Yet another of my great feminist and spiritual teachers has died. Rosemary Radford Ruether, ecofeminist Catholic theologian, died on May 21st. Her work challenged my thinking and gave me new understandings and perspectives. She was a prolific writer, authoring hundreds of articles and 36 books, and was the quintessential scholar and historian of world religions and ecofeminist thought and theologies. A scholar of the scholastics, she examined the three strains of Western thought: the Hebraic tradition; Platonic-Gnostic; and Pauline-Augustinian in all their complexities to develop an understanding of the nature of Western thought and its implications for the domination of women, nature, and colonized others. As she described her own approach, she drew out the contradictions and complexities in these theologies, careful “to see both negative and positive aspects . . . and to be skeptical of exclusivist views on either side.”[i] Her thought and writing was ever-expanding, and always striving “to see the dominant system of patriarchy, including its racism, classism, and colonialism, in critical perspective,” and to put herself “in places where in solidarity with its victims, I can see it from its underside.”[ii]To this end, she brought together the ecofeminist theologies of women from around the globe, particularly the global south.[iii] Her thought also grew to include critiques of militarism and corporate globalization. Needless to say, I cannot begin to encompass all of her contributions here. So I will focus on the ways her thought has most deeply influenced and inspired my own, as well as my students’.
I first encountered Ruether’s thought in the piece excerpted from her Sexism and God-Talk in Plaskow and Christ’s Weaving the Visions, in which she not only challenged the assumption of the male divine, but also argued that “male monotheism reinforces the social hierarchy of patriarchal rule, . . . [and] “begins to split reality into a dualism of transcendent Spirit (mind, ego) and inferior and dependent physical nature . . . whereas the male is seen essentially as the image of the male transcendent ego of God, woman is seen as the image of the lower material nature. . . .Gender becomes a primary symbol for the dualism of transcendence and immanence, spirit and matter.”[iv] In a few sentences, she laid out the basic premise of the ecofeminist theological critique of Western thought.
In this piece, Ruether provided evidence of the many ways that the Biblical scriptures themselves challenge male monotheism, showing how Yahwism appropriates the goddess Asherah of its conquered peoples, incorporating female images of God — God as mother and as woman in travail — particularly when describing the compassionate and loving aspects of the divine, as in the Hebrew word of compassion and mercy, rechem, meaning womb. She also explored the wisdom tradition of the logos of Sophia, the paired images for God as male and female in the parables, and notions of Yahweh as the God of liberation from bondage.
But two points Ruether makes in this piece had a particularly profound impact on my understanding. The first is her discussion of the proscription of idolatry, which precludes any representation of the divine, pictorial or verbal – no images of God as the white-bearded old man and no verbal depictions of God as male or Father. What a profound and liberating recognition that was for me.
The other was Ruether’s critique of Christianity’s reliance on the divine as parental. This model, she claimed, depicts God as a “neurotic parent who doesn’t want us to grow up,” in which the gravest sin against God is to become morally autonomous and responsible, creating “spiritual infantilism as a virtue.”[v] Her discussion of God as parent would inevitably facilitate discussions with students about their issues with imaging God as a parent, when their experiences with their own parents were negative, dominating, or abusive.
Finally, in this piece she laid out the foundation of ecofeminist theology that would underscore all of her subsequent work: “Feminist theology must fundamentally reject this dualism of nature and spirit.”[vi] In the larger work, Sexism and God-Talk, Ruether laid out her ecofeminist theology, questioning the hierarchy of human over nonhuman nature, as well as other structures of social domination, declaring the God/ess as the “primal Matrix, the ground of being . . . Spirit and matter are not dichotomized but are the inside and outside of the same thing.”[vii]
In her later work, she would incorporate her understandings of the new physics into her rejection of dualism, describing the matrix as “the dancing energy. . . .of the interconnections of the whole universe.”[viii] Here she would develop her key ecofeminist concept of “biophilic mutuality” and the deep interdependency and kinship of all beings, envisioning the good society as “communities of celebration and resistance,” in which true metanoia — a change of heart and consciousness – is practiced, resisting the “death system” and replacing it with a “joy in the goodness of life,” where we become good listener’s of each other’s stories, and “take the time to sit under trees, look at water, and at the sky . . . and get back in touch with the living earth.”[ix]
Ruether’s thoughts on our ephemeral existence seem an appropriate benediction on her extraordinary life and work: “Then, like bread tossed on the water, we can be confident that our creative work will be nourishing to the community of life, even as we relinquish our small self back into the great Self. Our final gesture, as we surrender ourself in the Matrix of life, then can become a prayer of ultimate trust: ‘Mother, into your hands I commend my spirit. Use me as you will in your infinite creativity.’”[x]
Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Gaia & God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.
______. Integrating Ecofeminism, Globalization, and World Religions. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Pub., Inc., 2005.
______. “Sexism and God-Language,” in Plaskow, Judith and Carol P. Christ, eds., Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989): 151-162.
______. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. 10th Anniversary ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983, 1993).
______, ed. Women Healing Earth: Third World Women on Ecology, Feminism, and Religion. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996.
______. Women and Redemption: A Theological History. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1998.
[i] Ruether, Women and Redemption, 222.
[ii] Ibid., 222.
[iii] See for example, her Women Healing Earth: Third World Women on Ecology, Feminism, and Religion; Integrating Ecofeminism, Globalization, and World Religions; and Women and Redemption: A Theological History.
[iv] Ruether, “Sexism and God-Language,” 251-252.
[v] Ibid., 160.
[vi] Ibid., 161.
[vii] Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk, 85.
[viii]Ruether, Gaia and God, 248.
[ix] Ibid., 268-270.
[x] Ibid., 253.
BIO: Beth Bartlett, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and spiritual companion. She is Professor Emerita of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She also served as co-facilitator of the Spirituality Task Force of NWSA. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant, Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought, and Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior. She has been active in feminist, peace and justice, and rights of nature and climate justice movements, and has been a committed advocate for the water protectors.