by Susan Warmbrunn
Before Rosemary Radford Ruether ’58 was a groundbreaking theologian and the author of more than 40 books, she was a firstyear student at Scripps planning to be a painter.
Ruether says her style wasn’t in keeping with the popularity of abstract art at the time. “I liked to do things pretty much the way they looked,” Ruether says.
By the end of her sophomore year at Scripps, however, Ruether had become less drawn to portraying the world as it appeared and more interested in peeling back the surface of things, revealing the underpinnings of accepted orthodoxies and inherited truths. She began favoring her pen over her paintbrush.
“I found I could express myself much more originally in academic writing than in painting,” Ruether says.
She has been expressing herself originally ever since, writing so many books and articles that a complete bibliography of her publications runs to more than 45 pages. She shifted away from painting tree-lined courtyards and headed into the thickets of complex and controversial issues, tackling topics ranging from sexism and anti-Semitism in Christianity to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the fallibility of the Vatican.
While some of Ruether’s writings may be seen as provocative, she doesn’t consider herself a provocateur. “I’m not trying to do something that’s going to be annoying to someone else,” she says. “I’m doing what I think is important and meaningful. I’m interested in finding out the truth.”
Ruether’s coffee table is often covered with a smorgasbord of magazines and books: The New Yorker, the Economist, the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, Journal of Palestine Studies, Three Cups of Tea. Like Ruether’s writings, her reading material may have some common themes, but can’t be defined by a single subject.
Much of her work seems inspired by the desire to expose inequity, question dogma, and defend the underdog. In her book Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, she writes, “Any principle of religion or society that marginalizes one group of persons as less than fully human diminishes us all.” In person, she just says, “I hate injustice.”
She is best known as a feminist theologian who contends that traditional Christian theology is shaped by a male perspective that often demeans and excludes women. She’s a leading figure in the field of ecofeminism, which explores the parallels between the oppression of women and the subjugation of nature in Western culture. She is a grandmother who’s willing to take on the Vatican and a peace activist whose great-grandfather, Edward Cresap Ord, a major general with the Union Army during the Civil War, helped orchestrate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
She’s also a Catholic who has criticized the church hierarchy without renouncing her faith. Ruether’s ecumenical family included her Catholic mother, her Episcopalian father, and a Jewish uncle who taught her to paint. She adopted her mother’s flexible form of Catholicism, allowing a kind of à la carte approach to religion in which “anything that didn’t make sense was just superstition, and you could brush it aside.”
Ruether’s father died in 1948 when she was 12 and her family had been living in Athens, Greece, where her father was working as a head engineer with the American Mission for Aid to Greece. After her father’s death, Ruether returned to the States with her mother and two sisters, eventually settling in La Jolla, California. For the remainder of her childhood, Ruether was raised by her mother and a close circle of her mother’s female friends in what Ruether calls a “matricentric enclave” of women who had become accustomed to “running things on their own because men were either dead or away at war.”
During high school she edited the school paper for two years and won a scholarship to Scripps. She describes Scripps as “a place where I flourished” and that shaped much of her adult life. She found the comprehensive humanities program so influential, she often says her subsequent writings are “all footnotes to Humanities 1.” During her junior year, she met Herman Ruether in the kitchen of a mutual friend. They have been married for more than half a century and have three children.
Ruether earned her PhD in classics and patristics, the study of the work of early Christian Church fathers, at the Claremont Graduate School in 1965. That summer, Ruether joined a group of chaplains from Claremont and headed to the south to volunteer with a civil rights organization in Mississippi.
The underlying principles of the civil rights movement profoundly affected Ruether’s philosophy. In an interview with Conscience magazine, Ruether said, “The feminism that I got involved in was rooted in social justice…not the Betty Friedan kind of feminism.”
Since the 1960s, Ruether has taught at a number of institutions, including the Howard University School of Religion in Washington, DC, for 10 years and the Garrett- Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, for 27 years. In 2002, she and her husband returned to Claremont, where she has a joint teaching appointment with the Claremont School of Theology and the Claremont Graduate University (CGU).
Gina Messina-Dysert, a former student who studied with Ruether at CGU, calls Ruether a great teacher, “a walking encyclopedia,” and a legend—but a humble and generous legend who helps students proof papers and get published in academic journals.
The books Ruether wrote during her teaching career became benchmarks in her field. GraceYia-Hei Kao, an associate professor of ethics at Claremont School of Theology and associate professor of religion at CGU, has assigned excerpts from Ruether’s writings on ecological issues to students in her introductory course on Christian ethics.
“I can’t think of a better known ecofeminist theologian,” Kao says. “I can’t think of another who is better regarded. She’s absolutely a trailblazer.”
The Prose Process
Ruether’s first book, The Church Against Itself, was published in 1967. Since then, she’s averaged about a book a year. Her straight-forward approach to writing could confound anyone who has tortured a sentence for the better part of an afternoon.
“Writing is easy for me,” she says. “I think about what I want to say and sit down and write it out, and it doesn’t change a lot.”
When she’s working on a manuscript, Ruether doesn’t dawdle. She starts writing by eight a.m. and, unlike many writers, isn’t distracted by the sudden, irresistible urge to grout the tub or clean out the fridge. She usually submits her work months ahead of deadline and may be one of the few college students to have ever turned in a senior thesis early.
“I don’t cram,” Ruether says. “I make a lot of time for writing. I always do it before housework.”
In her prose, Ruether avoids academic jargon and “writes in a very accessible manner,” says Professor Kao. “And she’s not discussing easy things.”
Messina-Dysert found Ruether’s writing so powerful and persuasive it inspired her to sell her SUV and move out West. As a graduate student in Ohio, Messina-Dysert read Ruether’s book Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing and concluded that she wasn’t helping heal the earth by driving a Jeep Cherokee. She ditched the Cherokee and decided to get her PhD at CGU so she could study with Ruether.
“We talk about her being the founding mother of the field of feminist theology,” says Messina-Dysert, now a visiting professor at Loyola Marymount University’s theological studies department. “We’re going to look back and say, ‘Wow, her work really changed the way we think not only in the field of religion but in society in general.’”
Ruether’s most recent book was a departure from some of her academic writing. Many Forms of Madness: A Family’s Struggle with Mental Illness and the Mental Health System tells the story of her son David’s long history with schizophrenia. Now in his 50s, David began having mental health problems in his teens. The book begins with a personal account of David’s experience and the Ruethers’ efforts to find him the best care, and then expands into an examination of the mental health system as a whole.
After Many Forms of Madness was published last year, Ruether said she had written the major books she wanted to write. By early June of this year, Ruether mentioned that she might have one more book in her— an intellectual autobiography tracing the evolution of her thought and work. Two weeks after that, she had cleared her mornings and had already finished her second chapter.
Ruether says she doesn’t “do optimism or pessimism”; for her, writing may be something in between, a way to examine and sometimes revise the world with an artist’s eye, a scholar’s curiosity, and a major general’s determination.
“I think you need to commit yourself to struggling on behalf of what you think is right, whether or not it appears to be winning,” she says.
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