Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Ellul and the Cult of the Virgin

Ellul points to the elevation of celibacy as a higher calling and ideal as one example of the crumbling of the original vision of the Christian community. He sees this particularly in the changing views and roles of women. More specifically, he says, "the more feminine liberty was supressed, the more women were accused (of being the temptress of Genesis, etc.), the more they were reduced to silence, and the more, reciprocally, their ideal role was exalted, the model was achieved one time only. The cult of the Virgin flourishes under the repression, veiling it and giving men a good conscience. The cult of the Virgin does not prove that women were placed too high. The exact opposite is the case. It plays the role of an ideology and conceals the mechanism whereby women are despoiled, treated as minors, and negated. The model is perfect because it is unique. Because no other woman can approximate it, all others, in the name of the Virgin's excellence, must be reduced to tutelage." (34)


Matthew N. Petersen said...

I don't know. I'm suspicious of that sort of argument for a couple of reasons:

"Finding the hidden roots" of Christianity is very problematic. It is more or less, disrespectful to our mother the Church. It may be that we should exalt marriage more than celibacy (though that isn't what St. Paul says), but when someone says that the original vision was lost, I begin to suspect disrespect.

Celibacy was seen as higher even by Augustine's time. And it was precisely the Christian vision of people like Augustine that overthrew the deep sexism of the Roman Empire.

The idea that a perfect ideal represses is bogus. If it were valid, we would have an Christ-Adam duality. It may be that in this instance it did. It probably did for many people, but it seems far more reasonable that just bitter like charges that someone isn't "Christ Like" increase when there is Christ to be like, so bitter charges that someone isn't "Mary Like" increase when there is Mary to be like. Moreover, just as we recognize Hitchens as talking rot when he makes that sort of argument against Christians, we should suspect Protestants who make such an argument against Catholics to be talking uncharitable bunk.

Also, there is the other side of the story. Without the cult of the virgin, someone like Dante would be impossible, and furthermore, the Protestant cult of marriage would be impossible. It seems to me that seeing women as vile temptresses is inevitable when society begins to realize sex is good.

Anonymous said...

Hey Toby-

Like the last quote you put up from this fellow, this quote doesn't really track more than a few feet.

If Christian traditions that participated in the cult of the Virgin were populated by women who were repressed and behaved as though they had crushed spirits, there might be some value in Ellul's claim. That's not really the case, though. If I was looking for repressed women in a Christian church, I wouldn't start that search in a Catholic or Orthodox church.


Toby said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. And by posting the quote, I wasn't necessarily saying that his point is airtight. At the same time, it's worth asking if there have been any adverse effects on cultures/churches that exalt celibacy/virginity over and against marriage/sex/children.

Also, your point, Gibbs, about repressed women does not seem so self evident you as seem to make it. Are the RC women in South America and the EO women of Russia known for their freedom/leadership/and grace? I don't know the answer to the question but I don't think its completely absurd to ask. I mean, Russian mail-order brides aren't related to this discussion at all, right?

Matthew N. Petersen said...

Pr. Sumpter,

I've been thinking about this a bit last night, and I think it's this sort of charge that runs Protestants into trouble with the radical atheists. "By that same judgment where with you judge it shall be meeted back to you."

We are willing to get on board with "the cult of the virgin repressed women, because it provides an impossible standard for them to live up to, and when they do not, they are castigated."

Should we be surprised when the world tells us "the culd of Jesus represses people, because it provides an impossible standard for us to live up to, and when we do not, we are castigated."

Likewise, we say "the early pristine Church believed, but she left that into despicable idolatry" (thus rejecting the Church of the Middle Ages) and the liberal responds "the early pristine Church believed, but she left that into despicable doctrines." (Thus rejecting the Church of St. Paul.)

I'm not sure that the criticism applies to you, but I think it's an important point to make nonetheless.

Remy said...

Rodney Stark has shown a correlation between the treatment of women and their percentage of the population. The more women there are, the better they are treated.

It would be interesting to know if the rise of the cult of the virgin came in a time of higher or lower female population.

Rusty said...

I think we need to distinguish between the "cult of the virgin" and the "cult of Jesus." These two perfect ideals (one false, one true) are not terribly analogous. The cult of the virgin bears a legal standard for women. This is repressive, as all legal standards ultimately are. I view this as a simple culturally transcendent truth. Law can only reveal sin.

Conversely, Jesus Christ, who bears a more perfect ideal represses only unbelievers. His standard is legal as well. It is totally impossible to perform. But, the difference between the legal standard of Jesus Christ and all other law, including the cult of the virgin, is the Spirit of God. We are animated spiritually by God indwelling us. We have met the standard in Christ, so where is repression?

Anonymous said...

Hey there, Toby-

As opposed to speculating about how repressed women in other countries are, let's just look at our own, which we know better and can observe. You've made it a point in the past that dealing with the people who are here and now should be important than dealing with those who are far off. That's a good rule to abide by here. So... Take a peak around Moscow. Do the women at the Catholic church in Moscow seem more or less restricted, crushed than the women who go to Baptist or Presbyterian churches? I think we both know they don't.

Further, Ellul is claiming the "cult of the Virgin" crushes the spirits of women who adhere to it. Now, if what he's saying is true, then it should matter if a Catholic woman is in North America, South America or Ireland, their spirit should be crushed, right? If not, then I suppose factors other than "the cult" are affecting things.

The information readily available to you just isn't helping your case.



Matthew N. Petersen said...


I'm having trouble reading your comment as saying anything other than "judge not doesn't apply to us."

We could argue that the cult of the virgin is wrong, and therefore (as all false things are) repressive (or at best, not liberating). But if we argue that it's repressive because it provides an impossible standard; we shouldn't be at all surprised when the exact same judgment is turned back on us. Christ promised that it would be.

Matthew N. Petersen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew N. Petersen said...

And anyway, no we haven't met the standard. The gospel isn't "Christ did good, and therefore you don't have to be good." But "Christ did good, and thereby is making you good." (Which also, by the by is true of Mary. "Mary has done good, and thereby makes us good." "Blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.")

It is true that the bar is set low--we don't have to be good enough to come in--but when we say the bar is God's standard for perfection we miss the point. Chesterton said God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy. Something of that is going on here. He's pleased with us, but not satisfied.

But even that really doesn't get at the issue. He isn't satisfied, and he isn't necessarily pleased--at least not for this or that particular thing. But the gospel is that baptism gives us access to the Tree of Life, which Hebrews identifies with the Eucharist (specifically, the cup). We don't have to be good enough to come to the table, but the New Testament is full of warnings that we must be good enough for resurrection.