Few topics pose as great a challenge to Catholic theology or to the search for an appropriate theological method as the popular devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. No account of Roman Catholicism as a lived religion would be complete without considerable attention to the role Mary plays in the prayers and hopes, the hymns, paintings, sculpture, and architecture, the liturgies, dramas, street festivals, and pilgrimages of the Catholic people.

Yet we know very little about this woman. Her role in the stories of the New Testament is small and somewhat ambiguous. Most contemporary New Testament scholars do not assume that the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel, which include the Annunciation story, the Magnificat, and the Christmas story, contain much reliable historical information. In addition, it is difficult to be sure what Mary’s attitude to Jesus’ public ministry was or whether it changed over time. The early tradition showed rather little interest in the relationship between Jesus and Mary or in most of those called “sisters and brothers” of Jesus. The biblical testimony, in other words, does not in itself explain the role Mary has played in the Catholic imagination.

What could explain it? Would studies of folklore and popular culture make a helpful contribution to our understanding? Would a psychological reflection on the history of Marian devotion be illuminating? Was this an example of popular religious intuition searching for something missing in a predominantly masculine tradition but essential for the life of the human soul? Was it primarily the appropriation and transformation of pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices, of devotion to “the Great Mother,” for example, or to Isis or Minerva, especially among the populations of the Mediterranean cultures? This phenomenon seems related to other complex though neglected questions about the religious significance of midrash, legend, fantasy, or partially or entirely imaginary figures like Saint Nicholas, Saint Christopher, or (perhaps) Saint Juan Diego. How are we to understand all of what has happened in the souls of Catholics in the name of Mary? How should we, critically and faithfully, interpret the fecundity of the Catholic imagination in regard to Mary—beyond all the available sources of information about her?

Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ, has been thinking about such questions for a long time. She has now published a major theological study on Mary, and it is a very impressive work—comprehensive, erudite, critical, and passionate. Truly Our Sister does not begin, as do so many theological treatises, with scriptural foundations, followed by sections on patristic literature, medieval theologies, Reformation controversies, and modern developments. For Johnson, there is too much ambiguity in the history of Marian devotion for this approach to make sense; ineluctably we stand in a broken relationship with the whole tradition. Instead, she begins with “fragments in the rubble,” salvageable elements from the past, and then turns to what, in Johnson’s view, is the key event of the theological development: the emergence of women’s voices in theology, and especially the voices of women in poor countries and marginalized minorities. Her goal is to develop “a Marian theology rooted in Scripture read through women’s eyes with feminist hermeneutical methods.”

What she has achieved is deeply admirable. Readers will learn much about Catholic Mariology, contemporary feminist theology, current New Testament scholarship, and the appropriation by systematic theologians of important developments in the study of “lived” and “popular” religion. All these fields are traversed with a confidence and grace that bespeak a true love of learning and a discerning heart.

The book moves from “women’s voices in a new key” to detailed critiques of two dominant tendencies in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Mariology: the interpretation of Mary as the idealized manifestation of “the feminine” in the imaginations of men, what Johnson calls “the Patriarchal Feminine,” and the interpretation of Mary as the “maternal face of God.” These are fascinating and disturbing chapters. It is startling how many claims are made about Mary that have no plausible warrant. We are reminded that very few male theologians have succeeded in thinking of Mary as a concrete, historical woman; and we are reminded of how extravagantly the name of Mary has been used to replace those of Christ, the Father, the Holy Spirit, Isis, and other goddesses of late antiquity in psalms, hymns, prayers, and litanies. Although some theologians and church leaders have always made careful distinctions between reverence and worship, there’s no denying that in many ways at many times Catholics have seemed to adore “Mary.” Having established the principles according to which we may be able to resist these two tendencies, Johnson presents her own “modest proposal,” a Spirit-centered theology of Mary as a historical person who is “truly our sister” (a quotation from Paul VI).

It is significant that the next move Johnson makes is to investigate in considerable detail the context of Mary’s life: the political and economic world of Galilee, the religious world of Second Temple Judaism, and the social and cultural world of women in that place and time. This greatly helps us imagine what life was like in those specific circumstances and anchors our efforts to understand the biblical passages about Mary in the social realities in which they were produced. The heart of the constructive contribution of the book comes, then, in two concluding chapters. The tenth chapter, “The Dangerous Memory of Mary,” is a careful analysis of all New Testament passages that mention Mary. This is a remarkable piece of work, an extensive tour of recent New Testament scholarship and its use of different methods and theoretical frameworks—with 220 endnotes of its own—leaving none of these familiar passages unaffected by critical questioning and fresh readings. The eleventh and final chapter, “Mary, Friend of God and Prophet,” eloquently summarizes the theological model that Johnson has developed throughout the book for re-appropriating the memory of Mary in the community of the church today.

I am left with several reflections prompted and made possible by the book itself. The first is a question about Johnson’s relative neglect of interpretive strategies drawn from the depth psychology of Freud or Jung. Surely there are deep and ambiguous needs, fantasies, and yearnings revealed in the lavish symbolism of a “Virgin Mother” who is both “our mother” and “the Mother of God,” a figure who is also addressed as “Morning Star,” “Queen of Heaven,” “Tower of Ivory,” “House of Gold,” “Seat of Wisdom,” “Ark of the Covenant,” and “Mystical Rose.” This may be a path that diverges from the question of a contemporary theology of Mary. Nevertheless, I believe it remains important. The second is simply the observation that men have a need and a desire to respond to feminine figures within a religious tradition, just as women have a need and a desire to respond to masculine figures. There’s more to this than a patriarchal conspiracy. Men too have sung songs and made images, and although they have not been entirely successful in transcending their own self-interest, they have made a legitimate contribution to the historical memory, religious imagination, and symbolic lexicon of their people, even if at this moment in our history we desperately need—and benefit from—the testimony of women.

In addition, it’s worth remembering that patriarchal images of women do not always have the impact they might be thought to have. The homes of my Italian relatives (on my mother’s side of the family) were filled with images of the Madonna and pietàs, and certainly the women as well as the men in those homes were deeply devoted to Mary. Yet, as I remember them, the women were far from being as quiet, receptive, obedient, and self-effacing as feminist critics of the Marian tradition fear. I doubt it would have occurred to these Italian relatives of mine to associate submissive traits with women!

The third surrounds the complex issue of Mary being understood as a feminine symbol of God. Johnson wants to take a principled stand against this and for good reason. Its tendency is to reinforce the sense that, somehow, God is “really” masculine, paternal, and patriarchal. Instead, Johnson argues for the cultivation of feminine symbols that refer directly to God, a project for which the author has established foundations in an important earlier book, She Who Is (Crossroad, 1992). Yet Johnson’s criticism can leave us confused about how symbols work and whether they can be controlled by rational intention. On looking back at the Marian devotion of the fourth through the mid-twentieth century, the only way of making theological sense of this history is by acknowledging that the memory of Mary was often functioning precisely as a symbol of the divine. She had become the ultimate safe haven, life-giving oasis, refuge from all enemies, shelter in every storm. People turned to her with complete confidence, “for never was it known that anyone who fled to her protection...was left unaided.” Her image mediated radical assurance of the mystery of God’s unconditional love.

Is it wrong, though, as Johnson contends, to say she became a symbol of particular dimensions, facets, features, or aspects of the divine reality? For isn’t this inescapably how language works? Over all these centuries, and for whatever reasons, Christians were mostly unable to imagine God and express their feelings about God as mother, sister, wife, or daughter, as maiden, matron, lady, or queen, or in terms of certain constellations of qualities concretely associated with these similes in those places at those times. Mary clearly did become the bearer of all these significations. The image and memory of her allowed us in prayer to say, “Our Mother,” “our life, our sweetness, and our hope,” “to thee do we come, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.”

It is often said that the theology of the Holy Spirit has been neglected in Western Catholicism, and it is certainly true that Mary has in many ways displaced the Holy Spirit in the faith life of Roman Catholics. Roman Catholicism, almost uniquely among the major historical forms of Christianity, includes a strong presence of the maternal. Even though its hierarchy remains exclusively male, we sense they are somehow sons of the Mother (mama’s boys). An argument could be made that the use of Mary in the Western church to represent something essential to the truth about God, which has in turn filled the tradition with images of—and prayers and songs addressed to—the Blessed Mother, had a positive effect on the status and dignity of women in Western civilization, even though theologians, always male and usually celibate until very recently, interpreted “Mother” to mean passive, receptive, obedient, and self-effacing. These traits were not inherent in the symbol, after all, but are merely “spin” put on the symbol in particular commentaries.

Today we may have good reasons for not entirely approving of this development, yet there it is. That was the destiny of Mary in the actual history of Western Catholic Christianity. In some unfathomable way, she was a willing partner in the mystery of the Incarnation. Clearly it is not possible for us to continue imagining Mary as divine or as something between the human and the divine in the innocent, unselfconscious way so many did in the past. Yet what shall we do with all those paintings, with all that poetry and song, that do not really pertain to the “historical Mary”? How shall we respond to them in the future? Surely prayers addressed to Mary can be “forwarded” to God. Are prayers addressed to Krishna or Shiva or Padmasambhava merely piling up in a dead-letter room? Could not the invocation of a real historical woman, now understood explicitly as a symbol, still mediate the maternal blessing of a loving God?

My fourth reflection has to do with the central proposal of Johnson’s book, the advocacy of a Mariology of the peasant woman, Miriam of Nazareth, within the Catholic communion of saints. Perhaps Johnson is entirely right: this emphasis may be the only way to go forward. For all her diligence and her nuance, however, I think that Johnson makes the historical claims sound a little easier than they are.

If we use the ordinary principles of critical historical investigation, we are not left with much probable historical information about Mary, as Johnson herself acknowledges, and what we do have is often difficult to interpret. If we start, as Johnson puts it, from “the raw, mostly unknown historical reality of Miriam of Nazareth, a Jewish woman in a relatively poor, politically oppressed, first-century peasant society,” is it really possible for us to say with assurance that she was a disciple of Jesus, to know that she was attentive and responsive to the Holy Spirit, or to characterize her interior dispositions with any precision? The fact is that we inherit a tradition that permitted us to say whatever we thought was fitting and appropriate about Mary: if it should be true, it was true. But historical consciousness makes this problematic.

Certainly we need a Marian theology and devotional practice in the present church that anticipate, promote, and embody the true liberation of women, their achievement of full equality in every sphere of social life, and acknowledgment of the God who scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts and puts down the mighty from their thrones, exalting the lowly. Just as the hermeneutic philosophers say about texts, so we may be able to say about saints in our tradition: their meaning is not closed in the past, but continues to unfold in later histories, even in entirely unforeseeable ways.

In this valuable study, Elizabeth Johnson shows clearly how, read with an educated understanding of their context, the Gospels provide a moving characterization of Mary, written in memory of her, as jubilant and grieving mother, as prophet and friend of God. For two millennia, that was sufficient to keep alive in Christian hearts the sense that the encompassing mystery of the divine life is revealed not only in fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons, but in mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters as well. If now our love for Mary is deep enough, it will allow her to emerge at last in her concrete particularity, her situated finitude and full humanity. Maybe she will, in new ways now, be able to remind us that every human being who says “yes” to God’s love becomes for all of us a manifestation of God’s truth.


Related: Dennis O'Brien reviews Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God
Galileo's Daughters, by Elizabeth A. Johnson

Published in the 2003-07-18 issue: View Contents
Robert J. Egan, SJ, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, teaches theology and spirituality at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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