As some of you will have seen, there was an long and heated (though still friendly) debate over at the Boar’s Head Tavern yesterday on the subject of Mary. (I’m posting my reflections on that discussion here rather than on the BHT to avoid reigniting the glowing embers!)
It is striking how strong people’s reactions are when the subject of Mary comes up. When I did a series of posts on this subject a couple of years ago, it attracted more comments than any other subject before or since on this site.
Early in the discussion yesterday, Bill MacKinnon asked:
[W]hy do we have to think about her at all? (I mean, any more than we need to think about Peter, James, or Pilate).
But as the ensuing debate made clear, the real question is “Why do we think about her so much?” – especially those of us who reject the Marian cult.
I suspect part of the answer is this: there are deep, but usually hidden, disagreements between Christians on the nature of fundamental issues such as the Incarnation of Christ and the resurrection of the dead. These differences rarely arise in an overt form: instead, they manifest themselves in strong disagreements over other issues that are a consequence of those deeper beliefs.
So for example, the division between Lutherans and the Reformed over the Lord’s Supper arise, in large part, from differences over the nature of the Incarnation. Lutherans and Reformed both claim to confess the Chalcedonian faith in relation to the Incarnation, but Lutherans (along with the Roman Catholics and Orthodox) do so like this and the Reformed do so like that. This difference then manifests itself in heated disagreement over whether the human nature of Christ can be present on an altar here on earth.
Similarly, differences over the nature of the final resurrection are a major driver in disagreements over eschatology.
Mary then becomes a source of particularly fervent disagreement because she is a lightning conductor for both these areas of tension and disagreement. The impact of beliefs about Mary on our understanding of the Incarnation was a common theme on the BHT yesterday, and my own view is (as I said yesterday):
There is a strong correlation, it seems to me, between the tendency to regard the Incarnation as merely the necessary condition for the Atonement, and the tendency to regard Mary as merely the necessary condition for the Incarnation.
Whether or not Mary remained a virgin after giving birth to Jesus (“semper virgo”), the idea of the semper virgo does at least reflect an awareness of the unique nature of the conception of Christ, and of Mary’s vocation as Mother of God (and indeed of Joseph’s vocation as “foster-father” of Christ).
Similarly, the assumption of Mary either happened or it didn’t happen – personally I haven’t the faintest idea, any more than I have with the semper virgo – but when it is dismissed as absurd (or “patently ridiculous”, as one email correspondent put it to me) I begin to wonder why the immediate resurrection of Mary and her assumption into heaven should be any more absurd than the ultimate resurrection of all people at the return of Christ from heaven. And I begin to suspect that there is a link here with the tendency (noted by NT Wright among others) to shift the Christian hope from the resurrection of the body to “going to heaven when we die”.
So the debates about Mary are, in part, a proxy for other debates about the person of Christ and the nature of the Christian hope. This is only to be expected: after all, the very title “Mother of God” (or “Theotokos”) was adopted by the church not to exalt Mary, but to preserve the truth of the Incarnation.