherent sexism in traditional Marian doctrine and theology.  What she does not do, however, is construct in our contemporary world how we are encountering the Virgin Mary.  Based on her own proposal that the world being done has little, if nothing to do with the historical Jesus and Mary[4].  So, if one is to take seriously the contextual facts of the time from which one reads a Marian text, it is important to fully define the context out of which Daly is hoping to construct a new theology of Mary that uplifts women.

In taking a feminist lens to observe the cult of the Virgin both historically and in today’s context, for the first time in this course, we have encountered an unprecedented move in Marian work.  As was made clear at the very beginning of the quarter, Daly echoes the notion that the focus of our work should not cannot be the historical Mary.  It is not about the historical mother of Jesus around whom beliefs and eventually dogmas have formed.  Rather, it is the very beliefs and dogmas about her that we must take seriously, as it is the systems of belief and the aesthetic movements that have formed out of those systems that have carried on the tradition of the myth of Mary the Virgin.  Based on the work we have done in class and the careful work our secondary source writers have put into exegeting the context into which particular writings on Mary were written/received, Daly has missed a step in her own work by not examining the context from which she is criticizing traditional Marian theology and doctrine.  In other words, I find it irresponsible academically to criticize a text(s) and/or tradition from another time period with one’s own contemporary issues without taking the care necessary to extrapolate the nuances of these comparisons and their limits.

[1] Warner, xxiii
[2] By feminist, I mean a theology that substantiates woman’s equality, both equal to men in the eyes of God, but also a theology that equalizes women to men ecclesiastically and doctrinally, as well.
[3] Daly, 82.
[4] Daly, 81.



  1. I wonder how much contemporary context is relevant to many of Daley’s arguments. To me many of her points appear to be operating on a structural sphere above and beyond ‘the contextual facts of the time from which one reads a Marian text.’ Daley certainly sees Mary as oppressively inimitable, but even if we could imitate her, her power is entirely relational and contingent on the masculine Christ. Her example could never empower as it is inherently restrictive and secondary. Maybe it could even be argued that Daly does take into account context, but on a micro level. The moments she describes as ‘selectively perceived’, in which women take back elements of the Marian doctrine and reclaim it from the patriarchy and mould elements to ‘convey a message of women’s becoming’ are in a sense intensely contextual as they require insight into a personal moment of resistance against the intended dimensions of Marian dogma. I agree that Daly’s ‘reading back’ of her feminist criticism onto the tradition’s text appears a little unstable, but if in her view the patriarchal context which all of these older texts were written in was so flawed, perhaps a new reading that frees itself of these contexts is useful and worthwhile.


  2. I had a hard time reading Daly. I never really felt like the Mary she described was ever the one I had encountered either outside the classroom, or in our readings. I thought it was odd to argue that Mary leaves women in a sexual caste because of her extraordinary, impossible to replicate nature. Christ is a similarly impossible figure for men to follow. I do not agree with Daly that women are caste with Eve. The coming of Mary is part of the redemption of mankind humanity. We addressed this earlier in the quarter in how Mary is redemption for Eve, and Christ for Adam. Another problem I have with Daly’s argument is that it distinctly gives Mary to women, and Christ to men, and I personally do not read it that way, and I think historically in our readings we have not seen that either. Mary is model or all Christians, not just woman. The inimitableness of Mary, and Christ does not seem to be a problem to me either. They are inimitable for both men and women, and this is a necessary part of the religion. I think it would be rather odd if the models of perfection were actually attainable, and it would be extraordinary hubris for anyone to claim they had reached that kind of perfection.


  3. I tend to agree with HPB: I have never found Daly's critique persuasive. And yet, I think that DOC's point is a good one: we do need to find some way to address her criticisms. The question is how? W. Russell points out that for Daly, any historical critical approach to her own critique would simply be begging the question: as far as she is concerned, there is nothing in the tradition that is not inflected by patriarchy, and nothing we could say about it would escape this criticism, no matter how carefully we parsed it. I suppose this is the thing that makes Daly so difficult for me: just as reading the Old Testament as filled with typologies of Mary requires a different exegetical ground than the one which modern historical criticism has tended to use, so Daly requires us to read the entire tradition through a different lens. We come back to the question of faith: how do you read the Scriptures? RLFB

  4. While I would agree that Daly does engage in a false “reading back” of history, I don’t think it is because she is unaware of her context. The Marian image she is critiquing does exist in the tradition, just not in all of it. Daly is explicitly critiquing the treatment and use of Mary in her role as symbol. If her critique was confined to sources who used Mary in this way, then I think we would find her agreement far more convincing. Daly is very aware of and engaged with her context, but interestingly for someone whose project seems to be suggesting ways in which the tradition could, if not should, be changed to adapt to a feminist world, she does not seem to recognize that similar changes have occurred in the past. She does not see the change transformed Mary into a symbol, or indeed any of the other changes that have occurred over the centuries, now somewhat blurred through time. However I don’t think her work can simply be classified as “wrong”. She makes many good points about the Mary that she knows, who we have encountered in sources, and who by the time of her writing had become a part of the greater Marian tradition.

    - M. Coker

  5. It seems to me that an essential schism between Mary Daly and the traditions that she's criticizing is her insistence on the importance of in/imitable role models in religious tradition. DOC cites (a similar passage in) Daly when she writes, "The inimitability of the Virgin-Mother model (literally understood) has left all women essentially identified with Eve." If one were reading scripture only as a list of personalities that one must either imitate or not imitate, this reading would make sense to me. But as HPB points out, neither scripture nor religious tradition is actually experienced this way. The Church does not promote a binary of feminine behaviors. Daly’s argument takes for granted the idea that in a given text characters’ actions are inevitably read as possible role models for religious subjects’ behavior. It is very possible – and indeed true – that some Christians or scholars of the Bible read this way, but it is not codified on a grand scale and certainly does not apply to every member of Christianity. But in a significant sense that refutes this critique, Daly seems to be not at all concerned with interpretations of the text, but rather the representations within it. Mary’s role in salvation is passive, she is only important for her relationship to the masculine and active Christ. These are only the logical explanations of the relationships of the two figures as they occur within the text itself. I think that Daly is convinced that once something is written, the model it produces is either purposefully or inevitably doomed to imitation.