Tuesday, October 18, 2011

MARY MOTHER OF JESUS, WOMAN AND SYMBOL.. January 25, 2009...note to Edward Fudge

 Introduction: This essay regarding Mary and the nature of the gospels who speak of her is part of a conversation with Edward Fudge( edward@edwardfudge.com) and another writer  regarding what they had written about her. I am unable to retrieve their original essays. In blue are some of Edward's comments.

Letter: Hello Edward. Can you entertain with me that the elevating of Mary as somewhat ' more and more' than woman was developed overtime as the story of Jesus was told and retold? The downside of such exaltation may be that it takes away the glory of being 'just woman'. It has hardly given real women through the ages a role model that was within their human grasp. It is not a picture of woman that kept women from being manipulated and discriminated against by men through the centuries. The earliest NT writings indicate that the first believers had little interest in Jesus' birth and any superior qualities of His mother. In all of Paul's teaching and preaching which we have his only reference to Jesus' birth or Mary is simply, "In due time he was born of woman". 

Mary, Mother Of Jesus
Similarly the first gospel Mark which is some 40 years after Jesus' death makes no mention of any story of Jesus' birth. The last gospel written John makes no reference to Jesus' birth. The story of Jesus must have been originally quite complete to the earliest believers without any statement regarding his birth or the superiority of his mother. Beyond the NT Matthew and Luke  such story development continued into more claims about Mary which you reject as not true. I see those 'not true' statements developing in the same very human way that the birth stories of Matthew and Luke( which are not consistent with each other in many details) developed.  I share with millions the need to have my worship directed to a God who is not male only. The symbol of Mary's divinity is helpful and appealing to my own sense of God.    A sermon on Mary during advent is one of my favorite ones to deliver for I think it meets deep psychological and spiritual needs in most of us. In our effort to understand these developments and the earliest preserved writings it is so urgently important to not force on these writers the role of reporters or historians. That was not what they were attempting but rather to describe how the deep personal and group impact of Jesus on their recent forbears could be explained. Also they were responding to attacks and critical questions being asked regarding their still developing faith including stories circulated of an illegitimate birth of Jesus.

I'm just hitting briefly key questions and concepts as I respond here but they all center around coming to grips, and I must say also for myself, with increased appreciation of the writers, and of the actual  nature of the NT writings. And beyond that the development of the Christ story through the centuries in the dogma of the church. When taken as symbolically alive and thus true even the later statements of the Catholic Church universal, which  you reject  as meaningless, can be seen as important developments of Christian truth and presentation. Understanding this a living myth does not at all mean that I cannot enter into the hearing and telling of these  gospel stories and benefiting from it. Even more so than I did when I took them as literally and physically true. Their language is that of symbolism(as are our nightly dreams) which  has the capacity to touch the deepest parts of the human soul. I hardly ever sing 'O Holy Night' at church without tears welling in my eyes.  But if I hear and teach insisting on the details being  physical  historic fact  I create a split in my own and other post- modern human minds, seeking to enforce a basic dishonesty within my own God given understanding of creation and natural law. Christianity has to face the real truth of its own history and of its writings if it is to redeem what is truly timeless, redemptive and relevant. (This is another example of dealing with the shadow reality in order to arrive at greater wholeness and a more genuine authentic truth. And just as with the personal, community and institutional shadow is often resisted bitterly for fear of losing something.) 

The application of the term 'Madonna' to Mary, mother of Jesus,  began in Italy in the  Middle Ages. The painting  below by Fillipo  Filli  is one of numberless examples of  worshipful images of the Madonna. A ten inch statue of the 'Madonna with child' has sat openly on a shelf in my home for two decades. My eyes frequently go there.  Something very strong and deep resonates with such an image in the hearts of many, not just Catholics. 'What is this timelessness  of mother and child about?'  we might profitably ask ourselves.The  Italian term meant 'important woman' and  came to be nearly exclusively applied to Mary, the mother of Jesus. The term  literally translated is  'My Lady' and  for the church became  'Our Lady' from Medieval Times forward. This image became  perfect  for the unconscious  'anima' (a  Jungian term for the inner female function)of the male, and perhaps also female Western psyche, which is typically  projected onto an outer object or person.. This means that for at least a thousand years the church managed to have an appropriate  icon for the inner feminine image to be truly alive in the hearts of the masses of  Christian people. This aspect of the eternal feminine archetype was during that time  experienced, mostly unconsciously,  as a  felt connection to the femaleness of the Sacred by untold millions of people. This was a huge step in the Western  'image of God' moving away from an all male God to include the feminine as equal and mutual. Sadly this sound psychological disposition was nearly completely lost in the Reformation Movement where the  images of the Madonna were no longer given the authority and approval of the Protestant Church . This is a good example of how a very appropriate and real  personal experience of an archetype of the Sacred lost its capacity to be such a bridge of Unconscious content to consciousness. This is the most important  purpose of all religious symbol and the Protestant church , by  eliminating so much of the sacrament and images that had naturally evolved in the Church,  left itself quite barren and offering primarily  an experience of the 'head and law'  rather than also 'heart and grace.'  One who hears 'O Holy Night' with only the rational and reasoning mind set is not at risk of crying. But many of us are caught by surprise, when we are not thinking,  by such symbols and wonder, 'why am I crying?'

Madonna And Child Painting....@ 1455 CE

On the plus and necessary side such a stance against the  sacramental aspects of the Catholic church ushered in the 'Age of Reason' with its Objective and Scientific World views. This major shift in state of mind in the West has made possible all the scientific and technological progress of the past 400 years. But now we find ourselves very cut of from a Religion based on images that reflect the eternal archetypes including the much needed  'feminine' principle. And even though the Catholic Church still exalts such images of Mary, it too was pulled into the rational emphasis in reality as much as the Protestants. So the Madonna does not offer what it once did  even to many Catholics.

It is true the past 200 years has been a time that  Western Humanity has been searching for its own lost soul, trying to find a path to reconnect to the Collective Unconscious  in ways that are supportive of human life as it is today. I have hopes that process is becoming more conscious. There are encouraging signs, eg the movement toward the equality of women and other marginalized groups and emphasis on human rights  that the needed archetypes  are beginning to live again.  I have had some direct experience of this in my dreams and 'vision-like' phenomena.   I, along with many others,  now have a greater understanding of why Mary, Mother of Jesus, the Madonna was such a powerful and  living experience for so many in our past Christian Tradition.
Edward, I know we are far apart on such topics and I seem to have little choice but to respond for I realize there is  a great mass of religious people who see these things your way. I know I once did. It is how it was presented to me. I know from my own experience that my taking and understanding the stories by the gospel writers as primarily symbolic rather than definite history and literal, does not reduce or lessen the effectiveness or the quality and benefit of my faith in the Christ. Faith simply is not primarily anchored ever in history, which is always suspect and selective even when the writers are attempting to write objectively. But recording historical fact was not the nature or purpose of  the gospels' creation. Faith via history is more akin I think to attempting to' walk by 

Assumption Painting @ 1660 CE
sight and not by faith.'  Faith is anchored in our very inner person through symbols received that are in harmony with what is in our very nature as carriers of the 'image of God'.  Such is the process that eventually led in early 1950's  to the accepted Catholic dogma of  Mary being 'Assumed Into Heaven', thus becoming a part of Christian Deity.  This may to some seem like gibberish or blasphemy. But I am quick to respond that I am concerned for the destructive effect of trusting in supposed literal Bible story rather than a God 'in whom we live and move and have our very being.' I am convinced that such a  God, in our day,  cannot be found  through grasped for literal history. Rather the ancient wisdom, 'The word is near you and in your heart' is  more appropriate.
Cordially, Jim 
PS. I would be more careful in how I express these kinds of things if I were writing for the public but in the note below to another friend I allow myself to speak straight from the heart without being overly 'careful', similarly as I have reflected to you above: "On a personal note regarding this topic. The image and symbol of Mary, and the qualities that are a part of it, had a large impact on me during my time of creative illness and recovery. So much so that a sermon on Mary was the very first sermon I prepared and preached after not preaching for some four years. So I might say that the scriptural and divine symbol of Mary, mother of Jesus, was my step back into public ministry after being whisked away for four years. I say this to try to explain how believing in a supposed historical reality of a spiritual story has little to do with the impact of a genuine and living symbol on one's faith and spirituality. In fact I feel that historcizing that which is more legitimately symbolic makes the spiritual impact less than what it can be otherwise." Again Edward,  I owe you for getting my thoughts stirred toward this very personal content. I'm grateful that you are encouraging your readers to ponder the meaning of Mary, the mother of God. Best to you, Jim
Jim, I understand what you are saying but I cannot be where you are in thinking about it all. You say the unhistorical Gospel narratives are meaningful to you as mere symbols. I see them as historical (even 50 years for Matthew is too soon to be circulating lies of such proportion and to get by with it if these stories are not true) and meaningful. There was a time when I would have argued that they cannot be meaningful to you if not historical. I am not in that place now. You will have to be satisfied with that. God who knows the hearts will be final judge of us both. May he have mercy on us both.
Edward. Thanks for your willingness to explain and respond. I will only mention now two phrases that indicate to me  I have not successfully communicated the grand meaning and effect of SYMBOL--mere symbols, circulating lies. These reflect something that is far from my meaning and belief. Regarding the short time for myth(also easily misunderstood as 'less than' and 'mere') and symbol to develop, these texts were born of extreme times of chaos in the Jewish community- war time, total destruction of the structure and organization of their religion . Also, Christians and Jews alike were having to probe more deeply and desperately than ever

Destruction Of Jerusalem, 70 C
to restate(reinterpret) the meaning of their Messianic hopes that had been dashed. Christians and Jews alike had expected that two courageous and bloody Jewish revolts and the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple to bring in God's new reign in the world and their vindication as God's people. It did not but only brought the natural chaos and destruction that follows a total defeat in war. The things expected had not come 'in this generation'(words attributed to Jesus in the gospel), as had been believed and stated, or the generation following. The gospels and some letters attributed to Paul are 'honest and believing' efforts to reinterpret all this and in the process created this rich symbolism. We should be ever grateful to their spiritual and creative work born of much suffering and need , very similar no doubt to the actual life of the one they seek to honor. I shake to contemplate what we hold in our hand and is before our eyes and how it was all produced by the influence of the one we still explain as the one in whom God fully appeared.

Final Personal Note:  I understand perhaps what kind of human communications can be born of desperation and the deep seeking it sometimes brings in human life. For that is how I interpret what I 'found' in the depths of my own suffering and separation from all that was home and foundational to me. I refer to the early months of 1985 and following. Much of my experience is best described I think as an example of a 'symbol producing time' in one's life. Much of my experience was a response from 'within' even though it was brought about by the unimaginable, to me,  external environment and situation my life had encountered. I experienced a total 'dead end'. It does not take long in a 'fullness of time' situation for genuine myth and symbol to generate. It takes suffering  desperation and a willingness by some to seek the very depths of one's reality and to have the energy left  to risk communicating it. Original symbolic revelatory material lacks beauty and practicality. It takes the work of many over long periods of time to form it into a work of beauty. I only know something of the experience of receiving some raw material from the Collective Unconscious.
I do not mean to be dramatic regarding my own  strong and unexpected  inner experience or to compare in anyway its significance to the development of The Christ Story, but it has helped me to understand how it likely happened. To me 'the symbolic' will never again be 'merely' or 'only' and certainly not ' a lie';  but is instead 'foundational' to the meaning of religious experience and the  formation of all forms of what are now called Christianity.  

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