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Ruether, Rosemary Radford


Rosemary Radford Ruether (1936- ) (Grant D. Miller Francisco, 1999)

Rosemary Radford Ruether: Mann's Quick Notes (Mark Mann, 1997)

See: Feminist Theology: Rosemary Radford Ruether/Sallie McFague (Rolf Bouma, 1997)

Rosemary Radford Ruether (1936- )

Grant D. Miller Francisco, 1999


Rosemary Radford Ruether has been a pioneer Christian feminist theologian for over three decades, and among the most widely read feminist theologians in North America. Her book, Sexism and God-Talk, a classic in the field of feminist theology, remains the only systematic feminist treatment of the Christian symbols to date. To categorize her as a feminist theologian, however, is to risk neglecting the broad scope of her interests. With wide-ranging scholarship and a penchant for finding the hidden connections among seemingly disparate fields, Ruether has written and edited close to twenty books and hundreds of articles and reviews. She is seemingly at home in such diverse fields as patristics, the historical and theological roots of anti-Semitism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the history of women in American religion, liberation theology, the mythology of the Ancient Near East, and ecology. Currently she teaches at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.


It is Ruether's ability to trace the connections among apparently disparate fields which in part makes her such a rewarding figure to study. The seeds of this comprehensive vision were sown during the course of her education and her engagement in political struggle.

Ruether grew up in Georgetown, the daughter of a Catholic mother and an Episcopalian father. She describes her childhood milieu as religiously ecumenical, humanistic and free-thinking as opposed to a parochial or 'ghettoized' Catholicism (WR, 221). Her father died when she was twelve; she and her mother then moved to California, where her primary role models were women. She attended Scripps College as an undergraduate (1954-58), originally intending to study art. She soon switched to classics, however, under the influence of a charismatic professor, Robert Palmer. Palmer, an avowed atheist, was imbued with the spirit of Greek and Roman classical culture, and under his tutelage Ruether absorbed the philosophy and history of classical antiquity. Palmer's dictum, "first the god, then the dance, and finally the story," would shape Ruether's own understanding of dogma as a third step removed from theophany (1990, 125-26). Curious about the development of the concept of an afterlife, she wrote an honors thesis on the transition from futurism to apocalypticism in the intertestamental Jewish apocalyptic literature.

During her last year of college she married Herman Ruether. The two of them forged an egalitarian marriage, pursuing their studies together -- he in political science, she in the social and intellectual history of Christian thought -- and finding time to raise three children. Completing an MA in classics and Roman history, she moved on to a doctorate in classics and patristics, both at the School of Theology at Claremont, writing her dissertation on Gregory of Nazianzus. Ruether fully embraced both the history-of-religions approach -- using her knowledge of the classical world as a context for understanding Christianity -- and the historical-critical method as applied to biblical interpretation. At the same time, she developed a relative preference for certain aspects of the Hebraic religious vision which would figure prominently in her development of a prophetic dialectic (DQ, 29-35).

In her mid-twenties, Ruether emerged from academic seclusion to become involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, first in Mississippi, then in Washington D.C. In the summer of 1965, she worked for the Delta Ministry in Mississippi, which opened her eyes to the realities of racism and the struggle for justice in the African American community. This experience was deepened during her first ten years of teaching at the Howard University School of Religion (1966-76), a predominantly African American seminary in Washington, D.C. There she was exposed to the emerging literature of black liberation theology. During her time in Washington she also became involved with the peace movement, participating in countless marches and demonstrations, often spending time in jail with other radical Catholics and Protestants.

Ruether, unlike other radical feminists such as Mary Daly, did not leave the church, perhaps in part due to the friendships she was able to forge with Catholic activists and thinkers (Thomas Merton and Gregory Baum among others) during the post-Vatican II period of the 1960s and 70s. At the same time, Ruether directed her critical energies inward toward the church as well as outward: her first book, The Church Against Itself (1967) was a critique of the doctrine of the church. Growing out of her own experiences as a mother, many of her first feminist writings in the mid-60s criticized Catholic views of sexuality and reproduction.

These two poles of Ruether's life -- on the one hand an intellectual grounding in the historical-critical sociology of knowledge, a familiarity with the texts of classical antiquity, the patristic period and of early Judaism, and on the other hand political engagement with issues of race, class, gender, and ecology -- came into creative tension and began issuing in a steady stream of publications. One of the issues to which Ruether turned her attention early in her career was the relationship between Christology and anti-Semitism.


Ruether's christological reflections are illustrative of her approach to theological issues in general. She begins, not with the confession of the Church, but with the Jewish understanding of the Messiah and its origins in Ancient Near Eastern kingship and New Year rituals (DQ, 49). Her critique of classical Christology has its roots in her BA thesis on Jewish apocalyptic literature. Reading this body of literature, she was struck by the gap between what Judaism meant by "Messiah" and what she understood the Catholic church to mean by the word "Christ" (DQ, 46). In the late 60s and early 70s, Ruether explored the implications of this discontinuity, first in an unpublished manuscript, and then developed further in Faith and Fratricide (1974).

Ruether argues that Christians appropriated Jewish messianic language, applied it to Jesus, and then emptied it of its original meaning, replacing it with the idea of a divine savior, all the while retaining the title Christ (Messiah) and claiming to hold the true understanding of the Messiah as over and against the Jewish understanding. Appropriation became expropriation. The notion of a fulfilled messianism became the foundation for Christianity's ideological/imperial universalism. Anti-Judaism and Christology both developed as exegetical traditions within early Christianity, or more precisely, anti-Judaism developed as the negative side of the early Church's christological hermeneutic: "Theologically, anti-Judaism developed as the left hand of christology" (TCW, 31). Because it had to assert its own interpretation of the messiah over and against the Jewish interpretation, classical Christology became intimately intertwined with the Church's anti-Judaic rhetoric. The Jews represent Christianity's "shadow side" which must be repressed. This anti-Judaic rhetoric, which is expressed socially as anti-Semitism, continues in the Patristic adversus Judaeos tradition, indeed in the entire history of the Christian church up to the present day.

Because anti-Judaism is intimately intertwined with the christological hermeneutic of the early church, the only way to purge it is to radically reconceive Christology along two lines: (1) faith in Jesus as the Christ must be understood as proleptic and anticipatory rather than final and fulfilled; and (2) Christology must be understood paradigmatically rather than exclusivistically: "The cross and the resurrection are contextual to a particular historical community" (TCW, 43). Jesus is not paradigmatic for the Jews. Ruether sees this as the only way to overcome a supersessionist Christology.

While messianism was the initial lens through which Ruether approached christology, she soon expanded her focus to include feminist and ecological concerns. In Ruether's analysis, the development of classical Christology mirrors the establishment of Christianity as the imperial religion of a Christian Roman Empire: "Just as the Logos of God governs the cosmos, so the Christian Roman Emperor, together with the Christian Church, governs the political universe; masters govern slaves and men govern women" (SGT, 125). The patriarchalization of the church goes hand in hand with the patriarchalization of Christology.

Rejecting the development of classical Christology, with its baptism of a patriarchal, hierarchical imperialism, as a dead-end, Ruether argues that the starting point for a feminist christology must be a reencounter with the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels: "Once the mythology about Jesus as Messiah or divine Logos, with its traditional masculine imagery, is stripped off, the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels can be recognized as a figure remarkably compatible with feminism" (SGT, 135). This Jesus is an iconoclastic prophet who proclaims the reversal of the social order, a reversal which does not simply introduce new inequalities, but which aims at "a new reality in which hierarchy and dominance are overcome as principles of social relations." Jesus speaks a liberating Word which disrupts the patriarchal structuring of society with its entrenched relations of hierarchy, dominance, and oppression; in this sense, Jesus can be understood as the "kenosis of patriarchy" (SGT, 136).


Ruether is not a philosophical theologian. Topics such as ontology or epistemology receive scant attention in her work. Instead, she approaches theological statements symbolically. Here we see the influence of her teacher Robert Palmer, who opened up to her the meaning of religious symbols as "living metaphors of human existence" (B, 41). Understood as metaphors of human existence, theological symbols can reveal inner contradictions and distortions:

In my histories the magnitude of the human contradiction is writ large on a vast canvas through which one can contemplate the archeological layers of consciousness and grapple with the world-wide implications of an imperial history that today encounters its final contradiction. In this history one can not stand aside, blaming others. One must take responsibility for a long sweep of historical evil, but also draw out many memories of insight when that redeeming alternative, which still eludes us in its fullness, touched the earth (B, 55-56).

Ruether's method can thus be variously described as social criticism, cultural criticism or ideology critique. Speaking of her systematic treatment of the Christian symbols in Sexism and God-Talk, she indicates that she seeks to "recapitulate from a feminist, critical perspective [the] journey of Western consciousness" (SGT, 45). Such a recapitulation is dialectical, as it brings to light repressed elements of the tradition and seeks to move beyond to them to new syntheses which can integrate both poles of the dualism: Yahweh and Baal, Christ and Moses, Wittenberg and Rome. This dialectical movement came to Ruether, not from reading Hegel, but from trying to understand her experience of the clash between the world of antiquity and the world of biblical faith (B, 44).

The critical norm of this dialectic is the prophetic strand of biblical faith, exemplified by the Hebrew Prophets as well as by Jesus's critique of the dominant systems of power, his vindication of the oppressed, and his vision of the coming reign of God. With respect to feminism, this critical norm functions in a very simple way: that which promotes women's full humanity is authentic, while that which does not promote it is inauthentic. Using this critical norm, Ruether seeks to draw a 'usable tradition' from five areas of the Western cultural tradition: from Scripture, from marginalized or 'heretical' Christian traditions, from the dominant stream of classical Christian theology, from the 'pagan' tradition of the Ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome, and from critical post-Christian world views (liberalism, romanticism, Marxism). None of these sources are pure. Even the various forms of the contemporary feminist movement are subject to criticism. But together they offer alternative glimpses or intimations of what the full humanity of women might look like.


One example of Ruether's critical dialectic at work is her naming of the divine. She begins by retrieving those elements of the Ancient Near Eastern traditions which were suppressed by the monotheistic religion of the Hebrew people. She recovers the image of the divine as the Primal Matrix, the womb within which all things are generated, the Ground of Being. While it suppressed these images, the biblical tradition nevertheless understands God as liberating sovereign. Its critique of idolatry means that the divine must be understood as both male and female, and yet neither male nor female. Scripture enriches our understanding of the divine with female images and metaphors. God/ess is Ruether's neologism which signifies that we as yet have no adequate name for the divine, yet "Intimations of Her/His name will appear as we emerge from false naming of God/ess modeled on patriarchal alienation" (SGT, 71).

Ruether's emphasis on God/ess as the Primal Matrix affirms the immanence of God over and against the patriarchal God 'up there in the sky.' "God is not a 'being' removed from creation, ruling it from outside in the manner of a patriarchal ruler; God is the source of being that underlies creation and grounds its nature and future potential for continual transformative renewal in biophilic mutuality" (WR, 223). God is the ground of our hope in the struggle for transformation. But God cannot intervene to save us despite ourselves. An open question is whether Ruether is able to adequately maintain the balance between the immanence and the transcendence of God/ess.


A major emphasis within Ruether's oeuvre is the contemporary ecological crisis. Her typological thinking, her predilection for the prophetic strand of biblical faith, and her ability to generate suggestive images for transformation all come across in her treatment of this issue. In To Change the World, she insightfully points out the connection between our destruction of the environment and the structures of social domination. She then briefly sketches three failed responses to this problem: the liberal, the Marxist, and the romantic.

According to Ruether, the liberal progressive response to the growing problems caused by industrialization and overpopulation is a vision of infinitely expanding progress. Through education and technology, science will eventually eliminate the side-effects of providing an ever-increasing standard of living. What the advocates of this solution fail to realize is that these 'side-effects' are themselves the very foundations of expansion. Expansion and progress benefit those with the power to exploit, while the situation of the exploited worsens. The Marxist response recognizes that progress is predicated on the domination of labor. Thus it proposes a social revolution of ownership once the engines of progress are in place, effectively ending social domination while harnessing the power of progress. Nevertheless, the Marxist shares with the liberal the same basic presupposition: the possibility of continual expansion. Finally, the romantic reaction challenges this presupposition. Its solution is to reject technological rationality and industrialization in order to bring about a 'return to nature.' It idealizes the victims of social domination (women, peasants, Indians) as possessing the secrets to living in harmony with nature. A mythical and utopian pre-industrial society (matriarchy, tribal societies) becomes the ideal. But ultimately, the romantic vision becomes personalistic and escapist, rather than a creative attempt to reconstruct the relationships of social and natural domination.

Ruether wants to affirm the genuine insights of each of these three responses while grounding them in a more coherent 'ecological-libertarian' world view which can guide effective action. Such a view entails an acceptance of finitude and limits. The earth cannot sustain infinite expansion; nor is it possible to return to a mythic age of innocence, or to accept a static-state society which sanctions the current social inequalities. Instead, Ruether offers us an image of conversion as an alternative to the flawed liberal, Marxist, and romantic solutions: "We need a fundamentally different model of human hope and change. I suggest conversion rather than either infinite growth or a final revolution" (TCW, 68). Ruether links her model with the biblical Jubilee, God's periodic restoration of harmony to a social world out of balance. She suggests that we understand social change as 'conversion back to the center.' This model is not escapist. It recognizes that the distinction between nature and history is not a simple dualism: "The return to harmony in the covenant of creation is not a matter of cyclical return to the same, for each new achievement of workable balances is different, based on new environments and technologies" (TCW, 69). There is thus room in Ruether's model for genuine creative development without the necessity for infinite expansion. In contrast to a linear view of history, her model suggests a continual need to work for justice within ever-changing historical circumstances.


Ruether shows no signs of slowing. For instance, she has continued to write on the subject of Christian anti-Semitism. At the same time, recognition of the deep-seated roots of anti-Semitism in Christian thought and practice has not prevented her from being highly critical of Israel's current policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In The Wrath of Jonah, co-written with her husband, she explores the historical roots of Zionism, the efforts to establish a Jewish state, the development of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Christian responses to all three. More recently she has become even more involved in work for Palestinian human rights, traveling to Israel and Palestine, and editing two further volumes focusing on the Intifada (Beyond Occupation and Faith and the Intifada), attempting to foster dialogue among Israelis, Palestinians, and American Jews and Christians.

Ruether's vision is remarkably holistic. As I have tried to indicate, her work encompasses diverse fields of knowledge. Indeed, one wonders at times if her scholarship can keep pace with the ambitious agenda she has set for herself. Nevertheless, rooted in an ecumenical vision of Christianity, Ruether's prophetic iconoclastic critique of racism, sexism, classicism, ecological destruction -- of oppression and domination in all its forms -- has continued to break new ground for women, and for Christian theologians generally. Even as they strive to both deepen and go beyond her work, the next generation of feminists are indebted to her as both a model and a mentor.



Selected Primary Works

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Gregory of Nazianzus: Rhetor and Philosopher. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.

"Beginnings: An Intellectual Autobiography" in Journeys: The Impact of Personal Experience on Religious Thought, ed. Gregory Baum, New York: Paulist Press, 1975. [Abbreviated B]

To Change the World. New York: Crossroad, 1981. [Abbreviated TCW]

Disputed Questions: On Being a Christian (Nashville: Abingdon, 1982). [Abbreviated DQ]

Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983. [Abbreviated SGT]

Women-Church: Theology and Practice of Feminist Liturgical Communities. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.

"Robert Palmer: First the God, Then the Dance," Christian Century (Feb. 7-14, 1990), 125-26.

Gaia & God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992.

Women and Redemption: A Theological History. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998. [Abbreviated WR]

Ruether, Rosemary Radford and Herman J. Ruether. The Wrath of Jonah: The Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989.

Edited Works

With Marc H. Ellis. Beyond Occupation: American Jewish, Christian, and Palestinian Voices for Peace. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.

With Naim S. Ateek and Marc H. Ellis. Faith and the Intifada: Palestinian Christian Voices. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1992.

Selected Secondary Sources

Bouma-Prediger, Steven, The Greening of Theology: The Ecological Models of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joseph Sittler, and Jürgen Moltmann. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995.

Chopp, Rebecca, "Seeing and Naming the World Anew: The Works of Rosemary Radford Ruether," Religious Studies Review 15.1 (January, 1989), 8-11.

--------. "Feminist and Womanist Theologies" in The Modern Theologians, 2nd ed., ed. by David F. Ford (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 389-404.

Snyder, Mary Hembrow. The Christology of Rosemary Radford Ruether: A Critical Introduction. Mystic, Connecticut: Twenty-Third Publications, 1988.

--------. "Rosemary Radford Ruether" in A New Handbook of Christian Theologians. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 399-410.

Rosemary Radford Ruether: Mann's Quick Notes

Mark Mann, 1997


Grew up in a devout yet liberal/ecumencial Catholic home; from her mother gained a belief that God is the matriarchal ground of being

Purpose of Theology: to engage human beings through critical dialogue, prayer, and reflective social action, in a continuing compassionate commitment to the healing and liberation of all humans and the earth. Given the patriarchal nature of traditional theology, there are three movements to this:

  1. A critique of sexism, androcentrism, and mysogyny
  2. A recovery of alternative traditions that affirm autonomy and full personhood of women, etc
  3. A reconstruction of the whole edifice of Christian theology with whole personhood of women at its very center of its self-understanding (such a theology will be pluralistic and ecological)


  1. Critiques dualism: is two-dimensional, fostering ideological deformation of reality that culminates in such evils as racism, sexism, etc.
  2. Advocates dialectical thinking: which is multi-dimensional, exploring other sides and perspectives
  3. Denounces evil or critiques injustice
  4. Affirms what has been neglected or recovers positive aspects within the tradition
  5. Forges a new synthesis

Sources and Norms

  1. Hebrew and Christian Scriptures
  2. Delegitimated texts from "heretical" traditions
  3. Principle themes of three main Christian traditions
  4. Religious and philosophical ideas from great world religions
  5. Critical post- Christian perspectives (viz. Marxism, liberalism and romanticism)


  1. The divine empowering matrix, the Singular Reality manifested in many ways and historical context, to be found in all of the religions and intended to account for the experiences of everyone (even the nonhuman)
  2. When God primarily made into parent or teacher it leaves us infantile


  1. Largely unconcerned with metaphysics here (critical of Chalcedon), she is more interested in praxis
  2. She denounces historical and apolitcal claims about Jesus
  3. She denounces exclusivistic Christologies that have caused suffering for non- Christians
  4. She denounces mysogynistic Christologies that have been used to degrade women, particularly any that equate Jesus’ maleness with maleness being normative for humanity
  5. She denounces humanocentric Christologies that have been used to pillage the earth, she wishes to view Christ lordship in terms of servanthood


  1. Traditional Christian anthropology has been patriarchal, women depicted as inferior to men and responsible for the Fall, and therefore needing to be ruled by men
  2. Maleness and Femaleness exist foremost as specialized roles in reproduction (all persons are probably bisexual as infants)
  3. The key to right relationships (sexual, et al) is that they be mutual, faithful, committed, and seek the wholeness of each partner


  1. Sin primarily a distorted view of what it means to be in relationship to another (whether the other is oneself, God/ess, earth, etc.)
  2. Sin arose because individuals were and are socialized into roles predicated on domination and oppression and taught that these roles are right
  3. Christians must overcome sin by a change of heart so deep that the values and vision of Jesus becomes the center of one’s life and community


  1. There is no futuristic final even beyond history that will fix everything wrong with the world, Jesus kingdom began on earth
  2. Hope for salvation must be rooted in active participation in the struggles to bridge the gap between what is and what could be
  3. Persons must be committed to metanoia: a ceaseless willingness to enter into right relations

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