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.” 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 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.” 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. 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.