by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 9, 1987, p. 1108. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Who better than Mary illustrated the fact that every one of us is a passive and indeed virgin recipient of God’s purpose and calling?
"…and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" [Luke 1:41b-42].
It should not be altogether surprising that someone whose grasp of Christianity was destined to take a Protestant form would never have been able to internalize such a prayer. The request that Mary "pray for us sinners" presupposes a view of redemption quite alien to the Protestant perspective. Yet does this soteriological difference — significant though it is – justify our general Protestant apathy to the witness and person of the mother of Christ? Does not the Scripture, which is supposed to be the Protestants’ sole authority for faith, have something quite singular to say of Mary – "blessed are you among women"? In the New Testament, besides Jesus, only John the Baptist is praised as much as Mary, yet in spite of her scriptural credentials she has functioned less in my Protestant theology than has John — and certainly less than the Old Testament prophets and such remarkable Old Testament women as Miriam and Deborah.
The Reformation, driven by its radical monotheism, rejected as idolatrous and even polytheistic the medieval veneration of saints and relics. Although Luther said some beautiful things about Mary, the general Protestant tide swept away Marian devotion. I do not dispute that the church needed a purge so that Christians could hear the Bible afresh. However, as Protestantism’s puritan impulse became secularized in subsequent centuries, it took the form of rationalistic cynicism and skepticism — a mind-set now shared by believers and unbelievers alike. For example, the Protestant doctrine that we are all sinners is reflected in the Freudian-Marxist behaviorist-positivist claptrap claiming that there is no virtue, that all our actions arise from dark psychic urges, exploitative class greed or biological impulses — which supposedly proves that talk about good and evil, right and wrong, and certainly saintliness is illusory. We are easily persuaded that those who might appear to be saints or great people actually have feet of clay. Consider how modern biographies so frequently elaborate upon their subjects’ warts and pimples.
However, leftist rationalistic skepticism is not the only secular mind-set that has evolved out of the Reformation. We Americans are not a left-wing people. We are above all a capitalist, individualist, pragmatic people. Consistent with that attitude’s deepest wisdom, our intellectuals, even of the left-wing, are often employed in ‘our institutions of higher learning and are permitted relatively free expression because we know that they are really no threat to us. Since the left is so easily co-opted, it can be tolerated and accommodated. The left’s lunatic fringe even provides us a certain comic relief. However, the fact that we are securely conservative in our American secularity doesn’t enable us to hear Mary’s witness, for it is just in being good, sound, red, white-and-blue Americans that we are most fundamentally unable to embrace the Mary portrayed in the Scriptures.
The great Reformers didn’t give much theological attention to Mary. Yet, because God’s sovereign predestining grace was central to their faith, their attention to Mary should have been central and not peripheral. For who better than she illustrated the fact that every one of us is a passive and indeed virgin recipient of God’s purpose and calling? Christianity is the religion of what God has done for us and to us.
Certainly we are not to remain passive recipients. We are engraced so as to be active and creative. But at the root of everything is God’s initiative and grace. We cannot create ourselves, we cannot redeem ourselves, we cannot "ascend into heaven. . . to bring Christ down" and we cannot "descend into the abyss, to bring Christ up from the dead." Everything that is comes from God. Every hope we have for the redemption of all things comes from God. If we think seriously in these terms — upon which the Reformation was itself grounded — how can we fail to realize that we have all been made pregnant by God’s grace? We are all Mary.
It is difficult to acknowledge that the origin of our creaturely creativity is the living God. In our dynamic activism it seems an intolerable weakness to have to acknowledge that God’s grace is absolutely prior to all we do and are. America, a nation religious to the core, is motivated by the conviction that God helps those who help themselves. Given our unprecedented power over nature and nations, the implications of so arrogantly supposing that God’s grace is ours as a reward for our cultural virility are frightening. Without acknowledging that we are, in our virgin beginnings, the humble, barefooted recipients of a grace and a call that are the foundation of all we can ever hope to accomplish, our civilization loses all perspective and our power inevitably corrupts us. We could do worse than to claim Mary as our patron saint, she who was the simple and pure recipient of the grace of the Holy Spirit