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My ecumenical and interfaith journey.

My journey into an ecumenical and interfaith perspective began very early. Its roots lie in having grown up in a religiously plural family: Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Russian Orthodox, Quaker, and Jewish. My mother was a Roman Catholic of English, Austro-Hungarian, and Mexican backgrounds. She was a deeply committed person of faith who prayed regularly, read serious religious books, and attended mass daily, but she had no use for what she regarded as "ignorant superstition." Priests and nuns who said you were in danger of hell for eating a morsel of meat ten minutes into a Friday were dismissed with a wave of her hand. For her, Roman Catholicism was a serious intellectual tradition, not to be confused with guilt trips on petty matters. She gave her three daughters a firm but open-minded grounding in what it meant to be a Catholic.

My father was an Episcopalian of English-American roots, whose family came to Virginia in the late sixteenth century. His family had a pew in Christ Church Georgetown (Washington, DC) for generations. My father seemed to think of going to church as more of a social responsibility to his community than a religious experience, which he observed mainly on high holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. On those occasions my mother sometimes allowed me to accompany him to church, something not typical of "mixed marriages" in the 1930's and '40's. Although I mostly attended mass with my mother at Trinity Church, run by the Jesuits of Georgetown University, I came to think of the Episcopal Christ Church as part of my extended family.

My father's Aunt Sophie, a grand old lady in her nineties when I was growing up, had married a Russian diplomat in the 1870's and had lived in St. Petersburg and various European capitals during her husband's career. She spoke fluent Russian and French and wrote novels and folk stories from Russian history. Although Anglican by upbringing, through her marriage she had come to identify with her husband's Russian Orthodox tradition. My older sister studied French with our great aunt. Through her she came to cultivate an attraction to the Russian Orthodox Church and sought out a church of this tradition when she went to live in San Francisco in the 1950's. When I visited her I went with her to a small, lively Russian Orthodox church in that city. Having lived in Athens from 1947 to 1949 when my father was head engineer for reconstructing the damage done to the railroads and the Corinth Canal by the Nazis, I was familiar with the Greek Orthodox worship services in that country. Russian Orthodoxy felt to me like another branch of my extended family.

In my teens, after my father's death in 1949, my mother moved the family to La Jolla, returning to her roots in southern California. There I became very attached to several of her close friends from her girlhood. We called these friends "aunts," although they were not blood relatives. Several of these "aunts" had joined the Quaker meeting, which they saw as expressing their peace and justice inclinations better than the upper-class Anglican Church of their background. I was a student of art in those days, and these "aunts" got me involved teaching art classes to Mexican children at the Quaker meeting house. I became drawn to attending the silent Quaker meetings with them on Sunday, after attending Catholic mass with my mother. I found the Catholic mass and the Quaker meeting deeply compatible. I remember thinking that they were like the "outside" and the "inside" of the same reality. Both represented a collective experience of the holy, the mass in externalized sacramental form and the Quaker meeting in an interior contemplative form, devoid of outward words or symbols. It felt to me that the two enriched one another.

The fifth tradition of my extended family was Jewish. My Uncle David, married to my father's sister, was from a New York Jewish family. In the 1930's he and his two brothers were sympathizers with socialism and workers' rights. His brothers were both in the medical profession, while my uncle trained as an opera singer. He also was a talented artist. When he decided that he was not up to a career as an opera singer, he became an architect but retained a deep love of music and art that he passed on to his three nieces. Since he had no children of his own, we became his "adopted" daughters, particularly when my father was away in World War II. Uncle David was a nonobservant Jew. He did not go to synagogue or observe the High Holy Days in his household, but he loved the Jewish tradition and often referred to its expression in art history. Among his paintings that I inherited is one of an old rabbi. It hangs today on my wall next to a portrait of my uncle.

My uncle once contemplated becoming a Catholic and took instructions from Msgr. Fulton Sheen, but he decided against it. My mother told me this story sadly, when I was in my teens. She apparently felt that Uncle David had missed the opportunity to go on to a better religion. I remember feeling an immediate surge of pride in my uncle for choosing to remain who he was. I recall this moment with some surprise, since the assumption of the Catholic Church that shaped the school and church we attended was that he and everyone would be spiritually better if they were Catholics. Instead, I spontaneously felt that he should not repudiate his own tradition. My ecumenical and interfaith socialization in my family had evidently already shaped in me the assumption that there are many ways to God and that no one tradition has it all. I regard myself as privileged that this journey began for me very early, as an integral part of my childhood extended family.

It was with this general disposition toward religious pluralism, while still feeling securely grounded in a tolerant and self-critical Catholicism, that I entered Scripps College in Claremont, California, in 1954. There I was to experience sterner challenges to my belief that Catholicism "at its best," that is, my mother's Catholicism, held high values and traditions that could be in conversation with other traditions. Although Scripps College did not officially represent any particular form of Christianity, in 1954 (before Vatican II) the disposition of some of its faculty was that Catholicism was not compatible with intellectual enlightenment.

Scripps College in those days based its challenging curriculum on the "humanities." This meant a three-year immersion into the classical traditions of Western culture. In Humanities I in our Freshman year we were to gain a deep appreciation of the religion and culture of the Ancient Near East, of the Hebrew Bible, the Second Testament, and Greek and Roman philosophy and social thought. Our major professor of "freshman humanities," Dr. Robert Palmer, clearly preferred the culture of pagan antiquity to the Christianity that emerged as victorious in the third and fourth centuries of the Common Era. He championed the efforts of fourth-century "Hellenes," such as Libanius and Emperor Julian "the Apostate," who hoped to turn back the advance of Christianity by offering a neo-pagan Greco-Roman alternative. I remember Palmer's saying sadly of this failed Hellenic revival, "It had everything. Why did it lose?" He saw the victory of Christianity at the end of late antiquity as a deep tragedy, a loss of a higher culture that Christianity negated.

Yet, Palmer's views on the superiority of classical culture to Christianity seemed an interesting idiosyncrasy, not a blow to my faith. I felt that we had been opened up to appreciate the values of the religions of the Ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome, while Christianity proved its power by its prevalence. This added another set of cultural worlds to my growing pluralism. It did not abolish either tradition. What we had not been given was any way to evaluate the conflict between these two opposing worldviews.

This conflict, latent at the end of Humanities I, burst into intellectual violence in Humanities II. In this course, we studied the period from 800 to 1700 C.E. in Western Europe, the Middle Ages, and the Reformation. The guiding historian professor for these periods was a New England puritan, an aggressive champion of the Protestant Reformation, seen as reclaiming "true Christianity" lost in the "false" church of the medieval world. Just how this false church had arisen between the end of Humanities I, when Christianity "won" over the Hellenes, and the beginning of Humanities II in the early Middle Ages was never explained.

The readings we were given to illustrate medieval Christianity made it appear vulgar and corrupt, with no redeeming values. I remember no effort to discuss the great theologians of the period, such as Thomas Aquinas, or saints such as Bernard of Clairvaux. Needless to say, female figures such as Hildegard of Bingen or Julian of Norwich were nowhere on the horizon. The second half of Humanities II saw a dramatic turnaround. Luther and Calvin were the great saviors of Christianity, and the evil medieval Christianity was thankfully defeated. The fact that Catholicism hardly disappeared in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries--and even created its own renewal--was not discussed. The message that we got was that the heirs of the Reformation are the only authentic form of Christianity. Catholicism was defeated, fit only to disappear.

I came out of this class feeling intellectually and emotionally battered, treated to a distorted historical bias that gave me (us) no basis for fairness in evaluating the complexity of these two periods of formative Western history. Yet, there was no way that I could discuss this sense of deprivation. There was no resource on the faculty or among students that shared my feelings. It was simply assumed that I was a pathetic "case," afflicted with a bad ecclesiological heritage that I could not even discuss without revealing my vulnerability.

This view of my "problem" as a Catholic was made explicit in our next year in Humanities III, where we discussed the Enlightenment and modern European thought. In this class our leading professor was a militant philosopher of Anglican background who was openly anti-Catholic. At one point in a discussion group I tried to defend the Catholic Church by sharing my view that there were some positive intellectual traditions to be had in that quarter. The professor responded sharply by saying that I was wrong and that I needed to understand that, if I wanted to be come an educated intellectual, I would have to leave the Catholic Church! To be an intellectual was incompatible with Catholicism. I was silenced but not convinced.

Despite these setbacks, I did not give up my education. By that time, I had turned to the study of Greek classics with the Humanities I professor and to modern philosophy. In my M.A. and Ph.D. work, I focused on the study of patristics, reading in the Greek church Fathers with an Irish Catholic priest/scholar, and writing my doctoral thesis on the thought of the fourth-century Cappadocian church Father, Gregory of Nazianzus. (1) In him, among others, Greek rhetoric and philosophy found its synthesis with a vision of Christianity. Here, the two "incompatible" cultures found a working unity. I was preparing myself to become a church historian, to be a better interpreter for future students of these conflicts between the classical world and early Christianity and between the medieval world and the sixteenth century than I had received from my professors.

Yet, there were many unresolved issues in this religious history that shaped my heritage that needed to be addressed. One of them was Christian Antisemitism. What is the root of that hostility of Christianity toward its parent religion, the anger of Christians at Jews for refusing to be abolished and superseded by Christianity? This was an issue that for me had roots in that pluralism of my family religious reality, which included a surrogate-father Jewish uncle who wavered on the edge of conversion to Catholicism and then fled back to his Jewish reality. For me this division was captured by a brief conversation in my mother's bedroom when I was fourteen: She was sad that Uncle David had not converted, while I was spontaneously but silently happy that he had not done so.

In 1972-73 I was invited to teach for a year as a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School. I decided to research the history of Christian Antisemitism and develop a major manuscript on this subject: Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism. (2) In this book I showed how the Christian diatribe against Judaism goes back to Second Testament times. It was rooted in the rivalry between the Christian affirmation that Jesus was the Messiah expected by the Jewish tradition and the rejection of this belief by the established Jewish teachers. A bitter polemic was directed against the Pharisees, the rabbinic reformers at the time. The Pharisees are denounced as "blind guides and hypocrites," petty legalists who are strict in superficial matters and neglect "the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy and faith" (Mt. 23:23). They are said to be the "sons of those who murdered the prophets," "serpents, a brood of vipers, deserving of hell" (Mt. 23:31). In the Gospel of John they are called "children of the Devil" (8:44).

This polemic against the Jews and their religion hardened into fixed patterns in the writings of the church Fathers (second to sixth centuries), found particularly in the Adversus Judaeus writings. In these writings the Christian church claimed to be the true heir of the election of the People of God, while the Jews had always been unfaithful to God and killed the prophets and whose ultimate perfidy was killing God's son, the Messiah. Because of these crimes God cast off the Jews, condemning them to be homeless wanderers subjugated to the Christians who had now come to power in a world Christian empire. When Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, this polemic was translated into legal disabilities for the Jews. They were forbidden to proselytize, to own slaves (preventing them from running larger business or agricultural estates), or to hold political office. Popular riots, often led by Christian monks, destroyed synagogues. Leading bishops, such as Ambrose of Milan, rejected any compensation to the Jews for such destruction.

This pattern of polemic and legal disabilities was passed on to medieval and early modern Christendom. Jews were segregated into special sections of cities, made to wear identifying garb, and forbidden the normal range of activities. They were forced into functions forbidden to Christians, such as usury. During the Crusades Christian armies, on the way to fight the Muslims in the Middle East, stopped to sack and murder Jewish communities along the route. Jews were expelled from most European countries from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries.

Yet, Christian antisemitic polemic was not explicitly genocidal. Christians still held out the hope that Jews would eventually convert to Christianity. This hope was projected into Christian eschatology, becoming part of the "last things" that would happen when the Prophet Elijah returns, followed by Christ, but this ambiguity changed in modern Europe as religious anti-Judaism was turned into racial Antisemitism. Negative characteristics seen as part of Judaism were interpreted as expressions of Jews as a "race." Movements of antisemitic nationalism rose in nineteenth-century Europe that rejected the possibility that Jews could assimilate into European citizenship. They should be expelled altogether. These movements culminated in Nazism, which passed laws segregating Jews, confiscating their property, expelling them, and finally seeking to exterminate them.

After the atrocities of Nazism were revealed in 1945, many Christians in Europe and America sought to come to terms with this heritage of Antisemitism and to eliminate it from their teachings and practice. Faith and Fratricide sought to do this by a systematic critique of the patterns of Antisemitism going back to the Second Testament, and the ongoing teachings of the church. It was not, however, a Zionist book. I did not see the take-over of Palestine as the solution to Antisemitism, ignoring the resultant injustices to the Palestinians, and was disturbed when I realized that a certain segment of Christians was interpreting the State of Israel in this way. This resulted in a later book and articles that questioned what was happening to the Palestinians in Israel (The Wrath of Jonah). (3)

In the 1970's I was very absorbed in dialogue with Judaism and was not prepared to enter a very different dialogue with Buddhism, when John Cobb invited me to become a part of the International Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter, which he founded with Japanese Buddhist Maseo Abe. Eventually, I agreed to become a part of this dialogue and remained absorbed in it for the next several decades. Buddhism has become an important part of my expanding sense of interfaith relations.

The Buddhist-Christian dialogue met approximately every eighteen months for about three days at a time. For the first eight years it concentrated on what might be called "doctrinal" issues, comparing themes in the two religions that could be seen as parallel, but also representing different views of these questions. There was one dialogue on "Ultimate Reality: God or Nirvana?" Another was "Material Existence: Creation or Maya?" Then it was "The Founder: Christ or Buddha?" We went on to the topic of "The Path of Transformation: Conversion or Enlightenment?" The final topic in this series was "Religious Community: Church or Sangha?" This dialogue enabled me to see both the parallels and the great differences between the two systems of thought and practice. These differences were part of a coherent whole, but a different whole. Learning to experience each religion as complete, functioning worldviews in themselves made it clear that these religions could not be reduced to different ways of saying the same thing--or that one was better than the other.

After finishing this round of comparative theological questions, we decided to continue for a second series around social-justice issues. Here we were not discussing parallel theories but how each tradition approached social challenges. The first topic was ecology, a subject suggested by the Buddhist side. We then went on to war and peace, then to issues of poverty and economic justice. Our final topic was sexuality. Our groups had come to consist of about thirty members, divided equally between Christians and Buddhists, and between both Christians and Buddhists from Asia and those from the West. At each meeting there were eight papers, two by Christians on the Christian perspective and two by Buddhists on the Buddhist perspective, and two more by each side in response to the first set of papers. The papers were to draw on one's own religious experience, not primarily abstract scholarship. Through this dialogue we became good friends, and many came to see themselves as partaking of personal mixes of both traditions.

Rita Gross, on the Buddhist side, and I were often asked to do parallel papers on women's issues in the two traditions. We went on to do a conference together and then a book where we converse on what both Christianity and Buddhism has come to mean for each of us. (4)

My own exploration of religious traditions has continued over the years with Islamic-Christian relations and, more recently, with Hinduism and Jainism. This interfaith discussion has been deepened in the theological school where I teach with the development of an interfaith seminary, the Claremont (CA) Lincoln University. A consortium of theological schools of different traditions--Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain--is emerging here that promises a very different of way of training people to be religious leaders in their respective religious communities.

We have yet to discover what it might mean to discuss a topic such as Christology with a classroom of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as the latter two reject the Christian doctrine of Jesus as Messiah and son of God, although in different ways. My own hope is that this will lead not only to real discussions of differences but also to ways to understand the differences, not just polite silences when sensitive conflicts are present. I also hope that those of different religious traditions in the class can sometimes lead others to understand their own traditions better. I experienced this recently in teaching a class on medieval women's contemplative literature. Many of the Christian students in the class were not familiar with monastic contemplative experience. A Buddhist nun in the class was often helpful in bringing the Buddhist monastic tradition to bear in a way that helped Christians to understand what it means to live this path of religious life.

My ecumenical and interfaith journey over the years, personally and academically, has been a continuous and expanding process of enrichment that still continues. This has not led me to leave one tradition in which I was raised to join another but, rather, to expand into many relations, while remaining in conversation with my roots. I hope these kinds of journeys are leading more and more of us both to value other traditions and to learn to put our own in perspective, thereby becoming more and more of a global community of friends. (5)

(1) Rosemary R. Ruether, Gregory Xazianzus Rhetor and Philosopher (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969).

(2) Rosemary R. Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism (New York: Seabury Press, 1974; repr.: Portland, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1996).

(3) Rosemary R. Ruether with Herman J. Ruether, The Wrath of Jonah: The Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (San Francisco, CA. Harper and Row, 1989; 2nd ed.: Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002).

(4) Rita M. Gross and Rosemary Radford Ruether, Religious Feminism and the Future of the Planet: A Buddhist-Christian Conversation (New York: Continuum, 2001).

(5) See Rosemary R. Ruether, My Quests for Hope and Meaning: An Autobiography (Portland, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2013)
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Author:Ruether, Rosemary Radford
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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