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Theology that’s also history


By Rosemary Radford Ruether
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 366 pages, $23.95


Rosemary Radford Ruether’s magisterial new book convinces me further of this truth: Theologians must also be historians, and the most creative and prophetic theologies are inevitably -- in some form -- histories.

These histories may be ethnographies, as in the works of mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, or literary-ethical narrations, as in the essays of womanist theologian Katie Geneva Cannon. Or they may be closer to mainstream academic historical-critical form, as in Ruether’s new work. But all integrate in some way the three major components of feminist theologies -- critique, retrieval and construction. All do so with a profound understanding of the contribution of retrieval to the other two.

Retrieval is the academic catchword for the work of surfacing the previously silent: histories of women, but also those of indigenous peoples, of racial, ethnic, religious, political and sexual minorities, of people from the economic underside of society. One of feminist scholarship’s most exciting contributions -- which will be among its most enduring -- is the work of historians, painstakingly researching newfound sources and bringing new gazes to ancient ones.

Women and Redemption’s value as a theological work owes a great deal to its nature as a theological history: This is Ruether at her best, Ruether the historian and historical theologian who is also and always Ruether the theological critic and architect.

The book goes back to the early Jesus movement and moves forth to the end of our century with a cluster of questions about Christian proclamation and Christian social reality. “If women are equally redeemed by Christ,” Ruether asks, “why has the Christian church continually reinforced sexism in society and in the church?” And what is redemption? Is it liberation in this life? Peace and bliss in the next? How does it affect the bodies in which we live -- biological, sexual, familial, religious and political -- today?

How are nature and society related and redeemed? Do the presence and power of Christ interact with humanity as male and female in different ways for each gender? How and why -- or why not? How have Christian answers to these questions changed through the centuries?

Theme of redemption

Addressing the theological theme of redemption -- broader than but inclusive of soteriology, the theology of salvation -- Ruether also examines other, intimately related areas: the Christian theology of creation, theological anthropology (the nature of the human person in relation to God), cosmology (the shape of the universe and its attendant meanings), eschatology (the study of “the last things” or the “last days”), and the nature of sin.

Bringing to bear upon Christian history the dual lens of redemption and gender, she examines the relationship between these overlapping theologies and the realities of sexuality, relationships between the sexes, social structures, and church leadership and ministry.

Christians of varying movements and communions have given different answers to the questions Ruether raises, not only at varying times in history but at the same time, competing and conflicting with one another.

However deep (it spans 20 centuries) and broad (it circles the globe in its treatment of contemporary theologies), Women and Redemption is not a comprehensive history. Ruether works from her strengths: early Christian thought (her doctorate was in patristics), medieval and reformation historical theology, and the fascinating history of the first wave of American feminism in the 19th century, in which abolition of slavery, women’s rights, temperance and religion intersected and converged. Nearly half the book is devoted to 20th-century women’s theologies.

Ruether is a skillful critic, generous in her tributes to other scholars as well as clear about her differences with them where such differences exist.

Readers will find varying parts of Women and Redemption especially appealing. Because 20th-century feminist theologies are part of my daily bread, I was drawn to and learned most from Ruether’s biblical and patristic chapters and her essays on the Shakers, Quakers and early abolitionists. Others may find her introduction to contemporary theological feminisms most useful and enlightening. Ruether’s footnotes also make for good reading and can help those wishing to pursue one of the book’s historical periods in greater depth; they include primary source material but are particularly strong in their up-to-date secondary sources in women’s and religious history.

In recent years Ruether has taken upon herself to introduce North American audiences to the work of women theologians globally -- for instance, as editor of Women Healing Earth: Third World Women on Ecology, Feminism and Religion. This interest is the result of her travels to various parts of the globe and her sense of responsibility as a theologian who knows her limitations as a European-American. Women and Redemption is a fine introduction to the work of international theologians as well as U.S. womanist and mujerista theologians. One hopes that readers will not stop at this introduction but will go on to read the works of these scholars -- Delores Williams, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Ivone Gebara, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Catharina Halkes and others.

Small irritants

There are small irritants in this important book, some substantive, some technical. In most instances a careful scholar, Ruether is occasionally given to sweeping statements. Augustine, “father of the Inquisition”? Even with Augustine’s massive influence on the Christian West, is such a statement warranted, given the complexities of historical causality? One should note that Ruether is not alone is this judgment of Augustine; Paul Johnston advances the same view in his mid-1970s History of Christianity.

Other irritants are due to the current decline in proper copyediting in publishing houses nationwide, to which Fortress Press is, alas, no exception. A passage recounting feminist philosopher Mary Daly’s career refers to Boston College, Daly’s academic home of three decades, then suddenly, in the next paragraph, calls the same institution Boston University, the name of an entirely different school a few miles down the road. Sloppy proofreading, anyone?

On the same page, the well-known account of Daly’s preaching at Harvard as the first woman in the historic pulpit of the university church, then marching out with an “exodus group” of women and a few men, refers to the locale as “Harvard Memorial Chapel.” The church where this episode occurred is called “the Memorial Church.” (It does also contain a chapel, whose name is Appleton Chapel and which is not where Daly preached.) If my familiarity with Cambridge, Boston and the particulars of Mary Daly’s history surfaced these errors on a single page, what are the chances that other errors have persisted that are not obvious to me, but may be to better informed readers? As journalists of old used to write on signs posted above their Smith-Corona typewriters: Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy!

The body of Rosemary Radford Ruether’s incisive and prolific work has become a theological classic. Women and Redemption: A Theological History will become a classic among her writings, and will no doubt replace Sexism and God-Talk as a text for classes in feminist theologies. Published in 1983, Sexism and God-Talk remains useful as an earlier model of feminist systematic theology and a valuable resource for introductory courses. Women and Redemption, a more complex and sophisticated work, is, as Ruether herself notes in the acknowledgments, the fruit of 30 years of scholarship -- and, I would add, solidarity -- not simply the work of the few recent years she spent researching and writing the book itself.

Feminist theology is no longer optional for an understanding of Christian thought and action. Would that this book also found its way into adult education groups and seminary curricula in systematic theology. Ruether’s work is meant for a broad theological and ecclesial audience. It deserves to reach far and wide.

Jane Redmont is the author of Generous Lives: American Catholic Women Today and of When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life published this month. She received her master’s of divinity from Harvard Divinity School and is studying for a Ph.D. in theology at the Graduate Theological Union.

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999