I am going to sound extremely Roman Catholic right now.  So even though, when I think about myself as a theologian-in-training, I probably conceive of myself more as negotiating the Christianity-world axis theologically, I suppose there are some questions that simply single me out as having some distinctively Catholic concerns.

I am doing an exam question on feminist Mariologies with special attention to Elizabeth Johnson’s Truly Our Sister (2003), so I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about how significant Mary is for today, both in Catholic systematic theologies and more specifically in feminist theological discourses.

On the one hand, Mary has not really been on my radar as a source for theological reflection–as the illustrious, theologically astute Bob (Bridget, fellow WIT blogger) succinctly put it in a way that cuts rights through the crap, “I don’t care about Mary at all–what does she really get us?”  Indeed, it is difficult to make sense of Mary’s meaning and importance while still making sure to maintain the absolutely singular importance of Jesus in the economy of salvation.  If we find ourselves saying that Mary is somehow soteriologically important/necessary for us because she provides us with an image of humanity perfected and fully holy before God, then we’ve indirectly undercut the mystery of the Incarnation by subscribing to an implicit docetism.  If Jesus was like us “in all things except sin” (Hebrews 4:15), then we can’t turn around and insist on adverting to another figure to gain a premier sense of what it means to be fully human and flourishing for the sake of God and neighbor.

Some theologians and thinkers throughout the Christian tradition have suggested that Mary uniquely embodies perfection specifically for women in a way that Jesus does not (Leonardo Boff, in his Maternal Face of God, is an apt contemporary example), but of course I think that argument is problematic first and foremost because it injects gender concerns and gender role differentiation (whatever such differentiation is even supposed to mean) into a discussion of the economy of salvation, where it is supposed to be enough, and everything, to say that the Son has become fully human.  (If you think I’m somehow denying the reality of Jesus’ human embodiment by speaking of his humanity rather than, specifically, his maleness, think about all his other possible particularities related to his socio-economic location and ethnicity, and ponder why we don’t elevate these particularities into the drama of salvation enacted through Jesus, and the Catholic priesthood that develops from him.  So I in no way mean to deny the reality of Jesus’ identity as concrete and concretized, including his identity as a man, but it becomes a different discussion when we start contemplating the soteriological meaning of his life.  And when we think about the Patristic principle that “what is not assumed is not saved,” then I think we have to speak more generally about the Son having assumed full human nature rather than focusing on any one element of Jesus’  identity.  In this way we preserve the crucial idea that Jesus’ saving invitation was maximal and directed to all of humanity.  I suppose one could counter that sexual identity and gender are somehow more important for identity than other features may be, but then that’s another conversation altogether, and one that is largely centered around anthropological considerations.  Ah, another time.)  The Son doesn’t become human in a way that somehow applies more directly to men; the Incarnation does not happen “according to the male sex” (Inter Insigniores #28).  (Though, as a side note, some feminist theologians have argued that it is important that Jesus was male, because his sensitivities toward others, his invitation to table fellowship and friendship, and his refusal to engage in grasping for power demonstrate the undoing of the operative paradigms for sinful forms of masculinity functioning within patriarchy/kyriarchy.  So in this way Jesus’ male sexual identity does supposedly play an important role in the economy.  For some reason Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza is coming to mind on this point but I could be wrong about that.  I think this point is well and good, but still, I’d like to emphasize Jesus’ fundamental humanity first and foremost.)  Moreover, such a sentiment tends to trade on romantic gender stereotypes (Mary embodies “the feminine principle,” which centers around silence, darkness, intuition, passivity, etc.) that don’t do justice either to the full range of modes of flourishing witnessed to by women or to Mary herself, who displayed not only a contemplative spirit but also a courageous and fierce desire to proclaim God’s justice (“My soul magnifies the Lord…”).

To problematize Mary further, one may examine trends in Catholicism, at least in the United States since Vatican II, in which devotion to Mary has been on a downward spiral.  One may perhaps turn to the events and compromises of Vatican II to begin to find out why.  The final text of Lumen Gentium, the council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, is seeking a middle ground Mariologically, in Johnson’s words, between a more christotypical impulse which posits Mary almost as the soteriological equal to Christ and the “Mediatrix” of grace and a more ecclesiotypical impulse which situates Mary within the Church, as one member (and a type of the Church, which is problematic in other ways).  This relativizing of Mary’s role as Mediatrix has unfortunately since Vatican II caused Mariological reflection to slow down to a trickle, if not a dead stop.  On this point, Johnson muses, “One might wonder at the very least why the conciliar breakthrough regarding Mary as model of the church did not catch the imagination of the faithful” (131).  (However, I in no way deny the fact that many Catholics still practice devotion to Mary in the preconciliar style.)  In other words, it seems to me, descriptively, that if the majority of Catholics no longer view Mary as some larger-than-life, near super-human Christological doublet, working hand-in-hand with Jesus to accomplish salvation for all, then we don’t quite know what to make of her.  Who is she, and why does she matter?

So, in short, I think Bridget’s question is still very much in play, and I’ve tried to sketch out a couple reasons why I think we are currently trying to shore up some pieces against our own Mariological ruins.

But it seems that we (I’m not sure who this “we” is, but just go with it), or at least somebody among us, should be able to formulate rich answers to these questions.  I’m intrigued partly because our two ex cathedra statements are both Marian: the Immaculate Conception by Pius IX (1854), and the Assumption by Pius XII (1950).  What does it mean that we believe that Mary had a special fullness of grace, and that she was assumed in her entire bodily existence, into heaven?  If our very own Julia has anything to say on this front, that would be marvelous.

I think Elizabeth Johnson’s reclaiming of Mary as a concrete, historical, poor, Jewish woman has tremendous implications, and just as many questions, for new directions in Mariology, and I will have to chart some of that soon in an upcoming follow-up post.  But…bored now.  And I need to go spend time with my husband for our one-year wedding anniversary!

23 thoughts

  1. Love the thoughts!

    Side note: The importance of Jesus’ maleness that you talk about is in Johnson’s She Who Is (p. 160). Although maybe it’s in ESF somewhere too. I don’t remember.

  2. Well, thanks for the shout-out, Elizabeth. Now that I’m known across the internet as someone who just doesn’t care at all about Mary (teasing, of course) — I want to emphasize here that my concern really is christological: if the true central concern of all mariology is christology (as I honestly think we have to say, going back to the Nestorian controversy and Ephesus), then it becomes difficult for me to see how we haven’t taken mariology far from its original point.

    Marian exuberance, whether in its Boff mode (Mary as exemplar of liberation for women) or in its more traditional mode, seems now to take us away from Christ, not toward him.

    In addition to Johnson, Elizabeth, one of the sources you might be thinking of for the liberative significance of Jesus’ maleness is Rosemary Radford Ruether and her now-classic phrase “the kenosis of patriarchy“:

    “Theologically speaking, then, we might say that the maleness of Jesus has no ultimate significance. It has social symbolic significance in the framework of societies of patriarchal privilege. In this sense Jesus as the Christ, the representative of liberated humanity and the liberating Word of God, manifests the kenosis of patriarchy, the announcement of the new humanity through a lifestyle that discards hierarchical caste privilege and speaks on behalf of the lowly.” (Sexism and God-Talk, 137)

  3. Bob’s /Bridget’s (?) statement is utterly confusing to me (“I don’t care about Mary at all–what does she really get us?).

    This seems to come from a wholly other theological world, a rather impoverished one at that.
    In my own theological studies, I have not noticed a downturn in reflections on Mary.

    What do you make of the huge devotion to Mary say in Mexico or in minority communities in the US? Is this problematic and symptomatic of ignorance/lack of theological sophistication? Is this just some “pre-conciliar” relic?

    I find Johnson’s work interesting but inadequate. She is making the same mistakes that plague(d) modern attempts at Christology from below. It should be noted that the concept of Mary as model of the church has been around for quite some time (i.e. early church).
    Related to this issue is the role of the saints. Are they “Super Friends” or normal folks just like us? What good are they if they are just semi-divine beings far away from us?

    “In other words, it seems to me, descriptively, that if the majority of Catholics no longer view Mary as some larger-than-life, near super-human Christological doublet, working hand-in-hand with Jesus to accomplish salvation for all, then we don’t quite know what to make of her. Who is she, and why does she matter?”

    Think about your statement–is it true that most Catholics don’t view Mary this way? Is it in fact true that the exalted Mary is diametrically opposed to Mary as model of the church?

    Your comments on the incarnation are excellent. We don’t expect all our priests to be Palestinian and circumcised.

    I think Johnson’s work can be reconciled with the high Mariology of the Catholic past and the Marian dogmas. Mary’s own very lowly human nature, precisely because of the work of her son, can indeed bring about what is ultimately good and divine into the world. Mary, as disciple of Christ and model of the church, is the preeminent example of humanity’s response to the divine. She brought Christ into the world through her humanity, and we our called to do the same. Her fate is our fate. Mary can appear to be taking over Christ’s role, but it must be remembered that to be a disciple of Christ is to imitate his work.

  4. Ha, Bridget, I tried to clarify that your de-emphasis on Mary comes from a concern for Christological prioritization, but I think you’ve said it better than I could have.

  5. Rachel,

    Thanks for writing. I’ll clarify that when I’m speaking about “Catholics” and the fact that Mariological interest has seemed to be declining, I’m thinking of the theological academy, the one that I’ve been exposed to at conferences and in particular in my department. Here in systematics, we have a very structured listing of classes we have had to take: Trinity, Christology, Ecclesiology, etc., and nowhere really in these requirements is anything being said about Mary or what Mariological reflection should look like today. Qua theological topic, she seems near non-existent. This dearth of Mariological reflection can be seen in opposition to other theological topics which are receiving a tremendous amount of (renewed) attention in the latter half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, such as the Trinity and its implications for Christian living (post-Rahner, natch).

    So, with this context in mind, do I see a decline in theological concern for Mary? Absolutely.

    Now, this absence of Mariological reflection in the academy perhaps is not a great litmus test for what’s going on among the faithful, but it nevertheless remains the case that Mary isn’t getting a great deal of consideration among young theologians in the academy right now. That fact may or may not be hitting on a broader current among the faithful.

    But all right, I’ll avoid language that speaks about the “majority of Catholics” and just focus on trends in certain sectors that I know are there.

    Regarding adoration of and devotion to Mary in Latino/a cultures within and outside the US, especially as focused on the Virgin of Guadalupe, I’m deliberately not going to make a judgment about that. Not because it’s not important, but because it’s not something I’m capable of speaking directly to as a white woman in the theological academy. Though I certainly wouldn’t make the claim (nor did I mean to) that such devotion can be conflated with pre-conciliar kinds of devotion. Johnson takes up this issue a bit in the earlier part of her book, but I haven’t decided yet what to surmise about that.

    Regarding the inadequacy of Johnson’s quest for the historical Mary, I’m not convinced that it’s wrong-headed, nor am I convinced that starting with a Christology from below, complete with a historical-critical consciousness, is ill-conceived. Looking at the different quests for the historical Jesus in modernity, I think their respective merits depend on the extent to which they are fueled by the belief that historical research can either completely enliven or completely destroy faith in Jesus. I think a similar point can be made with respect to Mary. In other words, our knowledge about these figures qua historical human beings will always be incomplete, and there’s a way in which our faith cannot entirely rise and fall on the data; however, we should always be searching for greater truth about these figures, and using the best archaeological and historical methods available to us can only help with that.

    Regarding the notion of Mary as model of the church, yes, I know that this has been around for quite a long time in the tradition. I’m not arguing, and neither is Johnson, that Vatican II created absolutely new Mariological categories. Elements of both the Christotypical and ecclesiotypical Mariologies have roots deep in the tradition. Also, I didn’t mean to imply that Mary-qua-type-of-the-church is opposed to Mary-as-exalted. In fact, I think the two can go hand-in-hand and have. And from a feminist theological standpoint, I have problems with how that has cashed out, especially when Mary-church-humanity is seen in tandem with God-Jesus-Bridegroom. But that’s a much bigger discussion.

    Lastly, it’s better not to assume at the outset that a doctoral student such as Bridget who is working in systematics and asking very frankly and openly about the meaning of a Christian figure, and who is doing so from a concern to understand Jesus more sharply, is expressing an impoverished theological worldview. It would probably be better just to inquire sincerely into why an intelligent, theologically educated woman is asking such a question in the first place. That move would be more fitting to the tone we’re trying to strike on this blog.

    Anyway, thanks for reading and writing. I like one of your last lines a lot: “She brought Christ into the world through her humanity, and we our called to do the same. Her fate is our fate.”


  6. Rachel — I well understand that out of context, my comment sounds rather flippant, but I said this in response specifically to mariological arguments that Mary is meaningful because she provides hope for the elevation of our humanity — because the Assumption points toward what we hope for all of humanity. I don’t see how the Assumption offers more hope than is already contained in the Resurrection. Presentations of the meaningfulness of such doctrines often seem to assume a decreased focus on Jesus’ humanity — Jesus has become so far unlike us that we need an additional mediator. This is the heart of my concern. If all mariological doctrines are ultimately christological doctrines, what difference does the mariological difference make?

    My question’s original context was one of genuine inquiry: “Elizabeth and Julia, if this discourse is meaningful to you, please help me see why.”

  7. PS–Rachel, I’m also concerned that implicit within your comments about the analogy of modern failures to achieve a successful Christology from below through various quests for the historical Jesus is a desire not only for a high Mariology but also a “Mariology from above.” This is a category which I think should not exist. I think the need to call this out just demonstrates the ways that we need both to put Mary back in a Christological and theological context while also roundly distinguishing Mary from Jesus in the economy of salvation.

    In my next post I hope to deal with the issue of “high Mariology” in relation to Johnson’s quest for the historical Mary.

  8. Really looking forward to the next post on this theme – I think there have been some interesting thoughts raised in the comments. I’m not sure I’ll add anything to the content of the post (beyond my pay grade!) but I did have a comment to make… or maybe more of a ramble to share 🙂

    I think people have kept pre-conciliar styles of marian devotion because it still feels like it MEANS something — there is weight and solemnity in the old hymns (stabat mater, salve regina), and those inform how we think about ourselves in relation to her. I was thinking earlier today about the words to the ‘salve regina’… and how, while I adore the hymn in many many settings, I find the text to be really problematic from my feminist perspective, for several reasons. The language of ‘poor banished children of Eve’ and ‘mourning and weeping in this vale of tears’… the language of ‘turn then, most gracious advocate thine eyes of mercy toward us’, of ‘our life our sweetness and our hope’… it just feels like we’re making ourselves so small and pitiable compared with this unreachable Other figure. And that’s just not how I think how she would want us to see ourselves, or how the historical Mary would have come across. For me, she’s more like the Clarissa Pinkola Estes version of Guadalupe (and I cannot find the poem in full!): she is “a girl gang leader in heaven./ She is unlike the pale blue serene woman./ She is serene, yes, like a great ocean is serene… she has a great heart, vast holiness/ and like any girl gang leader ought,/ substantial hips.” So I am very interested, from my non-academic perspective, on what can be turned up by the academy’s research on the historical Mary. Because for me, she is still very much the brave young Jewish woman with wild dark hair and a heart of fire… with none of that neutered
    plaster statue nonsense to cage her in.

  9. Thanks for your reply, Elizabeth.

    With respect to Bridget, I merely said that her situation seemed to be wholly other than my own. It sounded too academic, perhaps even Protestant. If I sounded disrespectful and not in accord with the tone of the blog, I apologize. My response was shaped by my perception of the tone of the blog post itself and Bridget’s statement (that academic theologians have all the answers, that they need to correct the lowly faithful). It reminded me of my work with immigrant groups over the years. Many have complained that their Marian devotions, deemed too old-fashioned and too foreign, were literally relegated to the church basement.

    I have a basic question: what is ebullient Marian devotion? Who gets to decide? The very church fathers and later theologians who speak of the Theotokos as a Christological issue also had a lot of ebullient things to say about Mary.
    Are preconciliar traditions really that bad?

    In response to Elizabeth’s comment about high Mariology, please know that I am not a professional theologian. My theological training consists of a few summer MA classes at Notre Dame several years ago. I am bound to get a few things wrong or fail to express them adequately.

    The analogy between high Christology and high Mariology is just that, an analogy. One professor complained several years ago that the quest for the historical Jesus, originally intended to debunk the Christ of faith, could never get us to the Christology of the early church councils. Similarly, the quest for the historical Mary, while it can “flesh out” the real Mary that lived and gave birth to Jesus, can never get us to Mary immaculately conceived and assumed body and soul into heaven.

    This brings me to Bridget’s point. I think your presentation of the value of the Assumption is missing some steps. I have never heard it explained that way in old Sunday school classes, coursework, or in preaching. No one has ever pointed to the Assumption unequivocally as the focal point of our hope in the resurrection. In other words, I have never heard it expressed in a way that divorces it from Jesus in the economy of salvation. Well, actually I have–from my non-Catholic friends.
    It has always been explained to me as a kind of reward (look at what a good mother she was, Jesus raised her up before everyone else). In that sense, I don’t see how it diminishes Jesus’ humanity. She has, however, been presented as a model of discipleship–she was a faithful disciple of Christ and she received the privilege of being the first to share in his resurrection. This provides us a model of discipleship and “proof” that fidelity to Christ leads to his resurrection. It doesn’t offer more proof than that already contained in Christ’s resurrection. It is a concrete realization of Christ’s resurrection.
    I don’t see your point that the Assumption competes with the Resurrection as our eschatological hope.

    In some ways, disciples can identify “more” with Mary than with Jesus. Yes, Jesus was fully human like us, but he was also something we will never be–fully divine. Mary was fully human just like us, but she is also something that we hope to become–divine as adopted children of God.
    Jesus is the redeemer, and Mary is the redeemed. Jesus was raised from the dead (or, raised himself in some scriptures), but Mary was assumed. Jesus is divine by nature, Mary is divinized. Jesus was the Word made flesh, and Mary was the bearer of the word. In the economy of salvation, believers can hope to incarnate Christ’s love and presence here on earth. But we can never hope to be or claim to be “the word made flesh” the way Jesus was. We can at best be bearers of that word, sort of like Mary was.

    That is why I think the image of Mary as model of the church actually works so well to unite a more human approach to Mary and the the old mediatrix approach. Mary as mediatrix brought Christ into the world, etc. The church, in imitation of Mary, continues to bring Christ’s life and hope to the world. She is the model of discipleship and evangelization.

    This seems to presume a Christ and Mary approach, but there are a lot of “ands” in Catholicism.

  10. Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for your response. There’s obviously a lot on the table to discuss, and hopefully future blog posts can facilitate that. There seems to be a methodological question: high Mariology vs. the quest for the historical Mary, Mary and gender, the relationship between Mary and Jesus, different ways of showing devotion to Mary.

    For the moment though, I think one thing should be clarified: Bridget, nor I, nor anybody on this blog means to imply that we have to come down from on high and correct the “lowly faithful.” It’s not like that for us. (In fact, I don’t think Bridget said anything like that, and in fairness you called her position “theologically impoverished” and not just different from your own situation…But let’s move and discuss the good stuff.) As far as we’re concerned, we’re just trying to bring our best thinking to an issue that seems to be undergoing an architectonic shift in the academy, and is capturing something about what many Catholics are experiencing on the ground. If we argue back with you, it’s a sign of respect that we’re engaging in a common conversation for the pursuit of greater understanding and truth.

    Regarding one of your lines: “But we can never hope to be or claim to be “the word made flesh” the way Jesus was. We can at best be bearers of that word, sort of like Mary was.” I think the point behind my post was to call this division into question, and to ask if we’re really understood the significance of becoming adopted daughters and sons of God, after the pattern of Christ’s natural sonship through the hypostatic union. It’s true we’ll never be persons of the Trinity, but I think the eschatological invitation we’re given in Christ is much deeper and more astonishing than we tend to assume or hope in. I think if we view Mary as part of what Christ is doing, then I’m all right with that, but when we start saying that she gives us something, soteriologically, that Jesus doesn’t quite get us, then I get worried.

    But Mary as pre-eminent disciple? Yes, let’s pursue that. I plan to in future posts.

    Also, my point isn’t to knock on pre-conciliar forms of Marian devotion for the hell of it, or to regulate and tamp down the way that Mexican and US-Mexican Catholic communities may find a lot to look for in their devotion to Mary. Everybody can decide for themselves. But in all of that, I’m going to offer my theologically-informed opinion in good faith.

    In particular, one of the things that I contemplate re: devotion to Mary is: what kind of woman is being portrayed? To the extent that a Marian devotional sentiment promotes a model of woman as submissive and docile (either as young, nubile adolescent or fully mature, well-seasoned mother) before a male God, I’m going to have a gi-normous problem with that, in that such an image is at some level prescriptive about who we women are ideally, and in that such a scenario seems to recapitulate the patriarchal household back into heaven. This is not about being academically snooty; this is about recovering liberating images for women from the Christian tradition so that women may realize/grasp their full dignity before God. (And if there are women who find the traditional portrayals of Mary to be liberating [and I know there are; I’m friends with some of them], that’s one thing, although that’s not particularly helpful for the rest of us, especially since such images tend to function as universalizing prescriptions for all women: Mary is the ideal woman. Mary is sweet. All women should be sweet.) What I like about Johnson is that she is trying to give a full-bodied, flesh-and-blood portrayal of Mary as a woman with immense struggles, real emotions, confusion, and yet profound faith that was as fierce as it was contemplative. I don’t see this image of Mary as much in pre-conciliar devotions to Mary, so that’s one very specific problem I have. For me, the gender issue is extremely important, along with the issue of Mary’s proper relationship to Jesus.

    Anyway, thanks for writing and have a good Sunday!


    @Lauren: Ha! Thanks for your post. More thought forthcoming. Promise.

  11. Bridget’s statement (as I said), as did yours, seemed theologically improverished because it reminded me of the priests I spoke with in the past concerning Marian devotions. They branded them as old-fashioned and not “Christological.” They were academically snooty and did not take the time to understand just what everyday people, those not in the ivory tower, actually thought about these devotions.

    You are right that the “eschatological invitation we’re given in Christ is much deeper and more astonishing than we tend to assume or hope in”–Mary’s assumption is a sign of that.

    No one is suggesting that one can attain from Mary or any of the saints something that one can’t get from Jesus. Of course, one can obtain things from the saints that ultimately derive from Jesus’ own unique mediation with the Father.

    Gender is a major issues, and liberating interpretations rooted in the historical Mary are of great importance. It just seems to be a bit of a rush to judgment that all previous Marian devotions are somehow inherently flawed. Most women I’ve spoken with over the years, even of younger generations, seem to find the old devotions, whether it is the rosary or some Latin American apparition, quite liberating.

    I think that in the recovery of liberating images of Mary, one should be careful not to trample on the flesh and blood reality of others’ perceptions of Mary. Plenty of people still find the blue-clad Queen of Heaven to be a liberating, powerful figure (and yes, that makes her other than us, but being assumed body and soul into heaven tends to do that). Images of Mary that show how subversive she was/can be to patriarchal systems are more than welcome.

  12. Rachel,

    I feel we are running around in circles. You yourself implied that Mary provides something that Jesus does not. (“But we can never hope to be or claim to be “the word made flesh” the way Jesus was. We can at best be bearers of that word, sort of like Mary was.”)

    Also, I did not imply that all pre-conciliar Marian devotions are bad; I gave one specific concern that some of them may be raising re: gender stereotypes. I have no stake in taking down all things pre-conciliar. These concerns can probably be applied to lots of different kinds of marian sentiments and devotions. Some women may find some of these images liberating, and I don’t. There’s an ambiguity to images of Mary (such as Queen of heaven), such that some women may find strength from them, and some women, like me, see more of the problems. So what? Do you feel trampled on by my merely expressing my concerns about images that also in various ways affect me and not just the women who like them? That’s not my intention at all.

    There’s a diversity in Catholicism, and I’m speaking from from sector, while you are speaking from another. To find different ways to imply that I am academically elitist or out of touch isn’t really fair, just because I may not have had the same positive experiences of Mary that you have had. I may be in the academy, but I am also a born-and-raised Catholic who grew up in various Catholic communities in the United States.

    Spirited argument is great, but I’m getting the sense that you’re basically against the points I’m making here, including the point that there is even a problem with Mariology today at all, so I’m not sure where we can go from here. You seem simply to be reprising some of the very ideas about which I am expressing concerns and then telling me not to be concerned about them. I see the way that Mary has functioned in a way that attenuates Christological reflection, both in the academy and in what people whom I know believe. I may be an academic, but I’m also a human being who’s allowed to have problems and questions about Mary in the tradition.

    But the same goes for you–if you’re fine with various images of Mary which I am now questioning, that’s great for you. I am glad that you have a vibrant spiritual life that includes Mary, honestly. Please go forth and find strength from her.

    That said, I’m not sure what we’re arguing about–if you’re denying the existence of problems with Mary that I am identifying, I’m not sure our conversation is going to go anywhere else.

    Anyway, I plan to include more reflection on Mary soon.

  13. I just finished reading this post and I am very excited about a lot of the issues and questions put on the table! Right now, I’m thinking a lot about other topics, but I hope that when I make a little more intellectual/spiritual space for Mariology everyone won’t be exhausted by this discussion.

  14. Hi Liz! (and everyone else who has since commented!)

    This is a beautifully written post; I have enjoyed thinking about the crucial questions you so articulately raised. Even though I’m no WIT, I wanted to suggest a possible approach to the central question of Mary’s role in the ‘economy of salvation’.

    I’ll start with a few general ideas about what salvation might be (which I assume to be relatively uncontroversial, though incomplete): Our salvation is ‘in Jesus Christ’. He has become what we are so that we might become what he is…what he is by nature, we are by grace…etc, etc. Again, the Holy Spirit unites us to our savior, Jesus, to whom we are conformed…and through union with Jesus we are brought into perfect union with the Father. To be saved is to be brought fully into the communion of divine Love, where we forever enjoy the mutual giving, receiving, and giving-again of the divine persons.

    So where could Mary possibly fit into this soteriological framework? Is she in any way ‘necessary’, other than as an unavoidable ‘instrument’ of the Incarnation? I think her personal role is much more significant than that. The reason is that, again, our salvation is ‘in Jesus’: through our being joined more and more fully to the incarnate and glorified Christ. As I have said, what is his by nature becomes ours by grace…that means his divinity, of course, but also, necessarily, his humanity. If we are one with Jesus, then his mother by nature becomes ours in the economy of grace. His family becomes our own family, human and divine.

    If we are serious about deifying union with Jesus, then Mary cannot be left to the side. Jesus is not isolated and disconnected; it is essential that he was born of a woman, not created from dust or descended from heaven. Therefore, when we are joined to him through the Spirit, we are not joined to a lone-wolf, a detached cowboy, but to a true family. Why does it say in Exodus, “Honor thy mother and father”? If we can devise an answer for that, perhaps we can devise an answer for why Jesus would have us honor Mary, our mother in Jesus. Off the top of my head, I don’t know that I can give an especially good answer myself, but I imagine it has something—at minimum—to do with a level of respect and appreciation for what comes before. Jesus, not a gnostic savior but a Jewish messiah, draws us into a family, which includes Mary as mother.

    Building on that foundation, I think it is possible to develop further reasons why God, in the economy of salvation, has given us Mary as our parent. And if I may speak personally for a moment, I find this particular gift a most enriching and uplifting blessing which draws me always closer to my Savior. Nevertheless, perhaps this is a plausible starting point. Do you think it has any merit?

    Thanks for letting me contribute!


    1. Rick — I hope you continue to comment here! Your post makes very good points, so pardon me if my brevity in responding comes off as curt; it’s not my intention.

      But: on the one hand, I find your reminder that we are incorporated (all connotations of that word intended) into a community, not just joined to an individual, to be really spot-on and helpful. This is why we can speak in a meaningful sense of the communion of saints; and, in a different sense, gets to some of why Christianity’s relationship to Judaism is of lasting and vital significance. So I am right with you here.

      I think, though, that part of why I still find this personally unsatisfying — which is not to say it’s not a perfectly valid theological stance, just not one which “sings” for me, and I am genuinely trying to approach mariology with empathy here — is that such a strong familial reading of Jesus doesn’t seem to be supported by the Gospels. Shockingly, for a Jewish man, Jesus doesn’t marry and doesn’t have children. He relativizes family relationships at every turn — “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk 3:45 || Lk 8:21 || Mt 12:50) / “There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life” (Mk 10:29-30 || Mt 19:29 || Lk 18:29-30) / the verses about setting son against father and daughter against mother, and…

      This is why I find Johnson’s placing mariology so firmly within the context of the communion of saints to be more compelling than a high mariology — I’m certainly not making an argument that Mary doesn’t do the will of God, but this, her discipleship, compels me more than a natural relationship into which we are drawn — because Jesus himself seems to regard such natural relationships as far less important than his contemporaries.

  15. Hey Rick!

    I’m going to post another Mary entry in the next couple of days, so I’ll try to incorporate a partial response to some of the things you’ve said here.

    But for the moment, let me just say that I love even the intimation that Jesus could be called “a lone wolf, a detached cowboy.” That Christ sounds…cool.


  16. This is a great post.

    As a convert to Catholicism, I’ve never really been able to get into Marian devotions. As someone above pointed out, a lot of Marian prayers seem to go way out there (at least in terms of my comfort zone). A lot of other Marian devotion seems to be just an excuse to hang some gender essentialism on the coathooks of a handful of Bible verses. And I’m often struck by the same question as Bridget – what good does Mary do us that we didn’t have from Jesus in the first place?

    …And yet, I am a member of a Church that has proclaimed as infallible statements two of what I would otherwise consider the craziest and most out there Mariological excesses there are. So, I will be watching these posts intently, hoping you can help me make some sense out of her!!!

  17. “High Mariology” vs. “Communion of Saints” is a false dichotomy. The former places Mary in the latter. And Catholicism has a rather high theology of the communion of saints for that matter.

    In the gospels, Jesus does “relativize” family, but do not forget that in Acts Mary is right alongside the apostles at the birth of Christianity. At the end of John she becomes mother to the ideal disciple. In Mark, Mary as confused disciple (like all the other disciples) is part of the transformed community after Mark 16.

    Also, don’t forget the prominence of James, the brother of the Lord, in the early church. His position of leadership was directly related to his family relationship with Jesus. In fact, some of the Jesus sayings you quote may in fact be the product of early Christians who tried to distance the emerging Gentile church away from the authority of Jesus’ Jewish family members. There isn’t a single, consistent voice on this issue in the New Testament. Both are meant to be held in tension.

  18. @ John T: Well, _ideally_ a high Mariology, in the sense of a doxological system of thought and prayer and worship that gives thanks to God for Mary, isn’t opposed to giving her a place in the communion of saints. But one facet of high Mariologies as they have been construed throughout the tradition and particularly in the medieval period (and even up into the nineteenth century with _Ineffabilis Deus_) is that Mary is seen as such a supernatural paragon of perfection, virginal purity, and Edenic innocence that nobody can hope to live up to her. Albeit through the merits of Christ she is sanitized of all human frailty caused by sin (skipping the legacy of original sin altogether at her conception), such that we can pray _to_ her, but we shouldn’t bother aspiring to be _like_ her. She’s too awesome. It is this line of thought that separates her out from the paradigm of the communion of saints, who are supposed to function as witnesses to inspire the rest of us Christians on our faith journeys. In this way, I would argue, Mary, as Queen of Heaven, almost comes to function as a kind of female divinity, replete with mercy and not afraid to use it on her (more justice-oriented?) Son once we invoke her in prayer.

    This is what’s at stake in making a distinction between the Mary of the high Mariologies and the Mary of the communion of saints. There are certainly different ways to define these terms, and as we do, the discussion will shift accordingly. But here are the historical fault lines we’re working with and trying to improve and reintegrate.

    @ Spencer: Aww, thanks for being…nice. It’s refreshing. Blogging can be rough, I’m finding out. (And Mary seems to be a particularly neuralgic point.) Another post is imminent. Or is it immanent?

  19. Spencer: glad to see a convert who isn’t one of those “I’m more Catholic than you” converts. Great people, but they are often more nostalgic for a Catholic past they never really knew. Personally, I find the hypostatic union to be a tad bit crazier thany Marian dogma.

    Bridget: You are right about Mary as Queen of Heaven. The language of praise for Mary as heavenly being has spilled over, or backward, into her earthly life. I can personally live with exalted Marian hymns and all that, just so long as they are balanced by the fact that she was a human being just like us. That’s where the preaching and theology fail.

    I wonder–why do you think Mariology and Christology developed in certain times and places the way it did, where Mary becomes the soothing intercessor between us and her wrathful son?
    Future posts on this topic look promising.

  20. This conversation reminds me of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in DC. In one of the chapel areas, there is this huge painting or mosaic of Christ the Pantocrator which looks like he’s about to kick your ass. You can see said picture here:


    Now, if you stand back a ways – like, if you were seated in the pews – there is a statue of Mary that stands between that big, scary Jesus and you. You can kinda see it here, but the picture is from kind of far away:


    It’s as if Mary, Mother Mild, were protecting us from the wrath of her son. I find myself perplexed by the piety that would build such a thing.

    I guess that doesn’t add anything substantive to the conversation. But, hey, it had pictures!

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