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.