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Teaching feminist theology to college students: the influence of Rosemary radford ruether.

I am honored to be here to say a few words about Rosemary Ruether's contributions to feminist theology. I first became acquainted with Rosemary's work when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1970s and feminist theology was just beginning to find its voice. In those days, there were no courses on feminist theology, and I learned about the literature from my fellow students at the Divinity School. During the last two years of my graduate studies, I began to read this new literature in feminist theology-some of it by Rosemary-and so when I started teaching fulltime in the fall of 1980, it made sense (at least to me) to put my reading into practice by teaching a course on women and religion. What I would like to share with you this morning is how Rosemary's work has helped me in my own teaching over the last twenty-two years.

Most of my teaching involves undergraduate students, although I have taught at schools with graduate programs for all but three of these years. My undergraduate students, for the most part, have not gone on to graduate study in religion--although a few have. For many of them, my course may be the only connection with feminist theology they will ever have. Rosemary's work has enabled me to share with my students some very important ideas and ways of thinking, and I would like to talk about how specific books of hers have impacted my own teaching and have taught both me and my students a great deal. I would venture to say that, indirectly, Rosemary Ruether's work has influenced hundreds of my college students; we can only guess, and hope, at the continuing impact it has had on them.

When I was asked to teach three courses in the fall of 1980 at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, I was assigned two sections of "Introduction to Theology" and one section of "whatever I wanted." I thought this third course would be the perfect opportunity to share with my eager students (remember, I was just beginning!) some of what I had been learning. And so I told my new department chair that I would teach a course called "Women and Religion." I received by return mail his concerned response. I was hired, he wrote, to teach "systematic theology" and how would such a course be "systematic theology"? Anne Carr was very helpful in responding, and with her advice, I wrote back to tell him that this would be a course in systematic theology: the doctrine of God, the person, Christ, church, sin and grace, from the perspective of women. He wrote back to say that this would be acceptable, but not what they expected. So when I walked into the classroom that fall almost twenty-two years ago, I was amazed th at what my students expected then was a course in the Blessed Mother and St. Joan of Arc. We were all in for a surprise!

On my reading list for that course were three books that Rosemary had either edited or written. Two of them were Religion and Sexism and Women of Spirit: both collections of essays on women throughout Christian history that either exposed the sexism of the tradition or filled in some of the blanks--or should we say, gaping chasms--in the history of theology. The other was New Woman, New Earth, a book that I still think is one of the most important books in feminist theology in the last thirty years. My students and I read this together and learned about the interconnection of oppression: how sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and the ecological crisis were all part of a way of thinking--dualistic thinking--that pitted one against another. This course was a learning experience all around. My students were shocked at how their own tradition had been so oppressive over the centuries, and often had to struggle with their anger over this situation. But they learned, as did I, that there was a much more complicated his tory than they had ever learned about. I still remember the efforts of one of my students at St. Norbert to learn more about the medieval practice of double monasteries. The work in Religion and Sexism and in Women of Spirit had really inspired her to do some research on her own; she went to the library at the nearby Norbertine Priory, where she was told (to her and my utter amazement), that there had been no double monasteries in the Middle Ages, something that she had just been reading about.

So, with the help of these books, my students learned about their own tradition's exclusion of women from history; how feminist scholarship has written women back into history; and learned as well about how we needed to rethink these issues in the present. The somewhat homogeneous population of students from the Chicago suburbs and Wisconsin that I taught learned to reflect on their own experiences in some new ways. For a beginning teacher--I was still working on my own dissertation--these resources were invaluable.

In 1983, Rosemary published Sexism and God-Talk and in the same year, I moved to western Pennsylvania to teach at Duquesne University. As at St. Norbert, I found myself to be the resident feminist theologian, with a few other feminist literary critics or sociologists or historians on the faculty, with whom to share ideas and experiences. Now that I had finished my dissertation, I was thinking of what I would do next, and Sexism and God-Talk was very important for me not only as a teacher but as a scholar. I used the book in my "Women and Religion" class, and it helped to define feminist theology not as "adjectival" theology, a phrase that my colleague Jamie Phelps coined, but as systematic: that is, feminist theology that raised all the big questions. Rosemary discussed how we are to tall about God/ess: whether a male savior can save women; and why malestream theology was so concerned with the afterlife. These were enormously helpful as I tried both to explain and all too often defend the field against the k inds of challenges and attacks that suggested that feminist theology was a trivial and marginal area with little bearing on "real" theology. My students continued to be mostly women and the occasional man interested in the area, despite advice from advisors against taking the course. For those students that took my course, Rosemary's work showed them how feminist theology was redefining the field. At the same time, "Women and Religion" as a catch-all course was becoming unwieldy as I tried to keep up with the burgeoning scholarship in feminist theology.

In about 1982, the movement known as Women-Church had its first meeting in Chicago. I was unable to go (I was furiously trying to complete my dissertation) but I did attend a meeting at the Grail in Ohio two years later. In Rosemary's address to the Women-Church conference, and in my experience at the Grail, I learned more about this movement and the new possibilities for women and ritual that were emerging. While I had been a graduate student, I had met with some of my women student friends for dinner and "liturgy" where we were excited but also often felt a little like criminals as we blessed bread and wine and shared them together. With the publication of Women-Church in 1985 there was now a resource for these liturgies, and again I shared these with my students, some of whom were shocked at the possibility of women celebrating a liturgy together. But for many this was also a profoundly liberating experience, as we all came to see ourselves as ritually competent, able to celebrate among ourselves, without Father, or whomever, to make this celebration "valid." Over the years, my students have developed liturgies of their own, which have often been a part of the "Women and Religion" or "Feminist Theology" classes I have taught, and perhaps--I like to think--they are still developing their own ways of ritualizing sacred moments in their lives.

If I have taught innumerable courses on Women and Religion over the last twenty-two years, I have also taught innumerable sections of Introduction to Theology. This course, especially when taught to first-year college students, is always a challenge and I am always trying to find new ways of introducing the subject that students will find interesting. So when Rosemary's short autobiography, Disputed Questions: On Being a Christian was published in 1982. I began to use it in the Intro, course as a way of showing how the ideas we had studied could have real impact on people's lives. There are a couple of points from Rosemary's book that stand out for me as really crucial for undergraduates. One is her own recounting of her experience as an undergraduate learning about the complex history of the Christian tradition, particularly the influence of Greek thought, and the other is her discussion of Jewish-Christian relations, and how from early Christology and theology up to the present we have been taught a distor ted understanding of Messianic expectations on the part of the Jewish people. These are lessons that are not "just" important for feminist theology, but are just plain important. Because my Intro. courses are not only women but draw many students--both male and female--who have no idea what to take and so think that Theology 100 must be the most accessible, Rosemary's ideas have impacted a much broader spectrum of students than those in the Women and Religion and Feminist Theology classes. I wish that book were still in print!

The book that has had a real impact on my students more recently has been Gaia and God. Many of my students are very serious about ecological issues and the exploration of the subject in Gaia and God has been eye-opening for my students, many of whom are surprised to find out that ecology and feminism and theology can be united in this field of exploration and study.

There is much more that I could say about how these books had an impact on me as a scholar; there is much more that I could say about other works of Rosemary's that I have used in the course of my teaching. But as I reflected on the books that I have chosen to read with college students over the years, it is striking how enduring Rosemary's work has been. Some very basic points come back again and again: the tendency of the Christian tradition to totalize and dualize; the insidious misogyny that continues to infect the tradition; the inter-relatedness of all forms of oppression; and the need to do good, sound historical work. If my students have learned some of these lessons, it is because I have had these resources to draw upon, and for this I am most grateful.

I would also like to say a few words about Rosemary Ruether as a Catholic feminist theologian. Our tradition is blessed with a good number of feminist theologians: Anne Carr (one of my graduate school mentors), Elisabeth Schilssler Fiorenza, Margaret Farley, Lisa Sowle Cahill, Elizabeth Johnson, and many others. It is a bittersweet moment for me to realize that the generation that set the pace for those of us who followed them-gasping and trying to keep up!-is now moving into retirement (Anne Carr is retiring next year). I am grateful to have come to know both Rosemary and Herman over the last few years, as we have shared reflections and worship. I do hope that Rosemary continues her lecturing around the country, despite the efforts of some church officials to keep her out of their dioceses. The voices of women like Rosemary Ruether are as much a part of the Catholic and Christian tradition as are the voices of the hierarchy, and Rosemary's work has inspired me and many others to speak and to write, to teach and mentor, in ways that we hope will transform the church in the years to come. Thank you, Rosemary, for your voice.

This paper was first presented at "Theology, Ecology, and Feminism," a conference honoring Rosemary Radford Ruether at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. April 3-4, 2002.

Susan A. Ross is Professor of Theology and Faculty Scholar at Loyola University Chicago. She is the author of Extravagant Affections: A Feminist Sacramental Theology (New York: Continuum, 1998).
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Author:Ross, Susan A.
Publication:Cross Currents
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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