There’s Something About Mary(‘s Theology)

This past week Fuller’s School of Intercultural Studies hosted its annual Missiology Lectures. This year they invited Missiologist Valdir Steuernagel, of World Vision to discuss, “Missiology and Mary in Latin America: The Southern Church and a Fresh Mission Movement.”  This is an overview and reflection on his third lecture.

In the third of his missiology lectures, Valdir Steuernagel turned to look at how one might approach the task of doing theology by looking at Mary as a model theologian. What makes Mary so important as a theologian is that she “opens her womb to God.” The womb is the most intimate of all places, where life is formed and thus Mary makes vulnerable her body to the intrusive seed of God. This vulnerability is key for the theologian, as Steuernagel says, “You can only do theology if you’re willing to offer your womb to God.” Of course, what is meant by theology here is the act of interpretive obedience to one’s encounter with God, formal (or systematic) theology, “is a second hour business.” Mary’s opening herself to God leads her in three interpretive directions: first, Mary discovered that God’s work so often comes at the wrong time and place in life (Lk. 1:26-38); second, she her theology is done in the company of others (Lk. 1:39-45); and third, she discovered that her call is a part of the larger narrative of God’s salvation history (Lk. 1:46-55).

As a young Jewish woman, engaged to be married, the timing of God’s miracle was less than perfect. Mary’s encounter with God not only risked the relationship between her and Joseph but put her social standing in jeopardy. A young virgin woman with an illegitimate pregnancy in any day scandalizes the patriarchal structures set in place, no less the first century. God’s coming to a young Jewish woman is the unexpected, even the impossible. For Steuernagel, “You can’t be a theologian without having your womb being compromised by God’s kingdom.” It is only God who can turn the impossible into a profound miracle. The timing of God’s work from human the standpoint of perception was ill conceived. However, as Steuernagel pointed out, over against the low-risk, predictability of institutional church, the Spirit of God comes in unpredictable and surprising ways, ways that often unravel the structures we’ve put in place.

Genuine theology is done within community, it is done face-to-face with others. Steuernagel said, “If you want to do theology, pay a visit. Theology is never an individualistic exercise, it is always a community effort. You do not do theology in the library, you do research there, rather you do it in relationship, among the sisterhood and brotherhood.” Mary visited her relative Elizabeth because the burden God laid on her is too heavy to bear alone. Together these woman carried the seeds of new life, the seeds of revolution that eventually upend the world as it was known. This is a revolution “that shakes the womb” (Steuernagel, Lk. 1:42). This intense vocation could not be appropriated individualistically. Obedience to the call of God requires the support a community.

Finally, Steuernagel turned to Mary’s song in order to show how she understood herself within the story of God’s salvation history. In the magnificat Mary recognizes, with no small amount of humility, the magnitude of blessing poured out upon her:

“…for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Lk. 1:48-52).

While Mary recognized her blessing, she saw it not as something private, but rather as an extension of the God’s mission in the world.

“He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Lk. 1:54-55).

God was doing a work among Israel, both her and Elizabeth’s babies were clear indicators that the world was being turned upside down. The magnificat shows that good theology looks at history from a different angle.  Good theology discovers where God’s (often unexpected) mission is at hand, rejoices in that work, and when possible reveals how to join in. This mission is a work of liberation and freedom, and comes in the form of the unexpected and powerless, “Mary says, God has not forgotten us, he is the God of Abraham, Jacob, etc.” The narrative of God’s salvation history is one in which his people have an important missional role.

In James Wm. McClendon’s book Ethics, McClendon mapped out a method of theology that acts as “the broad strategy that would be followed in theology understood as the theoretic of baptist common convictions, the web in which they adhere and breathe together” (McClendon, 2002: 35). Now certainly, Steuernagel as a Lutheran was not attempting to do baptistic theology, yet I think McClendon’s four features could be helpful in strengthening Steuernagel’s own theological framing of Mary. Those four features are: theology is contextual, theology is narrative-based, theology is rational, and theology is self-involving (McClendon, 35-38).

The first feature, theology is contextual, was grossly downplayed in Steuernagel’s presentation.  Theology is always contextual (Bevans 1992) and this can be taken to mean at least two things in Steuernagel’s instance.  Why would anyone want to do Mary Theology in Latin America? What is to be gained by this approach to theology, and how might it be similar to, as well as different from, the way Catholics have approached Mary? But further, how does the church in Latin America connect to Mary’s own context and her ‘theological’ response to first century Judaism. Here we might expect to find that Mary, as a female theologian, standing in stark contrast to those in power within her society. Here we see her counter-theology, not only as a woman, but as the mother of the (un)expected Messiah. This puts her in a place where theology is takes on the role of witness as much as correction to those within power (McClendon, 35). Steuernagel would have done well to draw these contextual features out more clearly. Not only would they have helped to explain the why behind this approach, but at a deeper level it would have illuminated the very missionary nature of God’s message through his people and how it works out in particular places and times, something I felt strangely lacking from a “Missiology” lecture.