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.

24 thoughts

  1. I am such a fan of your blogging. I really want to know what you think of that Herbert McCabe essay. After reading your posts, I’m struck at how much gender is *not* an explicit mariological issue for him. What do you think about that? Is it good or wack?

  2. Elizabeth, I think your work here is really helpful, especially for someone like me who is new both to critical feminist engagement and deep Mariological reflection. Certainly feminist reflections on Mary constitute a “double whammy” of otherness for non-Roman Catholic men like me, which is a good thing!

    I kept thinking of Elizabeth and her son, John the Baptist, when I read what you write about Mary in the communion of saints. As a theological mirror to Mary and Jesus, Elizabeth and John have important prenatal roles in the economy of salvation. Like Mary, John is filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth (Luke 1:15). Both Elizabeth and the unborn John witness to the specialness of Mary in the history of grace when the latter visits them (Luke 1:41). It is in the context of her fellowship with Elizabeth that Mary proclaims the Magnificat, which seems to be the source of so much of Beth Johnson’s reflection about Mary’s mission for justice (or mission to “call bullshit on injustice,” as you aptly put it!) and witness in the world.

    In light of that, maybe one way to honor Mary in the communion of saints is to see her not simply as the greatest in a line of biblical mothers who give birth to agents of salvation (Samuel’s mother Hannah, John’s mother Elizabeth, etc.), but as a great member of a line of prophets who are themselves agents of salvation (John the Baptist the paradigm). Mary’s like Elizabeth in that she gives birth to an important guy; Mary’s like John the Baptist in that she fleshes out Jesus’s mission by calling the world to repentance and holy living.

    In short, maybe the foregoing helps answer your question about whether Mary’s motherhood as part of her discipleship is enough. I think Mary’s relationship to Jesus entails not only the maternal role that she and so many women play (though certainly this is important) but also the relationship that John has to Jesus: prophetic forerunner and sacramental initiator. Is this all necessarily contained within, and exclusively within, Mary’s relationship to Jesus *as mother*? I’m not sure, but the first chapter of Luke seems to me to say so!

    1. @ Sam–

      Your comment is exactly perfect–it can’t be overlooked that Mary’s Magnificat occurs within the context of her visit to Elizabeth. And I think the doubling of Mary-Elizabeth and Mary-John helps open up a space to think about the way that Mary, in communion with other inspiring figures, is crucial for a number of different roles and functions: i.e., it’s the maternal, but it’s also the prophetic. Perhaps when we honor Mary as mother of God and mother of the Church, we cannot even pause before we talk about her other functions, for example, as premier prophet.

      I guess in regards to Johnson, I don’t want Mary’s motherhood just to be swept to the side as one more marker of Mary’s particularity. I’m concerned that that will never satisfy the Catholic faithful. Her bodily connection to Jesus seems significant, somehow. So maybe if we decide to make statements giving praise for her as mother, we need to contextualize those statements within the broader sentiment about the plurality, fullness, and polyvalence of her theological significance. I don’t want it to be an either-or — so perhaps we can care a lot about Mary’s motherhood if we care about it as part of her broader role as prophet and faithful human entangled in God’s work. And that seems to me to be the logic of the gospels anyway–we learn about her as the chosen mother of Jesus, and then she seems to become important increasingly because of her faith in him, not solely because she is his mother.

  3. Elizabeth,
    This is good stuff, really good stuff. Thanks so much for sharing the fruits of your first 10% (I am especially impressed that you returned with gusto to the topic despite the disappointment of a night without 30 Rock).

    The combination of “mostly Johnson” and “some of [you] speculating” makes for rich reflection; that section on Trinity and doxology is really quite beautiful. In fact, it kind of encourages me to explore invocation of Mary in prayer, which, as one of those who has had considerable “confusion” and “consternation” regarding Mary’s significance, is no small thing. I also really appreciate how (in Mary [1]) you hone in on the careful, tactful way Johnson crafts an argument that creates space for the unique value of women’s experience without falling prey to the (implicit or explicit) gender essentialism that crops up in so many other theologies, even some notable liberationist ones. I’m glad to know you think the argument holds together.

    Finally, Sam’s comments remind me of a homily I heard this year on the Feast of the Assumption. I may have mentioned it to you or some other folks, but thought I’d jot down a couple of its main points here, as they seem consonant with his line of thought. The homilist began by noting that in Christian art Mary is always (to his knowledge) portrayed as silent and usually in some posture of docility; certainly her speaking is not the key feature. He contrasted these depictions to day’s reading in the Lukan infancy narrative, from which we ought to come away with an image shaped by Mary’s Magnificat: Mary as prophet. He then suggested that Mary as proclaimer of God’s Word through her prophetic voice is a helpful and necessary complement to Mary as bearer of God’s Word in her womb, and birther of the Word into the world. This struck me as a neat connection, at least as a concise, illustrative note in a homiletical context. I wonder if it could be developed in the direction of a theology that more thoroughly integrates Mary’s motherhood with other key aspects of her life and person, namely discipleship. (Though I’d need to think a little more on the relation of prophecy to discipleship…?) Not sure if it really goes anywhere in terms of ecclesiology, but perhaps something to think about.

    1. @ Beth–

      I think you’re putting things in a clearer way than I seem to be able to. Thanks for the highlights of that homily.

      I don’t think Catholics are ever going to stop seeing Mary as the Mother of God and finding some kind of extreme satisfaction in that, so maybe the trick, as I’ve been thinking and as you’ve said, is to situate that role in relation to Mary’s role as prophet, and to have a fullness of meanings backing these images up. (And perhaps both are part of the broader designation: “woman of faith in God,” or something like that.) This juxtaposition seems to lend itself not to a “theologically impoverished” mariology, but rather, to a richer and more expansive one. 🙂

      Another trick is to rework what motherhood even means, which is also part of what Johnson’s trying to do…

  4. Oh, I have another question now that I think of it, Liz. How does one deal with the scant nature of the evidence we actually have for the “historical Mary” when reclaiming her as ” a concrete, historical, poor, Jewish woman”? I say scant not in any derisive sense, but as someone who spends most of her time studying ancient people.

    I would think the answer might be similar to the one usually given about the relationship between the “historical Jesus” and the Real Jesus/Christ of Faith/Risen Christ/whatever: namely, that the historical figure, to whatever extent we can recover him/her, can at least exert some sort of control over the theological portraits that we construct.

    Is that the approach taken, or is that a mischaracterization of this project?

    Also, how would this approach respond to the distinction drawn by Liz Clark (Duke, ancient Christianity) between the “recovery” mode of feminist scholarship, which tries to recover actual women’s voices from late antiquity, and the mode that thinks the recovery of real women’s voices, presented as they are in male-authored texts, is virtually impossible?

  5. All righty. Let’s see if I can respond adequately.

    @Sonja: I generally like the way that McCabe glosses the Immaculate Conception, especially as Mary’s exemption (through Christ) from the principalities of the world-as-sinful. I also think the later parts of the piece are especially coherent, as he speaks about Mary as one of the _redeemed_ and about Christ as the redeemer. I also like that he says that this doctrine doesn’t exactly have to do with with specific things that _she_ said or did. It’s statement about God’s action in and ratification of her, with her free consent of course.

    At the same time, I wish that, at least parenthetically, he could have gestured toward the struggles that Mary, as a person of extreme holiness, must have still experienced in this world like the rest of us. Yes, she may be separated out from the “dehumanized world,” but, in the journey of faith, I’d like to think that she’s not so markedly separate from the _human_ world. (‘Human’ in a sense that denotes something broader than our sin and sinfulness.) I think McCabe doesn’t want to say that Mary’s journey in her own historical life doesn’t matter, ultimately, although at the end of the essay he seems to equivocate on the eschatological meaning of human historicity in general. I guess the issue is: what does it mean for a radically holy person to live in this world? Obviously with different conditions, this question has been asked perennially about Jesus as divine person. Johnson has a chapter devoted to Mary’s particular fullness of grace, but I think she could have done more with it.

    Also, I’m not that into any kind of strong identification, typological, poetic, or otherwise, of Mary with the people Israel. This is for a couple reasons. First, this identification has been beaten to death by John Paul II in his writings on Woman: therein, he aligns Mary, women, Israel, and then the Church as the “New Israel,” and even humanity in general, together and then juxtaposes that string of images with Jesus, men, Yhwh, Jesus as head of the Church, and God. From this binary he then extrapolates various nuggets of wisdom about the necessary complementarity between men and women that assigns roles respectively to each. I’m not saying that McCabe is going down that road, but that’s why I get nervous when the Virgin Mary is seen a symbol of the “virgin” Israel. (Would she be a “type” or Israel in this scheme, or is it the reverse? I can never remember.)

    Okay–got to go to some other stuff. Will finish responding soon.

  6. Okay, so.


    Second point about McCabe’s association of Mary and Israel, which relates to your other question about Johnson’s methodology.

    I’m also not into McCabe’s move that much because I’ve noticed we tend to associate Mary with collective entities: Israel, the Church, humanity, and sometimes I think it would just be refreshing to think about her as an individual. This wouldn’t be to isolate her from the rest of us–as I’ve said, she can and should still be exemplary to us. But before she was a symbol, she was just one person.

    The question you’ve asked about Johnson’s biblical hermeneutic is incisive, and it’s something I’ve had on my mind the whole time reading her. I’ve kind of skirted the issue on the blog since it’s kind of complicated and I’m bad at the Bible.

    In short, you’re basically on point: Johnson avers that Mary lends herself well to profound currents of symbolization in the Christian imagination, and that’s all right and natural, but that such symbolization should be “tethered” at every moment to whatever we can tell about her historical person. I suppose this means that we shouldn’t construct symbols that violently insult whatever we can glean about her as a historical person. How that works in Johnson actually ends up being pretty complex (she’s obviously selective, too, b/c for her Mary can and should be represented in different nationalities and ethnicities, but she should not be represented in such a way that she comes across as weak and ineffectual), but that’s the line she’s explicitly towing.

    Johnson explicitly acknowledges that we know very little about the actual Miriam of Nazareth, but she spends about 170 pp. reconstructing to the best of her ability what her world would have been like re: political power, worship, gender, food habits, economics, and architecture. Through this discussion she will frequently say that we really can’t say for sure that Miriam was this way or that way, but using the best archaeological and historical evidence possible, we can set up parameters for possibilities in thinking about her life. What comes across in all of this, among many many things, is that Miriam was poor and on (or at least near) the bottom rung of the social hierarchy. Sounds pretty obvious I suppose, but Johnson gives a pretty thorough sense of what this probably looked like for a young woman in early first-century Galilee. So, from a systematics perspective, I commend her for that.

    Regarding her reading of the Bible, Johnson is definitely an optimist — she uses a feminist biblical hermeneutic when examining the few passages we have about Mary. But she acknowledges that the portrayals of Mary in the gospels and in Acts are already theological memories. So when she examines these passages, she tries to contextualize them in a historical-critical vein while also performing literary critical analysis. In this way she wants to understand their “theological” truth. (But it’s interesting–I think she ignores Revelations 12, while other theologians make a big deal about it in their mariologies.)

    In all of this, Johnson acknowledges the many ways that Scripture is a vehicle for misogyny, but at the same time, she believes and hopes that the multiple portrayals of Mary convey something genuinely liberating about Mary’s involvement in the Incarnation.

    I have an abiding question, though: is it really possible that Johnson’s belief that the best historical reconstruction of Mary, coupled with an analysis of the theological portraits of her in Scripture, is always the most liberative portrait? Has Johnson really guarded herself against making Mary into the image Johnson just wants her to be, even though she’s trying to be historically responsible?

    1. Thanks for this thorough response, Liz. I especially like your observation of how quickly typology can turn into a gendered soteriology, with God-Jesus-man-clergy redeeming/guarding/disciplining Mary-Church-woman. That is not something that ever occurred to me when reading McCabe’s essay.

      As for the historical stuff: I am really interested in how historical figures (=recovered through historical methods) can act as “tethers” for our “secondary” theological speculation for three reasons:

      (1) I find myself doing so, especially when it comes to referring to “the historical Jesus” or “the historical Paul” when I want to counter someone else’s argument. And despite (2) and (3), this feels right to me.

      (2) Having the historical act as a tether necessarily makes theology a secondary enterprise. At first, this sounded very good to me until I re-read Dei Verbum and saw its assumption that the task of biblical scholars is to tidy up the fragmented “data” and then deliver that data up to theologians, who will then do real work with it. That makes me nervous because it fences in the kind of moves allowed to biblical scholars by assuming that their conclusions will de facto not enter the realm of ethics, epistemology, systematic theology, etc. This dichotomy has an eerie resemblance to the popular “science” versus “religion” distinction (=science tells us about facts, religion about meaning, morals, etc., and while they may complement each other, they can’t really contradict each other).

      (3) Though I have a lot invested in historical contextualization, it’s never been clear to me exactly what “historical control” of meaning looks like. Sure, we can say with fair historical certainty that Jesus was not “killed by the Jews,” which makes theologies of deicide somehow off-limits. But what about less clean-cut instances, such as, say, whether to call Mary the Queen of Heaven? There’s not really any historically-recoverable “fact” about Mary that you could use to call yea or nay on that title. I suppose it comes down to a question of what counts as something “that violently insults whatever we can glean about her as a historical person.” This problem also reminds me of debates about “literal” and spiritual/allegorical/tropological senses of Scripture. Sorting out those meanings inevitably involves someone’s protest that this or that reading “goes beyond the text” in the sense of “violating” the text. But it’s unclear to me how we can distinguish between a positive going-beyond-the-text and a negative going-beyond-and-violating-the-text.

      Does this make any sense? I’m sorry my response is so late.

      1. Yes this makes a lot of sense! And, as I’ve said, I have this abiding question with Johnson, perhaps from a slightly different angle, namely, is she putting herself in a position of control and regulation over people who invest in high-royalty Mariologies that aren’t exactly “biblically tethered”? This is actually an open question for me as I think about her book.

        She’s very much a particularist when it comes to Mary (i.e., she wants to individuate and humanize Mary as much as possible), so she comes down pretty hard on men who want to wax poetic about her as some larger-than-life goddess-like figure. But at other points when she’s more explicitly discussing her methodology, she says something like, “She’s a historical person first, and only second a symbol.” I am not sure what to make of this and imagine a lot of my exam (if I even get this damned question) will center around trying to make sense out of this methodologically tricky point. If you have more to say about this please let me know, as I would like to steal your brain.

        Also, I had another thought, based on my sense of Johnson as a whole: I think she’s made the point that her basic criterion for anything theological and/or biblical is whether it contributes to or disadvantages the liberation and full flourishing of women (and other marginalized groups, of course). I offer this comment not to solve our dilemma (ta-da!), but to offer more of a sense of where Johnson herself comes down. But can this liberationist lens, as I have just defined, work fully in tandem with a faithful and consistent biblical hermeneutic, or does she just have different commitments that most of the time look like they work together, but ultimately make her project a little bit shaky? And then there are lots of anthropological questions re: flourishing and what that means (cf. Jean Porter’s controversial smack down of Martha Nussbaum in _Nature as Reason_.) Sigh, I can’t figure it all out!

      2. I had a few more thoughts this afternoon, Liz, following up on what I mentioned in (2) above, viz. that asking the historical Mary/Jesus to exert some control over our theological portraits of them sets up a history-theology dichotomy that is strangely similar to the science-religion or literal-allegorical dichotomies:

        In the Catholic context, the idea of connecting theology proper to biblical studies was sometimes kind of an afterthought. There was an attempt to “give biblical foundations” to what were already complete theological systems, with the result that many people nowadays claim (misleadingly, I think) that this or that modern theology “is biblical” because they have found a way to incorporate the scripture that gives the appearance of scripture being the “first principles” from which the rest of the system somehow magically sprouts. I see this all the time when church historians quip that the fathers were *really* engaged in biblical interpretation, and that to call it anything else is a distortion of their project. This assertion clarifies nothing historically but certainly does a lot rhetorically. The fathers certainly *say* that they are engaged in biblical interpretation. But that is different from actually *being* engaged in biblical interpretation. Not because the fathers were lying and were actually not doing biblical interpretation, but because there simply *is* no definition of what it means to be engaged in biblical interpretation. The relevance for our discussion is that there is no absolute way of telling whether something is or isn’t “biblical,” whether it does or doesn’t go beyond the text. The relevance, too, is that something being “historical” (better: historically reconstructed) is no guarantee that it will be liberative. You weren’t making that claim, I know, but it occurred to me that it’s a move I see made fairly often and I felt like saying so.

        My other thought is this:

        Not only has the idea of tethering theological portraits to historical portraits often denigrated biblical studies by relegating it to the task of recovering the evidence only to hand it over to the real specialists (theologians), but it paradoxically elevates biblical studies to a level that many biblical scholars today would reject: namely, that biblical historical criticism, as if it were some kind of lab experiment that you could perfect, will give us “Mary as she really was” or “Jesus as he walked on earth 2000 years ago.” In other words, I think that the understanding of the historical enterprise that is usually operative in discussions of history-and-theology or bible-and-theology is way too scientistic, way too negligent of the agency of historians.

        But back to your question:
        “She’s a historical person first, and only second a symbol.” I think this encapsulates really well what I’m trying to say. It both claims too much and not enough for the practice of history. There is no practice of history that is not also symbolic, and there is, I’m beginning to think, no “secondary” level of meaning that simply builds upon without “violating” the neutral, factual, primary level of meaning. I find the whole language of “being faithful to,” “going beyond,” or “violating” a text (even a historically-analyzed text) to be problematic. Again, that’s not something you were claiming, but it’s something that occurred to me and I felt like doing a stream-of-consciousness thing today.

        A fantastic little book that addresses Johnson’s quote head-on is Wayne Meeks’ “Christ is the Question.” It has glowing endorsements from BOTH Cyril and from Bart Ehrman.

  7. “I don’t think Catholics are ever going to stop seeing Mary as the Mother of God and finding some kind of extreme satisfaction in that, so maybe the trick..”

    You should avoid statements like these, they’ll just open you up to unjust criticisms (i.e., that the “pious faithful” need to be tricked). Motherhood has been, for better or worse, one of the typical, though not “essential”, experiences of being a woman on this planet. The real trick, so to speak, is to present Mary’s own experience of motherhood (lest we downplay and neglect her humanity, contrary to modern feminist claims) as a supreme instance of her prophetic vocation. She’s not just a passive container of the word but rather a bold prophet and evangelist. Mary’s Magnificat in Luke is pretty radical stuff. In the end, she’s no silent handmaiden.

  8. John T–

    You misunderstand me. I mean “trick” in the sense of “key” for holding all these things in play. But thanks for assuming that I want to trick people?


  9. No no, I don’t misinterpret you at all. I know precisely what you mean. All I intended to say was that this kind of word (trick) would be misused and misinterpreted by people who don’t want to reimagine Mary within the communion of saints.

    The phrase “I don’t think Catholics are ever going to stop seeing Mary as the Mother of God and finding some kind of extreme satisfaction in that..” opens you up to the possible criticism that you don’t like the “solemnly defined dogma” of Mary, Theotokos.

    I’m merely saying that this kind of language, which is in-house and completely intelligible to people studying academic theology, might be completely unintelligible to others browsing through this blog. The last thing you want on a public blog is language that obscures your message and fuels your opponents.

    1. Fair. Although I would hope that readers would look at that one sentence (nested in a reply to a specific comment) in the context of everything else I have said about retrieving the importance of Mary, including her motherhood. If they don’t, I can’t control that. And I can’t help but speak in my own mildly sassy, hopefully inoffensive, idiom. It gives me joy.

      Anyway, regarding your comments about Mary’s identity as prophet, woman of faith, mother of God, etc., I think what we’re saying is pretty compatible. Hopefully more work on Mary can go in this direction.

  10. True that. In pointing out possible misreadings I hope I don’t encourage any previous naysayers.

    I think there’s a lot more to be said about Mary that hasn’t been said: possible article(s) or dissertation in your future?

  11. @ Sonja–

    For some reason I can’t “reply” directly to your latest comment. Meh.

    I’m knee-deep in another exam question at the moment, but off the top of my head, I just wanted to affirm the problem that you’ve posed and to say that I’ve had the same question in my mind, although in a much more nascent form. Your point, though, about theologians treating biblical scholars as scientists in a lab is something that wasn’t on my radar, and I’m going to have to think about it more. Is systematic theology just doomed? [Cue panic.]

    I can’t tell what Johnson’s deal is in all of this totally; sometimes I get the sense that she thinks “more historical tethering” equates to more liberation (which, as I have mentioned, I’m concerned about), and then at other times I think she knows we can’t really get “Mary uncut,” so then her argument fundamentally turns on a feminist critique of patriarchal anthropologies, Scripture be damned if it can’t help with that.

    In all your gobs of free time, you should read her book and then tell me things.

  12. A couple thoughts following from the conversation between Elizabeth and Sonja regarding biblical scholarship and theology:

    I’ve come to be convinced that theologians have much to gain from refusing to apologize for claims that they make regarding what is going on in history even when these claims are not totally supported by independently established processes of “historical verification.” I can give two reasons. First, especially regarding ancient figures, such as Mary, but the principle probably extends to any historical figure, the “empirical” data we have is already compromised a great deal insofar as it is both incomplete and enriched by an active (in Mary’s case, theological) imagination. Hence, a merely partially informed and/or methodologically rigorous (which is not to say true) conjecture, never free from some degree of unfettered imagination, is the best that we can do “scientifically.”

    Second, the point of making such claims (theological claims with reference to history) is not primarily to alleviate an epistemological anxiety but rather to say the right thing theologically; if we act like theology’s proper concern is with things non-historical (mythical, symbolic, etc.) we will be in big trouble.

    So, what I propose is that we recognize two different ways of speaking about history: modern “scientific” and theological. I’m not sure that it makes sense to think of the relationship between these two using the metaphor of a “tether.” Where these disciplines converge, on the same historical object (as it were), the interractions between them seem likely to be much more complicated, and I think this is actually a good thing. Any a priori decision which would grant one approach or another absolute priority or veto power would be arbitrary. For neither our modern-scientific nor our theological sense of the reality of things is so certain that the need for correction, in one direction or the other, can be ruled out in principle.

    A theology will be good only if it says things about history which make sense theologically; it will be even better if, somehow, acrobatically, it manages to do so while incorporating that extra modicum of epistemic assurance that comes with respecting some findings of a methodologically rigorous, modern, scientific reading of the text.

    1. First, I love this blog. You ladies are managing to be both intellectually challenging and spiritually nutritive – no mean feat for theologians! What’s more, you manage both in a way that is accessible to folks outside the academy (me!) who get lost in other places of the theological blogosphere.

      Second, a question for Andrew: the relationship of history (or other non-theological disciplines) and theology is one I worry about. You make some excellent points about the dangers of putting them in too close of a relationship. How do you avoid separating them too far, though? I worry that moving too far away from “tether” language allows for theologians simply to ignore history. Historical investigation does a lot to help us escape from some otherwise worrisome parts of scripture, in any case: it strikes me that at least some of the NT simply is anti-Jewish in the ways I don’t want it to be because of my knowledge of the historical effects and situation of such passages. Historical research often seems, as well, to be the friend of liberationist readings of all stripes: women in the Pauline letters, homosexuality throughout the Bible, etc. Another way to ask this question is when do we let history level criticism against theology?

      I suppose we can construe “theological” pretty broadly – there is a real sense in which doing historical research on the Bible is a truly theological task, I think (though I don’t know).

  13. Spencer,

    Yeah, I think that’s the question. When do we allow a discipline other than theology to dictate to theology what can and cannot be said? Sometimes it seems we need to allow for such external control in order to keep theology honest, grounded, self-critical, etc. When I think about my own attempts to say anything theologically, I find that I draw on the claims of other disciplines to buttress my arguments when convient: i.e., when the theological point I want to make is also supported at least somewhat on other grounds. But I also tend to pay attention to the claims of other disciplines in order to avoid embarassment. If I say something that contradicts what historians say regarding history, I better have a really good reason for doing so, and I’m going to have to live with the consequences of going against the grain. It’s harder to live with these consequences when the claims of other disciplines are actually really well established. I suppose it’s possible to deny something theologically that has been demonstrated elsewhere–wisdom in foolishness, right?–but the upshot of this approach, when taken to the extreme, is that one’s theology ends up entailing an antagonistic stance toward ordinary forms of human knowing, which, in my view, is ultimately a really high price to pay theologically. Our dignity as rational creatures quickly gets compromised. So, my own general “method”–not that I have tried to formalize it or anything–is that I try not to contradict any arguments made outside of theology which seem really solid and good. But, at the same time, I don’t generally feel this way about many of the “historical-critical” reconstructions of Jesus. Many dubious presuppositions, some philosophical, seem to creep into these analyses. And this reduces their right to tether theology to their conclusions. This is why I resist the idea of positing a tether which functions a priori to constrain one discipline to another. I think we need the freedom to judge arguments on a case by case basis.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s