Of the many things I have read recently, one thing stands out in my mind in high relief. It is the opening of Lucretius’ masterwork on Epicurean philosophy, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). Here Lucretius invokes Venus to help him craft this work, identifying her as the governor of all nature and the one through whose light all else comes into being. With her help, Lucretius trusts that he can write his truths with confidence and ability in defiance of dominant philosophical norms.
Lucretius goes on to extol the great wisdom of that ancient Greek, Epicurus, claiming that the philosopher saved humankind from foully groveling upon the ground by liberating people from religious superstition. Superstition, he goes on to say, is the source of true impiety and criminality, made manifest in Lucretius’ example in the sacrifice of child virgins.
Why do people succumb to religious superstition and such horrible deeds, he queries rhetorically. Because of fear of death, terror at the anticipation of penalties in the afterlife, and the desire to avoid tribulations during life. So great is the fear of suffering that it makes people susceptible to religious exploitation and subordinate to the authority of priests, whose power rests exclusively on superstition. Such a ruinous condition can only be countered by the philosophical examination of nature, including all things celestial and terrestrial, spiritual and material. Having prayerfully introduced his case and the reason for his critique, Lucretius proceeds to explore the basic tenets of Epicurean metaphysics and ethics.
This discourse is striking to me in several ways. On the one hand, while Lucretius repudiates religious superstition, he nevertheless invokes the goddess. He sees in Venus calming arms and a welcome lap that would receive children, stay martial tendencies, and generate fecund new life. It reads (perhaps only to me) as though Venus trumps, through an encompassing and natural attraction, all competing divinities. She is God to the gods. Of course, I recognize the literary conceit of praying before philosophizing (consider such classic examples as Augustine’s Confessions or Anselm’s Proslogion). Yet, even while the text dismantles religious superstition, the writing rests on something like grace.
As I have been considering the obvious but startling observation that “tantum religio potuit suadere malorum” (religion/superstition is able to persuade great evil), I am also struck by: 1) the author’s ability to differentiate between a divine and life-giving ground of creative being on the one hand and 2) dangerous and exploitative religious presumption and power on the other.
I agree that this differentiation should be made, and I must admit that I was curiously startled to see it again (at least to my own reading) in a sculpture of the Virgin Mary while walking in the Marian chapel at the Church of the Gesu in University Heights, Ohio one afternoon before school let out.
This is the image that startled me:
And at her feet, the inlay Mater Dei:
Like Lucretius’ Venus, this image of a young mother with her child has a kind of cleansing power in its simplicity. It seems to me capable of undoing complicated doctrine, practice, and superstition, even those that are directly driven by Mariology. It says to me: This is love, yes? This is life, yes? This is kindness, yes? This is wholesome and good and desirable. It asks me to remember my mother, to see her as a young woman. It invites me to remember myself as a new mother, and to recall the time when nursing my own children was really my only priority in spite of everything else I was doing. It makes me feel quiet and compassionate and, well, natural, toward myself and other people.
So accustomed have I become to Marian imagery and theology (as well as critiques of both), I had failed to really appreciate how young she is; how gentle she is; how primordial she appears as she is holding that baby. Perhaps this is why she is or must be standing on top of the heavens. Perhaps it is merely in the nature of things that such a one was, and is, and will be unapologetically identified (albeit in varying ways) as the Mother of God.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.