Tuesday, April 04, 2006
Mary and the Dogmatic Destruction of Sacred Metaphor
Titusonenine recently featured an interesting discussion on the topic of the Marian dogmas in light of the recent ARCIC joint statement on Mary (see "Few Agree with Assumptions about Mary" http://titusonenine.classicalanglican.net/?p=12178#comments). After skimming through the 148 comments or so I couldn't help but feel disappointed that the arguments for and against the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Mary's Assumption haven't changed much over the years since I began to take interest in these topics.
Let me just say at the outset, I for one greatly applauded the publication of the ARCIC statement, "Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ" (http://www.prounione.urbe.it/dia-int/arcic/doc/e_arcic_mary02.html). But then I am also of the opinion that Anglican theology and devotion as a whole has suffered greatly over the centuries for the lack of a rich Marian theology. It is for good reason that the Eastern churches honor the blessed Theotokos with the title "The Scepter of Orthodoxy." (But that's another subject for another time.)
This is not to say that there weren't valiant attempts by Anglicans down through history to tap into the Marian treasury of the pre-Reformation past (e.g. the Caroline Divines). As well, the 19th century Tractarians and their heirs explored and developed a rich Marian piety. But while much of the Anglo-Catholic liturgical agenda eventually found its way into the mainstream of Anglican faith and practice, Marian piety never really took off in the same way. Why not? I suggest that Rome's dogmatization of the Marian doctrines of the Immaculate Conception, and later the Assumption of Mary, had a stultifying effect on Marian devotion within Anglicanism.
As is well known, Anglicans, like the Eastern Orthodox, have considerable difficulty accepting Rome's claim to speak dogmatically on these issues, or on any issue for that matter. But while Eastern Orthodoxy's Mariology was much older than the papal definitions, and thus already well-established, post-Reformation Anglican Mariology was still, at best, in its infancy when the Immaculate Conception was defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854. Given Anglican reticence over papal claims, Anglican Mariology in the post-Ineffabilis Deus era was surely destined to remain an almost exclusively Anglo-Catholic enterprise.
But it's more than just the Anglican difficulty with papal claims. Rome's dogmatizing of the Marian doctrines changed for all time the very nature of the doctrines themselves by "historicizing" them. Marian theology, at least in the West, shifted from celebrating the Marian doctrines as mysteries within the doxological life of the Church at Prayer toward the constructing of various apologetic approaches either for or against the claims of Rome that these "events" (i.e., the Immaculate Conception and Assumption) actually took place in history. This is what I refer to in my title as the "dogmatic destruction of sacred metaphor."
Now, please don't misunderstand me here. Certainly Mary was conceived in time (i.e. history) and "fell asleep" at the end of her earthly life. But there is a sense in which the "soteriological moment" of these events (the "eschatological moment" in the case of the Assumption) lies outside of time and history. Should it surprise us then that the Church's first expression of these mysteries comes down to us NOT by way of eyewitness account, let alone biblical witness (as Protestants are wont to point out), but rather through story and legend? It is from the medium of sacred legend, not historical account, that these mysteries first crossed over into the Church's liturgical imagination as sacred metaphors, and from the Church's liturgy that these sacred metaphors became authentic loci for theological reflection (lex orandi, lex credendi).
My contention is that the dogmatization of these moments of divine encounter between God and his Maidservant serves to undermine their sacred metaphoric value by re-casting them in the guise of "brute facts" of history that the faithful Christian must believe "happened" in order to be saved. It's not hard to understand why typical Christians outside of the yoke of Roman obedience find this difficult to accept in the absence of historical verification. But more tragically something is lost of the metaphoric role that these mysteries play in the life and devotion of the Church, the People of God, who should see in Mary the iconic representation of their own corporate moment of divine encounter with the living God.
Until next time.