The Joy of Honoring Rosemary Radford Ruether by Dirk von der Horst
A cutting-edge voice in many theological conversations, Rosemary Radford Ruether has been an inspiration to many of us over the last few decades. The tremendous joy of my last couple of years was co-editing a volume of essays in her honor. Even discovering just how dreary indexing is was a labor of love for a true pioneer in feminist theology. The result: Voices of Feminist Liberation: Writings in Celebration of Rosemary Radford Ruether, a collection of fourteen essays by Ruether’s doctoral students, put together by Emily Leah Silverman and Whitney Bauman, along with myself.
Voices of Feminist Liberation documents the current state of her impact and legacy. The richness of her thought is manifest here in the variety of directions her students have taken her insights. While most of the essays are scholarly works that engage her ideas above all else, some essays have more personal recollections. Rosemary’s preface recounts her personal experiences of and with us, with descriptions of incidents from her relationships ranging from hearing a live-in student coming down the hall to slip a paper under the door, to seeing a student’s dissertation prospectus enrage a committee member, to switching from same-sex hand-holding in Palestine to male-female hand-holding in Israel as a small gesture of recognizing cultural difference.
We grouped the book into three broad categories: “The Crucible of Experience and the Life of Dialogue,” “Legacies of Colonialism and Resistance,” and “Angles on Ecofeminism.” Two essays in the first section show how differing aspects of Ruether’s thought are transforming lives in conservative areas of the United States. Dori Baker recounts her practice of doing “girlfriend theology” with adolescent girls in rural Virginia. She describes her specific method of hearing them into speech, guided by three commitments derived from Ruether’s teaching: 1. Naming sexism and patriarchy as a perversion of creation, with which Christian theology has historically colluded and which Christian practice must resist. 2. Freeing practitioners of Christian theology to reclaim submerged portions of tradition. 3. Creating safety zones to name personal experiences as a meaningful starting point for theological reflection. In contrast, Rita Lester describes how Ruether’s understanding of tradition as an argument between various voices provided an opening for her to absorb the shock of some of the newer critical studies in religion that critique any residual theological or confessional stance in the academy. Lester describes how her teaching shifted from a tug between conservative students and a liberal teacher working within a common Christian context to one in which the very category of religion is more problematic, which allowed for a more relaxed interaction without giving up a critical stance. While the distinction is not absolute, we might say that Baker brings Ruether’s theological insights to a conservative culture, whereas Lester brings Ruether’s historical method into a similar conversation.
These pieces are framed by essays by Wanda Deifelt and Emily Silverman, which bring Ruether’s insights to bear on more global questions. While Deifelt and Silverman cast their eyes to a more explicitly political and global perspective, they maintain a deep personalism in their reflections. Ruether’s ease with wedding existential and personal insights with the widest possible political and historical analysis is manifest here, as well as in the next section, “Legacies of Colonialism and Resistance.”
This second section of the book is most meaningful to me personally because I came to Ruether during a time of being intensely involved in Latin American solidarity efforts, especially with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador and to a lesser extent the Free Puerto Rico! Committee. I will never forget reading Ruether’s Liberation Theology in the CISPES office and feeling like so many pieces were finally coming together. In this respect, Shelley Wiley’s piece on Vodou is an immensely important piece for understanding Ruether’s writing because she highlights Ruether’s early engagement with the post-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon. Reading Ruether in connection with Fanon brings the extent of her radicalism to the surface of her work. Similarly, Jennifer Hughes describes her collaborations with Ruether in teaching Bartolome de las Casas as well as highlighting the legacy of another intellectual foremother, Helen Rand Parish. In this section the tension between suffering and healing, oppression and liberation is handled from various angles. Diane Capitani explores how twentieth-century Latin American and Caribbean literature gives voice to a “suffering Christ” who negates the claims of imperial Christianity. These paradoxes reach their high point by the end of the section in the contrast between Andrea Giovannoni’s descriptions of torture policy and the insistence on dangerous memory of suffering and Nancy Pineda-Madrid’s elaboration of redemption in a Latina understanding. By diving deep into actual praxis and experience, all of the essays in this section dissolve traditional impasses of classical theology into existential transformations of human action.
The final section of the book turns to the pressing questions of ecofeminism. As the predictions about the effects global warming grow ever more dire and the effects therof begin to make themselves felt, it is an urgent task to ways of bringing ecological concerns front and center of our religious reflections and our political efforts. After Stephanie Mitchem offers a general overview of Ruether’s work in the ecological metaphor of making the world “home,” Sarah Robinson turns to a comparison of Ruether with the Islamic theologian Seyyid Hossein Nasr and where their views on the centrality of ecology to religion intersect. B. Teresa de Grace-Morris offers a theological reading of the novels and essays of Alice Walker through the lens of various shifts Ruether sees as necessary to transform patriarchal religion. Whitney Bauman concludes with a more philosophical perspective linking critiques of the idea of “nature” in postmodern science and Ruether’s theology.
As I read through these essays, the richness and variety of Ruether’s thought was again apparent. Ruether accessible and clear writing style often masks the extent of the complexity of her thought. Here, in a prismatic array of feminist, anti-colonial, and ecological resistance, that full complexity comes to the surface. The intellectual and the activist, the historical and the theological, and the political and the spiritual all come together in various ways throughout this book. It has been an honor to be able to honor Ruether in this way.
Dirk von der Horst is a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union, where he is working on revising his dissertation as ‘Jonathan’s Loves, David’s Laments: Gay Theology, Musical Desires, and Historical Difference.’ He recently co-edited with Emily Leah Silverman and Whitney Bauman, ‘Voices of Feminist Liberation: Writings in Celebration of Rosemary Radford Ruether.’ Dirk can be followed on Twitter @DirkvonderHorst.