I would like to clarify that when I echo Johnson in claiming that we need to allow Mary to step down from the deity pedestal we’ve so intricately constructed for her, I’m not saying she’s not preeminently important.
In this move, Mary can occupy a premier place in the communion of saints, and this is no small feat. This means that Christians can and should still turn to Mary as a source of inspiration and help. It’s just that she’s no longer a superhuman figure separated out from the rest of humanity, exalted above us, especially us women (…she no longer has to be “alone of all her sex” — Marina Warner) in the way that leaves us only with the possibility of invocation to her but no kind of identification with her. In Johnson’s words, Mary’s humanity no longer has to be “bleached of blood and guts” (Truly 108).
I would also like to clarify that placing Mary in the communion of saints does not mean that there is no difference between her and us. We are still on the rough and tumble journey of faith, we are still failing, we are still trying to be purged and refined in order to receive the kind of full-bodied purity and integrity that make us open to God, and Mary’s holiness has already been ratified and consummated by God. This was the case for her in an especially vivid way from her very beginnings. Her immaculate conception and full bodily assumption into heaven were signs from God that grace was breaking into the world in an untold way, and she has lived and continues to live in God in a way that we do not. But we hope to. So it’s not as though she has nothing new and challenging to offer, and Johnson would reject such a reading of her own work. In making Mary “truly our sister” (Paul VI Marialis Cultus #56), Johnson means to say that we are supposed to aspire to grow in holiness in the way that Mary so extraordinarily did in her life. (And by the way, such holiness is read not in terms merely of receptivity or contemplation, although those things are there in Mary’s life as far as we can tell from the biblical witness, but also strength and fidelity to God in the midst of suffering, persecution, and exile. Along with these things, Mary also showed a keen concern for the marginalized, and an attendant joy that God was becoming particularly present for them and that she was able to be a part of that. Even Paul VI has said these things about Mary. Not particularly subversive, one would think…) Along the way, Mary provides an exemplary and unique witness to the life of holiness, such that we can look to her in order to grow into ourselves, to become specifically who God desires us, in our particularity, to be. Walking the path of holiness is a commonality we can and should strive to share with Mary, as the sight of such holiness is concretized in her example (as it is with other saints). Insofar as Mary acts as witness of such holiness, she is exalted, but such exaltation is an invitation and promise to us, not grounds to praise her as some supra-divine being from whom we lowly ones get favors, without ever bridging the gap. This seems to me to be one major thematic key unlocking the fundamental differences between high/maximal Mariologies and low/minimalist Mariologies.
With this paradigm shift in mind, we should note that Johnson means to not to eliminate veneration and invocation of Mary, but rather, to reform these things. Following Paul VI, Johnson suggests that veneration of Mary should be biblical, liturgical, ecumenical (i.e., clear about the salvific unicity of Christ), and anthropological (in the sense that it reflects our most up-to-date understandings of the human person, especially regarding gender and such). Regarding the ecumenically sticky issue of invocation of Mary for petitions and prayers before God, Johnson suggests that we may still invoke Mary if such an act is seen not as contacting a female intermediary deity so that she can work her magic on the male god, but rather, as asking a companion in faith to pray for one, such that Christ is still the mediator of prayer, and the Holy Spirit is still the one praying through both oneself and Mary. I am reminded, perhaps wrongheadedly, of Paul at this point: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26). We can ask Mary to pray for us, but even her prayer, her perfected prayer, is still overlaid with and taken up by the Trinitarian God, I suggest without really knowing. (Perhaps we could speculate that it’s God doing the praying, but in a way that enhances and ratifies the fullness of Mary’s own agency.) In short, then, invocation to Mary should lead back to the Trinitarian structure of Christian doxology. To ask Mary, and other saints, to pray for us with this doxological mindset does not suggest we need to provide a supplement for something insufficiently given in Christ, but to acknowledge that openness to God takes place in a community that spans all ages and places. Thoughts? Most of that was Johnson, and then some of that was me speculating.
An abiding question I have for Johnson:
While attempting to contextualize Mary’s importance within the action of God-in-Christ, Johnson seems to do so most explicitly by foregrounding the pneumatological focus of her project. She writes about her project, “The primary angle of vision will be pneumatological, seeing Mary as a graced woman. Since she is embraced by and responsive to Spirit-Sophia, she is a sister to all who partner with the Spirit in the struggle for the coming of the reign of God” (Truly 104). In tandem with this move is her theological de-emphasis on Mary as mother of Christ (and, hence, of the Church). On this point, she writes, “Her distinctiveness lies in being the mother of Jesus. No one else has this bodily, psychological, social relationship to the Messiah and, as with all human beings, the relationship is irreplaceably important for both mother and child. All the gospel tesserae note this relationship but do not leave it there. Her own faithful partnership with the Spirit, by which she heard and enacted the word of God, places her in the company of ancestors whose memory the community celebrates and finds challenging.” (Truly 314). Johnson does not want to ignore Mary’s motherhood, but she wants to place it in the broader context of Mary’s overall discipleship/faithfulness to God in Christ, her son. I am left wondering if such a move does enough. Obviously I am not saying that Mary somehow earned her place of honor only through being an inspiring mother. To say only that is to tell a lie about who Mary is and why she matters. Most broadly and truthfully, she’s a woman of God, but one must acknowledge that her specific vocation occurred irrevocably through being the faithful mother of Jesus, which is something none of us will ever experience. This is how far Johnson goes, but then she wants to leave Mary’s motherhood at the site of Mary’s own particularity as a historical woman. Johnson does not want to do much more with Mary’s motherhood, theologically or ecclesiologically, probably because she thinks that such a move is always already too dangerous and distorting of the larger truth about Mary’s special grace and exemplarity from the start. But I have to ask: is it enough? I don’t have any suggestions for how to think through Mary’s motherhood in a more meaningful way, and obviously anything exalted about Mary is always a statement about God’s graciousness toward humanity–she was mother because God chose her to be, and she freely agreed.. But nevertheless, part of me will always think of Mary as the mother of Jesus because that just is part of her identity, forever now. Won’t we always see her this way when we are trying to think about her theological significance? Thoughts on this, anyone?
Good grief. Apparently I had some Marian overload going on. Onto the next exam question: Heidegger’s influence on Rahner on the topic of being-toward-death (Dasein). Will maybe keep you posted if it’s not too boring.