Monday, 4 November 2019

On Pachamamas, the Eternal Feminine, and the Development of Doctrine

The Catholic web has been ablaze of late with news and gossip about the infamous statuettes that recently appeared in Rome, at events connected to the Amazon synod. The images of these statuettes have caused much scandal and outrage, and traditionalists everywhere have accused the pope, or at least his officials, of creating the appearance of idolatry in the temple of God. The infamous video of their theft from a church in Rome only prolonged the controversy over them, and added to the mix a controversy over the legitimacy of removing idols from the church in order to destroy them (although they were not, in this case, successfully destroyed). The flurry of contradictory interpretations of the identity of the statue offered by commentators, journalists, and Vatican officials has been almost comedic, as have been the contradictory reactions to Pope Francis' own recent statement apologizing for the theft, in which he referred to them rather colloquially as "the pachamama statues," while also insisting that no idolatry was intended by their presence. 

What are these statues? Do they depict the Incan goddess Pachamama? Do they merely symbolize "Mother Earth"? (In fact, Pachamama is herself Mother Earth, in the mythology of the Andes.) Are they merely cultural symbols of fertility and life? Or do they represent the Virgin Mary? Or Mary and Elizabeth, in the visitation scene? Or all of these things? A separate question is: what was the ritual that took place in the Vatican Gardens, in which several people prostrated themselves before these images, and raised their hands to the skies, as if in an act of worship or veneration? Were the two men who stole these images from the church justified in doing so and throwing them into the Tiber? 

In what follows, I do not precisely answer any of these questions. Rather, I will attempt to provide some perspective on the complex relationship between paganism and Christianity, in the hopes of at least quelling the outrage on both sides of the bitter feuds that have taken place over this issue. Questions of history and human action are not always answerable, since the motives of men are contradictory and irrational. Who knows what was intended by the actors in the Vatican? One can, however, take solace in a longer and more metaphysical view of things, which can be comfortable with the contradictions and contingencies of history, while keeping the eye of the mind firmly set upon eternal truths - and at the same time develop a level-headed account of what is the most prudent "strategy" for living out such truths in practice.

. . . . . .

The Church has a long and venerable tradition of two things: a) Taking the idols of the heathens and smashing them to bits; b) incorporating the images, rituals, and customs of the heathens into her own tradition, like spoils from Egypt. 

The scriptures are full of examples of the people of God smashing the altars and idols of the heathens. Jesus Christ himself overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple. St. Boniface felled Donar's Oak, and St. Patrick battered a pagan stone idol with his crozier (what a veritable weapon that crozier must have been!). The scriptures constantly condemn those who honor, not the Creator, but the creature. Make no mistake: idolatry is condemned in the First Commandment of the decalogue. All they who honor any creature, anything other than God Himself, with the degree of veneration known as latria, thereby merit God's eternal wrath. Nothing could be clearer than this. 

However, the Church has another tradition, equally as ancient - and perhaps in apparent tension with this first, most fundamental tradition to the practice of Catholic religion. This second tradition is described by the now sainted John Henry Cardinal Newman, in chapter 8 of his "Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine," as Christianity's power of assimilation, which he closely links to the sacramental principle, according to which the things of earth formerly under the dominion of the devil are incorporated by grace into the dominion of GodThis is the power by which the Christian doctrine constantly mines and claims for itself the riches of heathen religions, its rituals, symbols, images, and philosophies. The process generally resembles that which often goes by the unsavory name of inculturation. Newman's eloquence in describing this principle is so great that it is almost vain to paraphrase or quote him - yet a few passages must suffice:
Confiding then in the power of Christianity to resist the infection of evil, and to transmute the very instruments {372} and appendages of demon-worship to an evangelical use, and feeling also that these usages had originally come from primitive revelations and from the instinct of nature, though they had been corrupted; and that they must invent what they needed, if they did not use what they found; and that they were moreover possessed of the very archetypes, of which paganism attempted the shadows; the rulers of the Church from early times were prepared, should the occasion arise, to adopt, or imitate, or sanction the existing rites and customs of the populace, as well as the philosophy of the educated class. 
St. Gregory Thaumaturgus supplies the first instance on record of this economy. He was the Apostle of Pontus, and one of his methods for governing an untoward population is thus related by St. Gregory of Nyssa. "On returning," he says, "to the city, after revisiting the country round about, he increased the devotion of the people everywhere by instituting festive meetings in honour of those who had fought for the faith. The bodies of the Martyrs were distributed in different places, and the people assembled and made merry, as the year came round, holding festival in their honour. This indeed was a proof of his great wisdom ... for, perceiving that the childish and untrained populace were retained in their idolatrous error by creature comforts, in order that what was of first importance should at any rate be secured to them, viz. that they should look to God in place of their vain rites, he allowed them to be merry, jovial, and gay at the monuments of the holy Martyrs, as if their behaviour would in time undergo a spontaneous change into greater seriousness and strictness, since faith would lead them to it; which has actually been the happy issue in that population, all carnal gratification having turned into a spiritual form of rejoicing." [Note 15] There is no reason to suppose {373} that the licence here spoken of passed the limits of harmless though rude festivity; for it is observable that the same reason, the need of holydays for the multitude, is assigned by Origen, St. Gregory's master, to explain the establishment of the Lord's Day also, and the Paschal and the Pentecostal festivals, which have never been viewed as unlawful compliances; and, moreover, the people were in fact eventually reclaimed from their gross habits by his indulgent policy, a successful issue which could not have followed an accommodation to what was sinful.   
The example set by St. Gregory in an age of persecution was impetuously followed when a time of peace succeeded. In the course of the fourth century two movements or developments spread over the face of Christendom, with a rapidity characteristic of the Church; the one ascetic, the other ritual or ceremonial. We are told in various ways by Eusebius [Note 16], that Constantine, in order to recommend the new religion to the heathen, transferred into it the outward ornaments to which they had been accustomed in their own. It is not necessary to go into a subject which the diligence of Protestant writers has made familiar to most of us. The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints, and ornamented on occasions with branches of trees; incense, lamps, and candles; votive offerings on recovery from illness; holy water; asylums; holydays and seasons, use of calendars, processions, blessings on the fields; sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure, the ring in marriage, turning to the East, images at a later date, perhaps the ecclesiastical chant, and the Kyrie Eleison [Note 17], are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the Church. {374}
To be sure, Newman is hardly unaware that the assimilation of pagan rituals is not to be accomplished apart from the destruction and banishment of pagan gods. The assimilation of the pagan rites requires the directing of them towards God, and away from the demons. Quoting St. John Damascene:
"As the holy Fathers overthrew the temples and shrines of the devils, and raised in their places shrines in the {377} names of Saints and we worship them, so also they overthrew the images of the devils, and in their stead raised images of Christ, and God's Mother, and the Saints. And under the Old Covenant, Israel neither raised temples in the name of men, nor was memory of man made a festival; for, as yet, man's nature was under a curse, and death was condemnation, and therefore was lamented, and a corpse was reckoned unclean and he who touched it; but now that the Godhead has been combined with our nature, as some life-giving and saving medicine, our nature has been glorified and is trans-elemented into incorruption. Wherefore the death of Saints is made a feast, and temples are raised to them, and Images are painted ... For the Image is a triumph, and a manifestation, and a monument in memory of the victory of those who have done nobly and excelled, and of the shame of the devils defeated and overthrown." 
Nonetheless, Newman is emphatic that simply because a certain doctrine or ritual has, to all external or factual appearances, a pagan origin, it does not follow that the truth or legitimacy of its inclusion in Catholic belief or practice is thereby undermined or negated. Thus, he writes, in a long but famous passage: 
"The phenomenon, admitted on all hands, is this:—That great portion of what is generally received as Christian truth is, in its rudiments or in its separate parts, to be found in heathen philosophies and religions. For instance, the doctrine of a Trinity is found both in the East and in the West; so is the ceremony of washing; so is the rite of sacrifice. The doctrine of the Divine Word is Platonic; the doctrine of the Incarnation is Indian; of a divine kingdom is Judaic; of Angels and demons is Magian; the connexion of sin with the body is Gnostic; celibacy is known to Bonze and Talapoin; a sacerdotal order is Egyptian; the idea of a new birth is Chinese and Eleusinian; belief in sacramental virtue is Pythagorean; and honours to the dead are a polytheism. Such is the general nature of the fact before us; Mr. Milman argues from it,—'These things are in heathenism, therefore they are not Christian:' we, on the contrary, prefer to say, 'these things are in Christianity, therefore they are not heathen.' That is, we prefer to say, and we think that Scripture bears us out in saying, that from the beginning the Moral Governor of the world has scattered the seeds of truth far and wide over its extent; that these have variously taken root, and grown as in the wilderness, wild plants indeed but living; and hence that, as the inferior animals have tokens of an immaterial {381} principle in them, yet have not souls, so the philosophies and religions of men have their life in certain true ideas, though they are not directly divine. What man is amid the brute creation, such is the Church among the schools of the world; and as Adam gave names to the animals about him, so has the Church from the first looked round upon the earth, noting and visiting the doctrines she found there. She began in Chaldea, and then sojourned among the Canannites, and went down into Egypt, and thence passed into Arabia, till she rested in her own land. Next she encountered the merchants of Tyre, and the wisdom of the East country, and the luxury of Sheba. Then she was carried away to Babylon, and wandered to the schools of Greece. And wherever she went, in trouble or in triumph, still she was a living spirit, the mind and voice of the Most High; 'sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions;' claiming to herself what they said rightly, correcting their errors, supplying their defects, completing their beginnings, expanding their surmises, and thus gradually by means of them enlarging the range and refining the sense of her own teaching. So far then from her creed being of doubtful credit because it resembles foreign theologies, we even hold that one special way in which Providence has imparted divine knowledge to us has been by enabling her to draw and collect it together out of the world, and, in this sense, as in others, to 'suck the milk of the Gentiles and to suck the breast of kings.'
"How far in fact this process has gone, is a question of history; and we believe it has before now been grossly exaggerated and misrepresented by those who, like Mr. Milman, have thought that its existence told against Catholic doctrine; but so little antecedent difficulty have we in the matter, that we could readily grant, unless it were a question of fact not of theory, that Balaam was an Eastern sage, or a Sibyl was inspired, or Solomon learnt of the sons of Mahol, or Moses was a scholar of the Egyptian hierophants. We are not distressed to be told that the doctrine of the angelic host came from Babylon, while we know that they did sing at the Nativity; nor that the vision of a Mediator is in Philo, if in very deed {382} He died for us on Calvary. Nor are we afraid to allow, that, even after His coming, the Church has been a treasure-house, giving forth things old and new, casting the gold of fresh tributaries into her refiner's fire, or stamping upon her own, as time required it, a deeper impress of her Master's image. 
"The distinction between these two theories is broad and obvious. The advocates of the one imply that Revelation was a single, entire, solitary act, or nearly so, introducing a certain message; whereas we, who maintain the other, consider that Divine teaching has been in fact, what the analogy of nature would lead us to expect, 'at sundry times and in divers manners,' various, complex, progressive, and supplemental of itself. We consider the Christian doctrine, when analyzed, to appear, like the human frame, 'fearfully and wonderfully made;' but they think it some one tenet or certain principles given out at one time in their fulness, without gradual enlargement before Christ's coming or elucidation afterwards. They cast off all that they also find in Pharisee or heathen; we conceive that the Church, like Aaron's rod, devours the serpent of the magicians. They are ever hunting for a fabulous primitive simplicity; we repose in Catholic fulness. They seek what never has been found; we accept and use what even they acknowledge to be a substance. They are driven to maintain, on their part, that the Church's doctrine was never pure; we say that it can never be corrupt. We consider that a divine promise keeps the Church Catholic from doctrinal corruption; but on what promise, or on what encouragement, they are seeking for their visionary purity does not appear."
. . . . . .

Another deeply enlightening perspective on the status of pagan religion in relation to Christianity comes from Cardinal Jean Danielou, S.J., in the first chapter of his excellent book, God and the Ways of Knowing. (Several pages are shown here.) Towards the beginning of the first chapter, Danielou forcefully addresses the problem of religious indifferentism and religious syncretism, according to which Christianity stands as one among many equally effective means of communing with divine and mystical truth. 
Establishing multiple analogies between Christian and pagan rites and doctrines, historians of religion often see in Christianity a phase in the religious evolution of mankind, and they subordinate it to the history of religion, of which it would constitute a branch. Religious persons, struck by the inward experience to which, in particular, the higher religions of the East bear witness, seek there for spiritual food, quite as much as among Christian authors, and see in the various religions, including Christianity, various forms of the "transcendental unity" of religion. 
We utterly reject such evolutionary and syncretist theories. Christianity cannot, any more than Judaism, be described as a manifestation of an immanent evolution of the religious genius of mankind, of which these two are merely the relatively higher expressions. They are interventions in history of a transcendent God who introduces man into a domain that is radically closed to him...
Danielou evidently has in mind here the syncretist philosophy of the perennialist philosophers, such as Frithjof Schuon, who himself coined the phrase "transcendental unity of religion." Such an indifferentism is of course unacceptable to a Catholic, on account of the sheer uniqueness of the Incarnation: not just a creaturely symbol of God, but God himself in human form. The idols of the pagans are just that: idols. And yet, Danielou goes on:
The assimilation of Christianity to the non-Christian religions is therefore an unfortunate confusion. For all that, should we condemn these religions without a hearing? This is the view that we find in primitive Christianity. Men as well disposed toward the classic philosophers as Clement of Alexandria are yet astonishingly hard on pagan religions. We find this view again today in orthodox Protestantism, perhaps in reaction against liberal Protestantism and its syncretism. For Karl Barth, the god of the pagan religions is an idol forged by man, in which he worships himself; it must be entirely destroyed to make room for the revelation of Jesus Christ, who alone is God's work. Hendrick Kraemer applies this Barthian position to missionary theology and regards paganism as a mere obstacle that must be entirely replaced by faith in Jesus Christ.
Catholic tradition, especially in the last hundred years, has maintained a less negative position, which is the moreover the outcome of its idea of a human nature spoiled by sin, but not utterly perverted. The Church does indeed uncompromisingly condemn the perversions that, without exception, are presented by all the pagan religions; idolatry, pantheism, Manichaeism, and so forth. She regards them, too, as having been outmoded, ever since a higher truth was manifested in Christ. But for all that, she does not deny that authentic religious values are found in them, signs of that help which God has never ceased to give man, stepping stones related to Judaism and to Christianity. "God," says St. Paul in The Acts of the Apostles, "...who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless he left not himself without testimony, doing good from heaven, giving rains and fruitful season, filling our hearts with food and gladness." (Acts: 14:16-17)
Danielou goes on to cite scholars such as Mircea Eliade and Georges van der Leeuw, who have proven in great depth that the doctrine and rites of paganism are not all entirely to be condemned from a Christian point of view, and are signs of genuine religious virtue. The objects of pagan worship are not purely created; there is often a confusion of creature with Creator, due to the real fact of the Creator's appearance in the visible image of his creatures: 
When pagans worship the god of the sun or the storm, they are not always offering their devotion to physical phenomena. These appear to them, in Eliade's phrase, as hierophanies, as manifestations of a mysterious power, and it is this that they worship through its appearance. Certainly it is sometimes difficult to see how much idolatry or polytheism may be mingled with these beliefs. They are almost always contaminated. But this does not exclude a certain knowledge and worship of the true God.
The theological explanation which Danielou offers for this thesis is drawn, not only from the historical and comparative studies of Eliade and Van der Leeuw, but from the Scriptures themselves, which offer many instances of religious knowledge and religious worship that are not based on the special revelation which God bequeathed to his chosen people, the Jews. These instances of true religion are evidently rooted in the general revelation which God offers of himself by way of the natural world itself, the created cosmos. "The heavens declare the glory of the God" (Psalm 19:1). The pagans were not wholly out of touch with this natural revelation; it was available to them by reason of their natural capacities. The pagan gods are but imaginative attempts to visualize a concept of divinity only partially apprehended, by way of the only apparatus available to men in the state of nature for the knowledge of the divine: namely, creatures themselves. Even orthodox Thomistic natural theology, rooted in both the Platonic and the Aristotelian traditions, maintains that God is known to natural reason only by way of sensible and created forms. Without the aid of grace, it is unsurprising that natural reason should take refuge precisely in these created forms in its attempt to know God concretely. Paganism, idolatry, polytheism, and pantheism, are feeble yet genuine expressions of religious knowledge. They are genuine because they perceive in creatures the true mark of divinity; they are feeble and partial because they mistake the creature for divinity. 

Danielou even goes into detail concerning specific idols, taken over from the ancient pagan religions, and re-purposed by Christianity as sacred symbols of the true God. Among these symbols, the Sun-God is a pre-eminent example:
Amid the heavenly forms, the sun occupies a prominent place. We know the importance of sun worship among the Incas as well as in Mithraism. The sun provided the final form of Roman paganism. It appears as the force that puts the darkness to flight. In this sense it symbolizes divinity as the source of knowledge. But it is also the life-giving principle of the whole cosmos and reveals God as the source of life.
Undoubtedly, Danielou has in mind the many Church Fathers, such as Augustine, Basil, Theodosius, John Damascus - not to mention the scriptures, and the perennial tradition of the Christian liturgy itself -  who advise Christians to worship facing the direction of the East, which is the direction of the rising Sun: a cosmic representative of the rising Christ. It is hardly unknown that Christ effectively assumed the form, not only of man, but also of the Sun-God, thereby gathering up into his fold the many ages of religious practice that characterized pagan antiquity before him. Note the radicality of this phenomenon: that which was once a pagan idol, the sun, became the living image and representation of the true God! The universality and assimilative power of Christianity is here on full display. 

The All-Seeing Eye of God
. . . . . .

The essence of idolatry lies in the intention of the worshiper; the mere fact that a creature, or the image of a creature, is venerated in the context of religious worship is not enough to establish that idolatry has taken place. Rather, idolatry consists in an intention which holds up the creature as if it were a deity, a god, a transcendent being to whom is attributed primary causality over the entire created cosmos. 

As Danielou has commented, this is not always entirely clear-cut; the primitive pagan does not always distinguish between the creature and the truly divine energy which the creature represents, an energy which he acknowledges as responsible for the creation of the universe. Indeed, perhaps it is this very ambiguity which is the most marked characteristic of idolatrous worship, which only the clarity of divine revelation can rectify fully.

With regard to the Pachamama, who is the Incan representation of Mother Earth, it is important to ask what symbolic meaning lies behind the use of this image in pagan religious worship. Mother Earth is a nearly universal goddess of the unenlightened pagans; very rarely is there a religion in which she is not present, at least in some form. To speak more clearly, every religion possesses a central feminine figure. In the Andes, it is Mother Earth or Pachamama; so it was in many of the religions of the Greco-Roman period; so it was in ancient Russia. The scholars of comparative religion have therefore noted the presence in all religions of the Eternal Feminine archetype. 

Arguably, Mother Earth even occupies a place in the Christian tradition, as one embodiment of the Eternal Feminine. But of course the central embodiment of this archetype is none other than the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, who simply by being Mother of God assumes a kind of divine quality to herself. In one depiction, in the Church of St. Clement in Ohrid, Macedonia, Mother Earth is depicted as a maidservant of Mother Mary, providing the cave for the nativity of the Christ child: 

Catholics, especially in response to the rise of Protestantism, have always insisted that Mary is not a goddess properly speaking, but a creature. Nonetheless, even as a creature, she is exalted to a place of honor that is inestimably greater than that occupied by the pagan goddesses of yore: she has the honor of being, not merely one god among many, but the Mother of God Himself - she is the very cause of the first cause. As such, she assumes to herself all of those characteristics that belong to the archetype of the Eternal Feminine, and once belonged in various forms to the goddesses of pagan antiquity. In a certain way, the title of Mother Earth now belongs first to Mary, who by being mother of the Creator is also mother of all the created. Indeed, all images of woman, motherhood, fertility, must necessarily - that is, metaphysically - refer to her who has become The Mother par excellence.

In fact, it is quite essential to Christianity that Mary is the referent of all depictions of woman. Another figure in the Judaeo-Christian mythology who, like Mary, bears the honor of mother of all the living is Eve, the first woman. Mary is called the New Eve. "Mother Earth" as a title does not commonly appear in the Christian tradition, with a few exceptions; but it is indisputable that the function which Mother Earth fulfills in the other religions is fulfilled in Christianity by Eve and by Mary - but in distinct ways. Eve, traditionally depicted in the nude, is the symbol of fallen man, and a fallen earth. In one respect, her nudity is a reminder of the purity and innocence of the pre-lapsarian condition; in another respect, however, it is a reminder of the shameful condition in which we now exist, as children of Eve. From Eve, the first embodiment of Mother Earth, and the first embodiment of the Feminine principle in history - from her all sin is inherited through her very motherhood of the human race. 

It is well-known that Mary enters into history as the New Eve, the second to assume the role of Mother to all the living. But the mode of Mary's motherhood is entirely different; whereas Eve's motherhood was of the historical order, Mary's motherhood is of the altogether more real metaphysical order. By the power of the Holy Spirit, she is the Mother of the Word, in whom all creatures are contained as in their First Cause. 

There is yet another figure who is personified as woman and mother in the Christian tradition, and that is the Church - another New Eve. Just as Eve was born from the side of Adam, so is the Church born, according to patristic tradition, from the side of Christ upon the cross, symbolized in blood and water. According to yet another tradition, the Church is Herself the "new earth," spoken of many times in the scriptures. She is the heavenly Jerusalem, the cosmos itself transfigured and reincarnated. Once again, if there is any figure who rightly bears the title "Mother Earth," it is She, the Church, the Bride of Christ. From her are all Christians born, from the womb of the baptismal font, into the family of which Christ is head. 

Mary and the Church together represent the restoration of the original bridal relation of humanity to God, the relation which Eve was meant to signify, but failed. They also represent the restoration of the original role of maternal mediation between God and humanity - again the role which Eve was meant to fulfill by obedience to God's command. To Mary and to the Church, all images of the feminine necessarily and metaphysically refer; for in these two figures is embodied everything that is meant by womanhood: bride and handmaid of God, mother and nurturer of creation, mediatrix between God and man, bearer of him who is the image of God.

Finally, whereas Eve is represented in the nude, symbolizing a pre-lapsarian purity now lost and inaccessible to mankind, Mary and the Church are both represented as "a woman clothed in the sun, with the moon under her feat..." (Revelation 12:1). The Catholic tradition attests that this image refers both to Mary and to the Church, both of whom play the role of mother to all those for whom Christ became man, so that they might become God. Mary and the Church, the new Eve and the new Mother Earth, in contrast to the old Eve, represent the possibility and attainability of divine purity for men.

"Man and woman he created them... and they were naked."

"A Woman Clothed with the Sun, with the Moon under her feet..."
From the Hortus Deliciarum

. . . . . .

I would be remiss if I did not mention the profound and mysterious tradition of Russian theology known as sophiology, which revolves around the elusive feminine figure of Sophia, the Wisdom of God, and indeed, the maternal face of God. Expounded famously by the Russian priest, Sergei Bulgakov, though having its origins somewhat earlier, sophiology takes as its first principle the revelation of God as Wisdom, who is portrayed as female in the Wisdom books of the Holy Scripture. In Proverbs 8, Sophia speaks of herself in words that seem to escape the loftiest flights of human imagination or mysticism:
22 The Lord made me his when first he went about his work, at the birth of time, before his creation began. 23 Long, long ago, before earth was fashioned, I held my course. 24 Already I lay in the womb, when the depths were not yet in being, when no springs of water had yet broken; 25 when I was born, the mountains had not yet sunk on their firm foundations, and there were no hills; 26 not yet had he made the earth, or the rivers, or the solid framework of the world. 27 I was there when he built the heavens, when he fenced in the waters with a vault inviolable, 28 when he fixed the sky overhead, and levelled the fountain-springs of the deep. 29 I was there when he enclosed the sea within its confines, forbidding the waters to transgress their assigned limits, when he poised the foundations of the world. 30 I was at his side, a master-workman, my delight increasing with each day, as I made play before him all the while; 31 made play in this world of dust, with the sons of Adam for my play-fellows. 32 Listen to me, then, you that are my sons, that follow, to your happiness, in the paths I shew you; 33 listen to the teaching that will make you wise, instead of turning away from it. 34 Blessed are they who listen to me, keep vigil, day by day, at my threshold, watching till I open my doors. 35 The man who wins me, wins life, drinks deep of the Lord’s favour; 36 who fails, fails at his own bitter cost; to be my enemy is to be in love with death.
It is not perfectly clear how literally she speaks; in particular whether she is herself uncreated or created, a goddess or a creature, a real being or a mere abstraction. Although she speaks of herself as having been "born," it is well known that the language of birth and generation - and more broadly of procession - is not out of place in speaking of God, where one divine person is said to proceed from another. But whether Sophia is so generated or is created, she is certainly beautiful, resplendent, and worthy of the highest veneration.

The sophiologists of Russian Orthodoxy were a controversial group of thinkers, whose thought was viewed with suspicion by the ROCOR as having made Sophia into a separate hypostasis, a Goddess in addition to the three persons of the Trinity. Other sophiologists insisted that Sophia was none other than the Holy Spirit, who unlike the Father and the Logos is the feminine face of God. Others still, such as Bulgakov himself, claimed rather that Sophia was none other than the Divine essence itself, manifested distinctly in each of the three persons:
The Holy Trinity is consubstantial and indivisible. The three persons of the Holy Trinity, have one life in common, that is, one Ousia, one Sophia. Nevertheless this unity of divine life coexists with the fact that the life of each of the hypostases in the divine Ousia-Sophia is determined in accordance with its own personal character, or specific hypostatic features. One and the same Sophia is possessed in a different way by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and this threefold “otherness” is reflected in our definition of Sophia. We should learn to think of the divine Sophia as at the same time three­fold and one. The divine tri-unity is mirrored in her with all its characteristics. (Sophia: The Wisdom of God, 36)
The sophiologists also distinguished the Uncreated and the created Sophia: the former being but the feminine and maternal face of God, the latter the reflection of this feminine in the creation itself as the soul, or life-principle, of the world. In this, once again, the Eternal Feminine assumes the face of Mother Earth, an ancient goddess-symbol indigenous to Russian culture. In Christian sophiology, Mother Earth is recognized as none other than the symbol and instantiation of an archetype which exists primordially and eternally in the true God of Christian revelation. 

All womanhood necessarily refers to the divine Sophia as the final referent. The Eternal Feminine is Mother to all creation, God's helper in generating and giving life to the world - as Eve was Adam's helper in parenting the human race. In sophianic thought, all the central representatives of femininity embody Sophia, especially the Mother of God herself. Bulgakov soars to unknown heights of prose when he speaks of Mary (cf. Sophia: The Wisdom of God). Even in the West, the association of Mary with the attribute of Wisdom is commonplace: "seat of wisdom" is her title, and the Thomist philosopher Charles DeKoninck rightfully notes: "Ego Sapientia. These are the words the Church puts into the mouth of the Blessed Virgin." (Ego Sapientia) Because Mary is the cause of the first cause, she has acquired the incomparable ontological status of Wisdom Itself; not in a metaphorical sense, but substantially and literally. There is, therefore, a real way - more real than can be imagined - in which the title of Sophia belongs first of all to Mary. And yet, this only because a) she bears in her womb the Logos, the Thought of God; and b) she bears in her person the Spirit, the Breath and Love of God. In Mary, the Maternal and Sophianic Face of God is exposed physically and substantially, as the principle from which all life in the world proceeds. 

Holy Sophia, The Wisdom of God

. . . . . .

In light of all the above, what is to be made of the Pachamama incident at the Amazon synod? Ultimately, my conclusion regarding the incident is perhaps a bit anti-climatic. I cannot find any reason in principle to object to the image that was used; not even the fact that this image is apparently pagan in origin, nor the fact that the image is nude. The images by which we depict Christ the Sun-God, and arguably many of the images and descriptions which we have appended to Mary (and to Sophia) are likewise pagan in origin; as are so many other symbols, rituals, and customs which the Church has adopted into her tradition. Moreover, Eve is always nude; perhaps I am alone in this, but one of the first images that came to mind upon seeing the Pachamama was Eve. In light of the connection between Eve and the concept of Mother Earth, this did not seem like a far stretch to me. It is true, however, that Mary and the Church (and Sophia) are traditionally depicted clothed - as directed by the book of Revelation. Nonetheless, as some have pointed out, at least partially nude portrayals (i.e. with breasts exposed) of the Blessed Mother do exist in the Christian tradition. 

When the Gospel was brought to the Gentiles, it was inculturated - that is, it was received in the mode of the receiver, to use the jargon of Thomistic metaphysics. Such jargon is not inappropriate, for it is indeed a question of metaphysics - specifically the metaphysics of sacramentality. Nature and her creatures truly are meant for Christ, and for the representation of Christ. It used to be that all Christians believed this; today it is not clear that either the conservatives who react with horror at an image of Mother Earth or the syncretist bishops who organized the Amazon Synod really believe this - that is, that the images to which the peoples of the earth have looked for knowledge of the divine are meant to symbolize Christ, and specifically Christ, and everything that is concomitant with his revelation. The meaning of the created order is not indifferent to Christ; it is absolutely Christocentric. Conversely, Christ is universal; he is the Lord of all creation, and therefore he may use all created things for his own revelation. And indeed, historically this was always the case, as Newman has described. What the apostles brought to the nations was nothing other than the Gospel of Christ; and yet they clothed that same Gospel in the garb of the earth, with which the nations were already familiar - and not merely because it was convenient to do so, but because indeed all creation belongs to Christ.

The more relevant - and more boring - question regarding the rituals that took place at the Amazon synod is what intention lay behind those who brought it to Rome, prostrated before it in the Vatican gardens, carried it throughout the streets, and displayed it in the churches. Ultimately, what intention lies behind those who organized the Synod. At this point, I am inclined to believe Pope Francis that he did not intend idolatry - just as I believe Pope St. John Paul II did not intend idolatry when he famously hosted and participated in pagan rituals on various occasions. 

That being said, there is plenty of cause of scandal in the whole manner in which this fiasco took place. First of all, both the Catholic faithful and the indigenous peoples deserve some more clarity (we have, thankfully, one statement from the Pope, but more would help) about the fact that we do not, as Christians, regard any creature as being on equal footing with God. Now, such a declaration of intention need not entail that therefore any and all images of pagan origin are absolutely unwelcome in the Church; nonetheless, if they are to be welcomed, it must always be on condition of maintaining and further supporting the absolute supremacy of the Christian revelation of the True God.

Secondly, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, certainly a perennial element of the Church's evangelical mission, require an organic process of cross-pollenization between pre-existing traditions, in which the Christian tradition occupies the indisputable role of the formal principle (as opposed to the material principle) of change. J.H. Newman's description of assimilation presupposes the other principles of the development of doctrine, among which is the conservative principle. In practice, this means that new customs, rites, symbols, and even doctrinal systems are only ever assimilated to an already pre-existing tradition: the Christian tradition, which is rich and inexhaustible in both universals and particulars. The bureaucratic and procedural approach to the development of doctrine that has characterized the Church's reformative programs in the 20th and 21st century has involved the indiscriminate throwing off past and extremely elaborate traditions, for the sake of a program of accommodation to new peoples, places, and circumstances. Thus, in the 1960s, new forms of liturgical practice were adopted carte blanche, with almost total disregard for the millennia of tradition and custom which could otherwise have acted as the formal structure into which any new practices might have been welcomed meaningfully. Likewise, in the Amazon Synod, for all the good intentions of reaching out and including the Amazon peoples in the society of the Church, it is unclear that the Amazon is being welcomed into a Church with a continuous and definite historical identity; instead, the Church is presented as a procedural institution, neutral to its own historical content, whose purpose is merely to be "inclusive" towards formerly marginalized peoples. 

There is nothing wrong with being inclusive, per se. But I would propose that the Church's historical attitude toward indigenous cultures and religions is actually more inclusive and respectful of their full potential than the bureaucratic modernism which includes diverse cultures into an institutional framework that itself pretends to be neutral, and therefore religiously non-committal. This is a problem that characterizes secular liberal states as well as the current Catholic bureaucracy. The facade of neutrality worn by such institutions, a pretense of inclusivity and liberalism, is actually a refusal to publicly acknowledge the truth or falsity of the various ideologies, identities, or religions which are "included" in the neutral public sphere. This is anything but to show true reverence or respect to religion; on the contrary, it is an insult to religion. The historic Catholic attitude has always been to acknowledge, openly and publicly, the elements of truth and sanctification possessed by cults outside the Church - that is, to acknowledge the potential of these cults for authentic integration into Christianity itself. This necessarily also comes along with an acknowledgement of the respects in which such cults are not able to be so integrated. The Church must exercise actual judgment, saying Yes and No to that which is true and false, that which is capable of conversion and that which is not. Otherwise, under the guise of liberal neutrality and religious diversity, she risks doing no more than lip-service to religion, reducing it to a mere empty theatrical display of sentimentality, hardly destined for the  expression of a transcendent God.

The scandal of the Pachamamas is therefore not in the images themselves, nor in the veneration of "Mother Earth," nor the presence of pagan images in places of Catholic worship per se. These images are indeed potentially fruitful expressions of Catholic faith. (I like to imagine them incorporated into an elaborate and re-interpreted iconographic depiction of Mary, the Eternal Feminine, as the Tree of Life and source of all fertility. Let the Pachamamas kneel before the Holy Virgin!) The scandal, rather, is in the approach which the Vatican bureaucrats have taken to the inclusion of these images in the "world" of Catholicism. Aside from one comment by the Pope - which I am inclined to believe - there has been remarkably little clarification regarding the relation of paganism to the absolute truth of Christianity; and there has been little clarification regarding the real potencies of pagan cults for assimilation to Christianity. The lack of clarity on these issues is indeed a cause for scandal and confusion; Catholics and pagans alike might no longer be sure what is meant by the use of pagan images in Vatican ritual. Is such a service merely an occasion for "our God to say hello to their God," as a liberal priest once said? Is it merely an occasion to celebrate diverse expressions of religion, without consideration of the relative merits of the expressions themselves, or their relative potentials for incorporation into the way of Truth? Without answering such questions, it is no wonder that the Catholic internet has irrupted in yet another storm of outrage. 

On the one hand, iconoclastic Protestantized bourgeois Catholics need to be educated on the genuine potential of the earth which the pagans adore to be converted and transfigured by Christ. Bourgeois culture has fostered within Catholicism (particularly in "conservative" circles) a deep and exaggerated suspicion towards any approach to the earth which views it as infused with spiritual energy and symbolism - such things are derided as pagan, superstitious, or idolatrous. But in fact such an attitude was always the Church's attitude, until Protestant iconoclasm besieged the minds of Catholics in the modern period. 

On the other hand, the pagans must be evangelized (and apparently, progressive Catholics too), and taught that all of their idols, symbols, cults, and rituals can only be preserved in the extent that they fulfill the true destinies as symbols of Jesus Christ, being meant for His service and His alone. There are no other gods but the Trinitarian Godhead that is revealed in Christ. 

But of course, this is to claim that Jesus Christ is Himself the Sun-God; and His Mother Mary is herself Mother-Earth; as is the Church; and as is Sophia, the maternal face of God, the "soul of the world"; and the angels themselves who minister to God are the spiritual energies which keep the physical cosmos in unending motion. To convert the world from paganism is by no means to empty the world of all those forces and energies which the pagans "naively" believe to be real; on the contrary, it is to affirm them and reveal them for what they truly are. Too long have Christians been unwilling to make precisely this affirmation and live according to it. Christianity, and no other religion, is the fulfillment and destiny of all paganism. This is the claim that should give pause to both the conservatives and the progressives in the Church today.

Christ at the center of the Zodiac.


  1. I recall reading many, many years ago that when the Spaniards set out to evangelize the Incans a missionary made a catechism based on images, adopting concepts that the Incans would understand from their own religion. IIRC the he got into some trouble with the Inquisition because of that. I wish I could remember where exactly I saw this on the internet. Just wanted to share that with you.

    1. I believe you a referring to one Padre Valera, S.J. There is a whole book about him which I hope to read one day: