Sunday, August 28, 2011

Examining Assumptions: "Ever Intent upon Heavenly Things"

Photo: Window, St Aloysius in Somers Town, London.

"To be a human being is to be open to infinitely more than simply being a human being."
Jean-Luc Nancy, 

Monday, August 15th, was the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or what in the Eastern Christian churches is called the "Dormition of the Theotokos" (for some history see here).  Although theological and liturgical traditions dealing with this aspect of mariology date back to the earliest Christian centuries, for Roman Catholics is was on Noveber 1, 1950, that Pope Pius XII solemnly declared the Assumption a dogma.   Within the hierarchy of church teaching, a dogma is defined as a revealed truth pertaining to faith or morals, and therefore requiring belief for salvation.  While ostensibly about the Virgin, the dogma of the Assumption actually teaches an eschatological truth.

Okay.  I can see the eyes rolling.  But wait, don't click away just yet.  Please.

Yes, there's something about Mary when it comes to Catholics.  Indeed, even the great twentieth-century Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth recognized the centrality of the Marian doctrines to Catholicism, although it is for that very reason that Barth cannot regard Catholicism's mariological obsession as true Christianity: he accepted the common dogmatic tradition of the early church, but denied her cultic veneration by Catholics, which he saw as "overloading" the doctrinal content.  In volume 1.2 of his celebrated Church Dogmatics, Barth doesn't mince any words, explicitly calling Mary's veneration a "heresy" and "cancer" that needs rooting out.  For Barth, veneration of the Virgin was nothing short of a mistake, "an excrescence, i.e., a diseased construct of theological thought": "Wherever Mary is venerated, and devotion to her takes place, there the Church of Christ does not exist."  

Much of my own life has been spent being formed in/by institutions dedicated to her patronage: my childhood parish and its parochial school that attended from K-12 grades, Our Lady of Pompei (I share this link somewhat ambivalently); my undergraduate college, Mount St. Mary's University; and the Baltimore church choir with which I sang for a time, the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.   I even recall the pastor of my childhood parish asking me, upon a visit home from college, whether in my theological studies I would be taking coursework in mariology.  I bristled at the thought, chalking up his question to his pre-Vatican II seminary training, and usually treating further examples of courses offered in mariology as conservative throwbacks.  But Mary is central to several prominent Catholic theologians and church leaders of the late 19th and 20th centuries: Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balathasar, Wojtyla/John Paul II, Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, and even so-called progressive thinkers like Edward Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner, and Leonardo Boff.  But it's safe to say that I have never had a particularly personal devotion to the Virgin Mary.  I do, however, understand and appreciate her role in popular religiosity, and works by Rachel Fulton, Margot Fassler, Miri Rubin, Stephen J. Shoemaker, Donna Spivey Ellington, Jaroslav Pelikan, George Tavard, and Robert Orsi help clarify the histories and ethnographic practices of these Marian beliefs.  Still, my Catholicism (whatever it may be) has always been heavily influenced by what Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich called the Protestant Principle, which might also explain my affinity toward/for certain brands of postmodern theology (e.g., Caputo) the general retrieval of apophatic and mystical traditions.

Many feminist theologians have rightly pointed to how oppressive and patriarchal appeals to Mary can be.  Writers like Brazilian Sr.Ivone Gebara in Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Poor; Sri Lankan Fr. Tissa Balasuriya in Mary and Human Liberation; and Fordham University professor Sr. Elizabeth Johnson in Truly Our Sister have pointed toward new ways to reactive this ancient symbolic language.  Gebera, a leading figure in ecofeminist Latin American theology, was silenced by then Prefect Ratzinger (forced to study traditional theology for 2 years), and I haven't been able to locate much else about her, though she has since continued to publish.  In Balasurya's case, such work lead to doctrinal investigation and ultimately to an excommunication that was later rescinded when he was reconciled with the Church.  Johnson offers a mariology "from below" that aims to be "theologically sound, spiritually empowering, ethically challenging, socially liberating, and ecumenically fruitful."  For Johnson, Balasuriya, and others, Mary, when properly understood within her scriptural matrix, becomes not a blight but a blessing for liberative theological projects. 

But where does this leave me and the Assumption?  It's not my intention to deny or defend the dogma, but I do want to share a few brief, but I think significant thoughts, from a theologian who remains a decisive if sometimes problematic influence on me, the great German Jesuit Karl RahnerWIT has also posted on Rahner and the Assumption, giving especial attention to Rahner's justly praised "hermeneutics of eschatological statements" insofar as these relate to the Assumption.  They don't, however, concern themselves with the particular essay that is my focus.

In the first volume of his Theological Investigations series, Rahner published his paper "The Interpretation of the Dogma of the Assumption" (pp. 215-27).  Indeed, Rahner had prepared an entire manuscript on the Assumption that went unpublished for fifty years, after a Jesuit censor nixed it in 1951.  So, an under-appreciated and often ignored aspect in Rahner is how central both Mary and the saints are for his theological project.  Dr. Peter Fritz has been attempting to rectify this (along with showing Rahner's versatility for the future): see here for his still available paper from the 2011 Karl Rahner Society annual meeting (they don't leave them up indefinitely!).  Fritz's paper makes a number of very important observations.  Noting the apparent non-centrality of Mary to Rahner's theological project, Fritz nonetheless observes:
Many of Rahner’s Marian writings seem to concern the development of dogma only; thus Mary appears to be a peripheral figure for him, whereas she appears central for Hans Urs von Balthasar. But a closer reading of Rahner’s Marian writings, when they are placed in the context of mid-twentieth century theological debates, particularly the controversy over the “fundamental principle” for Mariology, reveals that Mary, if she does not reside at the center of Rahner’s theology, allows us access to this center, from somewhere other than the periphery. 
One intriguing thing Fritz extrapolates from Rahner's mariology is not simply that it is important, but how Rahner goes about his mariological tasks.  In other words, and this goes to the heart of censorship of Rahner's book on the Assumption by his confrere, what matters is Rahner's performance of a Catholic theological ethos.  The Jesuit censor, as Fritz points out, objected to Rahner's work, because Rahner didn't hue closely enough to the argumentative strategy of the papal teachings.  Whereas Rahner's interpretation and argument for the Assumpotion's dogmatic importance might end up at the same place as Pius XII, for the Jesuit censor it was necessary for Rahner to engage in a formal repetition of the papal language.  This, of course, would be slightly impossible, because, as Fritz rightly points out, Rahner and Pius have significantly different starting points.  Fritz comments:  
When Rahner thinks about Mary's Assumption, he asks first how her final end relates to the whole of salvation history.  Pius, on the other hand, emphasizes the private significance of the Assumption for Mary. These varying approaches to the Assumption do not lead to a complete divergence between Rahner's and Pius's conclusion...but they do raise the question of how a Catholic theologian might best arrive at such conclusions.
But what I think is so important here, and which Fritz spends a brief time elaborating at the conclusion of his essay, is this very question of ethos:
Is Catholicism's ethos properly deployed as a strict enforcement of "the sacred," a determinate sector occupied by the rosary, the Eucharist, and those who partake in them, or as the radical openness of human life toward future fulfillment, an openness that uses multiple paths -- some manifestly sacred and others not -- to advance toward enjoyment of God? In fact, it may be both, so long as the former does not cancel out the latter tout court. This last clause, of course, is the key.  

As a rhetorical term, ethos names the character or guiding beliefs of a community or determinate social group.  Its literal Greek meaning is "accustomed place," and its Latin equivalent is mores. We might think of ethos as something akin to Pierre Bourdieu's notion of habitus.  To speak of ethos in relation to theology and Christian practice is therefore to ask not only what the operatively fundamental dispositions are but also to raise the question of what constitutes proper persuasion.  That is, within any given ethos there operate certain rules and grammars by which certain speeches can and others not be heard.  Ethos names the anterior field our of which the power of our theological language emerges and from which it derives its solicitation. 

Let me turn now to Rahner's essay, "The Interpretation of the Dogma of the Assumption."  To read Rahner is, I believe, to experience the pleasures of theological indirection.  We must immediately note that Rahern's concern is with interpretation, or with "an exposition of the content of the new dogma" in order "to understand what is really meant by saying that someone is corporeally glorified in heaven" (pp. 215-16).    Rahner outlines his approach:
Thus is we wish to know what is really involved in the substance of this defined proposition, our best plan is to ask first of all in what wider context of Christian truths it really belongs.  The true meaning of any individual proposition of revealed truth does indeed contain an 'item' of new knowledge, which is added on to the other truths, enlarges and completes them; yet a proposition of this kind is itself only really intelligble in the totality of the one saving Truth.  We may regard this totality as plainly set out for the first time in the Apostle's Creed.  Our question then runs as follows: To which article of faith does the new dogma belong as its consequence and organic unfolding?
In answer to his question, Rahner posits three creedal phrases to which the "new dogma" relates: (a) "born of the Virgin Mary"; (b) "descended into the Kingdom of the dead"; and (c) "the resurrection of the flesh."  In relation to the first phrase, Rahner does discuss the (now still) controversial claim that, as theotokos, Mary is "co-redemptrix."  For Rahner, Mary is co-redemtrix, not because she shares ontologically in Christ's redemption of the world but because she "co-operates" in Christ's saving act, "insofar as she does, for the salvation of the whole world and not only for her own, what a human being can and must do in the power of grace and for grace: receive it" (pp. 217-18).  

But it is with respect to the third creedal phrase that Rahner locates the most decisive meaning of the this "new dogma."  He writes:

She who by her faith received salvation in her body for herself for us all, has received it entire.  And this entire salvation is a salvation of the entire human being, a salvation which has already begun even in its fullness.  Mary in her entire being is already where perfect redemption exists, entirely in that region of being which came to be through Christ's Resurrection (p. 225).
Rahner's position, in short, is that in the Virgin all creation finds an anticipation of a transfigured state.  She already participates in that "perfect redemption" of which the gospel preaches.  For him, Mary symbolizes in "the most perfect way possible" what a fully "redeemed person is and can be."  Mary's fiat symbolizes the human person's truest act freedom.  Her assumption (or dormition) is a prolepsis of all of creation's eschatological hope. 

He continues:
The salvation of the flesh too has already begun in its final form.  The world is already in transition to God's eternity, not only in the 'spirit' of those who have gone to their everlasting home and not only in the body of the Son who came 'from above,' but also in the bodies of those who are simply 'from below.'  Even now there belongs to the reality of the entire creation that new dimension which we call heaven and which we shall also be able to call new eather once it has subjected all earthly reality to itself and not just an initial part of it (p. 226).
If mariology was for Barth a metastasized cancer, it is for Rahner a healing balm: the problem with protestantism, says Rahner, is that they only have a theology of the cross and not a theology of glory "as a formula for reality here and now" (p. 226).   Certainly in her maternity, Mary symbolizes the generativity of creation.  But where others would and still do posit maternity as a fundamental mariological principle, Rahner proposes what is always his basso continuo -- graced nature (cf. Johnson, p. 145; Fritz, p. 5).  What makes Rahner's position so fruitful is how he ensures that a fundamental mariological principle, should such a principle exist, is actually fundamental: whatever else it might do, for a mariological principal to be truly fundamental it must touch on the very core of theological thought.  Rahner concludes his essay with these words:
But for anyone who believes that counter to all appearances the forces of thee world to come have already seized hold of this world, and that these forces do no consist merely in a promise, remaining beyond every sort of creaturely existence, for a future still unreal; for such a one the 'new' dogma is really nothing more than a clarification, throwing light on a state of salvation already in existence....The 'new' dogma has significance not only for mariology but also for ecclesiology and general eschatology" (pp. 226-27).
Rahner's mariology is part and parcel with his continual concern for the proper telos of human fulfillment. His work on the Marian doctrines (but especially the Assumption) mediates, as Fritz suggests, between theology and its ethos, thereby suggesting that if theology is to possess "vigor, cogency, and cognitive power" (to repurpose a phrase of R. R. Reno's) it must remain somehow connected to an ecclesially mediated pneumatic existence.  Indeed, as Brian Daley, S.J. argues in a recent article, much of what constitutes the differences in approaches and understandings of Mary's role are related not solely to "the form in which that doctrine is expressed as part of the central faith and practice of the church" but "are really differences in ecclesiology: what one expects of the church, how the church communicates the gospel, where one looks for the church in its fullness" (pp. 860 and 862). But suggesting a connection between vision and virtue, Rahner is not in any way prescribing veneration of the Virgin as a litmus test for orthodoxy, not least because Rahner recognizes in such veneration the historicity of all Catholic devotional life.

To conclude this rather long post -- a length that I still find odd, given my lack of personal devotion to the Virgin -- I wonder if we might not think of doctrinal language as cognitive maps of available affects (with bows here to Sianne Ngai's wonderful text, Ugly Feelings).  Doctrines, like texts, register (communicate?) certain modalities of experience and existence; in them affects are condensed (but hopefully not calcified).  The now not-so-new dogmatic language of the Assumption places the experience of hoping at its core, and it is hope that moves us into a future.  As a traditional Collect for the Assumption reads:
Almighty and everlasting God,
You have taken up body and soul
into the heavenly glory the Immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of Your Son: Grant, we beseech You, that, ever intent upon heavenly things,
we may be worthy to be partakers of her glory.
This prayer to be "ever intent upon heavenly things" asks of its supplicants an affective posture: to rest in the hope that this historical existence will be transformed and enlivened.  Mary's Assumption is creation's prolepsis: in her "most perfect redemption" believers witness what it means to partake, as she does, in Divine glory.  In Mary, the human person's constitutive openness to infinity is made manifest.


Brian Daley, "Woman of Many Names: Mary in Orthodox and Catholic Theology," Theological Studies 71 (2010), 846-869.

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