Rosemary Radford Ruether

From New World Encyclopedia

Rosemary Radford Ruether (born 1936) is an influential feminist scholar and theologian. She is considered a pioneer in the area of feminist theology, whose works helped stimulate a major reevaluation of Christian thought in light of women's issues. It was Reuther who coined the term God/dess to express the inadequacy of the traditionally male-dominated language of theology.

Her book Sexism and God-Talk became a classic text for its systematic treatment of the Judeo-Christian tradition from the standpoint of feminism. A prolific writer, she has dealt with diverse topics, including, the roots of antisemitism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, patristics, women in American religion, liberation theology, Mesopotamian mythology, and ecology.

An advocate of women's ordination and abortion rights, Reuther has expressed disappointment in the accession of Pope Benedict XVI's to the Holy See. She has also been an outspoken critic of war since the Vietnam era and continues this work today in opposition to United States policy in many areas of international affairs.

Reuther has taught in several prestigious academic institutions and has been a contributing editor to Christianity and Crisis and The Ecumenist. She is the author and editor of many books on feminism, the Bible, and Christianity, including Sexism and God-Talk, The Church Against Itself, and In Our Own Voices: Four Centuries of American Women’s Religious Writing.

Early years

Ruether was born in 1936 in Georgetown, Texas, to a Catholic mother and Episcopalian father, but was raised as a Catholic. She describes her upbringing as free-thinking, ecumenical, and humanistic. Ruether's father died when she was 12 and afterward Ruether and her mother moved to California.

Ruether earned her B.A. in Philosophy from Scripps College (1958). While attending college she married Herman Ruether. She went on to receive her M.A. in Ancient History (1960) and a Ph.D. in Classics and Patristics (1965) from Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, California.

After completing her studies, Ruether joined the civil rights movement, working both in Mississippi and Washington D.C. Her concern with the problem of racism was further developed during her first decade as a teacher, at the historically black Howard University School of Religion (1966-1976). There, she became immersed in the literature of liberation theology and also involved herself actively in anti-Vietnam War movement, not hesitating to spend time in jail to dramatize her beliefs.


Intellectually, Ruether embraced the history-of-religions approach to the study of religion and the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation. However, she remained a member of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, her first book, The Church Against Itself (1967) strongly criticized Catholic doctrine, and many of her other early publications attacked traditional Catholic views of sexuality.


For Ruether, the Ground of All Being may be said to be the Cosmic Womb which generates all things. She argued that the biblical tradition suppressed the femininity of God, but could not ultimately escape it. God cannot be truly said to be either masculine or feminine, something at which the biblical authors themselves sensed in their critique of idolatry. Reuther coined the term "God/ess" both as a critique of male-dominated theological language and to emphasize that we in fact possess no adequate name for God.

Ruether's emphasized the immanence of "God/ess" as opposed to the transcendence of the patriarchal sky deity. For her, God provides humans with hope for transformation but cannot intervene to save us if we do not act on our own behalf.

Christ as a liberator for women

In her attitude toward Jesus, Reuther begins not with creed of the Church but with the Jewish concept of the Messiah. In Faith and Fratricide (1974) she examined the conflict between Jewish and Christian attitudes and how these played out in the tragic history of the Church's treatment of the Jews. By insisting on its own understanding of the definition and purpose of of the Messiah, she argued, the church's christology evolved along anti-Jewish lines. The social expression of Christian theology expressed itself socially in anti-Jewish riots and intellectually in centuries of writings by the Church Fathers "against the Jews." Reuther argued that, to rid itself of its anti-semitic tendency, the church must radically re-examine its christology. Particularly, Christians must no longer expect Jews to accept Jesus as their Messiah.

Reuther turned an equally critical eye to the tradition of patriarchy in the Church, as well as in the society of Ancient Israel. She argued for a new "feminist christology," applying the concept of demythologization to strip the concept of Christ from its "traditional masculine imagery." For her, the Jesus of the synoptic gospels is an utterly iconoclastic prophet who aimed at establishing a new social order, not only in terms of justice and righteousness, but also in terms of gender relations.

Reformulating God-talk

Reuther's most influential book was Sexism and God-Talk, a systematic analysis of Christian symbolism from a feminist perspective. Taking a dialectical approach, she did not hesitate to appropriate ideas from traditions which patriarchal theology came to disown. She thus dared to include ideas from ancient near-eastern polytheistic religion, classical "pagan" tradition, "heretical" Christian teachings, and the post-Christian literature of liberalism and Marxism, as well as Judeo-Christian scripture and "orthodox" Christian theology.

Regarding sin and salvation, for Reuther, sin is essentially a distorted relationship with God/dess, another human being, the earth, or even oneself. Sin is overcome by a radical change of heart, so that the values and vision of Jesus are placed at the center of one's life, and also are adopted by one's community. Salvation does not lie in some future eschatological kingdom but begins on earth in the here and now. The realization of God's kingdom involves bridging the gap between "what is and what could be." Humans must commit themselves ceaselessly to work to be in a right relationship with God/dess, each other, and the natural world.


Another emphasis in Ruether's work is the ecological crisis. Beginning with a critique of the biblical concept of human "dominion," she moves to a analysis of the liberal concept of "progress" as essentially flawed. Marxism rightly recognized that education and political reform alone cannot solve the problem, but it failed to see that the expansion of the global economy cannot continue indefinitely due to the problems of overpopulation and an ultimate scarcity of land and resources. The romantic ideal of a "return to nature," on the other hand, tends to idealize primitive societies which were both exploitative and unhealthy.

Reuther finds a new model in the concept of the biblical Jubilee, a periodic suspension of debts and farming to return the social and natural world to harmony. Rather than a linear attitude toward history, she suggests continual efforts and perhaps periodic upheavals within historical circumstances that are not always possible to predict.

Recent work and controversy

In addition to her ongoing work as a teacher and writer, Reuther has continued to speak out on various political, social, and ecclesiastical issues. Since 1985 she has served as a board member for the abortion rights group "Catholics for Choice" (CFC). She has continued to write on the subject of Christian antisemitism while at the same time taking a highly critical attitude toward Israel's policy regarding the Palestinians. She has also been an outspoken opponent of United State policy in the wake of the 9-11 attacks.

In 2008, the Catholic University of San Diego Department of Theology and Religious Studies stated its intention to elect Ruether as its chair in Roman Catholic Theology for the 2009-2010 academic year. This decision was subsequently rescinded when members of the campus community protested that her academic work was incompatible with the Catholic faith.

In the run-up to the 2008 United States presidential campaign, Reuther defended Reverend Jeremiah Wright for his infamous sermon in which he declared "God damn America!" Reuther wrote that Wright's speech was squarely within the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible, in which the nation would indeed be damned by God for unrighteous behavior. "For many Americans, the phrase 'God damn' is bad language and should not be heard from the pulpit," Reuther said. "To say 'God damn America' is to commit the supreme sin of anti-Americanism. They fail to remember that such words are an integral part of the biblical tradition."[1]


Internationally acclaimed as a theologian, church historian, teacher, and writer, Rosemary Reuther has been a major voice in promoting a feminist critique of traditional theology. Her methodology of using historical-critical analysis to go beyond the patriarchal attitudes of the Hebrew Bible and the theology of the Church Fathers opened the way for the creation of a non-gender-biased theology in the new millennium. Her works have stimulated countless responses and developments both within the Catholic community, the Christian world generally, and other faith traditions as well. Regardless of what one thinks of her stands on political issues, her remarkable contribution to theology makes her one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.

The author of nearly 500 articles and more than 30 books, among her best known works are: The Church Against Itself (1967); Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power (1972); Religion and Sexism: Images of Women in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (1974); New Woman/New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation (1975); and Mary - the Feminine Face of the Church (1977). Other works she as written, edited, or contributed to include: Faith and Fratricide: The Theoretical Roots of Anti-Semitism (1979); To Change the World: Christology and Cultural Criticism (1981), Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (1983); Woman-Church: Theology and Practice of Feminist Liturgical Communities (1986); The Wrath of Jonah (1989); Contemporary Roman Catholicism: Crises and Challenges (1987); Disputed Questions: On Being a Christian (1989); and Gaia & God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (1992).

See also


ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Althaus-Reid, Marcella, and Lisa Isherwood. Controversies in Feminist Theology. London: SCM Press, 2007. ISBN 9780334040507
  • Ansell, Nicholas John. "The Woman Will Overcome the Warrior": A Dialogue with the Christian/Feminist Theology of Rosemary Radford Ruether. Lanham: University Press of America, 1994. ISBN 9780819195463
  • Bouma-Prediger, Steven. The Greening of Theology: The Ecological Models of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joseph Sittler, and Juergen Moltmann. American Academy of Religion academy series, no. 91. Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Press, 1995. ISBN 9780788501647
  • Griffith, Colleen M. Prophetic Witness: Catholic Women's Strategies for the Church. New York: Crossroad Pub. Co, 2009. ISBN 9780824525262
  • Ramsay, William M. Four Modern Prophets: Walter Rauschenbusch, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gustavo Gutiérrez, Rosemary Radford Ruether. Atlanta, Ga: John Knox Press, 1986. ISBN 9780804208116
  • Snyder, Mary Hembrow. The Christology of Rosemary Radford Ruether: A Critical Introduction. Mystic, Conn: Twenty-Third Publications, 1988. ISBN 9780896223585
  • Vaughan, Judith. Sociality, Ethics, and Social Change: A Critical Appraisal of Reinhold Niebuhr's Ethics in the Light of Rosemary Radford Ruether's Works. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983. ISBN 9780819131010
  • Watson, Natalie K. Feminist Theology. Guides to theology. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2003. ISBN 9780802848284


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