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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:

  1. Each person feels a greater sense of "zest."
  1. Each person feels more able to act and does act.
  1. Each person has a more accurate picture of her/himself and the other person(s).
  1. Each person feels a greater sense of worth.
  1.  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.  

Originally posted to dirkster42 on Tue Dec 18, 2007 at 07:53 AM PST.

Poll

The Religious Left?

5%4 votes
14%10 votes
9%7 votes
16%12 votes
53%38 votes

| 71 votes | Vote | Results

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Comment Preferences

  •  Maybe I misread the poll... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    aitchdee, dirkster42, anotherdemocrat

    what is the option for those of us are active church goers and liberal Democrats?

  •  I'll have to add her works (6+ / 0-)

    to my bookshelf next to John Shelby Spong's.

    The Religious Reich has done more damage to the name of Christianity than any so-called atheistic dictator -- thanks for helping to reclaim it.

    It's still a sad fact that there are those who would demonize and marginalize those who's only "sin" is to be as God made them and for following their true nature...

    You're only as popular as the last diary/comment you posted. -- Zachpunk

    by Cali Scribe on Tue Dec 18, 2007 at 08:14:38 AM PST

  •  Just to be honest (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    aitchdee, dirkster42

    When I think of the religious left these days I think of Barack Obama.

    Populist firestorm. Sweep the right from power. It's the only way. (-6.62, -6.26)

    by AndyS In Colorado on Tue Dec 18, 2007 at 08:19:03 AM PST

    •  Well, he's part of a very liberal congregation. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      aitchdee

      So it stands to reason that you'd think of him, but there's so much more out there.

      •  Not a good image, for me, though. (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        aitchdee, Simplify, dirkster42

        The diary is well written, but, politely as I can say it, Obama as an ambassador of the religious left (which is sorta the way I see him) sorta tells me the religious left is not on my side.

        I don't have much interest in "learning more" after him.

        Populist firestorm. Sweep the right from power. It's the only way. (-6.62, -6.26)

        by AndyS In Colorado on Tue Dec 18, 2007 at 08:23:59 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Ah, yes. (5+ / 0-)

          That's an entirely rational response to the McClurkin flap.

          From my perspective, it's important to keep the pressure on churches to rethink their sexual ethics.  As an out gay man, I received nothing but 100% support from the pastors in the United Methodist congregation I was a member of in college.  (I attend Quaker meetings now.)   There's been a stalemate in the more liberal churches on the issue for a long time, but I do think that it will give eventually.  It's really a matter of the individual conscience as to whether that's a fight you're willing to take on.

          •  Wow .. I've seen you post for a long time, (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            aitchdee, virgomusic, dirkster42

            dirkster, and all this time I honestly thought you were a woman ROFL!  The distorted pictures we can get of people when all we see is their text onscreen, eh?

            Well, I am an atheist as well as a gay man .. it's not just the McClurkin thing, it's a whole lot of stuff.  Liberal Christians want to be accepted (as if they were ever on the outside) but we secularists are just routinely backhanded by rhetoric like Obama's all the time.

            Stuff like this is, to me, "all of a piece" with the McClurkin flap:

            But a sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation - context matters. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase "under God." I didn't. Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats. And one can envision certain faith-based programs - targeting ex-offenders or substance abusers - that offer a uniquely powerful way of solving problems.

            Forgive me, I wasn't going to pull "candidate stuff" in here and will desist now.  But this ideology, whatever it is, is not a popular one with me.  

            Really, the trouble with me with a lot of Christianity, left, right and indifferent is there's too much feeling persecuted and too much persecuting.

            Of course Obama doesn't feel oppressed having children forced to cite "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance!  

            The reason I even care to comment at all in this kind of a diary is I want an alliance with the Christian left.  I just don't want to be assimilated by them in the process, or for them to attempt to do so.

            Populist firestorm. Sweep the right from power. It's the only way. (-6.62, -6.26)

            by AndyS In Colorado on Tue Dec 18, 2007 at 08:49:13 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  Jim Wallis (3+ / 0-)

              is a pretty good example of the sort of thing you're complaining about on the Religious Left.  I've never been his biggest fan, but there are plenty of people over on Street Prophets who have even less patience with him than I do.

              So, I hear what you're saying.  I've been guilty of defensiveness here on the issue from time to time.  There's a way the issues are being framed now that's frustrating for everyone.

              But I think you can see a really good alternative in The Interfaith Alliance, which actively fights for the right of freedom of religion, and explicitly includes the right to freedom from religion in that equation.  Its head honcho, Rev. Weldon Gaddy, has a weekly program on Air America, State of Belief.

              •  Ok, I'll look at it later .. gotta go soon. (2+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                aitchdee, dirkster42

                I guess the perception for me is the Christian Left always trying to "reach out" to the religious right and its pecadillos and hatreds.  Somehow this "reaching out" always seems to involve adopting their ways of looking at the world -- their cultural frame.  But never with us.  No, we are to be lectured to and backhanded.  Always, when the topic of actual religiosity is discussed.  Not a good way to stir interest in the liberal Christian movement, if you ask me, but nobody asked me, LOL.

                For a clue to my outlook, my latest diary is here on Daily Kos for your inspection, should you wish (a way to avoid belaboring the point of view).

                But the way I see it, we have more in common with you than you have in common with them.  We secular Humanists aren't your enemy ;).  I wish more liberal Christians -- particularly the ones with access to bully pulpits -- would actually see that.

                Populist firestorm. Sweep the right from power. It's the only way. (-6.62, -6.26)

                by AndyS In Colorado on Tue Dec 18, 2007 at 09:18:36 AM PST

                [ Parent ]

              •  ha (3+ / 0-)

                We read God's Politics in my Sunday School class. My copy of that book has margins filled - filled with me yelling at Wallis. I liked the section on poverty, and the man really does walk his talk especially on that issue. But, just as an example, early on in the book, he talks about how he was encouraged by W's faith-based social services cr@p when he got elected. He talks about going to a meeting during the transition, in Austin. My comment in the margin: Hey Jim - did you see the people outside the meeting yelling & waving signs about how he's a liar???? That was me!!! I was right!!! When he writes about getting disillusioned with W, my comment was "sucker". Where I really got turned off was in the part about abortion and GLBT rights. My interpretation of his position on abortion is that he doesn't want it illegal, just unavailable. And on GLBT rights - again, my interpretation - he says everyone needs to calm down & stop yelling. My reply - "Ok, fine. You & yours stop discriminating against my friends, and I'll stop yelling. Till then, I'll keep yelling."

                We have done the impossible and that makes us mighty - Firefly

                by anotherdemocrat on Tue Dec 18, 2007 at 10:47:33 AM PST

                [ Parent ]

        •  I don't know much about Obama's (4+ / 0-)

          religious beliefs. When I think of the religious left, besides Heyward, I think of Matthew Fox (one of the pioneers of creation spirituality, which sees creation as a blessing instead of "original sin"), Joan Chittister, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and the aforementioned Spong, Ruether and Christ. I am leading a discussion right now at my church on Michael Lerner's The Left Hand of God. I love, love, love this book. Unlike Jim Wallis' God's Politics, I really feel like Lerner is talking to me. It isn't that Wallis is wrong, or even conservative - his stuff on poverty is great. I just feel like Rabbi Lerner knows people like me, and Wallis is talking to people much more mainstream than I'll ever be.

          We have done the impossible and that makes us mighty - Firefly

          by anotherdemocrat on Tue Dec 18, 2007 at 08:31:45 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  And Carter Heyward (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dirkster42, anotherdemocrat

    is the Democratic Candidate running for what now?  Or is involved in what Democratic effort?  I'm sure it's in the diary somewhere.  I'll re-read.

  •  I had the privilege... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TrueBlueMajority, dirkster42

    of taking a class with Carter a couple of years ago up at EDS.  It was a sexuality course and the two weeks was, to say the least, life-changing.

    Carter is a brilliant, fierce, authentic woman who is at all times--for better or for worse--honest about who she is, and what she has experienced.  My respect for her is tremendous, and i'd encourage everyone to take a look at her body of work.

  •  I also met Carter in Cambridge (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dirkster42

    when she was still actively teaching at EDS and heard her give a great Christology talk.  She said among other things that, although Jesus may have had a male body when he walked the earth, the Christ/the anointed one has to encompass both genders because Christ is God and God is not confined to one gender.  So references to Jesus as man can be male but references to Christ should be gender inclusive whenever possible.  I've always thought that was incredibly cool theology and I have actually tried to talk that way when I can remember it.

    Politics is like driving. To go backward, put it in R. To go forward, put it in D.
    IMPEACH CHENEY FIRST.

    by TrueBlueMajority on Wed Dec 19, 2007 at 06:08:15 PM PST

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