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A few years ago, I was heading out the door with my backpack packed, ready for a day of studying at the library.  But I didn't get very far - a package with the copy of Goddesses and the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History I'd ordered was waiting by the door.  I picked up the package, did a 180, and headed right back to bed, where I spent the day reading the book non-stop.  Studying for qualifying exams would have to wait.  I was going to enjoy the latest book by my favorite author - Rosemary Radford Ruether.

I discovered Ruether's writing in my second year of college, and it made everything fall into place.  (I talked a bit about why there were things that needed falling into place in So, How Did a Nice Gay Boy Like You Become a Theologian?)  In that one academic year, I read several of her books, and wrote to her the following summer.  As I mentioned in the letter, if I'd encountered her work at another time in my life, I would have dismissed it.  Until my early teens, I would likely have found her belief in God offputting; in my late teens, I would have found her affirmation of bodily existence distressing.  As it was, it had a lasting impact.  Later, I took classes with her, and am now co-editing a volume of essays by her students, Voices of Feminist Liberation.

A good starting point to get the gist of her ideas is her brief volume To Change the World: Christology and Cultural Criticism, which covers revolutionary politics, Christian anti-Semitism, the question of whether a male savior can save women, and the rethinking of religion in the ecological crisis.  She has full-length treatments of all of those topics and more.  Come on over the flip and learn more!

Ruether is a prolific author, with some forty-seven authored or edited books to her name.  Her autobiography, Disputed Questions: On Being a Christian traces her journey through four questions she confronted throughout her career - whether Christianity is a credible religion, the nature of Christian anti-Semitism, the relation of religion and politics, and the place of feminism in religion.  She truncated the book into an essay called Asking the Existential Questions.

In Disputed Questions, she describes how she entered college with the intention of becoming an artist, but quickly gravitated toward classics, grounding her in the historical study of Greek and Roman philosophy and religion.  She quotes one of her teachers, Robert Palmer, as saying "First the god, then the dance, and finally the story."  Based on this insight, she approaches religious texts not as immutable sources of authority, but as abstractions of primordial experiences - in the plural.  She puzzled her classics professors, who had strong views of the superiority of ancient Pagan culture to the Christian culture that replaced it, when she started turning to the Bible in the same spirit that she'd been taught to approach the classics.  Ultimately, she found the moral vision of the prophets - with their emphasis on accountability to the poor - more compelling than the ethics of Plato and Aristotle.  But, because she came to the Bible after a grounding in classics, she never saw a reason to treat it like any other book, or exclude other perspectives just because she liked it.

This basic grounding in seeing Christianity in its historical context and as the working out of one, but not the only, authentic religious experience meant that Ruether was primed to be a revolutionary voice in inter-religious dialogue, manifest most clearly in her 1974 book Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism.  Although some theologians had begun to rethink Jewish-Christian relations after the Holocaust, the governing assumption was that anti-Semitism was a deformation of Christian doctrine that emerged in the early church.  Ruether pressed her analysis back into the New Testament; that scholars hadn't caught the problem in the gospel of John, where Jesus calls Jews children of the devil, shows how strongly the blinders were on.  Ruether then shows the development of Christian anti-Semitism all the way to the Third Reich.  In the final chapter of her book, she proposes ways in which Christianity needs to be rethought in light of the history she laid out.  Typically for her work, she diagnoses various theological dualisms as pernicious.  In most of her work, she tries to find ways of moving from absolute oppositions to ways in which real dialogue is possible.  This requires moving from projecting negative features onto an Other to looking for ambiguities within.  In a move that baffled many Jews who had considered her an ally, she turned her attention to the Israel/Palestine question in her book The Wrath of Jonah: The Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which critiques Zionism in a similar manner to that with which she critiqued anti-Semitism earlier.  Her interest in religious dialogue has continued in her conversation with the Buddhist feminist Rita Gross, Religious Feminism and the Future of the Planet, and her overview of the issues named in Integrating Ecofeminism, Globalization, and World Religions.

Ruether started her journey as someone uninterested in politics.  She describes how in the earliest phases of her career, she didn't venture into anything more recent than the fifth century.  Her marriage to the political scientist Herman Ruether was the catalyst for her active involvement in left-wing politics, and its importance for her theological thought.  In 1965, she worked with the Delta Ministry in Mississippi.  She recalls how the bus full of college students left California to work on setting up Head Start projects in the South, only to hear the News reporting the outbreak of the Watts Riots in Los Angeles.  It was a revelatory moment, leaving the students feeling both sheepish and deeply aware of the racial blinders they had on.  She spent the rest of her career deeply involved in leftist politics, at one point serving as a Vice Chair of Democratic Socialists of America.  She first spelled out her theological interest in politics in her book The Radical Kingdom: The Western Experience of Messianic Hope.  She offers a more recent (and in print) treatment of religion and politics in Christianity and Social Systems: Historical Constructions and Ethical Challenges, focusing on, as always, both problematic aspects of Christianity that need dismantling, as well as positive resources Christianity offers for a just world.

Ruether is best-known, however, as a feminist theologian.  She describes the women-centered environments in which she grew up - her father was a distant figure, who died when she was twelve.  Her mother had a group of female friends who were a vibrant presence in her home.  She once said in a lecture that when she imagined God as a child, the model was her mother and her mother's friends.  She recalls Catholic schooling as another all-female environment, where the basic religious message was "God and Jesus were around, but they did whatever Mary told them to do."   However, in adulthood, she began to see the limitations women faced in society.  She felt a severe sense of betrayal when she realized that her college mentors, who had set her mind on fire, simply expected her to "move on" and find a husband, rather than pursuing an academic career.  In 1963, she gave birth to one of her children and met a Mexican-American woman in the maternity ward.  The woman was giving birth to her tenth child, lived in a situation of domestic violence, and was told by her priest that contraception was not allowed.  At this point, Ruether diagnosed the Catholic position on contraception as a "public crime."

Ruether published her first book dedicated to feminist questions from beginning to end in 1975 - New Woman/New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation, which she recommends as the entry point to her thinking.  The book for which she is best-known, however, is her Sexism and God-talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, in which she goes through every theological category - God, world, Christ, human being, social ethics, church, last things - and goes through their historical development and suggesting further, often radical, changes to the way the categories are conceived now.  A consistent theme of the book is that the oppression of women is linked to the elevation of mind over matter, with women being associated more with the latter.  This diagnosis means that Ruether asserts that Christianity must relinquish the doctrine of life after death.  She favors a return to an older Hebrew conception of salvation as the establishment of a just society within natural limits, rather than an infinite ego-trip beyond the confines of the body.  Her interest in the relation of sexism to the mind-body relation is apparent in her analysis of the ecological crisis in Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing.  Also pertinent for current questions of marriage equality is her book Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family.

Ruether maintains her theological base in Roman Catholicism, which may be surprising to some.  However, she found her theological voice concurrently with the renewal movements of Vatican II.  Being part of that large conversation solidified her sense that the Roman Catholic church is the particular manifestation of Christianity in which she belongs.  She is very clear that much of the history of the church is bad; it is crucial to her thought, however, that one speak from a place of owning limitations, rather than trying to project them onto an Other, so that one can externalize evil.  From her 1967 collection of essays, The Church Against Itself to the more recent Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican, she has argued for the dismantling of the monarchical structure of Roman Catholicism in favor of a democratic polity more in line with the moral vision of the biblical prophets, whose message it is the church's job to transmit.

I'll let her have the last word, in this lecture based on her book America, Amerikkka: Elect Nation and Imperial Violence.

Originally posted to dirkster42 on Mon May 23, 2011 at 04:45 PM PDT.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers, Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, Street Prophets , Spiritual Organization of Unapologetic Liberals at Daily Kos, and Community Spotlight.


I'd like to read one of her books.

67%21 votes
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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for doing this diary (7+ / 0-)

    RRR is one of my favorite writers on religion and feminism. I have her two-volume set on religion and women in America on my feminist shelves.


  •  Calling all volunteers! (9+ / 0-)

    Below is the schedule for the next couple of months with available slots. Remember, as the title of the series implies, you can also choose a favorite book rather than an author.

    May 30 -- plf515, Neal Stephenson
     Jun 6 -- Dom9000, TBA
     Jun 13
     Jun 20 -- Ellid, TBA
     Jun 27
     Jul 4
     Jul 11 -- dweb8231, Peter Hessler
     Jul 18
     Jul 25
     Aug 1
     Aug 8
     Aug 15
     Aug 22
     Aug 29

    All stressed out and no one to choke. -6.00, -6.31

    by billssha on Mon May 23, 2011 at 05:03:07 PM PDT

  •  Wouldn't be easier to just not believe? (6+ / 0-)

    I mean, I'm an atheist.  I don't have to figure how it works with feminism, liberalism or anything else ... it blends naturally.

    I guess some people have a need to believe.  If you're such a person, then this seems like a way.

    But nearly everyone seems to see in religion what they want to see.  Religion (and Christianity in particular) is used to justify EVERYTHING. Slavery and abolitionism; socialism and capitalism; racism and egalitarianism, and on and on.

    Founder Math and Statistics Geeks . Statistics for progressives

    by plf515 on Mon May 23, 2011 at 05:21:57 PM PDT

  •  Ah, your diary takes me back (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dirkster42, radarlady, mapamp, billssha

    to...mid to late 80's, maybe.  I was in seminary by then--but I remember attending a retreat where RRR was the speaker.   I'm UCC, but many women there were nuns --it was during the time when women religious were finding their voice, refusing to grovel to the church hierarchy, and gasp!--doing things like leading worship and serving communion without waiting forever for the priest to appear.

    It was fun and great and pretty mind-blowing.  Looks like I need to do a lot of catch-up reading!

    "Because inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened." -Terry Pratchett

    by revsue on Mon May 23, 2011 at 10:19:21 PM PDT

  •  Republishing (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mapamp, dirkster42, billssha

    to Street Prophets-- again.

  •  I read Sexism & God Talk (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dirkster42, billssha

    Back in the 1980s, along with plenty of other early feminist spirituality/religion books:  When God Was A Woman (which didn't hold up at all, unfortunately), Dreaming the Dark (dated but still very readable), The Gnostic Gospels (still good), and several others.  The only one I could not stand was Mary Daly's Intergalactic Wickedary, most of which was written in her own self-created language and was pretty violently anti-male.#

    Ruether held up well.  Looks like I"ll have to pick up some of her other books.

    #Full disclosure:  I know Daly was a pioneer and Beyond God the Father was an important book.  That doesn't excuse her for junk like the Intergalactic Wickedary.  It also, to my mind, doesn't excuse her refusing to include men in any of her classes; it's one thing to offer courses open only to women as a corrective to sexism, but it's another to keep men out of all one's offerings, especially at a coed school.  If anyone really needs women's studies and the insights the discipline can provide into modern society, it's college-age men.

  •  This may be the stated reason for treatment of (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dirkster42, slksfca, billssha


    .....the oppression of women is linked to the elevation of mind over matter, with women being associated more with the latter.

    Because subjugation always requires some kind of excuse.
    Excuses that  squelch those little twinges of conscience when beating one's wife or piling slaves into the hold of ships like cordwood.

    This one, though, has been used throughout history for every form of subjugation and slavery. "We are good at using our brains; you are useful for labor. We are the beloved of the gods; you are despised by the gods. We are the stuff of the divine; you are the coarsest clay."

    The Egyptians said it to the Hebrews, the Romans said it to everyone their legions could defeat, the Europeans and Americans said it to people around the world, from China to Africa to the American South.

    "God--or the gods--sanctions this."

    It's hardly unigue to Christianity.

    This diagnosis means that Ruether asserts that Christianity must relinquish the doctrine of life after death.

    Now that's a stretch. A big stretch. How about something simpler?  "Woman are real human beings, who like all human beings, should be judged as individuals." And for the religiously inclined: "A woman is as much a child of God as any man."

    Period. No need to give up the hope of heaven.
    (BTW, I'm an agnostic, so this is in no way a believer's defense of heaven.)

    Freedom has two enemies: Those who want to control everyone around them...and those who feel no need to control themselves.

    by Sirenus on Tue May 24, 2011 at 06:50:43 AM PDT

    •  In her book (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      slksfca, billssha

      Liberation Theology, a collection of essays from 1972, she actually goes into how the mind/body dualism is a paradigm for all sorts of forms of oppression.  She's very insistent that gender analysis not be separated from race and class analysis.  One of the reasons she parts ways with Goddess feminists is that she sees that ancient religions with Goddesses legitimated class oppression in the same way that Christianity has legitimated women's oppression.

      On death, she builds her case from various sources, but it's been something that bothered her from her college days.  One of her earliest research projects was looking into the development of the idea of the afterlife in the intertestamental period - it's not really something the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament worries about very much.  She thinks going the afterlife route was a big wrong turn in Western religion.  Most feminist theologians who've written explicitly on the topic agree - Carol Christ and Grace Jantzen come to mind.

      The only feminist religious thinker I know of who incorporates a strong doctrine of the afterlife into her overall picture is the Muslim Amina Wadud, who has a chapter on equality in the hereafter that's integral to her argument that Islam teaches equality of the sexes in Qur'an and Woman: Reading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective.

      If religion means a way of life, and life's necessities are food, clothing, and shelter, then we should not separate religion from economics. - Malcolm X

      by dirkster42 on Tue May 24, 2011 at 07:08:05 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks, Dirk. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dirkster42, billssha, ogre

    For awhile now I've been increasingly obsessed with feminist theology, and everywhere I look RRR seems to be hovering in my peripheral vision, whether via Claremont (I keep a casual eye on developments in their Mormon Studies program) or thanks to Mormon feminist writers like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Carol Lynn Pearson (who's a friend as well, both of my biological and my gay families).


    Anyway, yes, I'd like to read one of Ms. Ruether's books. I recently saw this:

    Ruether, who will remain active with CFC as editorial advisor to Conscience and with other projects, continues to expand her horizons. Today her work is centered on transnational feminism. "The direction I am going in is not only ecumenical Christian but increasingly interested in gathering perspectives across ethnicities and religions. Claremont has one of the few programs that offer a PhD in women and religion and we just celebrated our 20th anniversary. We have Mormons doing feminist studies and trying to do feminism in a way that challenges that tradition and we have more and more Muslims who are doing feminism."

    Ruether has been challenging traditions herself for nearly 50 years. Yet for her it is a joyful journey. "I have had a happy life," she says, in no small measure due to her determination to find ways to express her work and worship outside the confines of institutional Catholicism. "I seek to support and widen the space for that Catholicism," she says, referring to her brand of global, progressive, feminist Catholicism, "and to create as many obstacles as possible for patriarchal Catholicism."

    I like that a lot. :-)

    Thanks for the great post.

    There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed. ~Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

    by slksfca on Tue May 24, 2011 at 08:12:34 AM PDT

    •  Great article! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      And the book I'm editing got a plug!

      If religion means a way of life, and life's necessities are food, clothing, and shelter, then we should not separate religion from economics. - Malcolm X

      by dirkster42 on Tue May 24, 2011 at 08:21:25 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yay! (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        dirkster42, billssha

        I didn't make the connection, having only read that article in full awhile ago.

        p.s. Probably won't fascinate you like it does me, but here's a nice essay by Ulrich (who I've loved ever since I first heard "'Well-behaved women rarely make history") on LDS feminism (with a nod to RRR). Might be worth a quick skim anyway. :-)

        There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed. ~Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

        by slksfca on Tue May 24, 2011 at 08:46:50 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Second attempt - (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          slksfca, billssha

          Not sure why the comment didn't go through the first time, but I forwarded that article to an old roommate who's Mormon.  She'll probably love it.

          If religion means a way of life, and life's necessities are food, clothing, and shelter, then we should not separate religion from economics. - Malcolm X

          by dirkster42 on Tue May 24, 2011 at 09:08:00 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  wow 0h - great diary - thanks - n;t (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Verbal repetitive reinforced Bull S; is MSM weapon of mass destruction!

    by laserhaas on Wed May 25, 2011 at 12:52:33 PM PDT

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