Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In response to my critique of her post on Marian devotion, Heather Mac Donald says that her “tone was clearly self-indulgent and insensitive” but that “however poorly phrased, the post was an honest cri du coeur.”

I appreciate both her civility and her honesty. I regret that the tone of my own post bordered on the edge of snarkiness, not only because it was rude but because it buried the parts where we are in agreement. I can certainly empathize with her response to seeing people treat a wooden statute with such reverence. As an evangelical, I don’t fully comprehend either the significance of the iconography or the doctrine of Mariology. And even if I were able to fully understand I doubt I would embrace such views myself.

However, while I’m not devoted to Mary, I am devoted to my fellow Christians. I feel compelled to defend those of other traditions even when I don’t completely agree. Such an allegiance makes me more sensitive to the use of terminology and the distinctions between such terms as icons and idols or devotion and worship. I suspect Mac Donald would see such clarifications, however, as missing the larger point.

For example, Mac Donald says, “I don’t think that I’m the only person to have ever been mystified or at least unpersuaded by the use of idols.” If she had used the word icons I would have been fully in agreement. However, I see a world of difference—alas, a cosmic difference—between an icon and an idol. But I suspect Mac Donald would not find them to be nearly as dissimilar as I do.

Mac Donald also adds:

Mr. Piatak and Mr. Carter may have so absorbed secular tolerance that they would see in a Yoruba tribesman’s devotion to his wooden Juju simply a wonderfully diverse manifestation of human spirituality. But many missionaries have demurred from a tribesman’s claims about the role of his ancestor’s effigy in maintaining civil order and protecting the tribe . . . Mr. Piatak also observes that people have committed great acts of heroism and compassion inspired by Mary worship.

My view of the Yoruba tribesmen’s relationship to his statue would depend on whether they consider it an idol or an icon: Is it an object of worship or merely a symbolic representation of something that still exists (their ancestors)? Catholics, after all, do not worship Mary. Rather, they believe she is a still-existing being who has the ability to intercede on their behalf.

Again, I’ll concede that a non-believer has no obligation to try to comprehend this view much less consider it a respectable belief. Indeed, once we set aside the misunderstanding in language, this seems to be the basis for Ms. Mac Donald’s objection:

I would wager that Marian devotion has an identical track record to crystals and other forms of talismanic power in protecting worshippers from the vicissitudes of fortune. For every remembered moment where a prayer seems to have been answered, there are countless other instances where nothing happened or worse: where innocents trapped by earthquake, fire, hurricane, flood, or landslide were not pulled out alive or where cancer, plague, or a genetic abnormality claimed its victim, despite the fervent prayers and petitions of worshippers.

Mac Donald raises some valid questions about prayer that can’t be answered in the space of a blog post (at least not in this post). But in bringing up the point, she made me realize that it is rather silly to quibble about language when our differences are really about what we consider plausible.

We may find it offensive that Mac Donald thinks the practice of some Christians is similar to the ancestor worship of a Yoruba tribesman. But if we’re being honest, many of us would find the materialist-based mysticism of atheism as backward as any polytheistic tribe. Our judgments on each of these worldview is not based solely on whether we find them to be true, but whether we find them to be even plausible based on what we know, or think we know, about the world. For example, I don’t find it plausible that inanimate matter can produce mystical emergent properties, whether those properties take the form of a long-dead ancestor or a new-born mind. Clearly defining our terms will only get us so far when the real contentions are rooted in how we view ultimate reality.

The fact that we are all Westerners and share an appreciation for the fruits of modernity often masks how differently we see the world. Geographically, Mac Donald’s Manhattan tribe may not be so far from my own. But epistemically we are worlds apart. Although we share a common language, our disagreements over how it ties to reality are bound to cause us to talk past one another.

00 Days
00 Hours
00 Minutes
00 Seconds
Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before the clock above hits zero.

First Things is proud to be a reader-supported enterprise, and the Spring Campaign is one of only two major reader giving drives each year. It ends on June 30 at 11:59 p.m.

Your gift will fortify First Things to speak boldly on behalf of religious voices in the public square ahead of a pivotal season for our nation and the church.

Please give now.

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.

Tags

Loading...

Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles