Kingdom-Struck: On the Life, Work, and Witness of Rosemary Radford Ruether

By Michael Centore

When I had the opportunity to moderate an event with the novelist and historian James Carroll for the launch of his book The Truth at the Heart of the Lie: How the Catholic Church Lost Its Soul in April of last year, one attendee asked, “What female theologians do you think we should be reading?” Carroll replied without pause, “The great groundbreaking theologian of the Vatican II era was Rosemary Radford Ruether, who was a prophet on the question of antisemitism but also on the question of male supremacy.”

And, as it turns out, a prophet on nearly every other question facing the church and world today. At the time of her death on May 21 at age 85, Ruether, an early DSA member and contributor to the print version of Religious Socialism, had written 47 books and numerous articles on subjects as varied as the environmental crisis, the sins of imperialism, racism, and religious nationalism, church history and patristics, and the plight of the Palestinians. All this was in addition to her paradigm-shifting work in ecofeminism and feminist theology. Though her primary witness was through language and the disciplines of teaching and writing, she never ensconced herself in an ivory tower. “I distrust all academic theology,” she wrote to the Trappist monk and celebrated author Thomas Merton in 1967. “Only theology bred in the crucible of experience is any good.”

Ruether’s journey began in 1936 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she was born to a Roman Catholic mother and an Anglican father. “I grew up assuming that Catholicism was the cloak of a mysterium tremendum,” she would later confide in a personal essay, “Beginnings: An Intellectual Autobiography.” “When it exhibited a vulgar or narrowly doctrinaire style, I felt assured that it could be safely ignored.” Her father died when she was 12, and she and her mother relocated to La Jolla, California. A stint as the editor of her high school newspaper revealed her nascent leftist sympathies: the publication was attacked as “subversive” by local anticommunists, and it would not be the last time she was accused of trying to thwart the established order.

At Scripps College, where she graduated with a BA in philosophy in 1958, and later at Claremont Graduate School where she completed a PhD in classics and patristics, Ruether shaped the core of her lifelong intellectual and spiritual project. She immersed herself in the culture of the ancient world and discovered, in her words, “the meaning of religious symbols, not as extrinsic doctrines, but as living metaphors of human existence.” This reignited an interest in Christianity and the Catholicism of her youth. Hers was not a static or rote belief, but one that, from the moment she committed herself to “the quest for origins [that] sought the key to the meaning of Christianity,” saw her embrace the dialectical tension between the pagan gods of antiquity and the monotheistic God of the Hebrew scriptures and the early Christian church. “I became inherently suspicious of an idea that appeared to be one side of a dualism,” she explained. “Such an idea demanded critical transcendence, an exploration of the repressed ‘other side,’ in order to move beyond both poles to a new synthesis.” This was a fearlessness born of a grounded faith, a conciliatory curiosity that heeds Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians: “Test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21) and opposes the violent fundamentalisms she was already calling into question:  “The ultimate God must be far beyond these particular jealousies that set one people’s insight against another’s. The true God could be zealous only to lead us out of these antagonisms to higher and higher truths whose final compass is incomplete—the final compass that can embrace all people’s histories without having to negate the identities of any of them.”

After completing her dissertation on Gregory of Nazianzus, the fourth-century Cappadocian church father, in 1965, Ruether worked on civil rights campaigns in Mississippi and Watts and accepted a teaching position at the historically Black Howard University in Washington, D.C. Her involvement in the civil rights movement dated back to her time as a lay affiliate of Saint Andrew’s Priory, a Benedictine community in San Bernadino, California, in the 1950s. Known for its progressive stance on church and social issues, the priory had attracted a cadre of young activists whose commitments to peace and racial justice would flower within the next decade.

Ruether’s decision to teach at Howard was an intentional one, driven by a desire, reiterated throughout her career, to find points of contact between institutional life and revolutionary possibility. “One had to remain realistically political and able to communicate with people,” she wrote of the time. “But one also had to continue to situate oneself in the black and poor communities, not in order to ‘lead the black community,’ but in order to unmask one’s own false consciousness, to be able to discern the concealed underside of America by looking at it from that underside.” There was also a growing awareness of what we might today call “intersectionality”: the idea that historical structures of oppression are linked together like the weave of a net that smothers the earth and keeps people in unfreedom. It was an idea that would inform much of her later work, particularly in the way it draws out the connections between environmental degradation and the economic and social domination of women and the poor. 

Her time at Howard was followed by positions at the Pacific School of Religion, the Graduate Theological Union, and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University—the long arc of a career that, over the next several decades, would unify scholarship and activism, radicalism and received tradition, nuanced historical and theological argument and impassioned public declaration. By all accounts she worked at an almost superhuman pace, publishing as many as two books a year while maintaining an active schedule as a lecturer, board member, dissertation supervisor, political demonstrator, and correspondent. In a sororal tribute for the National Catholic Reporter, the feminist theologian Mary E. Hunt remembered how Ruether “went where she was invited and needed all over the globe. . . . In each place, she learned about the local reality—the women’s groups, ecological efforts and other liberation projects.” That image of seeking the local in the global, the particular in the universal, is not only a reflection of her dialectical mind but also of a religious consciousness attempting to unite theory and praxis: she was advancing what Hunt calls her “scholarship for solidarity” by finding, participating in, and linking up those communities on the ground that were incarnating the vision of the sacramentalized world she was working out in her writing.

Ruether was an early contributor to Religious Socialism and was not afraid to be counted as a democratic socialist. Socialists who identify as Catholic may find particular resonances in her work—her critique of clericalism, for instance, as another form of patriarchal repression or her tireless advocacy for a way of “being church,” first elucidated by the Second Vatican Council and recently codified by Pope Francis, which enables the participation of laypeople in decision-making processes. But religious socialists of all traditions will be inspired by her dedication to ecumenical outreach, as well as her avoidance of triumphalism in matters of faith on the one hand and hermeticism on the other. She put this latter point in the context of the environmental movement in her 1992 book Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing: “We must be wary of new forms of privatized intrapsychic activity, divorced from social systems of power. Rather we must see the work of eco-justice and the work of spirituality as interrelated, the inner and outer aspects of one process of conversion and transformation.”

For socialists of no religious persuasion or who may even be openly skeptical of the relationship of the (metaphysical) religious impulse to the task of (material) social renewal, Ruether’s body of work, and the way in which it is animated by an almost palpable thirst for justice, still has much to offer. America, Amerikkka, issued at the height of the Iraq War in 2007, is as clear-eyed an indictment of imperial violence—and the idolatrous use of religious imagery to both incite and justify it—as one can find on the Left, religious or secular; “Symbolic and Social Connections of the Oppression of Women and the Domination of Nature,” an essay from 1993, imagines a theory of soteriology grounded in physical encounter: “Instead of salvation sought either in the disembodied soul or the immortalized body, in a flight to heaven or to the end of history, salvation should be seen as continual conversion to the center, to the concrete basis by which we sustain our relation to nature and to one another.” This charges human history with an entirely new meaning: it becomes, in a sense, the site of our collective redemption, and it is why Dirk van der Horst could observe that Ruether “came to history with a profound sense that we have a responsibility to repair the legacies of its horrors.” 

“The fundamental point Ruether makes over and over throughout the whole corpus of her many works is the nature of dualism, the radically oppositionalist thinking that funds the ‘isms’ that break apart human community across the centuries and across cultures,” Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite summed up in her foreword to Ruether’s 2008 blueprint for a more progressive church, Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican. It is the sense of overcoming this dualistic disunity, of pushing past established categories to fuse new horizons, that gives Ruether’s work its inner spark. This is true within individual volumes as it is across her bibliography as a whole: themes echo and resonate between and among texts, sometimes repeating, sometimes changing key, as seemingly disparate issues—women’s ordination and Latin American liberation theology, the contradictions of colonialism and the spiritual bankruptcy of Newtonian physics—are evaluated by the criterion of how they contribute to, or impede, human flourishing. Ruether is not dogmatic in this search; her interpretive lenses are compassion, mercy, justice, over and above any one historical or theological method. Her relationship with her own faith is not exempt: she once called Catholicism “my paradigm for the human dilemma. I relate to it, not as a repository of truth by which to make a fixed identity, but as a terrible example of what we all are.” This makes her the insider-outsider par excellence, always after the kairotic (a favorite word of hers) moment, the little opening in time where the Christian tradition can be renewed by its radical, pre-denominational origins.

In April 1967, less than two months after she had expressed to him her “distrust” of academic theology, Ruether wrote to Merton that “People who are kingdom-struck can do things which men guided by a rational estimate of the possible could never achieve.” It was not necessarily meant to be a positive claim. The two were in the middle of a protracted, at times heated, exchange on the subject of monastic renewal, and that felicitous descriptor—“kingdom-struck”—refers in part to those so blinded by a fervor to systematize the contemplative life that they bar the door to others from experiencing contemplation. 

I confess I didn’t detect this ambivalence on my first reading. I was so taken with the phrase, as promise and as poetry, that I immediately detached it from its surrounding context to hold it like a precious stone. Kingdom-struck. And the longer I sat with it, with that spondee on the first side of the hyphen and that lone stressed syllable on the second, with that final, throaty k-sound approximating the abrupt force of being hit—by an idea, an image, a jolt of inspiration—the more I realized how perfectly it encapsulated the life and witness of its author. Rosemary Radford Ruether was kingdom-struck, and though the kingdom she believed in was not of this world, she knew beyond “a rational estimate of the possible” that we still had to begin to build it here.

Michael Centore is the editor of Today’s American Catholic and a member of the DSA Religion and Socialism Working Group’s Catholic Subgroup.

Image from Democratic Left, Jan.-Feb. 1992