This evening, I had a discussion with a Protestant acquaintance of mine about religion. I assume that he is from a black Baptist background, but I am not sure. He asked what religion I was, and then he asked me if I worshiped Mary like the “Catholics” whom he knows. I responded that neither his Roman friends nor the Orthodox worship Mary, though we honor and venerate her. He further wanted to know if we had statues of her. I said that we have icons or images of her. He asked why we did so.
There are many possible responses to his questions, from scriptural passages (e.g. all generations will call her blessed) to reflection (she gave birth to and raised Jesus Christ), but I went the casual route and replied with a question of whether or not he respected his mother and had pictures of her in his house. If the saints are the family victorious, then doesn’t it seem proper to keep them in our memory and to show them honor?
In true low church American fashion, he said that the Bible tells us not to respect people differently but to treat everyone the same. I suppose that he was referring to Paul’s statement in his epistle to the Romans that God is no respecter of persons. I am no Pauline scholar, but I suspect that the modern radical tendency to demolish all distinctions is at work with such an interpretation rather than sound Biblical hermeneutics. It seems more likely that Paul means that there are no “privileges” in God’s justice. It cannot mean that God’s dealings with human beings are the same, as scripture, tradition, and experience show us that providence is highly customized to the individual.
Beyond God’s economy, such advice to humans is absolute madness and would be quite sensible grounds for discarding Christianity as an insane social malady. We are called to love everyone, but we cannot treat them the same way. Such irresponsible behavior would destroy society, and it would furthermore be a grave injustice. In my discussion with the Protestant, I gave the example of two men: Charles Manson and a physician who has spent his life working to heal others around the world, as those doctors in Médecins Sans Frontières. Think of what real equitable treatment of both men would mean. We would just as soon entrust a psychopathic murderer with the care of loved ones as we would a living example of the good Samaritan? We would hold them up equally as models for our children to emulate? We would be equally likely to allow them to stay as a guest in our house? You are just an idiot if you think that we ought to treat both men equally. It is a simple matter.
As Christians, we are called to love both—and this is in itself quite mysterious, as both men are not equally lovable. One standard Christian response to this obvious objection is that we are lovable because God loves us, not that we are loved by God because we are lovable. With men, we love lovable things—we respond as lovers to the good of things already in existence. In contrast, God’s love causes things to be lovable. Yet, God’s actions are not inconsequential; if we are loved by God, then that truly makes us lovable and valuable—in nature, due to God who creates us in love. In Augustinian excess, certain Christians go to extremes to avoid Pelagianism in rendering human beings worthless and in pretending that God’s actions have no relationship to the reality of God’s creation. They introduce a bizarre Manichean division in reality between God’s intentions and the natural world that he creates and sustains—it is one of the worst aspects of Reformation heresy.
We can see a similar relationship with baptism. In normal baptism, the water (through God’s grace) purifies us. Yet, in Christ’s baptism by John in the Jordan, the presence of Christ purified the waters. Yet, the waters truly were purified; we do not simply pretend that they were because of our respect for Christ.
So, if it is true that God loves all men equally, and I am not even sure that such is good doctrine, though it is widely believed, then I do not know how we can rationally understand it. For me, it is something that I cannot understand, and I simply trust that, if true, there must be a good reason for it that I cannot see. Perhaps, God’s love for us is for us as we should be—our idealized persons in conformity with his will. In such a sense, God’s equal love for us might make sense. Yet, it is a very dangerous road to tread when we begin to consider our idealized forms in the mind of God—what we should be—as our “real selves” in contrast to their particular manifestation, here and now, in what we actually are. Such was the way of the Cathars. Yet, it seems that this is practically what people claim when they state that God loves us all equally because we are all equally men made in his likeness—as if God only deals with us on the essential level and not as creatures struggling for our own perfection in history. Christianity is not Greek philosophy, even the best of it. The Gospel appears to concern the personal, not simply the universal, of mankind.
The Protestant disgust for Marian piety may be rooted in modern egalitarianism; the Reformation was the seed of the so-called Enlightenment. So, if we can safely discard that we are to treat everyone equally as if people really were equal—an intolerable falsehood—then our honor and veneration of Mary, the Theotokos, makes more sense. For she is the model human being, who represents for us the ideal human response to God—in humble, loving submission to his will of pure goodness. She is the chief personality in Jesus’ family, both by blood in Palestine two thousand years ago and by spirit, in the Church, now and forever and unto the ages of ages. From the beginning, Christians have honored her. It is strange and disturbing that so many heretical sects could develop that interpret Marian piety as mariolatry. I have no doubts that the Theotokos is far better than I am in spiritual development, proximity and communion with God, wisdom, purity, and in just about any other conceivable way. That someone should have the same disposition toward her as toward me is unsettling. However, I wonder how Protestants who object to the honor traditionally given to Mary would really respond to her presence. Perhaps, their foolish disrespect is all abstract nonsense. If a Calvinist makes it to heaven, how will he treat the Mother of the Lord? It is a fascinating thought.
My Protestant interlocutor asked me why it seemed to him, at any rate, that Roman Catholics treat Mary as if she were as important as Jesus himself. I told him that not even they really believe that, though some of their practices give such an impression to outsiders. I said that for the West and for us, Mary is a guidepost to God. We are to manifest God among men through our lives, and the Mother of the Lord serves as our role model. In praising her, we praise God whom her soul magnifies and in whom her heart finds joy.
Andrew has a theory about the Latins’ emphasis on Mary that gives the Protestants the impression of mariolatry. He thinks that after the Counter-Reformation, the cult of the saints in the West dwindled. However, the honor and respect given to the Theotokos remained. With such an occurence, Mary no longer appears as the champion leader of the Church victorious, being the preeminent witness of the redeemed Christian life among many. Instead, she represents the saints by herself. Thus, the respect and honor in the Christian community for the host of saints channels to her alone, and this imbalance makes her seem like an appendage to the Trinity among the Romans, at least to outsiders. I do not know how accurate Andrew’s theory is, as, until recently, popular devotion to the saints in the West continued. Maybe, he judges the West from the post-Vatican II environment that he knows. I am not sure.
In the sermon today, the priest talked about various titles given to the Theotokos. What struck me was the military imagery used in some liturgical poetry—our champion leader, invincible champion, might unassailable, and the like. I know that many academic feminists from Roman backgrounds are interested in the Virgin Mary; I wonder what they think of the Mary as field marshal of Christendom.
Protestants might claim that to see therein the Athena pagan impulse at work, and perhaps they are somewhat correct. Paganism is simply natural religion; pagan rites and beliefs spring from the human encounter with the world and with the divine in the world glimpsed rather dimly. I do not find the transition of popular pieties from paganism to Christianity problematic. Rather, I see it as a confirmation of the Gospel. With respect to the Hebrews, Christ came to fulfill the Law, not to replace it. I believe that something similar is at work universally; the Gospel redeems and transforms all human things, from reason to culture. Natural human religion and the popular expression thereof get baptized in Christianity. Jack Chick and his ilk fret over the moons of Isis and Artemis making it into Marian symbolism, whereas I see the hopes, yearnings, and strivings after God among the heathen completed in the fullness of time. Human beings are naturally awed by sexual purity (in itself and as a symbol of purity in general), by the life-giving power of pregnancy and of childbirth, and by the unfathomable tender love of a good mother for her children. Reflection from the dawn of time on such matters likely resulted in the pagan deities and the cultic observances attached to them. In the Theotokos, these primeval human concerns manifest in the center of God’s providential nexus; Mary is the Ground Zero of God’s plan of salvation, in all the primitive and archetypal imagery thereof.