If you don’t like triangulators, Carter Heyward may appeal to you. Heyward was one of a group of eleven women who broke the barrier to women’s ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in 1974. Rather than wait for the church to "be ready" for women priests, these eleven women and three bishops proceeded with an "irregular" ordination that forced the issue. Heyward continued to take radical stands in the Episcopal Church, coming out as a lesbian in 1979. If you are going to read one, and only one, book of hers, I would recommend the collection of essays, Our Passion for Justice: Images of Power, Sexuality, and Liberation. This diary continues what was supposed to be a regular series on profiles of religious leftists. Previous diaries discussed Rosemary Radford Ruether and Carol Christ.
"God is our power in mutual relation." Everything in Heyward’s thought flows toward and from this simple, but radical, definition. Note that nothing in this definition requires acceptance of the supernatural. In this view, God is not "a supreme being," but a quality of existence. And although one need not be Christian to accept her definition of God, Heyward can reasonably claim its continuity with the biblical tradition on the basis of Jeremiah 22:15-16, which equates the knowledge of God and the doing of justice, and 1 John 4:7-8, which defines God as love.
Heyward’s autobiographical account of her ordination, A Priest Forever: One Woman’s Controversial Ordination in the Episcopal Church offers some insight as to why Heyward is concerned that God is our power in mutual relation, as opposed to simply being interested in mutual relation per se. Largely this is a matter of re-thinking the language of her Episcopalian heritage, a heritage which provided her with the framework for an unconditional spiritual calling to the priesthood. She experienced this calling in early childhood, when she projected it onto an imaginary friend who voiced the desire. During the turmoil of pursuing ordination before it was clear that the Episcopal Church would grant it, she had a series of vivid dreams that left her with a sense that her calling was a non-negotiable demand of her life. And at her ordination, she had a deep spiritual experience that put a seal of confirmation on her calling:
Emily was ordained; then Marie. As Marie stepped back, I stepped forward, catching the bishop’s eye momentarily, and as if strangely transcendent of the time at hand, my whole life seemed contained within the moment: past, present, future. All that had ever mattered to me flooded within me, as a geyser of lifeblood or holy water.
For some – like Daniel Dennett, who is interested in neurological bases of religious experience – this experience could be explained (or explained away) by an MRI. But read in the context of Heyward’s work, the sense of suspended time that marks this moment as holy (in the strict sense of "set apart") is actually less significant than the act of catching the bishop’s eye. In Heyward’s view, God is the communicative synaptic activity in the space between the two people that fuels the moment, rather than a "thing" that she recognizes in a different dimension.
Heyward began to grapple with the importance of relationality in her 1982 doctoral dissertation The Redemption of God: A Theology of Mutual Relation. She builds on the work of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, whose text I and Thou remains one of the clearest expressions of the fundamentally relational character of living. Like much twentieth-century liberal theology, Heyward’s implicitly follows the lead of Adolf von Harnack, who argued that much of Christian doctrine arises from Hellenistic accretions to Jesus’s message, which was rooted in a Hebrew worldview. This starting point allows Heyward to strip away aspects of Christian theology that emphasize metaphysics and asceticism, turning to Jesus as a model of praxis and embodied passion.
Heyward’s insistence on relation as fundamental makes her work in collectives a logical step. Two books from the mid-eighties are the result of her collaborations with collectives: Revolutionary Forgiveness: Feminist Reflections on Nicaragua and God’s Fierce Whimsy. Revolutionary Forgiveness chronicles a visit to Nicaragua after the revolution, in which the members experience first-hand the U.S. government’s assault on a socialist, anti-imperialist social project. It is a largely overlooked but important text for understanding where she’s coming from, because one of the greatest misconceptions about Heyward’s work is that "mutual relation" refers primarily to one-on-one interpersonal relationships. Of course her discussion of mutuality includes such relationships. But Heyward is very clear that we are always in relation to people (and other beings) we do not know. When I buy a pair of shoes, I have a concrete relation, established through the exchange of currency and labor, with everyone who is involved in the production and distribution of the shoes. The establishment of right relation in such cases has very little to do with feelings of the sort we associate with friendship or romantic relations.
Although Heyward was critical of traditional, Western sexual ethics from the outset of her career – she describes seminary as a period of both spiritual and sexual awakening in A Priest Forever – in the late 1980s, she began to make the implications of relational theology for a critique of heterosexism more explicit. In what I would consider her central work, Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God, she deepens the insights she began to develop in The Redemption of God. Through her contact with the Stone Center at Wellesley University, Heyward was able to develop a more specified definition of mutuality based on criteria by the psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller:
- Each person feels a greater sense of "zest."
- Each person feels more able to act and does act.
- Each person has a more accurate picture of her/himself and the other person(s).
- Each person feels a greater sense of worth.
- Each person feels more connected to the other person(s) and a greater motivation for connections with other people beyond those in the specific relationship.
The criteria for mutuality in sexual ethics are more far-reaching and transformative than the standard liberal view of "consent" as the primary criterion for sexual behavior. The issue of mutuality shifts the question of sexual ethics from a defensive "It’s OK if nobody gets hurt," to a positive question of "Does sexual activity contribute to the growth and well-being of all parties involved." On this basis, Heyward notes that monogamous relations, sexual friendships, and sexual abstinence may all be expressions of a desire for mutuality.
With the publication of When Boundaries Betray Us, Heyward’s reputation took a beating, and I believe the fact that so many of her books are now out of print can be traced to the controversy surrounding this book. It is an account of her experiences with therapy, how that experience ended up being a test of her relational theology, and a critique of professional ethics. The buzz at the time was "Wow – she fell in love with her therapist and when it wasn’t reciprocated, she wrote a book about it." I have to admit that it took me a very long time to get past that impression and read the book for myself, even though I had by that time devoured her previous writings. I mention this to show what a chilling effect that word-of-mouth response to her book had on even those who were enthusiastic about her work. After reading it, I can say unhesitatingly that that is an unfair verdict on the book, though I am sure professional therapists will find much to argue about in its pages.
Heyward pursued ordination as a priest in the 1970s in part because she believed that the biblical mandate for justice meant that the churches would be an effective place from which to work for radical social change. As Heyward moved in increasingly radical directions, however, American religion moved in an increasingly conservative direction. This disjunction weakened, but did not destroy Heyward’s sense of the ability of churches to witness to justice. In Saving Jesus From Those Who Are Right: Rethinking What It Means to be Christian, Heyward directly confronts the rise of the Christian Right, laying out her theology as an explicit alternative to such cultural perspectives as the massively popular Left Behind series. This is probably the easiest text of hers to get a hold of, but to my mind it mainly points out the extent to which she thinks best in relation to praxis, rather than formal logic. When she moves an argument through detailed description of experience, the results are stunning. Here she tries her hand at systematic theology, and I don’t think it’s a format particularly well-suited to her thought. I know others who have loved it.
Her most recent book, God in the Balance: Christian Spirituality in Times of Terror, is a brief meditation on images of God as they pertain to a post-9/11 world. One of the more surprising twists in this book is a new interest in Father images for God.
You can read more about her in this interview.