This is the first in a series of five posts responding to Carter Heyward’s essay, “Notes on Historical Grounding: Beyond Sexual Essentialism.”
The work Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection, edited by James Nelson and Sandra Longfellow was collected and published as “a revision of much Christian understanding of sexuality…” (Nelson and Longfellow, xiii). This collection of authors and theologians has rightly assessed that much of Christian tradition regarding sex has, indeed, been incorrect. Where each of these authors has gone, however, is not a return to a correct biblical sexual ethic. Rather, each has strayed farther from true biblical morality to a self-based understanding of sexuality. This paper will focus on the call of Carter Heyward, who, in her article “Notes on Historical Grounding” declares, “What is required is more than simply a ‘reformation.’ I am speaking of revolutionary transformation. Nothing less will do” (Heyward, 16). While still desiring to call herself “christian,” [Heyward herself does not capitalize the word “christian” anywhere in her writing. This appears to be a deliberate attempt to minimalize the faith itself through the subtlety of grammar] Heyward states that a return to biblical sexuality, a reformation of traditional Christian sexual ethics, is not the correct move at the current time. Instead, a completely new understanding of human sexuality must be conveyed if Christianity is to continue being a viable religious option for self-respecting people in the twenty-first century.
In the Introduction to Part One of Sexuality and the Sacred, Nelson states that two current schools of thought are represented in this work. The first, social constructionism (or historical grounding), “…emphasizes our active role as human agents deeply influenced by our social relations in structuring or ‘constructing’ our sexual meanings and values” (Nelson, 3). The second school of thought is essentialism, which emphasizes “the objectively definable reality of sexual and bodily meanings. The body, they claim, has its intrinsic and given meanings, quite apart from whatever we happen to believe about it” (Nelson, 3). Heyward writes this article with the purpose of supporting a historical view of sexuality.
This teaching is dangerous to the Christian church precisely because the call for change is legitimate. There is much within the Christian tradition that has been blatantly wrong in teachings concerning sex, especially concerning the woman’s role in sex. Much has also been incorrectly taught concerning the relationships between men and women, particularly in the areas of sex and marriage. Heyward does an excellent job of identifying specific areas within Christian tradition that are incorrect concerning the human sexual experience. The point at which this writer diverges from Heyward is on reaching a solution for these issues. Instead of desiring a reformation of tradition that will realign “Christian” teaching with Biblical teaching, Heyward calls for the aforementioned “revolutionary transformation.” According to Heyward, a return to biblical foundations is not enough; a completely new ethic is required. This paper will attempt to point out Heyward’s correct observations concerning the traditional Christian sexual ethic while responding to the corresponding unbiblical “corrections” she makes concerning tradition. Biblical strategies concerning a correct reforming of Christian tradition toward a biblical sexual ethic will also be presented.