Florida man, Republican State House Speaker José Oliva, recently attracted criticism for repeatedly calling pregnant women “host bodies,” five years after Virginia State Senator Stephen Martin ranted on Facebook about “the child’s [sic] host (some refer to them as mothers).” The diction of “host” exploits theological language, the homonym of a common Christian term implying a theological foundation for depicting mothers as mere vessels. Roman Catholic Oliva and Baptist Martin have brought motherhood a long way from the divine motherhood of Mary in Luke 1:28 and 1:42, the basis of the central prayer in Catholicism: “Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus . . .” Bearing the son of God, Mary’s motherhood is—and has made Mary—divine. How does motherhood change from a divine state that grants divinity in Luke to a dehumanization that rescinds rights in contemporary political discourse? Theological and popular conceptions of motherhood have shifted significantly over the centuries, reflecting accompanying political motives and holding powerful implications for women. Two core themes in these shifts are the relationship between motherhood and divinity, and ethics of women’s labor.
In the last century, the US Christian Right responded to feminism by portraying motherhood as a divine calling, a binary twin to the twentieth century’s divine fatherhood Cristina L. H. Traina depicts as underpinning patriarchal justifications for denying children rights by appealing to a rigid vision of Christian family structure. To justify blocking the ERA and denying women a host of rights, anti-feminist arguments that women have divinely-ordained roles as wives and mothers build upon a cultural foundation of mid-century ideals of the nuclear family housewife, inflected by early-twentieth-century warnings about the suffragist mother abandoning her children to rally for the vote. Such furor over women leaving the home responded to late-nineteenth-century US and European activism to expand possible roles for women. Kimberly Hamlin traces how women’s rights campaigners of the 1870s and 1880s looked to evolutionary science as an answer to their era’s view of women as divinely cursed with motherhood as punishment for Eve’s sin. “Darwinian feminists instead looked to the animal kingdom . . . to demand that pregnancy no longer be defined as a disease,” and to suggest that if fathers of other species share domestic chores and mothers of other species do more than care for young, then human fathers and mothers might begin to abandon gender-ordained divisions of labor.
Theological presentations of motherhood that invoke Christianity are particularly potent, enjoying epistemic privilege due to their grounding in “religion.”1Lilith Acadia, Fictive Gods: Discursive Constructions of Religion and the Human from European Imperialism to North American Contact Science Fiction, forthcoming. So to respond to the theologically justified views of motherhood as imbuing divinity (Luke), divine punishment for Eve’s sins (eighteenth century), a divinely-ordained calling (twentieth century), and even mothers as hosts for the next generation of Christians (current right-wing rhetoric), I propose a radical theological alternative based on two sermons from the fourteenth-century Dominican teacher-preacher, Meister Eckhart von Hochheim.
Darwinian feminists seeking to expand the labor roles of men and women by rejecting the divine calling of women to motherhood and men to work, entered a long philosophical debate over whether the best life is active or contemplative, of service or prayer, household or monastery. Meister Eckhart’s Sermons 2 and 86 on Martha and Mary of Bethany respond to the same debate, taking a mystical approach suggesting a merging of the vita activa and vita contemplativa through the figure of the virgin wife, an image he took from Luke 24.2I refer to Josef Quint’s Deutsche Werke numbering system for Eckhart’s sermons. Sermons 2 and 86 correspond to Sermons 8 and 9, respectively, in the McGinn and Walshe collection, available online and linked here. The virgin is “void of alien images,” empty, without attachment, ready to receive God’s will; the wife bears fruit, thereby expressing gratitude to God. “Fruit” does not necessarily mean children, but rather all actions arising from the ground of the soul, inspired by God’s will. Thus each action is a fruit of logos, the divine wisdom or word of God. Through these acts, the virgin who is a wife joins in union with Christ.
Sermon 2 conveys what Eckhart finds so appealing in Martha, contrasting her role to that of the merchants in the temple. A wife who is not a virgin is like the merchant who struggles to produce what she should to attain God’s favor, but is less successful than the virgin wife who opens herself to the will of God. Eckhart compares the fruitfulness of the wife in worldly marriage—who bears hardly a fruit in one year—to the wife in a spiritual sense—who opens herself to the will of God and produces a hundred, or a thousand times a day. “One year” refers to the constrained fertility of the wife in worldly marriage, a view of reproductive motherhood far from eighteenth to twentieth century portrayals as divine punishment and calling. Reproductive motherhood is the defining role in those discourses, and certainly in contemporary women-as-hosts rhetoric. Yet for Eckhart, the fruitfulness that makes the virgin wife divine comes from fruits one can bear many times a day through contemplative labor.
Sermon 86 justifies Martha’s appeal through comparison to her sister Mary, who is in a receptive, virginal, and not-yet wifely or motherly stage of her spiritual life. When Mary sat at Christ’s feet, and Martha pleaded her to rise and help out around the house, Mary was irresistibly drawn to the sweetness of Christ’s words. Mary’s pleasure from listening to Christ precluded her involvement in household duties; her attachment to the action of drinking in Christ’s bliss hindered her from being truly unattached and open to the Birth of God’s Son and the entrance of God’s will in the soul.
In contrast to dominant readings of the parable, privileging Mary’s divinity for engaging in contemplation, Eckhart reads Martha as taking a higher spiritual path of the virgin wife: virginal for her lack of attachments, yet wifely for her performance of motherhood. As a virgin wife, who acts from the ground of the soul, Martha’s virginity is only meaningful when combined with her motherhood of actions. Eckhart emphasizes the contrast between the contemplative Mary sitting at Christ’s feet listening and the active Martha doing the work of serving Christ. While Mary seeks a mystical experience, Martha embodies the life of virtue. When Martha petitions Christ to teach Mary to be more active and virtuous, Christ responds that while Martha has many cares, Mary has chosen the better path.Most readings of this passage in Luke understand Christ to be praising the purely contemplative life, applauding Mary as she is at that moment, rather than the role she will come to fill. Eckhart transcends that temporality, understanding Mary’s choice as referring to the life Mary will lead after Christ’s death, the life Martha has already begun to perfect. After the crucifixion, both sisters flee with their brother Lazarus to spread the teachings of Christ. Mary thereby becomes the first Dominican, devoted initially to contemplation or learning, and then to teaching; she first learned from Christ (lernte leben), then traveled over the sea and preached (predigete und lêrte). The contemplative stage was necessary for Mary’s eventual action.
Eckhart ends Sermon 86 with a reference to Martha’s achievement: “that we may follow [Jesus] faithfully in the practice of true virtue.” Martha epitomizes virtuous action through faithful practice, pure doing unadulterated by the merchant mentality of seeking divine favor, personal gain, or satisfaction. Rather than portraying worldly motherhood as a divine calling to procreation and care for children, Martha embodies divine motherhood as a virgin wife, by producing fruit in the form of labor. Eckhart expands the conception of divinity beyond what God commands to encompass the vita activa as well as vita contemplativa, and of motherhood to include non-procreative labor, which subverts contemporary theological arguments from the Christian Right for women’s place bearing children near the hearth.
Martha’s active and contemplative divine motherhood in the form of the virgin wife who produces the fruits of labor offers a radical potential to decouple the divinity of motherhood from the woman’s body. Moving divine motherhood away from bodily reproductive work responds to nineteenth-century portrayals of motherhood as punishment for sin, twentieth-century arguments for women’s place being in the home, as well as contemporary rhetoric dehumanizing mothers as “hosts.”