Asking the Existential Questions

by Rosemary Ruether

Rosemary Radford Ruether, a contributing editor of Christianity and Crisis, is Georgia Harkness Professor of Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston. One of the foremost feminist theologians of the time, she was trained in church history arid historical theology and has published widely on feminism, the Christian roots of anti-Semitism, and the situation of the Palestinians.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 2, 1980 pp. 374-378. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author discusses her intellectual development in the following areas: (1) the relation of Christianity to other religions; (2) the relation of Roman Catholic Christianity to other Christian bodies; (3) the relation of American identity to anti-American criticism; and (4) the relation of feminism to male-dominated culture and institutions.

Reflecting on one’s intellectual development prematurely may be a mistake. A relatively young scholar may easily confuse fragmentary and tentative ventures with significant and formative patterns of thought and action. Nevertheless, as I look back over a journey of approximately 25 years, since I was first catapulted into intense intellectual activity at the beginning of my college work, I can discern certain basic patterns of thought and action that I have followed. These patterns show up as movement in a great variety of directions; sometimes they have been formulated as conscious principles, sometimes manifested more as a gut instinct for what is "right." I will discuss these in terms of four large areas of personal reflection and social action: (1) the relation of Christianity to other religions; (2) the relation of Roman Catholic Christianity to other Christian bodies; (3) the relation of American identity to anti-American criticism; and (4) the relation of feminism to male-dominated culture and institutions.

My intellectual questions and research have never been purely theoretical. I have in every case dealt with existential questions about how I was to situate my life, my identity, my commitments. I have never taken up an intellectual issue which did not have direct connections with clarifying and resolving questions about my personal existence, about how I should align my existence with others, ideologically and socially. This is true of my research into the rise of Christology or the formation of the doctrine of the afterlife in late biblical Judaism as much as it is of my more obviously contemporary, topical writing.

In this sense all my varied intellectual interests have cohered in one way or another as an interaction of reflection and practice. This may actually be true of all intellectual life, although our concepts of "pure research" tend to deny it. But I suspect that it tends to be more consciously and concretely the case with those whose identities do not cohere readily with the dominant systems of thought and society.

Christianity’s Credibility

The question of the church’s claims of faith and morality vis-à-vis the other traditions of world culture was posed for me early in my academic career. Much of the church’s record of social morality appeared discreditable. The problem of the church’s moral and intellectual record was aggravated, in the Roman Catholic context, by the hierarchy’s inability to admit to serious error in official policy (infallibility means never having to say you’re sorry!). That the church as a historical body had made serious errors, such as justifying slavery or sexism, did not surprise me. But the fact that it has been unable to admit error is a serious problem for the church’s understanding of its own humanity, as well as of the Christian message of salvation through repentance and forgiveness of sins. The inability of this church to resolve any of the serious pastoral dilemmas that beset it is rooted in this authority problem.

But the credibility of Christianity became suspect for me also in its foundations, not just in its later development. Things did not happen the way the official history said they did. Key ideas, such as Christology and the Trinity, had a hidden pedigree in Near Eastern and Greco-Roman religion and philosophy that contradicted the biblical heritage from which these ideas purportedly were derived. These questions launched me on a wide-ranging search into Christian origins. By unraveling the strands of early Christian development and tracing them to their sources, I hoped to discover what it all could mean to me.

During this period (1954-60) I was influenced by two brilliant classicists, Robert Palmer and Philip Merlan at Claremont. Both of these men preferred the culture and philosophy of Greco-Roman antiquity to Christianity. Their perspective transformed my stance toward Christianity. I learned to look at the whole Judeo-Christian tradition through the eyes of those alternative communities in antiquity that were defeated by the church. The triumphalistic presumptions about the superiority of Yahwism to Ba’alism, Christianity to paganism were no longer possible. Both biblical and nonbiblical faiths seemed to me to have good and bad points. If Christianity finally won, it was not because of its absolute difference but rather because of its ability to absorb all the viable elements of ancient Mediterranean cultures into a new synthesis. But the synthesis was itself a peculiar one and posed problems of reappropriation for today.

These questions directed me to research into early Christian development in relation to a number of specific issues. I was particularly concerned with the intersection of intellectual constructs and particular social conflicts. My Ph.D. thesis on Gregory Nazianzus: Rhetor and Philosopher (Cambridge University Press, 1969), as well as my research into patristic sexism, anti-Semitism and Christology, reflects these concerns.

A period of estrangement from biblical religion in favor of alternative perspectives eventually led me back to a positive interest in Christianity and then to a clarified identification with it. If Christianity was the only viable synthesis of the traditions and cultures that remained at the end of the ancient world, then it is Christianity itself which represents the most interesting legacy of this era of human consciousness. But I am always aware that I reappropriate Christianity from a markedly different basis than do traditional Christians. I reject absolutist views of biblical religion, while at the same time finding biblical religion in its Christian form the most viable language for me to express the dialectics of human existence in relation to God. I believe that. God has truly spoken through Christianity. But God is not a "Christian" and does not prefer Christians (or Jews) to the rest of humanity.

As I began to clarify my Christian identity, I asked what form of Christianity would best fit my sensibilities. The Protestant critical consciousness was academically helpful, but Protestant worship life lacked depth for me. I had grown up as a Roman Catholic, but in an ecumenical atmosphere. My father and his family were Anglicans. Other friends and relatives were Jews, Unitarians and Quakers. Along with Catholic worship I also at various times attended Episcopal or Quaker worship. But these others were not "mine" in the same way that the Roman Catholic community was. This I have come to regard as more a matter of ecclesial "ethnicity" than of points of "superiority."

Catholicism and Ecumenism

The unleashing of the waves of renewal through the Second Vatican Council was undoubtedly a crucial fact in my development at this stage. Instead of a church sealed off against self-doubt, there suddenly appeared a church engaged in intense self-questioning. This development made Catholicism an exciting and open community within which to contribute my insights. The 1960s occurred for me between the ages of 23 and 32. This means that a critical state of my adult identity coalesced both with the decade of Catholic renewal and the decade of American social crisis. If I had been born ten years earlier, I might well stand in a different place today.

The renewal of Catholicism meant that a whole host of teachings became open questions for at least a significant sector of Catholic Christians. These ranged from current pastoral conflicts over birth control to the basic questions of how we could speak of Jesus as the Christ. My thinking could be translated into a series of writings that were part of a community engaged in revising its identity.

But Protestants also wanted to hear about these and other questions in their own terms. I have come to work and teach both as a Catholic among Catholics and as a Christian among Christians. Today I teach simultaneously at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, an institution that amalgamates the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren traditions, and at the graduate program in religious studies at Mundelein College, a Roman Catholic institution. Previous to this I taught for ten years at a black seminary, the school of religion at Howard University (1966-76). I have also had visiting appointments at various other Catholic and Protestant institutions, as well as speaking engagements throughout the country. I have encountered American Christianity in much of its variety.

Being a Catholic Christian means, for me, being an ecumenical Christian. I identify myself as a Christian in terms of what I would call the "prophetic-messianic core" of biblical faith. This I see as the norm for judging both Scripture and tradition. I do not believe that Scripture is "enough" to create the content of Christian identity. The Protestant tendency to evacuate church history into the reapproximation of the Bible to one’s contemporary preferences I find self-deluding.

We are a people with a history, much of it bad. But its bad parts also teach lessons that we should not forget. One understands the full dimensions of Christianity only by appropriating the whole of this history in its various traditions -- East and West, Catholic and Protestant, the Magisterial and the Radical Reformations. Each tradition emphasizes a major element that others neglect. This is not exactly the Tillichian dialectic of "Protestant principle and Catholic substance," as though there were a dualism that could be apportioned to opposite communities. A living people exists through the constant fruitful interaction and reintegration of critical principles and historical tradition.

I would define Catholic Christianity as this whole ecumenical plurality. All particular churches exist within it as broken and partial sects. Even that communion which calls itself Catholic is also a partial and distorted reality. If I identify with this community first of all, it is not because it is the best, but because it is mine. The others are also mine in a somewhat lesser sense. This special claim on Catholicism does not mean that I have a special need to defend it. Rather it means that I have a special responsibility to question it, I have less of a responsibility to deal with the contradictions of Methodism, Lutheranism or Eastern Orthodoxy.

The prophetic ministry can be carried out authentically only within one’s own community. It is only when we struggle with and for what we love that we speak responsibly. The more distant one’s ties, the less one has a common base for critical conflict. What I have a right to say as a Catholic to Catholics is different from what I can say as a Christian to Protestants, as a sharer of biblical faith to Jews, as a religious person to Hindus. In each case we can engage in fruitful communication only when we have first established the ties that bind us together in community in a way that also respects the particularity of the other. Ecumenism means a shifting of the focus from attack on others to self-criticism. For example, the only group that could appropriately criticize the pope’s pastoral messages in the United States in October 1979 was not the Protestants, much less the "atheists," but the Catholics. This is as it should be.

Christians and Socialism

But the 1960s were the years not only of Catholic renewal but also of exploding social consciousness in America. I, like others in that "generation," became intensely involved in the civil rights movement in the south and urban north, in the antiwar movement and in feminism. I experienced these issues not as a series of alternating commitments but as an expanding consciousness of the present human social dilemma. This dilemma appears on many levels, from the intrapersonal and interpersonal questions of identity and relationship to the social, economic and ecological systems that we construct to incarnate human life in expanding networks. The pathology of unjust and distorted relationships takes different forms on different levels. But one can understand the ramifications of one such relationship, such as racism or sexism, only by tracing it in relation to the others.

I have gradually developed a methodology of analysis which I share with a community of thinkers who would identify themselves as both Christians and socialists. This means that, even when speaking of a particular issue, such as sexism, I am concerned to situate this issue in its interconnections with class, race and economic structures. This means also that I relate the critique of social pathology and the lifting up of social alternatives to the biblical prophetic-messianic tradition. This does not mean that the biblical heritage is just a parallel language for saying the same thing. Rather it is a way of grounding the whole struggle in order to give it both greater faith and endurance and better resources to criticize its own pathology than would be the case with a secular social analysis. But I believe that socialism and biblical faith are not for two different communities, one secular and the other religious, but for the same community, the human community, divided between its ambivalent reality and its hope for salvation.

Although many social critics have taken America as the particular scapegoat for contemporary evils, I have rejected anti-Americanism. If I criticize America more severely, it is again because it is my own, not because it is worse. I find it unhelpful and self-righteous to gorge oneself on self-loathing and to establish an imaginary relationship with foreign "guerrillas." If Americans are to relate social and religious criticism authentically to themselves, they have first to take responsibility for who they are. This means finding the points at which the American tradition of religion and politics can provide a positive base for change. For example, we should not reject the dearly won tradition of civil democracy but should expand its logic to include economic democracy in a way that can speak to the American conscience. It is at this point that I have disagreed with some of the more apocalyptic or countercultural critics on the New Left.

A Feminist Analysis

My concern for feminism has been long-standing but never exclusive. I have wished to ask which feminist perspective is most adequate to address the problem of sexism. Yet feminists fear the conflict between the desire for internal criticism and the need to avoid acrimonious factionalism. Feminism in the United States spans a broad ideological spectrum. Civil-libertarian feminism is primarily concerned with "equal rights" -- i.e., equal access of women to the public world of work, power and education. This feminism doesn’t question the economic system within which it seeks these equal rights. Another, much smaller group of feminists is made up of socialists who link feminism with fundamental changes in the economic relation of home and work, and the class structure of paid labor. A third feminism is countercultural. It is concerned more with radical changes in symbolic consciousness and sexual identities.

There are also religious counterparts to these positions -- evangelical and liberal Christian feminists and socialist Christian feminists. Radical cultural feminists believe that God the Father should be rejected in favor of a revived religion of the Goddess. Distinct feminisms appear in different ethnic and religious contexts -- black feminism, Chicano feminism, Jewish feminism and (let us hope) Muslim feminism.

Feminist ecumenism is no easier to establish than Christian ecumenism, especially because feminists are forming an identity in an embattled relation to dominant institutions. My view is that none of these feminisms are "wrong." Although women as a whole are marginated by sex, they also exist in relation to males of every class, race and religion. This means that feminism necessarily must take a number of specific forms in different contexts. A feminism that deals only with equal rights or only with sexual orientation is valid in its context. But an adequate feminist analysis must embrace the whole spectrum of the female condition in such a way as to take into account the different situations of non-Christian women, working-class women, black women, married women, etc. Ideological conflict comes from absolutizing a particular limited context and drawing dogmatic conclusions; i.e., "only lesbians are truly feminists," "feminists can’t be Christians," or "feminism is a white, middle-class women’s problem."

In terms of religious feminism, I have been critical of an evangelical feminism whose proponents believe that they can solve the problem with better translation and exegesis but cannot reckon with serious ideological and moral error in Scripture and tradition. On the other hand, I find the "rejectionist" wing of feminist spirituality engaged in serious distortions and pretensions. Although biblical religion is sexist, it is not reducible to sexism alone! It has also been dealing with human issues, such as estrangement and oppression and the hope for reconciliation and liberation. It has been doing this on male terms, failing to apply the same critique to women. Biblical feminists use these same liberating principles of the biblical tradition. But they make the principles say new things by applying them to sexism.

I believe that countercultural feminists delude themselves when they hope that somewhere there is a "pure" feminist religion or tradition from which one can overthrow. "patriarchy." All inherited culture, including the texts of goddess religion, has been biased in favor of men. Therefore, everywhere we must be engaged in a version of the same critique of culture. We must be able to claim the critical principles of every tradition and also to find how to transform the tradition by applying these principles to sexism. This means that our relation to every inherited tradition must be dialectical.

Finally, and most importantly, feminism must aim at a new community of mutuality for women and men, not a rejectionist community of women that impugns the humanity of men. This latter stance I regard not as a radical but as an immature position. That humiliated people succumb to desires for revenge is understandable; it is "only human." But it is not what I want to call "feminist ethics"!

If I were to define a common thread of thought and action that runs through the various issues, it would be that of dialectical methodology. A dialectical methodology seeks to be both radical and catholic in such a way that the radical side is not just an "attack," but the critical word of the tradition itself to judge, transform and renew it in new and more humanizing ways for all of us.