Two books by Rosemary Radford Ruether
Next is American Christian feminist theologian-scholar Rosemary Radford Ruether’s 2005 Goddesses & the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History. Ruether’s writing is clear and easy to follow as she elaborates her theorized connections between Neolithic and ancient Mediterranean goddesses, ancient and medieval masculine appropriations of women’s power, and modern spiritual feminist interpretations of the goddesses. It would appear Ruether’s intention is to provide a more nuanced view of some of the historical goddesses as essentially male creations supporting male interests, which are later appropriated by women for personal empowerment, and in this and other issues covered, Ruether’s work nicely exemplifies many of the issues which rive the study of the Divine Feminine. Sadly, this leads to a somewhat strained scholarly objectivity on her part, as the author dedicates an unfortunate number of pages to simplifying and consequently (unwittingly?) inaccurately representing those she disagrees with, while self-justifying her own work as having a more nuanced perspective than that attributed to her. She also devotes the majority of chapters to explanation of Christian and pre-Christian exegesis: an exploration of the relationships between gender, nature, and the deities in early Judaism; a review of Gnosticism, female mysticism, and Mariology in early and medieval Christianity; the mysticism inspired by a female-figured Wisdom in Protestantism; and an analysis of the melding of Aztec goddesses and Christian female symbolism in Mexico.
It is, however, somewhat perturbing that a book subtitled “A Western Religious History” addresses a limited number of South America goddesses only as they relate to Christianity, while completely ignoring the Caribbean syncretism of Christianity and the diasporically imported African goddesses — is this not precisely the female appropriation of (in this case Christian) “goddesses” and saints created by male interests which the author earlier decries? She further completely disregards the deliberate Christian ignoring, erasure, or re-gendering of the myriad female and bi-gendered deities of the entire North American continent. I consequently find incredibly problematic her assertion that modern feminist reclaiming of the ancient Mediterranean goddesses is inappropriate due to their being shaped within patriarchal societies to male ends — while simultaneously overlooking Christianity’s androcentric and bloodily misogynistic history in favor of suggesting the preeminent suitability of Christian “goddesses” for modern feminist spirituality. However, despite her unfortunate focus on minimizing the work of those she disagrees with, Ruether nevertheless closes with a strong declaration calling for a more ecofeminist version of Christianity, so that all earth-friendly spiritual believers may unite in creation of a life-giving community.
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Ruether attempts an even more pragmatic perspective in her 2005 book Integrating Ecofeminism, Globalization, & World Religions, though I feel its success is mixed. On the one hand Ruether concretely analyzes extant environmental problems through use of extensive empirical data, then describes potential treatments through an inspiring listing of contemporary resistance movements. Her critique of the current destructively global form of predominantly white, anthropocentric, capitalist patriarchy is intense and well documented, and she lucidly summarizes and integrates a great deal of material on these issues. Further, she clearly recognizes the damaging fragmentation amongst ecofeminist philosophers regarding the contentiousness of spirituality, and through international examples categorically states for the record that spiritual ecofeminists are emphatically neither apolitical, universalist, nor essentialist. Her understanding of permaculture as an integral element of ecofeminism, both social and physical, is compelling; her logic and intellectual rigor appear faultless.
That being said, it is disturbing that Ruether never states her standpoint. As she is a white, Christian, American academic, I question whether it is truly appropriate for her to assume a universal viewpoint which grants her the privilege of defining and speaking authoritatively for several religions across the globe — especially when she clearly favors one of the religions in her analyses — and calling upon their practitioners to pull together into her suggested ideals. Her positioning of Christianity as an apparently superior culminating example at the end of several chapters — and especially for her Conclusion — was quite off-putting. Her intellectual refutation of the military industrial complex and its global dominance and support for Western imperialism was cogent and well-reasoned — but this information is neither new, nor does she ever directly linked capitalism to religion (while it unfortunately could not make this semester’s Ecofeminism Comprehensive Exam book list, I would strongly recommend Anne Primavesi’s Gaia’s Gift: Earth, Ourselves, and God after Copernicus for a brilliant historical analysis which does directly link the birth and growth of unrestrained capitalism to religious beliefs). Indeed, as one of the largest international corporations in the world today, Catholicism has enormous potential for both reform and for resisting destructive globalization — which makes the lack even more disappointing. What redeems the book, I believe, is both Ruether’s logical and articulate writing, which speaks both to those new to ecofeminism as well as long-time practitioners, and the specificity of her extensive list of contemporary resistance movements.