I really don’t intend to get into a discussion of Mariology, but after publishing the previous post I saw a reaction on Facebook that typifies the sort of views that are common in some circles. They see the early Church’s understanding of the Mother of God as rooted in a sort of pagan longing for a mother goddess. By making Jesus God, so the logic goes, the Church had made Him remote and inaccessible and so natural pagan longings re-emerged and made His Mother into a goddess.
Now I wouldn’t really bother engaging this, except that such views are actually quite widespread in certain circles, including in some academic circles that should know better. But this reaction did remind me of a letter I wrote a couple of years ago in response to a newspaper article that made similar claims. It was never published, but I thought it would be worth hauling it out and quoting it here:
… To suggest that Mary was declared Theotokos because of a sort of proto-feminist pressure for a mother goddess makes absolutely no sense to anyone familiar with the patristic texts and with the sort of theological debates that were raging in the century preceding the Council of Ephesus.
That Christian theology did not arise in a vacuum is clear and there is some evidence that at a popular level some people may have misunderstood the teaching to be simply replacing one goddess with another. But to suggest that popular longing for a displaced mother goddess gave rise to the Council’s decision can only be done by ignoring three things. Firstly, one would have to ignore the intense debate on Christological issues that had preceded it. Secondly, one would have to ignore the conciliar texts themselves. And, thirdly, one would have to ignore the liturgical hymnography that resulted from them and that is permeated by a profound awareness of the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ in one person who is both God and human.
Moreover, while the Christian Church was influenced by the social and religious context in which she developed, this did not happen in the straightforward manner that some people like to suggest. The Church also rejected and/or transformed elements of both Jewish and pagan religion, and indeed of Greek philosophy. Thus, while other religions had mother goddesses and female priests, Christianity rejected these, not because it was a patriarchal religion as feminists like to claim, thereby ignoring the evidence of female leadership in the early Church, but because the fertility symbolism associated with these undermined the very message that she was proclaiming, which is that in Christ the limitations of biological life have been overcome. In the Incarnation of Christ we find the meeting of the divine and the human, which enables the healing and the transformation of our humanity. And, by enabling that meeting, the Theotokos plays a far more important role than she would have played as any mother goddess.
To be honest, the more I encounter such voices but also the views of some Christians, the more I realize that the Incarnation has really made very little impression on some people’s understanding of Christianity. Granted, we cannot grasp the Incarnation, but it is precisely this overwhelming “ungraspability” that is witnessed to in the Church’s faith and worship – and which undergirds everything that she says about the Holy Theotokos.