So I’ve finally worked my way through approximately 1,000 pages of reading about Mary (why, why, did I feel that doing a PhD was a good thing?), and I’ve got some knowledge to drop, if you are interested.*
[*This post will probably be most helpful to people who have experienced some degree of confusion or consternation regarding Mary and her significance. If you have experienced neither and still prefer a high Mariology, I invite you nevertheless to read on, but keep in mind that I’m responding to a problem that a number of us Catholics (and, hey, other Christians) have in some degree experienced. But you’ll get no “anathema sit” from me. Peace.]
So, if you’re with me:
Mary has to be both less and more than we’ve wanted.
There’s a great need, I’ve realized in reading author after author waxing poetic about Mary, to have a relatable figure vouching for us in heaven, making our case to God that we’re sinful but also so, so fragile and in need of mercy. Specifically, to have a female figure doing so. This is because, to my mind, there seems to be some ubiquitous conviction, functioning at a level that I cannot even fathom, that the feminine figure, in particular the maternal figure, can provide us the warmth and protection that we’re really desiring all along. Hmm. In this way, Mary functions as the Mother par excellence who will ultimately secure our eschatological safety and empathizes with us now in all our woes. I alluded to Boff last time but the list is much more expansive than I realized. Any eyebrows raised yet?
Anyway, in addition to finding this sentiment in various Christian writers throughout the tradition (de Chardin, Schillebeeckx, to give only a couple contemporary examples), I encountered it in Catholic feminists such as Tina Beattie who are indebted to a more psychoanalytic approach (a la the French feminists, particularly Irigaray). Beattie argues in God’s Mother, Eve’s Advocate that patriarchy has distorted our lens for understanding the feminine and the maternal at a deeply symbolic level, especially as applied to Mary, and the key to a redemptive Mariology is for women to re-understand Mary’s femininity and maternality in a more life-giving way, particularly one that situates her in relationship with, rather than opposition to, Eve. Beattie thus acknowledges that there’s something wrong with the way that Mariology has been done, but her solution is to re-understand the male-female binary in a way that respects Women’s Experience instead of really challenging and reworking the assumptions undergirding the binary. For her, we women need Mary and Eve in order to grasp our own drama of salvation, which somehow parallels what’s happening for men with Christ and Adam.
But also, somewhat counter to my expectations, I encountered it in the writings of Latin American feminists Ivone Gebara and Maria Clara Bingemer, who have co-authored Mary: Mother of God, Mother of the Poor. This finding surprised me, as I tended to think that any kind of psychoanalytic approach to Mary, which puts a great deal of emphasis upon the gender divide between men and women in an almost a-historical fashion, would de facto be at odds with a more liberationist approach that puts paramount emphasis on Mary as a collective figure of the poor in history. I thought the liberationists wouldn’t exactly have time for gender essentialism, and, in a certain sense, they don’t–Gebara and Bingemer deliberately eschew definitional statements about Woman and Man at the outset of their text. Nevertheless, when later explaining why Mary is more significant on the whole for Latin American peoples than Jesus has tended to be (in broad, broad strokes), they write: “The mother is not just the one engendering…The mother is an all-embracing symbol that almost always sends out positive energy, affection, warmth, understanding, life. We are not pointing here to a particular mother, but rather to the symbolic figure of the Mother…Mary is the mother, the ideal mother, the mother of our dreams, even when we want to make her like any other Mary. She continues to be the most beautiful, the most understanding, the kindest, the most affectionate. Our effort to make her equal betrays our desire that she continue to exist as different” (124-25). In making this point, they add that men in Latin American cultures tend to be disconnected from family life, so it is natural to cleave to a female rather than a male figure in commonplace devotions. That’s their argument, anyway.
Though it is not my intention to regulate the piety of the faithful, I would like to think through what is at stake in all this, as one particular Catholic. I would offer Johnson’s point that, in complicated ways and even frequently under circumstances of duress, Catholics have relied on Mary so heavily and in such a way that she has come to function almost as a kind of female deity who is more merciful than the masculine God, particularly her Son. (Though, as Johnson acknowledges and ultimately rebuffs, Mary is sometimes portrayed as having some kind of special affinity or identification with the ethereal, diffuse, “more feminized” Holy Spirit. Hmm.) In this way she can use her finely-tuned maternal mercy to soften the hard edges of her Son’s perhaps near-wrathful justice toward sinners. We can in this way turn to her as our supremely tender advocate who has a powerful sway in the heavenly communion. On this point, Johnson argues that this development does speak to the largely unfulfilled human need to imagine the divine in feminine language and terms. The Christian God has been conceived largely in masculine terms — in this line of thought, although God is supposed to transcend gender ultimately, S/he somehow has some stronger affinity with the male and the masculine, whatever these things mean. To the human imagination at some level, however, this grammar of symbolism seems lacking, so we’ve latched unto Mary as the feminine conduit/counterpart to the divine.
As a historical and thematic explanation of how things have gone for high Mariologies, this claim makes sense to me. Johnson is too clever to nail down exactly what she means by the feminine/female and masculine/male, but I get what’s she saying. Instead of using a gender essentialist rhetoric governing discourses about Woman and Man, she turns to experiences that many men and women respectively have, particularly as tethered to unique individuals. So, for example, Mary’s Magnificat points to a woman’s capacity for compassion and contemplation and calling bullshit on injustice in the name of the Lord. It’s not as though men don’t have that, but Mary is one particularly powerful example of a woman embodying these traits. Johnson also talks about the need to imagine God as maternal, God as compassionate, God as powerful, and God as immanent, but not in such a way as to imply that women have a monopoly on these traits. It’s just that imagining God in feminine terms would help recover some of these ideas about the significance of divine love: “female imagery by itself points to God pure and simple and has the capacity to represent God not only as nurturing, although certainly that, but also as powerful, creating-redeeming-saving” (86). I think that gets at some of what’s going on in Johnson. She won’t really go further than that, and I understand why. However, she avoids insinuating that one is less a woman or man for not doing these things. That’s not how her discourse works. (Some think she’s trying to have it both ways, i.e., being agnostic about gender while also talking about the uniqueness and value of women’s experience, but I think her argument holds together.)
Anyway, the point is that since Mary is still in fact a human being who lived a concrete life (albeit in exemplary holiness) we need to take her down off the divine pedestal, which can only happen if we actually take seriously a re-imagining of God in feminine language and images. In short, we’re getting Mary to do work that should really be reserved for God, and this move of reconnecting the feminine/female and God has every theologically sound backing imaginable. So Mary, in this sense, has to be less than what we’ve wanted. Making her quasi-divine is not fair to her, since she was a real, historical human being; it’s not fair to the fullness of God, since there’s a whole swathe of feminine imagery and language that has been considered off-limits theologically, and it’s not fair to other women who try to live up to the stereotypical examples of saccharine docility that have been assigned to Mary within the framework of patriarchy and find themselves falling short. (If you think I’m being harsh, just look at, for example, Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation and you can see what he has to say about Mary’s specifically feminine awesomeness. I love Merton but please.) So in addition to rethinking Mary and why she’s so great, humans, particularly women, should actually be able to view her as a witness who can be imitated in her faithfulness to God. Mary can no longer be inimitable. Thoughts on this?
I was about to get to the “More” part, and that involves Mary’s rightful place in the communion of saints. This is Johnson’s way of re-writing her awesomeness in a way that invites rather than discourages the rest of us Christians to strive for holiness in God. Mary is…imitable.
I will follow up with that very, very soon but I have to go watch 30 Rock now. And this post is already too long.