Reflections on Rosemary Radford Ruether

Prof Lisa Isherwood, University of Wales Trinity St David

Fall 2022

I first met Rosemary some thirty or more years ago and what struck me immediately was the down to earth no fuss woman who carried her scholarship very lightly. This was no Prima Dona, which for me was a huge relief because of course having read her work I felt in awe. Very quickly after the formal introduction we got on to her pride in her border Scots heritage, tough guys she said who knew what was right. Ferocious in fact, the descendants of people who kept the Romans out of Scotland and sent King Edward on his way ‘to think again’- which they remind the English each time they sing their national anthem!  So, people with a long memory and brave hearts. I think that both these characteristics can be seen in Rosemary’s work- her MA was Roman history and her PhD Classics and Patristics giving her a firm grasp of the history of the Church and as we know she was fearless about the topics with which she engaged  Her no- nonsense approach embedded in precise scholarship was challenging for those she addressed and the students who read her work.

As we know her brave heart did not simply find an outlet on paper. During the summer of 1965 Rosemary who was already involved in civil rights for African Americans travelled to Mississippi with other students and faculty to work with the Delta Ministry.  She describes this as a turning point in her self-awareness as she weighed the possibility of dying, since violence was at its height in these years, and the obligation to do the right thing. This was a hard decision for her since by this time she and Herc had three children under seven years of age. Despite the possible cost, she went

While this can be seen as a very public act Rosemary also faced, as so many women did and do, battles of a more personal nature. On finishing her PhD her supervisor simply assumed she would be delighted to accept a position as his assistant an idea that never entered her head as she wanted an academic career of her own.  He was not amused but we are forever grateful and delighted!

Whenever I had the honour of introducing Rosemary at conferences she always reminded me, with a glint in her eye, ‘don’t forget to tell them I’m a tomato grower’.  I never forgot, who would with those enquiring eyes on them, and it always made her accessible to the often-mixed audience. After the long list of publications and achievements came the tomatoes and the impact of this was summed up I think by a man I overheard on one such occasion saying- she does all that AND grows tomatoes!

Rosemary’s output was indeed prestigious she wrote hundreds of articles, chapters in books and over fifty authored or co-authored books. The breadth of her coverage was also impressive and she was often the first to tackle an issue with her sharp feminist mind. When she and Herc came to stay with me in Wales I got a glimpse into how this impressive output was done. Rosemary would start writing at 5am, be finished for a hearty breakfast by 8.30 and ready for a day of adventure, meeting new people and seeing new places. This was the key to understanding not just the amount of work but the process. Rosemary always wanted to meet new people and learn about new things, see new places  and hear of social situations and It was this as much as the hours in front of the computer that led to the amazing output so thoroughly grounded in life. She told me a story, at her own cost, of when she was on a visit to Latin America she happened to remark to her companion that the strawberries in the field were a vivid red and looked delicious, yes came the reply, red with the blood of the workers who are exposed to the pesticides that keep the fruit red and kills them.  Experiences such as this and many more were never forgotten and were used to deepen and broaden her theological thinking. This is just one example of how her theology was rooted in the lives of people and although theoretically profound never lost touch with the nitty gritty of everyday life. Her work is marked by constantly presenting received wisdom with lived experience and not being afraid to embrace the outcomes.

Rosemary’s life and ability to hear the voices of others raised questions that fed her theology and this is the case with her initial article. Having been told by a Catholic priest that she and Herman would be expected to produce a child in the first year of marriage she cast her eye on the Catholic Church and contraception. The outrage that spurred her writing was fuelled by a conversation she overheard while in hospital after the birth of their first child. The woman in the next bed had already nine children and the doctors advised she may die if she had any more. The woman’s response infuriated Rosemary as she told the doctor her priest and husband would not allow her to use contraception. This topic and that of abortion have been topics she returned to many times over the years as she saw the church stance affecting women globally. Rosemary did not just write she also became involved with Catholic organisations addressing these issues and campaigned with them.

It is not at all surprising that the question of women’s ordination is also one that would be addressed by Rosemary. With her background in Patristics she was able to enter the debate by challenging the long held conviction that women had never held positions of leadership within the church. She was able to show that people such as Abelard defended women’s ordination thus highlighting the issue was not a modern feminist move. She was of course also very scathing of the idea that priests had to physically represent Jesus, once again showing where such a thought originated, and academically questioning of the notion of apostolic succession which she pointed out many scholars understand to be a second century invention to validate the emerging church order of bishops.  Having written on the issue first in 1968,  in 2008 she published her last book on the subject which held a vision aimed at releasing people from clerical hierarchy and into a spirit filled and justice based life.

Many of the issues concerning women and the church came together in ‘Sexism and God- Talk: Towards a Feminist Theology’ (Boston, Beacon Press) which was published in 1983 and is still a standard work on many a feminist theology syllabus. This work sets out feminist methodology in theology which is understood as an interacting dialectic between experience of oneself, the divine,  the community and the world. Rosemary states clearly that systems of authority try to reverse this relation and make received symbols dictate what can be experienced and how they should be understood. The ability for the believing community to declare that certain symbols no longer speak authentically to their experience was a freeing contribution of feminist thought.

Ecology was an early interest of Rosemary’s having in 1972 read the Club of Rome report ‘Limits of Growth’ and her book Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (San Francisco, Harper, 1992) expresses her concerns and to a degree her solutions. In characteristic fashion, in 1996 Rosemary broadened the eco conversation to include those women who she knew suffered most from the crisis of earth care. She edited a collection of essays by women from the global south  because she wanted  those from the areas most affected  to be heard not simply through the words of  western woman.

While she wanted diverse voices in many conversations, she was also not afraid to turn her own against the worst excesses of her own country of birth. In 2007 she published America, Amerikka: Elect Nation and Imperial Violence (London, Equinox) in a series we were jointly editing for Equinox. In it she traced the ideological patterns of the USA’s understanding of itself as an elect nation inhabiting a promised land.   Her vast historical and theological knowledge enabled her to place before the reader the trajectory of this notion and the doubly harmful idea of Manifest Destiny which justified the exclusion and even genocide of the indigenous populations and the worldwide territorial expansion and enslavement of people.

As has been said so many times, Rosemary’s theology is rooted in personal experience and there is none more personal than her work on mental health. In her book Many Forms of Madness: A Family’s Struggle with Mental Illness and the Mental Health System she lays bare the struggles her son David has endured with mental health issues and the struggles the family have had with the system itself which she found over many years to be inadequate.  Naturally, her experience has raised theological questions as she ponders the relationship between the brain and the self while scientists ponder the relationship between brain and mind- both perhaps in their own ways trying to bring together what centuries of dualism has driven apart. She is candid when she says that the experiences with her son and the complex way in which brain and body interact with both internal and external realities such as relationships and creative processes have focussed her on the accepted doctrine of the immortal separable self. She was able to conclude that the brain chemistry view of mental illness is reductionist and does not take account of the plasticity of the brain. She never lost hope for her son David.

She was a dear friend who I miss deeply – a friend who did not simply tell me she valued our friendship but showed it in so many ways. The list is long but a snapshot will give an idea- she offered me space at Garret with a visiting fellowship in order to write a book; Herc was on hand to supply the wonderfully strong coffee that he and I loved so much! She always had sound advice about projects I was concerned about taking on; she happily accepted any invitation to speak in conferences I organised in the UK, be that BISFT or at the universities I worked at. In relation to the latter, she gave her time to students who were overwhelmed to meet her, as I had been all those years ago.  And now even after her parting, she remains part of a project we began together some years ago. This is the Cultural History of Women in Christianity project that spans the two thousand years of Christianity- no better person to take it on with then Rosemary. When I saw her before the pandemic, I was able to tell her that the first two books were just about to appear – I am glad she knew and I am also delighted that her daughter Mimi is happy for her name to remain as editor. A shout out here too for Dr Megan Clay who has stepped into the hard graft of editing the books with me. Rosemary was intrigued by this project and keen to see how so many authors covering so many topics, would turn out. So far, I think she is smiling.

I miss my friend because while we will always have her scholarship, the wicked sense of humour, the cheeky smile and the tilt of the head with the raise of the hand to dismiss whatever she thought was theological nonsense with the words, ‘that’s your problem’ has gone. But she is I am sure the ‘divine compost ‘about which she spoke, enriching hearts and minds.