A Life Lived for Justice: Rosemary Radford Ruether

(RNS) — How does a force of nature stop? This is the question I find myself wrestling with following news of the death of Catholic feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether on Saturday, May 21.

Ruether has had a profound influence on my life since I was 18 or 19, serving on the board of the Solidarity Committee with the People of El Salvador and reading his first book, “Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American power”. “I remember, while reading, feeling an electrifying relief when many of my intellectual, political, and spiritual questions were resolved. The setting is important; Ruether’s theology is rooted in activism and she has given me the bridge between the religious and activist sides of my life.

Later, I had the honor of studying with her at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, and she served on my doctoral committee at Claremont Graduate University. Ruether’s constant vitality was not only apparent in her prolific output – for periods of her life she published a book or two a year – but in a momentum that simply radiated from her personality and made her classes fly by. . His unwavering sense of humor often graced his writings and was evident in the laughter that regularly graced his speech. Everything about her tended towards the integration of critical thought and lived experience.

Ruether was one of the most important theologians, not only of the 20th century, but of the entire Christian tradition. His 47 books cover topics from the early church to examinations of Christian anti-Semitism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the nature of US history, the environmental crisis, the mental health profession and, well, course, the discovery of women’s contributions to religion and her pioneering work in feminist theology. In her books, she wrote with such clear prose that she often masked the depth of the complexity of her thought.

Ruether went to college to study visual arts, and when I asked her how her background in visual arts had impacted her theology, she replied that painting had trained her to “see things in their together”. His method often started from the diagnosis of a present injustice. From there, she would paint a picture bringing together all of “Western” history from ancient Sumer to the present day into one cohesive story.

She came to the story with a deep sense that we have a responsibility to repair the legacy of her horrors, so her stories generally reflected a critical look at the strands she was able to do something about and left room for others to add their stories. and prospects for a larger picture. If his stories recap the building of “the West,” they do so in a way that is chastised by his early experiences in the civil rights movement and subsequent activism, as well as a deep dialogue with voices from all parts of the globe.

Her arguments often revolved around the phrase “we need”: what she wanted theology to do was support communities and provide tools to move forward towards a world in which the promises of equality and justice for everybody are realized. She summarized his own approach as a dialectical methodology that “wants to be both radical and catholic in such a way that the radical side is not only an ‘attack’, but the critical word of the tradition itself to judge it, transform it and renew it from new and more humanizing way for all of us.”

Rosemary Radford Ruether talks about writing one of her books in 2010. Video screenshot via Fortress Press

Ruether drew this dialectical methodology largely from biblical prophets, drawing the lesson that criticism must be primarily communal self-criticism. She had a deep ability to maintain a commitment to stay with communities, even as she constantly sought out the sharpest critical perspective she could find.

Her concept of “Women-Church” described how she understood her work as a Roman Catholic feminist as a dialectic between a commitment to the reform of a larger community and the creation of counter-spaces for independent voices to nominate experiences in undefined terms. by the dominant community.

A story shared by a faculty member at an event at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary illustrates what I call the “critical fidelity” that Ruether’s life and work have shaped. During a faculty boat trip on Lake Michigan, the wind stopped dead, leaving the sailboat motionless. While everyone waited for the wind to pick up, Rosemary rowed a small boat in circles around the sailboat. The laughs that greeted this story expressed recognition of the correctness of this metaphor – Ruether refused to both abandon flawed religious communities and play on their terms.

Ruether’s passing is a sharp reminder of a central lesson in his theology: there is no achieving justice once and for all, but each generation must figure out for itself how to rebalance relationships that have fallen into disrepair. distorted and unfair patterns.

It modeled a pursuit of justice that was both more rigorous and less moralistic than many of the efforts I see today.

I will admit to feeling a bit lost and bewildered without the sense that she is “there” to turn to for guidance in our current crises of gun violence, wars of aggression, threats to sexual freedoms and the constant buzz of impending environmental collapse. But, of course, she is still “there” in her publications, the legacies that her students perpetuate and, above all, in the changes triggered by the social movements of which she was a part.

Ruether was one of the feminist voices that diagnosed the hope for personal immortality as a form of male selfishness. Like the Psalmist, who declares that God is among the living and not among the dead, she reminded us that our spirituality must let go of the question “what will happen to me” and focus on our life together.

To that end, I invite you to remember Ruether by finding, engaging, and humanizing the fight for justice wherever you can.

(Dirk von der Horst is a professor of religious studies at Mount St. Mary’s University in Los Angeles. He is co-editor of “Voices of Feminist Liberation: Writings in Honor of Rosemary Radford Ruether.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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