Contrarian Marian: The Worst and Best Things about Mary

Contrarian Marian: The Worst and Best Things about Mary September 13, 2019

An Interpretation of Mary
DDP / Unsplash

Throughout history, Mary has been employed as theological weapon for unjust structures and hegemony, but recovering Mary-as-disciple instead of as “maid” and “mother” might change things for the better.

Someone very traditional reminded me earlier this week that September 12—yesterday—was the optional memorial for the Most Holy Name of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He explained to me that the “evil Spirit of Vatican II” sought to remove this magnificent feast until his hero, Pope St. John Paul II “the Great!” saved it.

With such an excited comment from my friend, I thought it best before the weekend to post something on Mariology, the theology of Mary, its New Testament roots, and how it evolved and has been wielded by those “Great Ones” in power. I thought I might attempt to remind my fellow Catholics of new directions about Mary made available with Vatican II and the years since. Let’s begin with the New Testament and Mary.

Mary in the New Testament and History

Catholics and other Christians should admit there is a paucity of information concerning Mary as she was in history. We know precious little about her actual peasant life. The New Testament is not much help. For two millennia, almost everything proclaimed about Mary is nowhere to be found in the New Testament. The silence is deafening.

How did Mary die? Silence. What was her exact role in the early Jesus groups? Not a word given. What was her life like in Nazareth with family? Zilch. How was her marriage with Joseph? Nada. What was her childhood like? Nothing is said. How did her birth come about? Complete quiet. Who were her parents? There is no answer. And when it comes to the Assumption, Perpetual Virginity, and the Immaculate Conception, we are greeted by yet more deafening silence.

We leave the first century with two main things known about Mary: she was mother to Jesus and she was virgin (maid) untouched by man when she became pregnant. From her roles as Mediterranean mother and maid have sprung almost all subsequent Mariology until recent times.

Catholics devoted to Mary need to admit that as far as assessing devotion to her goes, New Testament witnesses cannot be and never have been the norm.

Mediterranean Cultural Mary

Ultimately, Mediterranean culture was the foundation and explanation to Christian (and Muslim!) Marian devotion and understanding. Marian devotions as well as experiencing her via altered states of consciousness (i.e., “apparitions”) are owed especially to the Mediterranean region’s commitments for the focal social institution of kinship, to the common reality of the father-ineffective family, and to Mediterranean patron-client relations.

As Bruce Malina explains, subtract those Mediterranean social institutions and cultural scripts and the result will be that God probably will not be communicating with you by means of a Marian vision. Marian devotions make sense in the Mediterranean cultural matrix (or in similar cultural milieus). Without these, it will not thrive.

When it comes to the experience of 21st century mainstream, non-ethnically oriented United States Catholics, consider: are such people acquainted with Mediterranean motherhood? Are they familiar with gender division of labor from that region? Are they intimate with Mediterranean mother-son symbiosis? Do they relate to those with surplus as do characters in The Godfather Trilogy?  If these be remote and if U.S. female roles and aspirations do not connect with Mediterranean symbolism, how would this affect Marian practice and Mariological understanding?

New Testament Data is Scant on Mary

The earliest picture of the mother of Jesus in the New Testament comes the document called “Mark.” The depiction is quite negative (3:20-35). The mother of Jesus is not named in that Gospel—if we only had “Mark” and “John” for Gospels, would we even know her name at all?

While it is true that the New Testament cannot be (and need not be) the norm for assessing Mary, nevertheless the very roots of Christian thinking about Mary originate in the infancy narratives of the documents we call “Matthew” (chapters 1—2) and “Luke” (chapters 1—2). Keep in mind that the focus of these stories is not Mary, but Jesus.

As John Pilch and Bruce Malina explain, unless you died famous in antiquity, no scribe would ever draft a record of your childhood (or a genealogy for that matter—an honor pedigree; see the two CONTRADICTORY manufactured genealogies of Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38). That Jesus got two, impossible-to-harmonize different infancy accounts in two different Gospels means he must have died (was crucified) and became famous (was believed to have been raised by God and established as messiah, soon to return to inaugurate Israelite theocracy).

Gospel Infancy Accounts: All About Jesus, Not Mary

The infancy narratives help explain that since Jesus was the messiah to usher in the Reign of God, and had been raised from the dead, he couldn’t have been only a nothing-person! He had to be more than a throw-away person! His origins and role were much greater than those from a nothing-village!

Ancients believed like begets like. Great ones beget great ones; lowlifes beget lowlifes. But they couldn’t wrap their heads around a lowlife giving birth to a great one. In such an unusual arrangement, the gods had to be involved.

And so a childhood-account, written decades after the fact, might be constructed to illustrate that the Great One named Jesus had great qualities right from his birth. Whatever is said about Mary in Matthew 1—2 and Luke 1—2 serves to underscore Jesus’ great qualities. Marian devotion and theology comes way later.

Was Mary at the Crucifixion?

Michelangelo’s Pietà,  and so much of Christian art, depicts Mary beneath the Cross. And yet “Mark,” “Matthew,” and “Luke” are completely silent to her being there. What did Renaissance artists and filmmakers like Mel Gibson know that the evangelists didn’t? The Gospels are not 21st century fact-precise biographies. Neither are the visions of nuns, Mel.

The unnamed mother of Jesus is said to be at the Cross in “John” (John 19:25–27), but we could ask about the unknown author, someone doubly ignorant of Jesus’ Davidic heritage and birthplace (John 7:40-44), did he even know her name? Regardless, no “Hail Mary” without the Synoptic Tradition!

But the real hero for the existence for Mariology and Marian devotion was Mediterranean culture. The ingredients for that evolution belong to 1) the fact that Jesus had a mother and 2) Mediterranean social structures. These are the ingredients my friends.

Mary and a Fitting Devotion

The Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as a legal Roman religion in the beginning of the fourth century. It can be demonstrated mathematically that evangelization up until that point had been mostly a homophilous affair, and thus the Body of Christ was up till then overwhelmingly Israelite. But with Constantine’s heterophilous conversion, in the blink of an eye, Gentiles poured in, and the Church very quickly became almost completely non-Israelite.

The fires of urgency were stoked in philosophically-minded Christian leaders for articulating right ideas about Jesus. These were all Mediterranean men, enculturated and socialized accordingly. Their high regard for their Mediterranean mothers would naturally lead to the mother of Jesus being incorporated into their project.

Mediterranean male Christian thinkers deeply appreciated the principle of propriety (“fittingness”). Proper Mariology evolved out of this appreciation. These thinkers held that followers of Jesus needed to speak about and act toward the mother of Messiah Jesus in a most fitting manner. But how? What is fitting in this unique case? By what metric would they go about determining appropriate thought and behavior concerning a messiah’s mother?

Messiah and Mary, a Confusing Mess!

Most (not all) who claimed to be followers of Jesus in the first centuries held him to be Israel’s Messiah. But what exactly did Messiah mean?

Even in the years when Jesus formed his coalition (ca. late 20s CE), the answer was not clear. Scholars like John Pilch are fond of reminding us that “Messsiah” back then was like Heinz 57 varieties. Ask two first century Israelites about “Messiah” and you would get three opinions!

In Jesus’ day and the centuries that followed, “Messiah” was a messy, confusing business! And no one was more confused about it than philosophically-minded Mediterranean males grappling with the mindboggling idea that Messiah was human and not a sky-vault being.

Potuit, decuit, ergo fecit!

To the rescue came the principle of propriety. As Bruce Malina explains it: potuit, decuit, ergo fecit (if it is proper or fitting, it must have been and therefore it was).

Wasn’t it proper and fitting to call Jesus “God”? Sure it was, early Mediterranean Christian philosophy-types thought. If that is so, then, is it proper and fitting to call Mary “the Mother of God”? You bet, they answered.

But hold on! What good is a dead and buried Mother of God? That’s not fitting at all for a such a high honor status VIP like Mary! The proper and fitting thing would be for Mary to have been raised following her death (potuit); therefore, she must have been raised following her death (decuit), and she in fact was raised after dying (ergo fecit). Makes sense, right?

But being raised back to regular human life just wouldn’t be fitting! Wouldn’t it be equally proper that she be taken up into sky vault upon her death and resurrection? Therefore that must have happened also. Therefore she was, in fact, taken up into sky vault and is right there even now. See all the “facts” that get produced once the principle of propriety becomes accepted?

Appropriately Understanding Mary and Jesus

With that principle of propriety, intelligent Marian invention discovered prolific parallels between the life of Jesus and the life and status of his mother. Jesus suffered. So too Mary must have suffered. Jesus healed. Therefore Mary must have healed, as well.

Was Jesus the Cosmic Lord? Yes, so wouldn’t that also mean that Mary would have to be a Cosmic Lady of some type, a Sky Queen? After all, Jesus was king, and so Mary would have to be queen, wouldn’t she?

Stereotypes, not Psychology for Mary

Being Mediterranean personalities, early Christian elites, while adept at philosophical thinking, were distant from anything psychological. Anti-introspective personalities, Mediterranean elites and non-elites utilized stereotypical descriptions and explanations in order to understand others and themselves. They were not introspective Americans, judging people individually and psychologically. This leads us to ask: which stereotypes would they find fitting for Mary?

Seen philosophically through the Mediterranean cultural lens, Mary became a cipher for the Mediterranean feminine-positive, namely “virgin” (maid) and “mother.” With a paltry biological knowledge and zero interest in psychology, Mediterranean males turned Mary into a symbol within the prevailing cultural context in service to the established religious system.

Mediterranean male theologians celebrated culturally-specific understandings of the feminine. They did this by stirring in their biological misunderstandings, seasoned it well with their misogyny and dread of the feminine, and baked it all in the oven of abasing everything normally female. Of course, all these female-negatives were denied to Mary. So much of her humanity was stripped from her in order to make her a fitting symbol. This is identical to what the pre-Christian Mediterranean theologians did when they assessed the feminine in favorite goddesses such as Isis, Cybele, Demeter, etc.

Excursus: The Messy Mix of Marian and Monotheistic

Christians are Trinitarian monotheists. It puzzles many when Catholics (who are Christians) in practice behave as if Mary enjoys omnipotence and omnipresence. Of course, in verbal orthodoxy this would all be denied. Nevertheless a large slice of the total Catholic population seems to perceive Mary as if she were a goddess-like supercreature. To these folks, Mary must be everywhere because she can be invoked anywhere. Consider:

“I promise to help at the hour of death with the graces needed for salvation whoever, on the First Saturday of five consecutive months, shall confess and receive Holy Communion, recite five decades of the Rosary and keep me company for fifteen minutes while meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary with the intention of making reparation to me” (Mary’s Promise about Five First Saturdays, from J. Delabays, 1948).

It is fair to ask: why would any Trinitarian monotheist care in the least to “make reparation” to a fellow creature in this way? Wouldn’t any monotheist reject ascribing to Mary or any creature such omnipotence and omnipresence?

Breaking Down Monotheism

As with theological understanding of Mary, Monotheism evolved. Surprisingly, monotheism is quite rare in the Bible. You find the Israelite start of it in Isaiah 40—55, written under Persian cultural influence, but it did not catch on. Only later, after the New Testament period, did monotheism take over the awareness of Christians. The Bible is mostly a henotheistic library.

Mary and Henotheistic Times
Fellow Dying Inmate / All rights reserved

A Medieval expression used by theologians like Thomas Aquinas helps us understand this evolution.

All theology is analogy;
All analogy is rooted in human experience.

To this we can add the insights taken from the social sciences:

All human experience is culturally specific.

Therefore, all theology is culturally-specific anthropomorphic (and anthropopathic) analogy. Thus, to arrive at a theology that is monotheistic, one requires a suitable culturally-available experience to serve as analogue. Such a suitable analogue was provided by a one-world emperor.

How Monotheism Evolved

Reduced to the Persian colony of Yehud in the fourth century BCE, the Israelite people perhaps experienced, for the first time ever, just such a social structure that could serve as analogue for a monotheistic God.

The Persian Empire perhaps provided the ancient Mediterranean world with its first world-monarchy. This Persian experience helped the prophetic voices of Israel such as Deutero-Isaiah taste the oneness and uniqueness of God—not unlike Zoroaster. Israel’s prophets too were helped to see the oneness and uniqueness of God thanks to the Persian experience.

But the Persian empire collapsed. Alexander of Macedon’s subsequent empire fragmented into many kingdoms. And so, this led to the Israelites reverting back into henotheism. The world again had many kings, with one king ruling over a particular people, and this served as analogue to many gods but with one god to whom his people were exclusively loyal—henotheism.

It was not until the Roman Empire where a social structure arrived that was a suitable analogy for a monotheistic God in the first century CE.

Roman Empire, Jesus Groups, & Monotheism at Last

Monotheistic Jesus-group traditions probably began to evolve as these communities diffused throughout the Roman controlled Mediterranean, together with Jesus being proclaimed as unique broker or Mediator with the God of Israel, and with one God proclaimed in the Roman imperial backdrop (see 1 Timothy 2:5).

By the early fourth century, this monotheism was a mark of distinction Christians celebrated among various polytheistic and henotheistic groups.

Given this, we can understand that as an abstract philosophical system, monotheism soaked deep into Western European awareness via a one-world monarchy as analogue. In this time only politics and kinship existed as free-standing social institutions—religion and economics existed only embedded in these two institutions.

And just as there was no separation between bank and polis or between bank and domestic, so too there was no separation between religion and polis or religion and kinship. Therefore, religion was largely controlled by the norms of Mediterranean politics and kinship (see Bruce Malina, “Religion in the World of Paul: A Preliminary Sketch, Biblical Theology Bulletin 16:92–101.).. Messy indeed, that.

Imperial Mary & Mariology

Bruce Malina argues that after Constantine, the imperial political institution absorbed the Christian movement. Doctrinal positions become clones of political positions. Proclaiming Jesus to be God-man can be a way of saying that the emperor is imbued with divine attributes also, and is God’s single, human focus in the world of men. Ultimately, wasn’t it God who appointed the emperors, the king of kings, and all human rulers?

What about Mary? Wouldn’t proclaiming Mary as Θεοτόκος (“God-bearer”) be the same as saying she enjoys the identical role toward Jesus as the emperor’s mother enjoys with her son, the emperor? Scholar Jerome Neyrey says that this thought is clearly visible in early art (see his “Mary—Woman of the Mediterranean: Maid and Mother in Art and Literature.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 20: 65–75).

Mary: Our Lady, Queen of Heaven

Consider: what does calling Mary queen do? Malina explains that one thing it does is elevate the social level of queen up into the supernatural. Surely, subjects owe due respect, yes? This is identical with what happens when Jesus is called king. Instead of elevating the nothing-people, the village peasant lowlife people into honor (what counter-structural Jesus did in his ministry), the names of Jesus and Mary become synonyms for elites and great ones enabled by cruel engines of dominance and coercive force.

What does calling Mary a lady do? Malina again explains that it elevates the social level of medieval well-born aristocratic females up into the supernatural. Surely, lowly sorts and peasants (!!!) owe them due respect, no? Note when Mary begins being called “the Bride of Christ”—it is when the new religious orders formed in the Middle Ages, composed largely of females from aristocratic families. The role of the aristocratic virgin ascends into the very supernatural heavens in this Western view!

In these examples we see hegemony employing Mariology. Doctrine, devotion, and practice become weaponized. Those in power employed for their agendas the Mariological titles of Mary and wielded her experiences.

This continues when recent popes call Mary the ideal mother thus telling contemporary women to remain confined in this ancient view of motherhood. As Malina notes, what pope calls Mary “the ideal businesswoman”? Has any pope called her “the chief executive”? Who describes her as “a career person,” or “athlete,” or “stockbroker,” or “priest,” or “bishop?”

The Bad and Ugly of How We See Mary

Consider our world and time. We worship with a common language lectionary and hymnal. Although not yet achieved, in business we insist that equal work be given equal pay no matter the gender differences. Gender stereotypes must not inhibit females from realizing their full potential. We celebrate these as being good in word if not wholeheartedly in practice.

What a strange contrast results when we consider also that the VIRGIN and MOTHER called Mary has a role founded exclusively on ancient gender-based stereotype.

Imagine a Euro-American woman defining herself exclusively as we have come to understand Mary. She may very well be considered mentally unstable. How bizarre that quite a few Catholic fundamentalists and Church leaders are promoting this kind of “Marian” role on Catholic females, urging them to be “Biblical women!”

This is even more bizarre once we consider that outside of seeing Mary as Mediterranean maid and mother, how little can be said for certain about her historical life! Nevermind all that, just BE LIKE MARY!

Mary as Disciple

Perhaps something more can be said. In Mary in the New Testament (1978), Raymond Brown and other scholars, both Catholics and Protestants working together, spoke about Mary using a language of trajectory.

They began with the other New Testament “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” role of Mary. Rather than as maid and mother, Brown and friends start with Mary as disciple as seen briefly in the Gospel called “Luke.” They trace a development increasing in chronologically-later sections of the New Testament and continuing into post-apostolic times. Eventually, centuries later, this culminates in the subsequent church when Mary is proclaimed as being “the most perfect of all disciples.”

Yet again we must stress the silence of the New Testament on doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. However, Brown and his ecumenical group of Scripture scholars believed that those later evolved doctrines could be related to the New Testament via their trajectory approach working out from Mary as disciple.

Begin with the Lukan Mary, Disciple

Brown and friends see the primary image of Mary depicted in the Lukan Infancy Narrative is that of a disciple. She answers the Word of God. This is in accord with the Second Vatican Council, where Mary is regarded as “a preeminent and altogether singular member of the Church, and … the Church’s model and excellent exemplar, in faith and charity. Taught by the Holy Spirit, the Catholic Church honors her with filial affection and piety as a most beloved mother” (The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, n. 53).

Mary, Baptism, and the Immaculate Conception

In Catholic theology, we are delivered from the condition of sin by faith and baptism. One way of looking at the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is to see it as Mary, the fellow disciple, being the premier recipient of a privilege that Jesus gives to all his disciples. Mary was perfectly saved from the first moment of her existence.

Brown says that in “Luke” Mary was the first disciple. The Immaculate Conception says that Mary is the first to enjoy the fruits of Redemption in Christ. All believers are freed from sin in Christ, but Mary is first saved in this regard. In this way, Brown explained, through a trajectory of development, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception relates to the Lukan picture of Mary, first disciple.

Salvation & the Assumption of Mary

Likewise Brown and friends held that if we understand the dogma of the Assumption to mean that Mary was taken whole and entire into heaven at her death, this also can relate to her status of being the first disciple. The gift of the Assumption is not something that any finally-saved disciple will lack. Brown affirms that all those in Christ will be raised from the dead and will enjoy the Beatific Vision. So far only Mary enjoys this with her Son Jesus (this is what the Assumption means); but eventually we all will share in it in the transformation of all things.

Conclusion for Now…

Were Brown and friends right? Or is Mariology a lost cause? Much more can be said here.

Catholic theologians, informed by the social sciences, should celebrate the poor Mediterranean village peasant and disciple Mary being proclaimed as Queen of Heaven. Illiterate and starving, in terrible health and hygiene, she may offer us a face far more beautiful than the kitsch Norse goddesses with which we comfortably mask her.

Perhaps we might just discover in this marginalized woman the very first disciple and true face of the Church. And maybe get beyond the more unfortunate hangovers to the ugly side of Mariology and Marian devotion.




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