Carter Heyward: “Touching our Strength; The Erotic as Power and the Love of God” (New York: Harper, San Francisco, 1989)
A book review, from an Orthodox Christian perspective
by Fr. Vassilios Bebis
Carter Heyward’s book “Touching our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God” is an interesting book because it brings new ideas to the field of theology, presenting a radical feminist and lesbian theological thought. It is a provocative book, even characterized as dangerous, because it invites the reader into a new understanding of religion and claims to transform the old theological paradigm through an intellectual revolution. The book is interesting for one more reason. Although it preserves a scholarly and academic character, it is also a poetic book. It is poetic not only because it contains poems and personal letters, but because the author wrote the book with both her mind and heart involved in the process.
The aim of this book review is to explore the message of the book about the interaction of people with each other and with the divine and to make a critical evaluation of this message based on Orthodox Christian theological criteria.
Heyward’s book has a specific structure. It is organized into seven chapters; nevertheless, the same ideas are expressed in all the chapters as the author develops her theological theory. Rather than examine the book chapter by chapter, this review presents Heyward’s thought in two parts where similar ideas are treated together. The first part is entitled “The Old Theological Paradigm” and is divided into three themes: a) patriarchal system, heterosexist ideology and the abuse of power, b) Christian tradition within the boundaries of patriarchy and c) the theory of essentialism. The second part is entitled “The New Theological Paradigm” and is also divided in three themes: a) right/mutual relation, b) the erotic relation and God and c) scripture, Christ and Christa. Critical comments are at the end of each part and at the conclusion of the essay.
THE OLD THEOLOGICAL PARADIGM
a) Patriarchal system, heterosexist ideology and the abuse of power.
According to Heyward, we live in a global patriarchal society in which men dominate the culture and economy, and ‘oppress women. In America and Europe white men hold this power of exploitation and preserve it, regardless of the pseudo-liberal character of contemporary culture that leaves an open space for different ideas, as long as they do not change the basic structure of the patriarchal system. Furthermore, white men who oppress women are not even conscious of their act: “They fail to see … the exploitative character of their own lives (p.53)”.
The author makes two important distinctions in her book. She distinguishes the black male from the white male, considering the first victims of oppression, and she distinguishes homosexuals from heterosexuals, again considering the first victims of oppression. Blacks, homosexual and women are victims of contemporary society and they must join their efforts in the struggle for justice and liberation. Liberation is possible only through a united front of the oppressed against the oppressors. Alienation, on the other hand, destroys the hope of a common action for justice and works for the patriarchal system that maintains its control over women, gays and lesbians and people of color.
People are alienated from each other; victims of the system live separate lives because they consider their situation as fixed. As Heyward remarks, “unjust power relations between men and women shape the lens through which we view the natural/moral order (p.63)”. This social order distinguishes between good and bad and normal and abnormal under the guidance and approval of the powerful. Those who have power (white men) exert their will and judgment with an imposed and unchanged superior authority that rules the world (p.74).
Under patriarchy, only heterosexism is normal in regard to sexual life. Heterosexism implies the subordination of women to men. Heterosexism “is a logical and necessary extension of sexism (p.58),” Heyward remarks, and therefore “is the basic structure of gay/lesbian oppression in this and other societies (p.50)”.
Heterosexist ideology oppresses homosexuals and women and produces violence against these two groups of people, which sometimes leads to rapes and murders. White males use and abuse their power, that is the power of the patriarchal system itself, to preserve the status quo in society. The author remarks that “at no historical point have the links between sexual, gender and economic control been more pernicious than today (p.46)”.
b) Christian tradition within the boundaries of patriarchy.
According to Heyward, the traditional Christian church is part of the patriarchal system. Homosexuals and women “will not find much help in [their] healing from the Church or from the God of patriarchal religions (p.88)”. She also emphasizes that the anti-sexual and anti-female character of Christian theology served to maintain control in a chaotic social situation, very similar to the contemporary one (p.44). In the name of God the church preserved the patriarchal cultural identity and allowed women to become victims of oppression. Homosexuals also became victims of oppression when they revealed their sexual orientation; and they were received in society only if they were able to hide their so-called weakness and keep their homosexual activity private.
Christian theology became misogynist and erotophobic, according to Heyward, partly because it was a product of the patriarchal intellectual world and partly because it developed a dualistic view of life where everything spiritual was good and everything bodily and material was bad. Thus, sex and pleasure were considered sinful. The writings of the church fathers, Heyward claims, and the canons of the church clearly manifest that “misogyny and erotophobia have traditionally characterized Christianity (p.5)”. Heyward calls Christians to admit that they are “heirs to a body-despising, woman-fearing, sexually repressive religious tradition,” and she talks about the need for a revolutionary transformation of Christianity -not simply a reformation (p.4 7).
c) The theory of essentialism.
The theory of essentialism claims that people have an essential identity, a fixed essence that guides them in their social life. We act in specific ways because we act according to our nature. For example, we are heterosexuals or homosexuals because we were born as such. Therefore, we have to live according to the natural order. On this view, society should be sympathetic towards gays and lesbians, since it is not their fault but their nature. Women are also encouraged to find pleasure in their subordination. After all, their nature is considered pathetic.
Heyward disagrees. She states that “there is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual if by this we mean to denote a fixed essence, an essential identity. There are rather people who act homosexually or heterosexually (p.40)”. Heyward realizes that if a lesbian says that her fixed essence is responsible for her behavior, it is easier for her to be at peace with herself and with a large portion of society. Heyward believes that people make decisions about their lives and that their relationships to each other give them certain identities. She writes: “A historical rather than an essentialist perspective on sexuality involves framing our sexual ethics around issues of what we do rather than of what we are (p.4I)”.
COMMENTS TO PART I
a)Heyward is right about her major criticism of the society in which we live. Inequalities in society become an obstacle to the religious and moral development of people. There are indeed categories of people who suffer from living in the unjust culture of ours. Heyward is also right in that sexual, gender and economic control are oftentimes related.
b)Heyward, however, is only partly right in her critique of the Christian church. She examines texts, canons and traditions of the early church, through the lens of contemporary standards and beliefs. Nevertheless, she fails to distinguish between Christian theology and Christian pastoral ministry. She also avoids mentioning patristic writings that present different voices in the early church. She ignores the theology of the sacraments as well as the eschatological theology of the church that defend gender equality and promote the struggle for justice.
It is correct that many patristic writings and canons tolerate the patriarchal system, for example by encouraging women to be subordinated to their husbands and by talking about sexual life in not very positive terms. Not-only patristic writings, but even the Pauline epistles express similar ideas. The question is, do we have the right to give absolute theological significance to pastoral letters, homilies and canons, addressing specific issues for specific times? Do we also forget the social conditions of Roman Empire where women were objectified and abused by men? The dogma of the Church is certainly not declared in pastoral letters and canons. It is rather expressed by St. Paul’s statement: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal.3:28).
We can make the same distinctions in the writings of the church fathers; distinguishing between their theology and their pastoral concerns. St. John Chrysostom is a good example. He appears, in many of his homilies, to consider women responsible for the moral crisis of the world. In other homilies, however, he defends women and talks about their virtue, which is admired by all (PG, vol. 56, p.50). Can we find a contradiction in his writings? Of course we can. Chrysostom did not try to write a systematic ethical theology. He preached pastorally to his flock and tried to address specific issues with “economia,”because, as it is written in the Pauline epistles, some people are not mature to eat solid food but only milk (1 Cor.3:2).
This is the key to understanding the patristic literature. The fathers wrote both as theologians and pastors. Their theology is very clear: men and women are both created in the image and likeness of God. Men and women are equal in Christ [St. Gregory the theologian emphasizes the equality of men and women, remarking that the laws are against women because they were written by men: PG, Vol.36, hom.37].
The human body and sexuality are also treated in several ways in the patristic thought depending on circumstances. The early church kept a theological balance between the Christian platonic (negative) understanding of the body and the Christian nicolaitic over appreciation of human sexuality. The church considered the human body as ”the temple of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19) and blessed monogamous sexual relationships. Furthermore, many church fathers recognized the powerful character of sexual relationships and made a theological analogy to the relationship that God has with human beings. One of these fathers is St. John of Sinai, the author of the “Ladder of Divine Ascent.”
St. John does not approach sexual eros moralistically. He accepts sexual eros as something that exists and states that people must approach God in the same way they approach their lovers. Human erotic love must become a paradigm in the erotic relationship between God and people (26:31). While experiencing sexual love, St. John emphasizes, people feel happy because they overcome the sadness of isolation and their life is transformed. However, the erotic relationship with God is the ultimate erotic relationship, because only God is free from any atomic limitation, embracing everything (30:10). St. John talks about a passionate affair between God and humankind, suggesting that we must live our erotic relationship with God with the same passion with which lovers make love (30:6). For St. John, the same erotic passion may refer to another human being or to God, but only God can offer a real erotic/spiritual fulfillment to human beings.
St. John refers to the harlot who loved a lot and was forgiven by God. The harlot transformed her erotic passion and directed it towards God, appreciating His love (5:6). True knowledge, therefore, is an erotic knowledge. The Greek word “gnosis” means both knowledge and sexual knowledge. To know God we must have an erotic relationship with Him: To think of Him every moment and in every place.
Heyward fails to present patristic writings such as St. John’s, thus presenting Christian patristic theology as uniformly patriarchal and anti-sexual. There are indeed patristic positions with a positive view of human body and sexuality (e.g. the theology of St. Pafnoutios or Synesios of Ptolemais). There are also patristic texts in which God is presented with feminine qualities and characteristics. St. Gregory Palamas does not hesitate to call God our Mother [See: Emmanuel Clapsis, “Naming God: An Orthodox View” in the Ecumenical Review, vol. 44, no. 1, Jan. 1992, p.110]. Furthermore, in the Bible Jesus referred to himself as a hen who would like to gather her chicks together (Mt. 23:23), while Isaiah speaks of Yahweh’s “womb of mercy” (Is. 49:15). Heyward also fails to discuss apophatic theology (via negativa), which considers God beyond genders and with the theologies of baptism, eucharist and eschatology that manifest the unity of humankind. Only in her notes does she mention that: “few scholars would dispute the oppositional character of spirituality and sexuality in early Christian history, though a number suggests that the early Christian understanding of the body was not entirely negative, nor perhaps the attitude toward sexual pleasure wholly prescriptive (p.173)”.
Heyward, although recognizing that some theologians have presented different opinions, does not bother to examine these opinions. She is very quick to reject the theological literature of centuries without finding anything valuable or interesting in it. This is a weak point of her book. Heyward is not satisfied with a reformation. She needs a revolutionary transformation of Christianity to the point where Christianity is not Christianity any more -in any recognizable sense.
c) In her discussion of essentialism and homosexuality, Heyward defends the priority of personal decisions, against the view of people characterized by a fixed essence that determines human choices. The author’s thesis appears to follow Cappadocian theology, which claims that “the ontological ‘principle’ or ’cause’ of being is not the substance or nature but the person or hypostasis” [See: John Zizioulas, “Being as Communion”, Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993, p.42]. That is, a person’s identity is not predetermined but is formed by his or her choices. Indeed, there are not homosexuals and heterosexuals, but people who act homosexually or heterosexually. The question is, do we consider these acts ethically acceptable? Homosexual behavior appears against the ethical principles of the Old Testament and the Pauline epistles.
THE NEW THEOLOGICAL PARADIGM
a) Right and mutual relationship.
According to Heyward, the past and present relations of exploitation and injustice must be replaced by right relations. The terms “right” or “mutual” relation of one person to another is used throughout the book. The author emphasizes that human beings are social beings. “We are born in relation, we live in relation, we die in relation (p.12).” Any “unequal power relationship” is abusive and we can recognize in our contemporary society many relationships of that kind. Heyward remarks that “in our alienated society … power has come to mean domination by a few over the lives and deaths of many (p.52)”. Unjust relationships damage both the oppressors and the oppressed; they create a situation of disconnection between human beings and become an obstacle to human development. “It is only in ‘mutually empathic and empowering’ relationships that our well-being can be secured and sustained (p.13)”. These relationships are relationships of love, where “the lover and beloved are … re-creating one another (p.23)”.
Love means forgiveness and forgiveness is necessary for a new start in human relationships and for a redirection of wrong relational power (p. 106). Heyward states that “we cannot love one another unless we are a forgiving and forgiven people. As we forgive and are forgiven, we become actively loving people (p.146)”. The redirection of wrong relational power also requires the creation of boundaries between each other; to know what each person wants and does not want (p.11O-112). Heyward makes the interesting remark that “in Great Britain ‘no trespassing’ signs do not mean ‘keep out’ … they mean simply ‘you are welcome to enter, but do not harm (p.112)”.
Love, forgiveness and realization of boundaries –the ingredients for a mutual/right relationship-are experienced in the erotic life of human beings and especially in sexual expression, which is “the primary wellspring of our capacity to be creative together (p.27)”. Having sex, Heyward emphasizes, is about power-sharing(p.108). Through sexual intercourse we learn to respect one another’s feelings (p.130), to respect “our own and others bodily integrity (p.128),” and to be honest with each other (p.129). Having sex, therefore, is related “to what we are doing in Latin America. Both are about power -how it is used or abused among us (p.28)”. Lovemaking is not only a form of justice-making (p.3), it also gives us the energy to be involved in movements for justice in the world (p.4).
b) The erotic relation and God.
Heyward states that we come to know God by knowing one another (p.94). God is “immersed in our gendered and erotic particularities (p.103)” and her face is recognized “in the faces of our lovers and friends (p.l02)”. This theological epistemology, according to Heyward, is rooted in “the sacred experience of sensual power…[the] erotic experience of the power of God (p.99)”.
Heyward does not hesitate to give a radical definition of God. “God is our relational power -our power in mutual relation (p.23)” … ”to the extent that we are coming into our power as lovers of one another (p.24)”. Thus, God is in us, as long as we live in right-mutual-erotic relationships. God co-creates out of our daily lives who we are “when we are related mutually- with justice and compassion (p.75)”. The aim of God is “to create the friendship in which the cosmos is originally imaged … We are created originally for [the purpose] of friendship (p.l04)”. This friendship is beyond death. “The irrepressible love of God, the sacred power of the erotic, does not simply leave us behind at our death (p.138)”.
c) Scripture, Christ, and Christa.
Heyward, who is an Episcopal priest, connects her anthropology and theology to her Christian faith. She is involved “at the margins of the established ecclesium (p.5)”. She tries to connect her theology to her Anglican tradition, according to which the bible does not stand alone, but is used to justify purposes. Based on this thesis, Heyward remarks that ”the bible is not a word of God when it is used to justify structures and dynamics of unjust power relations (p.81)”. On the other hand, negative stories in the bible can be scripture “only insofar as they teach us what God was and is not doing(p.83)”. Scriptural resources can be expanded, according to Heyward. For example, a novel, a film, a photograph or a letter may generate spiritual movement in our lives (p.85).
Scripture, in this broader understanding of the word, reveals to us our “transformative power in relation to one another [that is God] (p.85)”. We may experience God in the mystical presence of Jesus, Heyward writes, we may name her Christa or we may call her with other names (p.85). Heyward prefers to use the name Christa, because she believes that “Christ cannot touch women’s spiritual depths, because he has become a symbol of [women’s] humiliation, suffering death at the hands of Christian men (p.116)”. Furthermore, Christ has been presented by the Church as a victim whose suffering and death liberate human suffering. Women do not want to glorify their suffering.
Christa, for Heyward, is a symbolic person. “She is no one among us and never will be … Hers can be a Christian name for eros, the power by which we know ourselves to be a common people (p.116)”. The “body of Christa” is a “holy communion of friends (p.92)”.
COMMENTS TO PART II
a)Heyward emphasizes that mutual relationships can transform human beings, change the injustices in the world and manifest the presence of God in our lives. She refers to the work of therapists who develop a relational approach to mental health to support her claim that only right relationships can guarantee a progress in human and social development. She also connects mutual relationships and political commitments to a universal liberation of the oppressed. Heyward is influenced by contemporary psychology that emphasizes the need for boundaries in human relationships and the healing nature of touching and love. She is also influenced by socialist thought and liberation theology. Her contribution in the theme of “mutual relationships” is that she connects lovemaking to justice-making.
b)Heyward goes even further when she states that erotic and mutual relationships manifest the presence of God in our midst and that God is our relational power. God is not transcendent in the classic theological understanding of the word. Transcendence can be experienced only in an erotic relationship by a transcendence of fear (p.l41), a joining of lovers together (p.l28) and a crossing of boundaries (p.l13). Furthermore, God is a mystery. Erotic love is a mystery. “There are limits to what we know about sex and God (p.9)”. Heyward is not interested in speculating about mysteries or in offering a systematic theology. Her theology is based on the statement that we experience the divine in mutual-erotic relationships.
c) Heyward is very critical of past social structures, especially of the history of Christian life and thought. However, she wants to stay in the church, appreciating aspects of Christian theology and tradition, while making theological adjustments to our contemporary socio-cultural situation. She is correct in stating that the Bible is not the only source of Christian thought and tradition and that we must approach scriptural texts with a critical mind. However, a critical mind appears to be absent in her analysis of Christ as a symbol of women’s suffering. Heyward does not have any ground to support her claim that Christ is a symbol of oppression. The misinterpretation of the Christian message by some Christian men does not make Christianity misogynist or Christ unable to touch women’s spiritual depths. The use of the term Christa offends sensitivities about the historical Jesus who was a man, confuses Christians and creates a mythological person who never existed.
Carter Heyward’s book “Touching our Strength: The erotic as Power and the Love of God” offers a message regarding the interaction of people between each other and with God. This message is the following: The right relationship of people transforms society and manifests the presence of God as love, shared by friends and sexual partners. It is a theological message that constitutes a theory of religious life that can embrace all people as long as they are committed to the struggle for mutual relations against every form of oppression – especially patriarchal oppression.
From an Orthodox Christian point of view, Heyward’s message can be partly appreciated. However, some aspects of her argument and presentation are flawed. She does not fairly evaluate the tradition of the church insofar as she ignores important patristic writings that contradict her claim that Christian theology is oppressive to women. She does not make a distinction between Christian theology and Christian pastoral ministry and does not distinguish between the life of Christ and the life of Christians. Therefore, she considers pastoral letters and ecclesiastical canons as dogmatic texts and Jesus Christ as responsible for the misinterpretation of His teaching by Christian men. Finally, her suggestion to replace Christ with Christa offends sensitivities about the historical Jesus and creates confusion for Christians.
These criticisms notwithstanding the book’s contribution to contemporary Christian has some positive characteristics. First, it gives an opportunity to the church to defend its tradition. Second, the emphasis of the book on human freedom ‘against a fixed essence that determines human choices appreciates the Cappadocian theology of personhood. Third, the book rightly presents all forms of oppression as connected to each other. Finally, Heyward’s emphasis on erotic power and her belief that we experience God in our erotic-mutual relationships gives contemporary value to the theology of St. John of Sinai, according to whom human erotic love must become a paradigm in the erotic relationship between God and people.
It is significant and promising that a contemporary theologian emphasizes that lovemaking is not necessarily dirty or bad, but a way to find God and do justice in the world.
Rev.Fr.Dr.Vassilios Bebis is the Presiding Priest at Saint Nektarios Orthodox Church in Rosindale,Boston and a Senior Fellow of the Sophia Institute.