24 May 2015

Experiments in New Evangelization: "Mary's Maternity is the Key to Mastering the Sociology of Religion"

[The following imaginary and utterly improbable dialogue takes place on a commuter train platform.  It is meant to illustrate some ideas for the evangelization of post-modern neo-pagan intellectual types.]


HUBERT: 
Hello! I notice you're reading a copy of Discipline and Punish.

CORNELIUS: 
Oh.  Yep.  It's for a class on the sociology of prisons I'm taking.

HUBERT: 
Very interesting.  Have you ever thought about the sociology of religion?

CORNELIUS: 
What do you mean?  Like, how religions work as social functions?

HUBERT: 
Yes.  That sort of thing.

CORNELIUS:  
A bit.  

HUBERT: 
It's an interesting field.

CORNELIUS:  
Mmmhmm.

HUBERT: 
But I think the core of the sociology of religion can really be covered completely by analyzing the Catholic doctrine of the maternity of the Virgin Mary.

CORNELIUS:  
The what?

HUBERT: 
I'm sure you're familiar with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is object of a very intense cult among Catholics.

CORNELIUS:  
Oh yes.  Very white lady, open palms, blue clothes?

HUBERT: 
That's the one.

CORNELIUS:  
You say she's the key to understanding the sociology of religion?

HUBERT: 
Yes.  You see, the key to understanding any discipline is twofold: first, one needs to master the first principles of the discipline, i.e., the most general truths the discipline can discover.  Second, one needs to master the methods of the discipline, i.e., to be capable of carrying out the investigation and application of various principles and theses of the discipline in practice.

CORNELIUS:  
Well, but wouldn't that division already bring you into a particular sociological paradigm?  Can you really make such a universal claim about what constitutes a discipline or its mastery?  Your perspective here is culturally determined.

HUBERT: 
Oh, I agree absolutely that my perspective is culturally determined, but the flip side of that is that everyone is culturally determined, and of course since the notion of a "discipline" itself is a feature of human behavior, my act of specifying what mastery of a discipline is is ultimately an act of description and not of normative prescription.  I'm not saying "real masters of disciplines should do this", I'm saying "that which is broadly, among people who talk about mastery of disciplines, recognized as such, is this".

CORNELIUS:  
Fair enough.  Anyway, you were saying...

HUBERT: 
Right.  So, mastery of a discipline requires understanding of its first principles and agility with the application of its methods or tools and findings to particular cases.  

CORNELIUS:  
OK.

HUBERT: 
So, with sociology, the question is "What would we have to do in order to grasp the first principles of sociology and become habituated to their proper application in practice?"

CORNELIUS:  
Yes, and you were saying that somehow the Virgin Mary is the perfect illustration of this?

HUBERT: 
The maternity of Mary in particular, yes.  But you're probably thinking I mean that the act of understanding the Catholic doctrine of Mary's maternity would require you to achieve mastery in the discipline of sociology.

CORNELIUS:  
That's not what you mean?

HUBERT: 
No, in fact, I make a somewhat bolder claim.  I want to say that the particularly Catholic doctrine of the maternity of Mary itself contains within itself the principles of the sociology of religion as a whole.

CORNELIUS:  
Ok, well I'm a bit of an outsider here.  I'm not sure what this "maternity of Mary" thing is.  Could you explain?

HUBERT: 
Sure.  So according to Catholics, there is a particular moment around the beginning of the first century in which a Jewish girl, most likely in her teenage years, has an experience, in which she is somehow informed that she, even though she's still unwed and a virgin, is going to conceive of a son, who is in some way the Son of God and the Redeemer of Israel.

CORNELIUS:  
OK.  Rings some bells.  Go on.

HUBERT: 
Right, so the doctrine of the maternity is more specific than that.  This teaching goes back to the earliest records of Christian doctrine, but gets its most systematic expression in the fifth century.  The maternity of Mary isn't just a miraculous virgin birth affair.  What makes it particularly excellent is that the relation of maternity is a personal relation in Catholicism.

CORNELIUS:  
A personal relation?

HUBERT: 
Yes, it's a relation which only obtains between persons.  Meaning that in humans, because humans are by nature persons, human maternity isn't of a body, or of a thing, but of a person.  So, let's put the pieces together.  If Mary is the mother of the Son of God, that is, of Jesus, and Jesus is Divine (as Catholic doctrine says), then Mary's maternity has on one side a human being, and on the other side a divine person.

CORNELIUS:  
OK.  Following.  So, what makes this interesting, I'm guessing, is how Catholics then deal with the incidence of these two seemingly contradictory relations of parenthood stemming from a single person, Jesus.

HUBERT: 
That's the beginning of it, yes.  It's very exciting!

CORNELIUS:  
Haha.  OK, continue.

HUBERT: 
So, you see, the wonderful thing about this hypostasis, this point of personal subsistence which is the endpoint of these two relations of parenthood, is that it has to be radically one.  What is generated through the Virgin Mary is a divine person, but in a human nature.  What is generated through God the Father of Christ is a divine person, in a divine nature, who receives a second generation through Mary, but while remaining the same person.

CORNELIUS:  
Bring this back to the sociology of religion for me.

HUBERT: 
OK, so now you've got the idea of Mary's maternity down a little bit, we can talk about sociology of religion.  Sociology in general as a science is about the study of human social activities and the way social practices determine the organization of human communities, the development and transmission of practices and narratives, the maintenance of symbolic and regulative structures, etc.

CORNELIUS:  
That's a pretty good summary. Yes. And sociology of religion focuses in on the development, maintenance, structure, and function of religions as social phenomena.

HUBERT: 
Right.  So what is the essence of religion?

CORNELIUS:  
Well that's a disputed question, isn't it?  People talk about religion in all sorts of degrees of strictness and vagueness.

HUBERT: 
True.  But it seems like the one reliable theme of religion is that it consists of social practices and beliefs which orient people toward something "transcendent".

CORNELIUS:  
Right, and determining the meaning of "transcendent" is going to be a problem.

HUBERT: 
Yes, but let's make it easy for ourselves and just say that "transcendent" means "distinct from the real world at hand, but somehow either a source of the present world, or a superior form of it".

CORNELIUS:  
Well yes, that's a little philosophically heavy, but I want to see where you're going with this, so let's proceed without picking it apart.  For the record, I think your definition is probably vague enough to stand up to criticism, though maybe with a little tweaking.

HUBERT: 
OK, thanks.  So, we've got transcendence.  Religion, then, involves a set of, usually codified or highly regulated social practices, which are oriented toward something that is treated as formally superior or causally prior to the present world.  In old school medieval texts they would say that religion is the expression of natural inclination of humans toward the first cause and ultimate end of the universe.

CORNELIUS:  
Haha, that's very Western.

HUBERT: 
Haha.  I suppose you could say it is.  But I think its Western-ness doesn't stop it from being fairly universal.  A sociologist of religion identifies the community which determines and is determined by a particular set of religious practices, and generally the orientation of the religion, i.e. the causal efficacy or supremacy ascribed to the transcendent object with which it is concerned, is going to be proportionate to the conscious engagement of the social group that coincides with the religion with the surrounding world.  Groups whose engagement is, at least in their imaginations, with the entirety of existence, are going to have a different sort of religion than those whose engagement is consciously limited to the goings on within a fixed circle of hills or rivers or islands.  The religious inclination ascends as the awareness of the world expands: the more universal the latter, the more universal the formal.  So you can see that the medieval principle has a great deal of truth to it.

CORNELIUS:  
Huh.  You're right.

HUBERT: 
If you're going to master the sociology of religion, then, you need to get to the roots of this idea of orientation toward the transcendent.  How does a group of people attend to the cause or supreme reality above or behind the present world?

CORNELIUS:  
Well, clearly in a lot of religions it's understood that the transcendent is also immanent within things, so that even though it's radically distinct from the apparent world, it is somehow immediately present to it, and often its effects are discernible within it.

HUBERT: 
That's right.  But then if the transcendent is immanent, how is it distinct?

CORNELIUS:  
Well – and I'm clearly no a specialist in the sociology of religion – but this is the basis of the notion of the "supernatural", right?  The supernatural is a regulative concept which maintains a line of demarcation between the present world and the transcendent world, which is often somehow immanent in it.  The supernatural has certain features, like, not being subject to the laws of ordinary events.  Sometimes it will have a moral rather than an impersonal character, or if it is impersonal it will be a force of broad equity or justice, like karma.  It's pretty much always unobservable, except indirectly, or by inferences from prophetic "signs" or the conditions of moral order in a community.

HUBERT: 
Right, so the distinctness of the transcendent is maintained on account of its supernatural character.  And the supernatural is in some way a parasitic concept, meaning that it depends on the notion of the "natural" for us to make sense of it.

CORNELIUS:  
Right.  So I'm guessing you're going to go there next.

HUBERT: 
Yes.  You see, my inclination is to suggest that the first principle of the sociology of religion lies in the general tendency of humans to investigate and draw limits around the principles of natural order.  The way the world works is obviously of interest to humans, and this is a nearly universal feature of human societies, and the exceptions to it are fringe cases, which, while interesting, probably tell us more about the extreme circumstances of this or that tribal group than they do about the general operation of human societies.

CORNELIUS:  
And you're not worried that you're constructing the notion of "human" here, in a prejudicial and culturally-conditioned way?

HUBERT: 
Well, no, I'm not.  See, it's true that I'm participating in the construction of the notion of "human" by talking to you this way and suggesting these ideas, but the reality is that we're all always participating in the construction of that notion whenever we make any judgment about this or that being human, whenever we use the word, etc.  If you can tell the difference between your neighbor and his dog, you're constructing "human" in a prejudicial and culturally-conditioned way.  And that's not a problem, because our construction of the notion and our communal acts of dividing off non-humans from humans in our use of the term are based on real differences, which are observable and commonly available, even if they might be expressed differently.  I think the universality of the phenomenon I'm describing is sufficient for us not to worry about it being an accidental result of my cultural conditioning, rather than a feature of the thing as it is.

CORNELIUS:  
Huh! That's pretty bold, but it makes sense. . . OK. . . So you were talking about the human inclination to understand nature.

HUBERT: 
Yes.  And by "nature" I don't mean nature as opposed to civilization and society, but simply "how things are, and why they are as they are".

CORNELIUS:  
OK, got it.

HUBERT: 
So, the next step would be–

CORNELIUS:  
Sorry, just to make sure – we are going to eventually get to your original point, yes?

HUBERT: 
Haha, yes, yes.  Sorry this is taking so long.

CORNELIUS:  
No, it's actually very useful for getting at the basics of what I've been studying in this class.

HUBERT: 
Well, good!  OK.  So, if nature is the concept on which "supernatural" is parasitic, what exactly is the explanation of the genesis of the notion of the "supernatural"?

CORNELIUS:  
The phrase "God of the gaps" springs to mind.  Usually the supernatural functions as an etiology of whatever phenomena are incomprehensible within the experience of a religious society.

HUBERT: 
Yeah, this is a common thesis.  I'm sure it's true in some cases, but on the flip side I suspect that it's not the correct primary answer.  

CORNELIUS:  
Why not?

HUBERT: 
Because, for one thing, when you look at the practices of religious groups, they don't tend to center on the intrusions of inexplicable phenomena.  Inexplicable phenomena are unexplainable, unpredictable, unregulated.  Religious phenomena tend in many (perhaps most) cases to be highly codified, highly normative, and non-spontaneous.  Even in religions which incorporate frenzies or prophetic signs, the whole set of behaviors surrounding the frenzy or the oracle is strictly regulated and ordered.  And besides this, if we leave tribal societies behind, virtually none of the major world religions as they exist today are based primarily off of a need to explain phenomena that are scientifically odd or seemingly unpredictable.

CORNELIUS:  
Well then, what would they be based off of?  How do you suppose the division between natural and supernatural is maintained?

HUBERT: 
Actually, we've already answered that, or nearly.  I think the division is an almost automatic consequence of the investigation of the natural.  Once we understand a phenomenon, we arrive at a well-defined idea of its nature.  This idea is finite and determinate in its content.  But the inclination to ask questions about things spurs people on: "I have understood what this thing is, now I should understand why it is the way it is."  And the pursuit of principles and reasons for the contingent natures of things naturally points, after some reflection, toward something which is non-contingent and radically transcendent, which supplies the reality or the nature of everything else.  Clearly many, or perhaps even most religions never reach this extreme, but the tendency to reduce what is explained to a higher or more general principle or cause or goal is a universal tendency.

CORNELIUS:  
Well, is it?  What if there are some societies where the longing for the universal and abstract isn't really a thing.

HUBERT: 
It's possible that there are societies like that.  No question.  But insofar as we talk about religion and religious practices, it seems to me that this tendency toward the transcendent is a deep cause.

CORNELIUS:  
Well, maybe. . . Think about this, though, for a second.  You talked about how highly codified religious rituals are.  Aren't some religions merely the exercise of these sorts of ritualistic communal behaviors, without any reference to the transcendent?

HUBERT: 
In some cases the ritual seems to hold pride of place over any sort of doctrine, but even then it seems to me that what defines a religious practice as such is that the practice is oriented somehow toward the supernatural.

CORNELIUS:  
OK.

HUBERT: 
And actually that brings us to the point.

CORNELIUS:  
Oh?  Does it?

HUBERT: 
Yes.  Because the question is how ritualistic, codified practices can be oriented toward the supernatural.

CORNELIUS:  
Oh.  Hmm.  But according to your thesis, religions tend to recognize everything as somehow oriented toward the supernatural.  So how could that be a problem?

HUBERT: 
It's a problem because religious practices are clearly understood as special loci of contact between the supernatural and the natural.  And so the question is: what is it about these practices that makes them privileged moments of contact.

CORNELIUS:  
Oh I see.

HUBERT: 
Yes.  Now, there are a few approaches to this, but it seems to me that the doctrine of the Virgin Mary's maternity is the paramount expression of this orientation.

CORNELIUS:  Aha, so we're getting to the point.

HUBERT: 
Yep.  So, as you already pointed out, there's an automatic orientation of everything natural toward the supernatural.  But if there's going to be a privileged set of objects or activities that are somehow more directly connected to the supernatural, then we have to figure out what distinguishes them.

CORNELIUS:  
OK.

HUBERT: 
There are a few ways of doing this: some things might be closer to the supernatural on account of what they have to do with.  For example, if the transcendent is highly ordered and deals with moral existence, then highly intentional moral activities will be closer to the transcendent, by analogy.  Or, to go back to an earlier example, if the transcendent is that which escapes the limitations of the natural order, then any tangible object that is the result of a mysterious or apparently miraculous event will be closer to the supernatural.

CORNELIUS:  
Mmhmm.

HUBERT: 
But these examples are still somewhat problematic.  You can see why religious cults would develop around them, because they refer more directly to the supernatural, but their mode of reference is still, since they're tangible, natural objects with observable characteristics and patterns of behavior, be fundamentally natural, not supernatural.  The question is how something which is natural can refer not by analogy or imitation, but directly to the supernatural.  And this is where Mary comes in.

CORNELIUS:  
I think I anticipate your conclusion, but I'll let you say it.

HUBERT: 
Thank you.  So, the really amazing thing about Mary's maternity of Jesus Christ, is that in this moment we have the conjunction of everything which is at the basis of human religious practice: the distinction of the transcendent and the natural, the human and the divine, the immanent and the transcendent, all expressed in this bizarre relationship between a young Jewish girl and her Son.  And the conjunction, which might seem paradoxical, and even entertainingly so, is actually exactly what one would expect if one were looking for a credible expression of the transcendent meant to be relatable to humans.  Because it's not just that the transcendent becomes present by a miraculous sign, like a lightning bolt or a magic token.  Rather, the transcendent becomes present by assuming a natural form, and most specifically by assuming a natural relationship with an ordinary natural being, so that in the context of this relationship, which terminates in a person and a shared nature, the person of Mary, a mere human being, and the person of Christ, who is eternal and transcendent, come into direct contact.  Jesus, the divine person occupying a human nature, is not two persons, but one, and by being radically one person, occupying a finite nature, but acting in the full dignity of his transcendence, he sets out a whole course of actions which, by our participation in them, enable human beings to directly imitate and draw close to the Divine.

CORNELIUS:  
Wow.

HUBERT: 
So it seems to me that really understanding this moment in history, this idea, this utterly singular relationship between persons, which I've only begun to scratch the surface of here, we can understand the principles of the sociology of religion, and the basis of the possibility of the fulfillment of human religious tendencies as a whole.