Saturday, 11 February 2017

The Maternal Face of God, by Leornardo Boff



Leonardo Boff OFM, The Maternal Face of God: The Feminine and its Religious Expressions, 1989 Collins, London


The novelty of this book lies in combining Liberation Theology and feminism with an high maximalist Mariology. This contrasts with Mary and Human Liberation, by the Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya, which argued that Catholic dogmas regarding the Blessed Virgin contributed to the oppression of women. Balasuriya was excommunicated in 1997. I used to see that book in bookshops quite often when I was a teenager, the author's excommunication giving it the popularity of notoriety. I read Mary and Human Liberation when I was at college. Being a fundamentalist Protestant at the time, I rather enjoyed it's attacks on Catholic Mariology.

There are quite a few things wrong with The Maternal Face of God. Most importantly is Boff's low view of Scriptural authority. He clearly rejects the Inerrancy of Scripture, contrary to Magisterial teaching. He reads Scripture through the lens of the hermeneutics of suspicion, seeing it as influenced by a culture of Patriarchal dominance. While he does not call for the ordination of women, he is dismissive of arguments against it. He also spends a lot of time talking about sociology. Towards the end of the book, he devotes no less than three chapters to the subject of 'Myth,' in which he makes use of the unscientific ramblings of Carl Jung. Theologians love the words 'Myth' and 'Mythology' because nobody really knows exactly what they mean. Theologians can call the Biblical narratives 'Myths,' and then when they are accused of treating them as fiction, they can say that is not really what they meant.

Yet despite it's faults, The Maternal Face of God offers a really fruitful and insightful look at the topic of Mariology. Boff affirms the Marian dogmas of our Church and also their typological basis in Scripture. He also places them into the context of the contemporary issues of poverty and social struggle. We may disagree with Boff's Marxist assumptions, but we can appreciate his attempt to make Mariology relevant to a modern context and very real situations of poverty and oppression.

Boff sees in the Immaculate Conception the seed of a new humanity, God's wish to communicate the divine self. In Mary's Perpetual Virginity, he sees her total dedication and openness to God. As with many theologians, he connects the Assumption of Our Lady with deification:

Mary on an eschatological level is supremely divinized- preserving her created nature and thus remaining utterly distinct from God in that nature, but indissolubly one with the Spirit.

In reflecting on the Assumption, he offers criticism which would seem to be aimed at the 'Mariology from Below' advocates, such as Elizabeth Johnson, who emphasize the historical Mary as an example to identify with or Karl Rahner's emphasis on Mary within salvation history:

Mariology is in constant danger of degenerating into the empty memory of a long-ago past, made real for faith alone by a relentless scholarly research into the sources of that faith in Scripture an tradition. Our Lady can become an idea, an abstract principle, a means for the construction of our salvation history. Mary's resurrection and assumption corrects this potential deviation. Mary is still in the world, still at the heart of the Church, with the living presence of someone alive.

Boff is arguing that rather than making the Blessed Virgin Mary remote, as some of the critics of Marian dogma allege, in fact it brings her closer to us and gives her an ineffable presence. Our author also affirms the role of Mary as Mediatrix of Grace. He sees in this doctrine the identification of Mary with all those who are oppressed. Through her mediation, she joins with them in their struggles. This is particularly seen in the Magnificat, where Mary proclaims God's solidarity with the poor and suffering.

This book aroused controversy over Boff's views on the relationship of Mary to the Holy Spirit. He has been accused of teaching that Mary is an incarnation of God the Holy Spirit. Boff insists that the incarnation of the Son of God was unique and declines to call Mary's union with the Holy Spirit an incarnation. St. Maximilian Kolbe seems to be have been less cautious in his language. However, he asserts a 'spiritualization' of Mary and an uniquely intensive indwelling by the Holy Spirit in Mary that unites Our Lady to the Holy Trinity. He states:

We hold that Mary not only received the effects of the Holy Spirit's intervention in her life- indeed as anyone might, although it was surely to a special degree of intensity in her case- but that she specifically received the very person and Godhead of the Third Person of the Holy Spirit.

So there is a personal union between Mary and the Holy Spirit, when the Holy Spirit 'overshadowed' her. He describes this union in terms of perichoresis:

... the chain of chain of laudatory enunciations normally predicated of the Holy Spirit but used by the faithful in the Litany of Loreto, have sometimes struck theologians as exaggerated. But in the hypothesis we are defending, they only tell the whole truth about Mary. If Mary has been spiritualized by the Third Person of the Trinity, then everything that can be predicated of the Holy Spirit can be predicated of Mary and vice versa, by virtue of the general theological principle of the perichoresis.

Later in the book, Boff connects this union with the Holy Spirit to Mary's Divine Motherhood:

Analogously, Mary acquires in the Incarnation an indelible character in the form of a permanent, real and special relationship with the Son and the Holy Spirit, as well as through them, the Trinity as such. She alone bears the indelible character, the ontological reality, of being Mother of God and living temple of the Holy Spirit.

I think that Boff is correct in his articulation of Mary's relationship to the Trinity and divinization. This helps to provide an understanding of why we place the Mother of our Lord on such a pedestal. If the Protestants accuse us of worshiping a goddess, they are only half wrong. Boff's understanding of Mary's divinization also enables us to see in her the revelation of the Eternal Feminine. He does connect this with Sophia, Lady Wisdom, but I would have liked him to have said more about this and to have engaged with the works of Sergius Bulgakov. Boff sees all the feminine virtues having an eschatological fulfillment in the Blessed Virgin. Among his concluding thoughts he quotes Teilard de Chardin:

The authentic, pure feminine is par excellence an luminous, chaste energy, the vessel of the ideal, and of goodness- the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I had my frustrations with this book, yet I still found in it a marvelous portrayal of the glories of the Queen of the Universe.


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