The Eternal Feminine*

Paradoxically, given the fact that I've spent my entire academic life thinking about the Virgin Mary, I very rarely say anything directly about gender. You'd think I should, right? Most people do--think that I should, that is. Because, of course, most people who have written about Mary in the past thirty or so years have. Marina Warner, Mary Daly, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Rosemary Radford Reuther: how well I remember reading their work while I was in college and being swept up into the debate on the feminine image of the divine. Reading Andrew Greeley's The Mary Myth (1977) is bringing it all back to me, and not in a good way.

I'm discouraged, because I was really enjoying his treatment of Jesus and Sinai. Now, however, I am beset with sentences such as these:

"I will contend that Mary is a symbol of the feminine component of the deity. She represents the human insight that the Ultimate is passionately tender, seductively attractive, irresistibly inspiring, and graciously healing. I will argue that the Mary symbol arises out of the human 'limit-experience' of sexual differentiation and as such she can legitimately be called a 'sex goddess.' Mary is, in other words, part of a great tradition of female deities, all of whom reflect the human conviction that God has feminine as well as masculine characteristics, a conviction arising spontaneously and inevitably from the profound, disturbing, and shattering experience of sex differentiation."

Troubled yet? I am. Not by Greeley's understanding of symbol, which he draws from Ian Barbour and David Tracy; his discussion of the way in which symbols arise from our "limit experiences"--those glimpses that we have of there being something over the edge, beyond the horizon of our finite experience--is actually very good and I am looking forward to thinking about it more. No, what worries me is his emphasis (you guessed it) on sexual differentiation as the limit-experience through which we may best understand the power of Mary as symbol and what this emphasis implies about how we think about other human beings.

Here is Greeley's thesis even more succinctly put: "Mary reveals the tender, gentle, comforting, reassuring, 'feminine' dimension of God. Surely [Greeley comments] such a thesis is so traditional as to be pedestrian." Hmmm, y'think? Yes, Mary reveals something to us about God; Mary, after all, is the one who, through her body and her consent to carry God in her body, made God visible to us as the Son. And, indeed, part of the mystery of the Incarnation is that God chose to become thus incarnate through the body of a woman. But does it then follow that Mary is most important for us as "feminine"? More to the point, what is this "feminine" dimension that she supposedly reveals?

Far be it from me to suggest that women and men do not have their differences. Men's bodies carry fat differently; their voices are deeper; they don't suffer PMS. But I fail to see how being "tender, gentle, comforting, [and] reassuring" are typically "feminine" characteristics or how such characteristics should be exclusively associated with "woman." Here are some of the characteristics that come to mind when I think about the women that I know: practical, well-organized, ambitious, competitive, intelligent, decisive. I cannot off the top of my head think of any woman whom I consider especially tender or gentle, while I can think of many men who are so, at least with me. Not that the women I know are uncaring or mean; rather, they simply do not fit the criteria of "feminine" that Greeley and others so frequently invoke.

Perhaps, as academics and as fencers, my colleagues and friends are all somewhat "unwomanly" women, concerned more to compete with men than to care for them. But I really don't think this is the case, i.e. that they are all that exceptional as women. I can think back to the women whom I knew growing up in the Texas Panhandle. These were pioneer women and the daughters and granddaughters of pioneer women. They survived dustbowls and depressions, not by being tender and gentle, but by being tough. The men might be the ones who had the greater muscular strength, but it was as often as not the women who had the better sense of how to manage the ranch and make it pay.

You can doubtless see where I am going with this. The list of characteristics which Greeley et al. so pedestrianly describe as "feminine" are "feminine" only from the perspective of male human beings relating to female human beings, mostly in fantasy, only intermittently in reality. They may, in a general way, describe the way in which women relate to men whom they love, but they say nothing about women as such; they say nothing essential about how we think about ourselves nor about how we relate to other women or, indeed, to most men. Yes, I am tender and gentle with my husband and my son, but hardly invariably. Sometimes it is I who is arguing against giving our son too much help on his homework; it is certainly I who is usually the one yelling at him to clean his room.

Greeley himself acknowledges that he is a man writing about the image of the feminine from a man's perspective, "emphasizing a man's response to the femaleness of woman and a woman's awareness of her own femaleness as it is reflected in the male's response"; likewise, that if he were writing about male deities "[he] could readily reverse the terms," but I wonder whether even such a mirror-exercise would satisfy. Imagine Goethe as a woman concluding Faust with a paean to the Eternal Masculine. Okay, so I'm a woman. What characteristics would I choose? Let's see: loving, passionate, tender, strong, comforting, reassuring, gentle, supportive, humorous...oh, sorry, I'm describing the men whom I have loved in my life (my husband, my father, my son). Do I then conclude that these male human beings are simply better at expressing their androgyny than others? Or do I conclude that our models of sexual differentiation expressed as character traits rather than simply physical attributes (hairiness, relative strength, presence or absence of a penis or womb) are just plain wrong?

I will say this. In all the years that I have been writing about Mary, I have never been drawn to think about her as particularly "feminine" in the sense of gentle or comforting or reassuring. She is a taskmaster, forcing me to think about problems that I know I will never solve: the origins of religion, the purpose of prayer, the truth of the Incarnation, the mystery of creativity. She never lets me relax; she never lets me think that I have somehow found the answer. Rather, she keeps me always on edge. I cannot comfortably write about the Middle Ages as a period with its own logic; always, she is there, pointing me to continuities in her image and cult, forcing me into the present with the debates that continue to surround her. I cannot evade her by writing about some other, academically-fashionable problem, like literacy or social identity or the relationships between words and visual art. No, I must think about her and only her, perpetually elusive yet everywhere, because it is she--and I do have faith in this--that will lead me to God.

And, no, I don't think that she does this to me because she is a woman or a symbol of the Eternal Feminine; I think that she does this to me because it was she who gave birth to God. You may say that this is a contradiction; only women give birth. Having had the experience myself (albeit, unlike Mary, with the help of a husband), I can attest that it is amazing. Being a mother, bringing another human being into the world, I am stunned every time I look at my son and think, "He came through me." And, oh, yes, I love him; I am there absolutely with Mary, weeping as she contemplates her Son dying on the cross. It pains me to think of my son suffering the slightest hurt; I wince just thinking about something (nails, say) piercing his body, hurting that flesh that is mine but not mine. What I refuse to believe is that this capacity for compassion that I seem to have is in any way exclusively "feminine" in the sense that women are more likely to experience it than men or that Jesus's human father, if he had had one, would not have suffered in the same way. Both John and Mary stood under the cross and suffered as their Lord and Loved One died, not just the mother of the son.

I'm only about halfway through Greeley's book, and I am curious as to whether he will alleviate some of the concerns that I have about the way he has invoked "the feminine." It's taken him this long, however, just to lay out his methodological terms. One of the things I do notice, flipping ahead, is how much once he starts talking about Mary directly he relies on poetry, some his own, some quoted from other authors, rather than prose. Certainly, I myself have found it extremely difficult to write about Mary while still maintaining a sense of the mystery she, as a symbol, evokes. What I refuse to accept is that her power depends on some reified understanding of woman as "feminine" rather than on the peculiar relationship she, as a human being, had with God. However different we may be in hormones and body hair, surely women and men are much more like each other than either sex is like God. Yes, we are made in God's image and this may mean that sexual differentiation is somehow a reflection of the Reality we call God, but to decide on that basis that one or the other sex is somehow more expressive of God's passionate desire for humanity seems to me to insult both God and ourselves. If this means that God is best understood as androgynous, so be it, but I refuse to start assigning characteristics beyond "bearded" or "breasted" to one or the other "gender" of God.

[P.S. As always, life's little ironies rear their mole-like heads. I'm having some trouble with my CSS formatting for blockquotes and had to ask my husband, who is much more skilled with computer languages than I am, for help. Is it a peculiarly masculine trait to have such skills? If so, what does that tell us about the androgyny of God? It's funny, but nobody ever invokes the Eternal Feminine for her facility with packing or arranging the furniture, not to mention her penchant for gossip.]


  1. If you want an example of the 'eternal masculine', check out High Fidelity (either the book or the movie). Rob, Dick and Barry form an interesting masculine complement to the virgin, the mother, and the crone. [OK, my tongue is fairly firmly in my cheek, but check it out anyway -- I think you’ll get the point.]

  2. To what extent to you think that Mary stood for what people in the Middle Ages wanted Christ to be, but were afraid he wasn't? It seems to me that Christ quickly became Christ the Judge and lost much of the compassion and intercessory hope that we attribute to him today. Might this be why the image of Christ infans became so prominent, along with the BVM? These images could retain the side of God that mankind hoped for, now that Christ himself stood for judgment and wrath.


  3. Jason,

    Possibly, but I'm not sure that we have not overdrawn the prominence of "Christ as Judge" in the later Middle Ages. The same period also saw the full development of Christ as Man of Sorrows, with the expectation that devotees respond to him with love, not fear. Once again (as you know!), I blame the sixteenth-century Protestants: their need to crush (there is no other word) devotion to Mary occasioned no end of myth-making, beginning with the argument that devotion to Mary somehow detracts from devotion to Christ. The argument that Mary is meek and mild to counter Christ's wrathfulness travels with this myth.

  4. But doesn't Mary represent another way of approaching God? I admit that intercession confuses me, but it seems like praying to Mary or devotions to her are different from "normal" intercessory prayers to saints. On the one hand, we are able to identify with her sorrow and compassion at the foot of the cross, bringing Christ's immeasurable and incomprehensible sacrifice closer. But that's clearly not all, right? What aspect of God did Mary exemplify that wasn't exemplified by the Trinity?

    Furthermore, was the image of the Man of Sorrows ever joined to Christ the Judge? I haven't read too much, but it seems like Mary pops up very often (though not exclusively) when Christ is depicted as Judge. She serves as a way of approaching him, while the Man of Sorrows is approachable in and of himself, but not identified as Judge.

  5. Mary as intercessor is different from Mary as exemplifying an aspect of divinity. In the former instance, she allows access to God; in the latter, she manifests the divine from a particular perspective. Which do you mean?

    Christ as judge is usually depicted showing his wounds, so in that respect, he is the man who suffered as well as the God who is judging. But your original observation was that Mary somehow replaces Christ in one's understanding of God, which should apply (if your argument works) across the board. If it doesn't (which I don't think it does), then you need to deal with the complexity of both the image of Christ--as Judge as well as Man of Sorrows--and that of Mary.

  6. Oh, and Mary shows up in all sorts of contexts. Think of all the different images: mother and child (lots of Byzantine icons, thus lots of late medieval devotional images), standing under the cross, holding the dead Christ in her lap, next to Christ in heaven receiving her crown. You are only thinking of Last Judgment images, but they are hardly the most common of Mary.


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