Part of the responsibility of ministry leaders is having an awareness of influences that have guided the minds of our culture and, therefore, the church. No church exists in a vacuum and to varying degrees, everyone has had ideas and beliefs shaped by the world around them. So it is with great interest I often find myself reading the theological feminist writings because doing so helps me to discover the source of trends and vain philosophies that have their grip on the hearts and minds of Christians. And it seems that in the last two years or so there has been a fervent effort under the big tent of evangelicalism to usher in postmodern theologies with a clearly liberal feminist slant, seeking to normalize positions that undermine the authority of scripture.
On my book shelves are collections of great writings from early and contemporary Reformed theologians, books on women’s ministry, great biblical expositions, bioethics texts….and then there are the feminist writers. These are books I studied while in seminary, primarily for the purpose of completing my master’s thesis, though eventually I chose a different topic related to bioethics and presuppositional apologetics. (I feel like I have to explain why I have them!) But last week I decided to see if I could learn something about come present conversations from the writings of some of these clearly liberal feminist thinkers. Enter Carter Heyward.
At the time her book “Saving Jesus from Those Who are Right” (SJTWR) was published, Carter Heyward was a professor of theology at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1974, she was one of 11 women whose ordinations eventually paved the way for the recognition of women as priests in the Episcopal Church in 1976 ( “The Women Priests”. Time Magazine. August 26, 1974). She retired in 2006.
Aspects of her writing strike in me an odd familiarity:
“In this study, I am especially attentive to the theological claims of ‘those who are right’ and to presenting an alternative way of thinking about what it means to be a Christian” (p 1).
“…Christians who are right often imagine that Jesus is an authoritarian Lord…In this book, I offer alternative images…I suggest that mutuality, passion, compassion, and forgiveness are more genuinely moral relational possibilities for our life together” (p 1).
“We are drawn selectively to certain images and stories of Jesus (and ourselves) on the basis of our cultures and communities, faith journeys, personal needs, and political commitments. The Jesus images in this book reflect such a selective process” (p 3-4).
But do I assume that “my” Jesus is the only true Jesus? I do not make such a claim…I can only tell you what I believe and am thinking about Jesus these days and invite you to think with me” (p 4)
Throughout her writings, it becomes clear that she has a view of God and scripture that doesn’t exactly cohere with a historical-grammatical reading of the Bible. In her work, God is defined as our power in mutual relation. In SJTWR, Heyward writes
Lifting Jesus up above us, giving him authority over us that he didn’t ask for and cannot bear, we miss the point of his life, of our lives and of the life of God.
Am I denying the divinity of Jesus? No I am denying the singularity of his status as Son of God. I am affirming the presence of divinity in him and moving through him…I have no doubt that you and I are as much God’s daughters and sons as Jesus was and, moreover, that this has been true not only human beings but of other creatures too, from the beginning.
Clearly problematic is her conception of God’s nature and being. Heyward may believe she retains Jesus’ divinity in her theological framework, but by elevating fallen humanity and “other creatures” to equality with Jesus when she writes “you and I are as much…as Jesus was…” we have a significant problem. You can’t escape Heywards problem with authority through the pages of SJTWR and that it serves as the basis for undermining the authority of scripture and the status of the second person of the Trinity.
My interest was especially piqued in terms of the influence of theological feminism in evangelical circles when I stumbled upon this in SJTWR:
We must give authority to our experiences as relational beings who share this planet as home. It is hard for most Christian readers to take human experience seriously as sacred source because our religious tradition has promulgated a strange notion that God and Jesus Christ are “above” or otherwise “outside” of human experience, life, history. We have learned that God and Jesus Christ have spiritual authority “over” us, as if they are Persons to whom we must look not only “outside” our bodyselves but over and against us in order to know what is right or wrong and even to know what or who we are. For us to be in right relation to such a God or His Son is to put our experiences, our lives and history, under His rule and will, subject to His authority.
For this reason, “good Christians” in general and good Christian women in particular have not on the whole experienced our bodyselves as bearing our own spiritual truths. Yet we do bear our own spiritual truths to the extent that our spiritualities are truly of the God whom Jesus loved. (SJTWR, p 34)
So what exactly does this mean? This implications are serious. Spiritual authority of God and Jesus over humanity in general is problemantic the Heywards pardigm given that spiritual authority resides at least in equal proportion to the authority of God or Jesus, and she continues “good Christian women in particular” have been deprived “considerable spiritual authority.”
If you were to continue reading, Heyward disputes the notion that sacred truth is universally applicable, “as if theology can be carried around and imposed on others, irrespective of their embodied cultures, experiences, lives, and histories…” She says this is “intellectual arrogance and theological stupidity.” It does not matter whether you are a Christian, atheist, “prince nor homeless mother,”
None of us…knows what is absolutely true about him or herself, much less about God, Jesus, or the rest of us. There is a way to know and love ourselves, the world, and God: We can truly know only that which we are not afraid to love, and we can truly love only that which we are not afraid to see. Only in relation to one another can we know and love what is true. (emphasis hers) (SJTWR, p 35)
The Body of Christ cannot fulfill its gospel-centered mission to make disciples if God’s authority is challenged by the authority of human experience, if truth isn’t universally applicable, and if we can make no claims to knowledge about God or anything else. Without knowledge, human existence is hampered, and in this case, its hampered by an epistemological generosity that wants to embrace its own selectivity while encouraging the same in others. The desire to ‘save Jesus from those who are right’ is a mission that continues within the boundaries of evangelicalism and at some point someone needs to step up under the authority of scripture and say no more. Saving Jesus from those who are right means, for Heyward and others of a similar mindset, that no one is right…or at least we simply cannot know. This is not a faith that can be lived out in any meaningful sense. It is a faith that’s a fraud.