Like many in theological circles around the world, I was saddened this weekend to learn of the passing of feminist theologian, Dr. Rosemary Radford Ruether, after a long illness. Reuther was 85 years old.
Dr. Ruether was a pioneer in the field of feminist theology and eco-feminism. I was privileged to have several interactions with her as a teacher, advisor, and mentor. As a college student I worked on the Buildings & Grounds crew at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary where she served on the faculty. On one occasion she put in a work order to change the florescent tube light over her desk. I got the work order and went to her office to change it. She was there studying (or writing or grading papers—I didn’t bother to ask). The light fixture was immediately over her desk and the only way to reach it was to climb on her desk. So, I asked if I could stand on the desk, and she said “yes” and kept right on working without batting an eye. She was driven like this.
Later when I enrolled as a master’s student at Garrett she was assigned as my academic advisor. At my first advising appointment we built my fall schedule and she said I should take her class, so I enrolled in her “History of Christianity I” course. Her fame as a theologian preceded her and so I was surprised that she taught the early church history course, but I soon learned that she was an expert in patristics.
I found her to be an excellent lecturer who gave a detailed lecture outline as a hand-out (in the days before PowerPoint). The main textbook was a standard church history survey, but her lectures cited many primary sources that she read in class. Her approach to church history was that the early church was very diverse with different strands and movements. As the church became more hierarchical it also became more patriarchal and snuffed out egalitarian movements—such as the Montanists. Women were often lost in the recording of church history, but her careful archival research rediscovered some marginalized voices. Her dissertation was on the Cappadocian fathers, and I recall her highlighting the theological contributions of Macrina and reading in class from Gregory of Nyssa’s book: The Life of Macrina.
Later I took another course entitled “Gender and Redemption in Christian Theological History,” where we studied the understanding of women in ministry of several key historical figures. The course was based on a book that Dr. Ruether had just published. I wrote my final paper on Calvin and Wesley’s view of women in ministry.
My final course with Dr Ruether was our master’s thesis colloquy. She taught us the methodology to develop our thesis. She wanted us to identify first “What is the problem?” Then ask how an injustice had been perpetuated by a false theology? Finally, she wanted us to address the problem with a theological solution to address the wrongs perpetuated, and this was our thesis statement. Dr. Ruether was my thesis advisor, when I wrote on the Church in Cuba using this methodology.
Dr. Ruether was very interested in Latin American liberation theology—especially as a lifelong Roman Catholic. She studied Spanish and taught a course on theological vocabulary in Spanish. Dr. Reuther often led student groups and took a group of observers to the meeting of Latin American bishops in Puebla in 1978. She was an advocate for social justice and saw the connections between race, class and gender–long before “intersectional theology” was born. She was also an early proponent of “creation care” before this term was coined. My biggest takeaway from Dr. Ruether’s teachings is that the history of Christianity is very diverse and there have been multiple liberation movements in our tradition. Often these have become lost or hidden as the authoritarian and patriarchal structures have perpetuated, but we can carefully study our history and recall these marginalized voices–who had an alternative vision–as sources for doing theology to proclaim a more justice-seeking theology. Thank you, Dr. Ruether, for your embodying your vision for a more egalitarian society where peace and justice abound.