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The Bonds of FreedomFeminist Theology and Christian Realism$

Rebekah L. Miles

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9780195144161

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0195144163.001.0001

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The Evolution of Cooperation and Consciousness

The Evolution of Cooperation and Consciousness

(p.90) Four The Evolution of Cooperation and Consciousness
The Bonds of Freedom

Rebekah L. Miles (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

An examination is made of Rosemary Radford Ruether's naturalist moral realism, whose naturalist, ecofeminist ethic locates both God (divine presence) and human norms in natural processes, particularly in evolution. Transcendence of immediate context and experience is possible through conscious participation in natural evolutionary development into the future. Ruether's moral realism is evident in her confidence that humans can know the good by looking to nature, including human nature, and this same confidence makes her an idealist about the potential to eliminate domination by creating new selves, theologies, and social structures. Moreover, Ruether's description of normative human nature focuses on boundedness to nature and the self's unique faculty of consciousness as an expression of nature; it does not include the human capacity for radical transcendence of or freedom over nature and consciousness. Thus, it is argued, Ruether offers grounding for moral norms in her naturalist moral realism, but she lacks a mechanism to judge those norms and to account for the resilience of human sin and the potential of human creativity to transmute nature.

Keywords:   consciousness, divine presence, ecofeminism, evolution, human boundedness, moral realism, naturalist moral realism, Rosemary Radford Ruether, transcendence

Rosemary Ruether's Naturalist Moral Realism

This chapter examines Ruether's naturalist moral realism as both a resource and a problem for a feminist Christian realism.1 Focusing on Ruether's understanding of human boundedness to and divine presence within the natural evolutionary process, I contend that her exploration of the moral norms expressed in the evolving natural environment and human nature offers a resource for the grounding of moral claims. This chapter also looks at Ruether's criticisms of Christian understandings of divine transcendence and human self‐transcendence as ideological tools to support elite male domination. Her alternative emphasis on divine immanence within and human boundedness to the created world is an expression of a cosmic evolutionary theory that she has drawn from ecofeminists, Teilhard de Chardin, and other process perspectives. I argue that her move away from transcendence and radical freedom and toward immanence and boundedness undercuts a critical perspective that is crucial for the judgment of patriarchal domination and the transformation of society that are the goal of her work. Without some capacity to radically transcend our social and natural boundedness, it is difficult to account for the sort of transformation that Ruether promotes. Thus, I maintain that her attempt to turn away from domination and toward empowerment prompts her to deny the very concepts that support empowerment and check domination. Moreover, I argue that because of the confidence of her moral naturalism, she lacks a consistent “political realism.”

Ruether's Task: A Summary

Ruether likens herself to a “great cultural recycler” who stands in an “enormous toxic waste dump of ideas and images, sifting through, trying to find some usable material to create a new world.”2 We must create this new world, claims Ruether, because our old ways of domination and exploitation have pushed us to the brink of environmental and social destruction. Many aspects of Western culture and classical Christian theology (particularly the appeal to a transcendent realm or transcendent experience) sanctify and maintain these relationships of domination.

(p.91) If we are to save ourselves and the earth, Ruether insists, we must reenvision our patterns of living and thinking. To survive, we must form a new consciousness or a new psyche, characterized not by domination and competition but by “biophilic mutuality,” a recognition of our mutual interdependence with and responsibility to each other and the earth. Ruether claims that the new consciousness is already emerging. Indeed, she hopes that her work will play a “part in that new consciousness and social vision.”3 To this end, Ruether, fulfilling her vocation as “cultural recycler,” sifts through Western culture and science, eclectically choosing that which promotes biophilic mutuality or empowered interdependence and discarding that which encourages domination. The goal of her labors is the formation of a “new humanity,” a “new soul,” and even a “new religion” for a “new earth.”4

Ruether's descriptions of the two choices—the mode of domination or the mode of biophilic mutuality—are similar to common feminist distinctions between power over and power with.5 She rejects both dominating, coercive power and the abdication of power, while promoting a community‐based, mutual empowerment. Her theological criticism and reconstruction, including her criticisms of transcendence and her movement toward immanence, grow out of this root concern about power and domination.

What is the source of human domination? According to Ruether, humans and other animals have natural internal powers or “life drives.” When used rightly, according to its natural interdependency, the life drive can work for the benefit of human life and of the earth. But when humans (especially elite males) become anxious, their exercise of this natural power becomes competitive. They “maximize [their life force] at the expense of others.”6 This distorted power is always insecure. To safeguard their own power, those with overextended life drives appeal to the transcendent for legitimation. In their anxiety, they deny the finitude and interrelatedness that is the reality of their embodied existence. Ruether criticizes those aspects of theology that support domination, such as an appeal to a transcendent realm or to a powerful, male God.7 She claims that such models of God are projections of the desire of elite males to legitimate their power by associating themselves with a transcendent God. These males then associate women and other less powerful people with nature. This theological hierarchy underwrites unhealthy domination.

Human domination, or the overextension of human life drives and the denial of natural interdependence, then, is the cause of our current environmental crisis, as well as many other problems in human history. Throughout her work, Ruether's analyses of racism, anti‐Semitism, sexism, environmental misuse, and other problems stem from her rejection of domination and exploitation and her affirmation of responsible interdependence and mutual empowerment. This norm drives her reevaluation of Christian theology, including transcendence, and her proposals for new, biophilic theology and ethics. Ruether's reevaluation and new proposals draw on a broad range of textual resources. She combines some parts of the Bible with other ancient stories, recent social and political theory, the ecological sciences, ecofeminist theory, and other diverse resources to develop “a working paradigm of some main trends in our consciousness.”8

(p.92) The primary source of theological reflection is experience. In a 1967 letter to Thomas Merton, Ruether wrote that she “distrust[s] all academic theology. Only theology bred in the crucible of experience is any good.”9 While experience is the “starting and ending point” of all theology, feminist theology draws especially on women's experience and works for the full humanity of women.10 At the same time, Ruether's theology draws heavily on the experience of the whole ecosystem and works from a broader norm of biophilic mutuality.

Ruether's theological ethic, including her alternative understanding of power as biophilic mutuality, is grounded in her model of natural evolutionary development. Drawing on Teilhard de Chardin (modified by recent process and ecofeminist perspectives), Ruether describes a process of cosmic growth in which energy becomes organized in increasingly complex ways.11 The creative energy within this process will occasionally reach a boiling point and cause a leap in the complexity of organization. Human consciousness and altruism represent the growing edge and greatest complexity of this evolution. In human life, this natural process reflects on itself. Humans thus have a unique role in creation. They are bound to and dependent upon creation. And through consciousness and altruism, they can reflect on and transform some aspects of creation. This capacity is not separate from nature; it is, instead, a part of natural evolutionary development. Consciousness and altruism reflect and emerge from the natural interdependency of this process. Thus, when Ruether speaks of nature, she refers to all of life, including history. The divine is also in this process. Ruether speaks of God as the “primal matrix” of energy that grounds this process and draws it forward. Thus, both God and human moral life find their locus in this process.

Ruether's theological ethic is also dependent on recent ecological theories that emphasize the cooperative interdependence and interrelationality basic to healthy ecosystems.12 Human failure to live within this natural interdependence will lead to the destruction of the environment and human life.

Thus, Ruether's theological ethic emerges from her model of nature. The locus of human moral reflection is natural evolutionary development. Humans reflect on this process to discover the norms by which to live responsibly. The laws of cooperative interdependence and interrelationality are visible throughout the created world. Moreover, human altruism and consciousness also provide laws for human life that can further the natural development. A responsible moral actor lives within and accepts these two parts of human reality: human boundedness to natural process and the human ability to reflect on and change the process through consciousness (which is also a part of the natural process). The good is that which furthers this natural process of mutual, interdependent cooperation or biophilic mutuality. By contrast, those acts and systems that undermine interdependence by encouraging competitiveness and domination distort the values inherent in the evolutionary process and authentic human nature.

Ruether's use and understanding of religious language is informed by her model of creation. She insists that all language about the divine is analogical.13 Because of her model of nature (of which the divine is the ground), she is able to claim that some analogies are better than others. As we will see, she criticizes patriarchal understandings of a transcendent, monotheistic God as a projection of (p.93) elite male desire to have ultimate control over nature and women. These projections represent distortions of the natural order of biophilic mutuality. By contrast, she suggests that an understanding of the divine as the primal matrix or ground of this creative evolutionary process is an expression of a more authentic way of being or a “fuller” divinity.14 Although all human language is limited, Ruether suggests that we can know something of the divine. Because the whole of life is profoundly interrelated and because God is the ground of this process, the divine is somehow reflected in the process. Thus, patriarchal God language is described as distorted projection, while the model of the divine as primal matrix is more reflective of reality.

In summary, Ruether's ethic centers on her model of nature. A cosmic natural‐historical evolutionary process is the locus of the divine and of human moral reflection and action. Moral responsibility entails the attentiveness to and furthering of the laws that are a part of nature, including human nature. A human social, psychic conversion from domination to biophilic mutuality demands new social structures and new theologies. Without these changes, humans may destroy themselves and nature.

Problems and Causes: Global Crisis of Domination

The presenting issue for much of Ruether's work is a global crisis of domination. Ruether has continually linked many social, economic, and environmental problems to domination by male elites. In an influential early essay, “New Woman and New Earth,” Ruether insists that the environmental crisis cannot be resolved “within a society whose fundamental model for relationships continues to be one of domination.”15 Connecting the domination of women, the poor, African Americans, and nature, Ruether goes on to call for an “alternative value system” that moves away from “drives toward possession, conquest, and accumulation to the values of reciprocity and acceptance of mutual limitation.”16 She repeatedly links the domination of women to that of other oppressed groups and proposes a “mutually supportive . . . cooperative model of fellowship of life systems.”17

Ruether's warnings about the devastating consequences of domination have become increasingly dire. She describes the “ ‘four horsemen’ of destruction,” human population growth, environmental devastation, global militarism, and massive poverty, which bear down on us and threaten “irreparable destruction.”18 Because of these interconnected problems, human life, as well as the life of all plants and animals, is at ultimate risk.

An Etiology of Domination: Mothers and Transcendence

Sin: Life Drives Gone Wrong

If a mentality of domination is responsible for many of the world's ills, then what is the origin of domination? For Ruether, our life drives are not necessarily destructive. (p.94) So, what causes them to become distorted? Ruether points to a mix of social and ideological roots of this distortion. The life force becomes “evil,” according to Ruether, when it pursues its own good at the cost of others and thereby ignores its natural interrelationship with all of life. She writes, “There is a tendency in the life drive itself in each species to maximize its own existence and hence to proliferate in a cancerous way that destroys its own biotic support.”19 Because of the human ability to manipulate its environment, the overreaching of the life drives is especially dangerous.

The proper direction and management of this drive are central both to a healthy ecosystem and to responsible moral life. The “good,” then, “lies in . . . a balancing of our own drive for life with the life drives of all the others in which we are in community, so that the whole remains in life‐sustaining harmony. The wisdom of nature lies in the development of built‐in limits through a diversity of being in interrelation, so that none outruns its own ‘niche.’ ”20 Let no one doubt which segment of the ecosystem is the most guilty of overreaching “its own niche.” Ruether points the finger at elite males who “have learned to maximize their own lives, both for leisure and consumption over against other humans.” And the overextension of power is sin. Ruether writes:

The central issue of sin . . . is the misuse of freedom to exploit other humans and the earth and thus to violate the basic relations that sustain life. Life is sustained by biotic relationality in which the whole attains a plenitude through mutual limits in interdependency. When one part of the life community exalts itself at the expense of the other parts, life is diminished for the exploited. Ultimately, exploiters subvert the bases of their own lives as well. An expanding cycle of poisonous hostility and violence is generated.21

So, sin is the exaltation of one's own power and freedom at the expense of another's. Ruether also describes the opposite problem as sin.22 Some people (especially women) do not express this life drive actively enough. They passively give in to the selfish life forces of others and fail to take responsibility for their own lives and for the ecosystem. They lose themselves and fail to enact their own agency. Thus, sin, writes Ruether, is not only “competitive hate” but also “passive acquiescence to needless victimization.”23

Many feminist theologians have made similar claims about women's sin.24 They have criticized traditional theology for its focus on the “male” problem of sin as pride or selfishness as a universal human experience and its insufficient attention to the “female” sin as lack of self‐identity. It is ironic, then, that Ruether gives much greater attention to the sin of domination or the overextension of the life force than to sin as abdication of the life force. This sin of domination is, however, the primary cause of our current plight according to Ruether. But why does the life force go bad? If biophilic mutuality is one of the laws of nature, why is it so often broken?

Mothering and Male Anxiety: The Creation of Domination

Ruether suggests that one of the causes for the corruption of the life drive is the social structure of many human families and communities. The argument that (p.95) many gender differences arise out of matricentric parenting is common to much feminist theory.25 Because girls are raised primarily by a caretaker of their own gender, they experience the world differently than boys, who are raised primarily by a caretaker of a different gender. Girls see themselves in continuity with the mother‐caretaker. Their identities, then, are formed in connection with their environment and their primary relationship. Conversely, boys find their identity as males in discontinuity with and even in opposition to their mother‐caretaker. Male animosity and social domination of women and others, claim many feminists, is related to their place within matricentric family structure. Ruether describes this process as “the basic insecurity of the mother‐parented male who makes his way to adult male status through mother‐negation.”26 The mother's power is threatening to the male. In the ensuing anxiety, he overemphasizes his own life power to find security. This “pattern is itself the breeding ground for male resentment and violence, rooted in male strategies of exploitative subversion of women's power.”27

Ruether does not simply focus on the psychological implications of female parenting for gender formation. She also emphasizes the social implication for women's power. Because women are often tied to more menial, child‐rearing responsibilities, they are excluded from other activities—often those with the greatest power and prestige. The double workload of women in most societies is a significant problem for the formation of just communities.28

Ruether claims that the pattern of male domination of females is the model for other domination.29 A hierarchical dualism is set up in service of elite males and transferred onto other relationships. “This view of women as inherently inferior, servile, and ‘carnal’ beings creates a symbol system which is also applied to the relations of masters and slaves, ruling and subjugated classes.”30 Consequently, an examination of the domination of women by elite men sheds light on the broader problems of domination through society and our ecosystem. If one could identify the ideological underpinnings of the domination of women, one would also find the justification for a larger web of social and environmental domination that threatens our survival.

Transcendence and the Sacralization of Male Power

A primary ideological support for elite male privilege is an appeal to a transcendent realm or experience. Elite males justify and sanctify their privilege and power by associating themselves with a higher realm. This justification carries wide‐ranging social consequences. For Ruether, domination is not, of course, limited to family and individual relationships described previously, but emerges from and is built into the broader social structure. Moreover, it is supported and “sacralized” by historical narratives, cultural myths, and theological categories. These larger cultural patterns thus cause and promote the distortion of the life drives. Just as individual males were threatened by the power of their mothers, males in society were threatened by the power of female reproduction and the power of nature. They establish their own power by identifying themselves with a transcendent, non‐natural realm. Sexism emerges, then, from this distortion. Ruether writes, (p.96) “Sexism is rooted in the ‘war against the mother,’ the struggle of the transcendent ego to free itself from bondage to nature . . . making one half of humanity . . . the symbol of the sphere to be transcended and dominated.”31 The God of patriarchal religions, such as Christianity, underwrites this sexist dualism. Indeed, this dualism finds its “ultimate theological rationale,” according to Ruether, in the image of God as transcendent father.32 Thus, many traditional understandings of God are projections of male need.

Unlike some feminists who explore the origins of the oppression of women, Ruether does not posit an original matriarchy that was overthrown by patriarchy.33 Instead, Ruether traces the increasing sacralization of the domination of women through the development of complex social organization—especially in the growth of urban civilization. Elite males, fearing the power of nature and women's natural creativity and wanting to secure their own power, posit a higher transcendent realm with which they associate themselves. Within this development, Ruether recognizes “the roots of evil.” Evil lies, she writes,

in patterns of domination, whereby male elites in power deny their interdependency with women, exploiting human labor and the biotic community around them. They seek to exalt their own power infinitely, by draining the lives of these other humans and non‐human sources of life on which they depend. They create cultures of deceit which justify this exploitation by negating the value of those they use, while denying their own dependence on them.34

The primary concept within this culture of deceit is transcendence. Elite males in the West have justified their own power by the creation and maintenance of the idea of a supernatural or spiritual realm transcending nature and body to which they have special access. Divine transcendence is the supreme projection of male anxiety and male desire to secure and extend power.

Ruether sees several stages in the development of this “culture of deceit” that rely on a hierarchical division between the transcendent and the finite to underwrite elite male power over women.35 Ruether claims that primitive agricultural and village cultures exhibited greater equality between men and women, as well as greater connectedness between humans and the rest of the natural world.36 Though Ruether is not looking back to an original matriarchy, she does point to the importance of female nature deities in many ancient Near Eastern cultures. She suggests that the Goddess represented the profound sense of connection that these people felt with nature and each other. In describing this ancient understanding of the Goddess, she writes, “We can speak of the root human image of the divine as the Primal Matrix, the great womb within which all things, Gods and humans, sky and earth, human and non‐human beings, are generated. Here the divine is not abstracted into some other world beyond this earth but is the encompassing source of new life that surrounds the present world and assures its continuance.”37

In contrast to this model of continuity, a further stage is characterized by the partial conquest of the mother. When the male God overcomes the mother Goddess (as Marduk overcomes Tiamat), he derives his power from her. His power is distinct from but still dependent on the female power and the power of nature. A (p.97) still further stage of the sacralization of male power is centered on the “negation of the mother.” With the development of urban civilization, ruling males needed to justify their own control because, as Ruether writes, their “power was no longer based on physical prowess of the hunter or warrior, but on the inherited monopoly of political power and knowledge. . . . The cultural spokesmen for ruling‐class males began to develop ideologies of both class and female inferiority to justify their position.”38

These justifying ideologies centered on the negation of the power of women and nature and the extension of male power into a transcendent or spiritual realm. In this stage of development, the mother's power or the Goddess's power is seen to be demonic, and male power is separated from nature and the body into a spiritual level. The male thus denies his dependence on women and nature, which are associated with a lower realm. Within Judaism, monotheism emerges out of this negation of the mother and nature. Ruether writes, “Male monotheism becomes the vehicle of a psychocultural revolution of the male ruling class in its relationship to surrounding reality. . . . [It] begins to split reality into a dualism of transcendent Spirit (mind, ego) and inferior and dependent physical nature.”39

According to Ruether, the negation of the mother and of nature is seen in many genesis stories, including the one found in the Hebrew Bible. The power of creation is taken away from nature and women and given over to a spiritual male realm. She writes:

Nature, which once encompassed all reality, is now subjugated and made into the lower side of a new dualism. . . . A struggle ensues against the old nature and mother religions by prophets or philosophers who portray it as immoral or irrational. Consciousness is abstracted into a sphere beyond visible reality. . . . This higher realm is the world of divinity. . . . Matter is created by an ego‐fiat from a transcendent spiritual power.40

Taken to its extreme, this hierarchical dualism finally denies the power of nature completely. In modern capitalist society, nature is valued only for its role in production.“There is an effort to sterilize the power of nature altogether, imagining it as dead stuff totally malleable in the hands of men in power.”41

Thus, the powerful, transcendent God of Western monotheism is, for Ruether, a legacy of this negation of female power and a denial of the finite world. Elite males gain control over women and nature by

linking their essential selves with a transcendent principle beyond nature which is pictured as intellectual and male. This image of transcendent, male, spiritual deity is a projection of the ego or consciousness of ruling‐class males, who envision a reality, beyond the physical processes that gave them birth, as the true source of their being. Men locate their true origins and natures in this transcendent sphere, which thereby also gives them power over the lower sphere of “female” nature.42

Traditional claims about transcendence are, in the end, projections of this dominating mentality. Ruether writes of the “will to transcend and dominate the natural and social world. The exclusively male God . . . transcending nature and dominating history . . . is the theological self‐image and guilty conscience of this self‐infinitizing spirit.”43 A comprehensive cultural and theological system (p.98) to support elite male power over women and nature develops out of this sacralization of male power. Larger patterns of cultural assumptions about women and men grow out of these early structures of domination. Males come to be associated with rationality, autonomy, volition, transcendence, and fortitude. Women are linked with passivity, bodiliness, irrationality, weakness, and dependency.44

These “female” traits are devalued and come to be associated with nature and many other marginalized groups. In an intriguing article on the striking similarities of Christian elite's portrayals of both female witches and Jews, Ruether offers one of many examples of the linkages between the devaluation and control of women and that of other less powerful groups.45 These broad systems of hierarchical dualisms are supported by the dominant mentality, including Christian theology. The mentality that has developed from these patterns of domination distorts and threatens the natural evolutionary process. The “linear,” “left brain,” “dualistic,” “dichotomized” thinking found in “dominant white Western male rationality” must be transformed.46 Ruether claims that “ecological thinking,” which “integrates left‐brain linear thought and right‐brain spatial and relational thought,” expresses and furthers the natural evolutionary process.47

In summary, this theologically supported system of domination is destructive not only for women but also for the whole ecosystem. The belief in a transcendent, all‐powerful God undergirds elite male structures of domination by setting up hierarchical dualisms. These dualisms ultimately devalue the finite and encourage the abdication of power and human responsibility for the world. What is needed, then, is an understanding of God that is radically immanent in natural processes and gives value to those processes.48

Much theology promotes and sustains a cycle of violence and domination. In our generation, this cycle has so accelerated the potential for devastation that even the most powerful cannot hide from it. Ruether's graphic and detailed depiction of the coming environmental and social destruction is tendered not as an apocalyptic prophecy of unavoidable doom but as a goad to action. Likewise, an account of the human history of domination (including its theological components) is offered not only as an indictment of elite males but as a catalyst for social transformation. Transformation requires the recognition of past mistakes. Ruether writes that “a search for a truthful account of one's history is the collective analog of psychoanalysis. The resolution of neurotic habits in the present is related to the discovery and acceptance of a true account of one's past.”49 To find such a resolution or healing for humanity, human beings must see themselves and their pasts clearly and recognize the massive patterns of deceit out of which they have lived and been formed. Only then may one begin to establish a new consciousness, a new ethic, and a new theology.

Solutions: From Domination to Biophilic Mutuality

Ruether's theological ethic goes beyond the criticism and analysis of the problems of domination. She proposes practical solutions to create a more mutually loving society that lives in greater cooperation with the natural environment. Her suggestions (p.99) for creating this new humanity, new consciousness, and new earth reflect a striking confidence in human nature, the natural environment, and large‐scale social organization. This confidence is grounded in her understanding of nature. As we saw, Ruether claims that human consciousness is the most complex expression of natural evolutionary growth. Through greater attentiveness to this process, humans can further evolution through social manipulation.

A New Humanity

Ruether charges that the dangerous patterns of exploitation are caused by human denials of their natural interdependency with each other and nature. Humans are not only the primary cause of ecological destruction but also, as responsible co‐creators, the sole hope for renewal and healing. A new vision of co‐creation calls for a recognition of our biophilic mutuality. Humans would recognize their interdependence with and responsibility for each other and all the world. Such a turn toward biophilic mutuality would lead not only to new social structures and better environmental conditions but also to “a new type of social personality, a ‘new humanity’ appropriate to a ‘new earth’ . . . even a new religion.”50

A New Prophet: The Scientist

How is this new humanity known? Ruether turns to the natural world itself as the primary source for her ecofeminist ethic. She insists that the patterns of interrelation and cooperation visible in healthy ecosystems should be the model for human interactions with each other and the biosphere. Those who study these systems, the ecological scientists (particularly those not necessarily mainstream scientists who support an ecofeminist reading of the natural world), are the new ethical guides or visionaries. “We need scientist‐poets who can retell the story . . . in a way that can call us to wonder, to reverence for life, and to the vision of humanity living in community with all its sister and brother beings.”51 In her turn to the ecological sciences as the primary source for her ecofeminist naturalism, she proposes “some restoration of the classical role of science as normative or as ethically prescriptive.”52 What, then, do Ruether's ecological scientists tell us about the ethics of nature?

Solutions: A New Ethic

A Summary

Ruether's naturalist ethic has two linked components.53 First, the “laws of Gaia” are those patterns discernible within the ecosphere that promote its health and sustainability. Cooperative interdependence of the life drives is the key factor. Second, the “laws of consciousness and kindness” are those unique capacities of human nature that allow us to reflect on and improve our world and our condition. These characteristics are very much of nature and Gaia because they embody (p.100) its “evolutionary edge.” In them, the cooperative interdependence or biophilic mutuality of the ecosystem is made reflective or conscious of itself. Humans are “the ‘mind’ of the universe.”54 She suggests that God is the source of this capacity or the process from which it emerges. Ecological ethics is, she writes, “an uneasy synthesis of both these ‘laws’: the law of consciousness and kindness, which causes us to strain beyond what ‘is,’ and laws of Gaia, which regulate what kinds of changes in ‘nature’ are sustainable in the life system of which we are an inextricable part.”55

This tension between the givenness of the natural laws of the earth and the freedom (the “straining beyond what ‘is’ ” ) involved in the laws of consciousness and kindness is reminiscent of Niebuhr. As we will see later, Ruether's interpretation of human “boundedness and freedom” is very different from that of Niebuhr. She is much more confident both that humans can know the laws of nature and that the laws of nature are good. Another difference is her understanding of human uniqueness not as self‐transcendence but as consciousness (or the thinking impulse) and altruism. Moreover, Ruether sees these capacities as much more closely connected with the natural process than does Niebuhr. These capacities grow out of and reflect the natural evolutionary process. By contrast, Niebuhr's human self‐transcendence, though a part of human nature, suggests a greater discontinuity with the natural and social worlds. These differences will be explored more fully in the concluding chapter.

The Laws of Gaia: Relationality and Interdependence

For Ruether, “Gaia” refers to the “living and sacred earth.”56 In her use of this term, she follows the lead of many who envision new models for ecojustice.57 For some ecofeminists, though not for Ruether, Gaia is the radically immanent Mother Goddess replacing the transcendent Father God. But Ruether uses the word “Gaia” to represent the natural processes of the earth whose voice is interpreted by ecological scientists.

The role of the ecological scientist is prophetic and visionary in this age because humans are not accustomed to listening to the voice of nature. Ruether writes throughout her works of the silencing of this voice within Western thought. The classical division of nature and body from soul and intellect, which she traces in its Greek and Christian developments and its rootedness in the male domination of females, is a source of the destructive disengagement of humans from environmental responsibility; nature and body are denied in favor of a transcendent realm. To become responsible again, humans must turn away from these patterns of domination and transcendent hierarchical dualism toward a new model of mutuality. Humans must affirm their ultimate dependence on, relationship to, and unity with their good bodies and all of the natural world.58 The study of nature is an ethical guide for survival. Thereby, we may learn “the laws by which nature, unaided by humans, has generated and sustained life.”59 These laws are not merely descriptive but also prescriptive, suggesting “guidelines for how humans must learn to live as a sustaining . . . member”of the world community.60

(p.101) What laws, then, are revealed through the long‐silenced voice of nature? The primary relationships of healthy, sustainable ecological systems, claims Ruether, are those of interrelation and cooperative interdependence. Humans must realize, as the first lesson of Gaia, that all is interrelated.“Recognition of this profound kinship must bridge the arrogant barriers that humans have erected to wall themselves off.”61 The second lesson from the study of the natural world is “coevolutionary interdependency.”62 As members of the ecosystem evolve together, patterns of interdependence are created. Any human destruction of one part of the system leads to dramatic changes in another. Harmony and balance of the web of interrelated life drives in the ecosystem are necessary for the good of the whole and the parts.

This cooperative interdependence as normative nature is both a fact of the ecosystem and a positive moral good. Ruether relies on recent studies that refute the common Darwinian assumption that competition is the primary relationship within nature.63 In fact, within such an interdependent system, “any absolutization of competition that causes one side to be wiped out means that the other sides of the relation thereby destroy themselves as well.”64 By focusing on competition, on power as domination or control, humans are alienated from the very creatures and systems on which they depend for their survival.65 The laws of Gaia emphasize both the factual reality of interrelation and the moral necessity of cooperative interdependence. These natural laws offer clear moral guidelines for human life. They are good parts of the natural world.

The Laws of Consciousness and Kindness

Ruether claims that even these crucial laws are not sufficient for human life. Nature, she claims, is “not capable of completely fulfilling human hopes for the good.”66 Humans have a second set of laws that are a part of human nature, the human capacities for consciousness and kindness. While these “laws” of consciousness and kindness distinguish humans from other creatures, they are also the development or the growing edge of the natural evolutionary process itself. They are not separate from the rest of nature but reflect the biophilic mutuality found throughout the ecosystem. Through consciousness and kindness, humans are able to further the natural laws of cooperative dependence and live in biophilic mutuality with nature. Human altruism is a further expression of the cooperative dependence of nature. “Human ethics should be a more refined and conscious version of this natural interdependency, mandating humans to imagine and feel the suffering of others, and to find ways in which interrelation becomes cooperative and mutually life‐enhancing.”67

Thus, the laws not only reflect the values of the natural process but also allow humans to further develop those values. At the same time, consciousness and kindness allow humans to “strain beyond what ‘is.’ ”68 Through consciousness, humans are able to reflect on their condition and that of the world and to imagine that it might be other than it is. Through altruism, humans have compassion on and want the best for their fellow creatures. These two factors are the sources of ethical reflection. Ruether writes: (p.102)

Fundamental to human experience is a basic sense that things are not as they should be. Self consciousness allows humans to stand out from the environment and image better alternatives, in relation to which both the natural world and human society are judged as lacking. It would be better not to be cold, hungry, in danger of injury and death . . . or subjected to strife within one's own community. The categories of good and evil are absolutized extrapolations from these more concrete experiences of negativity and preferred alternatives.69

Conscious human life, then, is able to “stand out from” the environment, reflecting on it and imagining better ways of being. This capacity for thinking and imagining is the source of human ethical reflection. Because human consciousness emerges within and should further the natural process of development, the conscious self can look to the cooperative values of nature as a guide.70 When humans use these unique faculties to further cooperation and to enhance the life drives or energy of all of life, they are acting for the good. But when humans use this same capacity to imagine alternatives for the advancement of their own life drives in competition with and at the expense of others, they are acting for ill.

These human capacities are not only “of nature” in the sense that they reflect and may further the biophilic mutuality of the ecosystem. They also “arise from natural evolution” and are even “the ‘growing edge’ of nature itself.”71 Humans are the conscious part of the natural world process in which the energy matrix becomes organized and aware of itself. Ruether writes that “humans alone, amid all the earth creatures and on all the planets of these vast galaxies, are capable of reflective consciousness. We are,” she insists, “the ‘mind’ of the universe, the place where the universe becomes conscious of itself.”72

Ruether's description of human consciousness as an expression and development of the natural process is drawn in part from Teilhard de Chardin's model of nature.73 Ruether describes creation as a dynamic organic process. The world is made up of patterns of energy that grow into more and more complex forms. Human consciousness is the most complex level of this development. Ruether writes, “Consciousness comes to be seen as the most intense and complex form of the inwardness of material energy itself as it bursts forth at that evolutionary level where matter is organized in the most complex and intensive way—the central nervous system and cortex of the human brain.”74

Thus, for Ruether, the human consciousness or thinking dimension is a natural development of an evolutionary process in which that process becomes conscious of and reflects on itself. Consciousness is “where this dance of energy organizes itself in increasingly unified ways, until it reflects back on itself in self‐awareness.”75 Thus, because of this consciousness and altruism, humans have a unique role within creation. For both Teilhard and Ruether, these capacities are related to the divine. Ruether writes that human consciousness and kindness “point to an aspect of the source of life that is also an impulse to consciousness and increased kindness that is still imperfectly realized. We humans are the evolutionary growing edge of this imperfectly realized impulse to consciousness and kindness.”76 Thus, the growth of these capacities in human life points to something beyond human life that is the source of the process. The development “expresses (p.103) this deeper source of life ‘beyond’ the biological.”77 For Ruether, “to believe in divine being means to believe that those qualities in ourselves are rooted in and respond to the life power from which the universe itself arises.”78 Thus, human nature and the evolutionary process are somehow reflective of the ground of that process. Humans are the growing edge in the process of which God is the ground. We will examine Ruether's understanding of God more fully later.

Though Ruether's model of nature is very similar to Teilhard's, she does distance herself from some aspects of his thought. The relation of the conscious self to the material is a point of difference. Ruether rejects his suggestion that the complexity of the process will eventually develop to the point where matter disappears and energy is organized only as divine consciousness. Ruether affirms, instead, the goodness of the material and the ultimate relation of consciousness and the divine to it. Moreover, Ruether rejects the “hierarchicalism of [Teilhard's] evolutionary theory.” Human consciousness is distinctive but should not separate or raise humans above the rest of creation. Human intelligence is the “ ‘thinking dimension’ of the radial energy of matter.” Though consciousness is a “critical breakthrough” in the process, it is still ultimately dependent on the process and responsible to it. “The privilege of intelligence,” she writes, “is the responsibility to become the caretaker and cultivator of the welfare of the whole ecological community.”79

This responsibility to care for the community is contrasted with the destruction and domination that Ruether links with “dysfunctional” patriarchal thinking. “White western male rationality” has distorted these natural cooperative patterns, turning instead to domination and hierarchical dualism.80 Ruether suggests that the new emerging consciousness or intelligence is more reflective of the natural world but is also transforming of the natural. The conversion of “our minds to nature's logic of ecological harmony . . . will necessarily be a new synthesis, a new creation in which human nature and nonhuman nature become friends.”81 Both the destructive and creative possibilities of the human relationship with the rest of nature stem from its unique capacity to reflect on and change the environment. “Humans alone perpetuate their evolutionary advances primarily through cultural‐social means.”82 Because of this capacity, humans have the potential either to further the creativity of the natural process or to destroy the natural process. Ruether attempts to articulate a vision for a new consciousness so that humans will turn away from domination and destruction and toward cooperative interdependence with nature.

Human consciousness, then, is both an expression of and responsible to the natural evolutionary process. Responsible moral actions are those that are attentive to the laws of nature and of consciousness and kindness and that further the natural development of cooperative interdependence. Irresponsible moral actions are those that distort nature and human nature by turning away from biophilic mutuality and toward domination. These options are supported by different theologies. Thus, to save the world from environmental and social devastation, Ruether criticizes patriarchal theologies and works to develop a new theology for this new consciousness.

(p.104) Solutions: A New Theology

Norms and Sources

If some aspects of classical Christian theology are complicit in the construction and maintenance of systems of domination, then that theology needs to be reconsidered. Ruether's sweeping and systematic reworking of Christian theology operates primarily out of the norm drawn from the laws of Gaia and of human consciousness and kindness. That which encourages biophilic mutuality or cooperative, empowering interdependence is good. That which promotes domination and competitiveness is bad. The norm of biophilic mutuality, though explicitly delineated only in her most recent work, is implicit in many of her theological arguments. Even when she focuses on the norm of the full humanity of women, her arguments suggests a broader concern. In Sexism and God‐Talk, Ruether writes:

Whatever denies, diminishes, or distorts the full humanity of women is, therefore, appraised as not redemptive. Theologically speaking, whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine, or to reflect the authentic nature of things. . . . This negative principle also implies the positive principle: what does promote the full humanity of women is of the Holy, it does reflect true relation to the divine, it is the true nature of things.83

Though Ruether focuses here on the norm of the full humanity of women, it is important to note that her arguments themselves suggest a broader norm, explicit in more recent works, that includes but is not limited to the full humanity of women. The arguments are driven by the assumptions that those things that promote biophilic mutuality or the balancing of life drives for the benefit of creation are good and holy. In contrast, structures or ideas (such as divine transcendence) that promote domination and passivity are bad.84

The idea of transcendence is one of the primary theological culprits in this dangerous structure of domination and submission. As we have seen, Ruether contends that the human appeal to divine transcendence and its own transcendent capacity is a ruse to cover or justify its own domination of “others” who are seen to be less transcendent and more bound to the material. This division sets into motion the hierarchical dualisms that are at the root of our current social and economic crises. Christian theology has been a leading promoter of this ideology of domination. Christianity and other traditions of the West, while in many ways responsible for the ideologies and structures of domination, also offer resources for criticizing and undermining domination. Ruether writes that they “have not only created domination and cultures of deceit that justified domination. They have also created critical cultures designed to unmask deceit and spiritualities that awakened compassion for others, thus rebuilding culturally the balances of self‐limitation and respect for the lives of others that make for good community.”85

One of the primary Judeo‐Christian traditions on which Ruether draws is the (p.105) “prophetic liberating strand” of Scripture that provides an internal principle “by which Biblical faith constantly criticizes and renews itself.”86 The prophetic strand criticizes “dominant systems of power” and speaks of God's activity on behalf of the oppressed.87 This principle is normative for Ruether because it corresponds to her natural ethic of biophilic mutual empowerment.

Ruether's whole theology is built around this model of a mutually empowering ecosystem. Consequently, the test for an appropriate theological resource is not its honored place in the canon. The final judge of a theological symbol or formula is not whether it is confirmed by revelation or validated within the vast web of Church tradition or verified by human reason or established in Scripture. The first and last judge of any theological resource is the extent to which it creates persons, communities, and social policies that support mutually empowered interrelatedness and discourage domination within the ecosystem.

Given this norm, Ruether insists that “feminist theology cannot be done from the existing base of the Christian Bible.”88 Because the Bible “sacralizes patriarchy,” women must turn to a broader range of texts in order to “develop . . . a new canon.”89 To that end, Ruether offers a collection of texts “as a working handbook from which such a new canon might emerge.”90 Selections from traditional Christian sources, other ancient myths, new feminist rituals, recent political and feminist theory, and ancient Greek philosophy are all examined together on equal footing.91 These resources are judged according to their promotion of domination or biophilic mutuality. She claims that her exploration of different traditions is an attempt to develop “a working paradigm of some main trends of our consciousness.”92 Keeping in mind her comprehensive norm and eclectic canon, I now turn to several categories of Ruether's theology.

Dualism, Domination, and Transcendence

Kathryn Rabuzzi claims that for Ruether dualism is the root of human error.93 And, indeed, throughout Ruether's work, one of the primary criticisms leveled at Christianity and other Western traditions is that they are profoundly dualistic. But Ruether's arguments about dualism appear to be grounded in a deeper human error, that of domination. Within Ruether's examination of theological categories, that which promotes hierarchical, dualistic systems of domination is rejected and that which promotes a more egalitarian, mutual empowerment is promoted. The link between dualism and domination is transcendence.94

The domination by elites is supported by a division of the world into a hierarchical dualism of transcendent spirit and finite matter. Gender divisions are the primary model for this social domination. Ruether writes, “Whereas the male is seen essentially as the image of the male transcendent ego or God, woman is seen as the image of the lower, material nature.  . . . Gender becomes a primary symbol for the dualism of transcendence and immanence, spirit and matter.”95 These patterns of gender division are carried into other forms of social domination. The elites associate themselves with a transcendent realm and their subjects with a lower earthly existence. For Ruether, this hierarchical dualism is dangerous because of the way it is used by dominant groups to make weaker groups into “the (p.106) other.” Ruether claims that a dominant group tries to cement its power by associating positive characteristics with itself and negative characteristics with the group to be dominated. The dominant group asserts its natural rights to domination on the basis of characteristics it confers on its own group. Thereby, its own life drive is extended at the expense of others. Those in power associate themselves with the transcendent, the rational, the active, the good, the wise, and the spiritual. And they associate slaves, women, or other devalued groups with negative attributes of passivity, weakness, irrationality, and moral and bodily impurity. Ruether claims that the dualistic objectification of women by men was the model for all other hierarchical, dominating dualisms,96 and a transcendent God is its primary justification. She writes, “The ultimate theological rationale for the hierarchical symbolism of masculinity and femininity is the image of God as transcendent Father.”97

Many feminist theologians have joined Ruether's criticism of patriarchy for its production of hierarchical dualisms.98 These dualisms, the argument runs, are created by the dominant class to support their own power and further their over‐reaching life drives. The model of hierarchical dualism is central to the Christian tradition, claims Ruether, and it places in jeopardy the sustenance of a healthy, mutually empowering world community. Again, the chief theological support for these hierarchical dualisms is the appeal to a transcendent God.


Ruether's examinations and criticisms of ordained ministry run throughout many of her works.99 For years, she has called not only for the inclusion of women into the given structure of clericalism but also for the total revamping of the system itself. Her primary criticism of the hierarchical division between lay and clergy is that it is disempowering to the laypeople, especially to women. This hierarchical dualism encourages the unhealthy system of domination in which we now live. Male elites, including clergy, overreach their own life drives in the name and under the supposed authority of God; less dominant people are encouraged to abdicate their own power and responsibility. Clericalism is suspect, then, not only for its traditional association of the minister and maleness with God but also because it promotes domination and disempowerment. More recently, Ruether has called for the complete “dismantling” of clericalism because of its thoroughly patriarchal character. New, mutually empowering forms of community should be created. Ruether's promotion of “women‐church” is a response to this call.100

The elimination of clericalism calls for more than a change in polity. According to Ruether, male clericalism is supported by the appeal to a transcendent power. Ruether writes:

I have already shown that the ultimate theological rationale for the hierarchical symbolism of masculinity and femininity is the image of God as transcendent Father. . . . This image allows the king and patriarchal class to relate to their women, children, and servants through the same model of domination and dependency. . . . This image of [clerical] leadership splits the Church into two groups, a clerical caste who represent the transcendent “male” principle hierarchically related to a “female” or (p.107) “passive” principle. Both clericalism and the pacification of the laity operate out of this symbolic psychology. . . . The people assume the prone, passive position before the raised altars and pulpits of the “fathers.101

Thus, to alter the polity that sets the people “prone” before the “pulpits of the fathers,” its theological underpinnings must also be transformed. Ruether argues throughout these systematic categories that the appeal to a transcendent realm must be rejected as a cover for male power.


The criticism of hierarchical dualisms extends to Ruether's understanding of evil. Ruether rejects simple good and evil dualisms.102 She claims that humans, especially dominant humans, tend to deny the evil within themselves by projecting it onto other people and especially onto less powerful groups. A primary justification for abuse and domination is the association of the “other” with evil by virtue of their supposed link to the carnal and the concurrent association of the male elite with a pure, transcendent realm. Thus, an appeal to transcendence allows the dominant to justify their oppression of another as evil. The labeling of a particular group or person as evil is an illusion. There are no evil people or evil powers, claims Ruether. There are simply evil relationships, that is, relationships in which the life drives of the participants in the relationship are not balanced. Ruether writes:

Evil comes about precisely by the distortion of the self‐other relationship into the good‐evil, superior‐inferior dualism. The good potential of human nature then is to be sought primarily in conversion to relationality. This means a metanoia. . . into mutual interdependence. . . . Sin, therefore, has to be seen both in the capacity to set up prideful, antagonistic relations to others and in the passivity of men and women who acquiesce to the group ego.103

Sinful relationships and distorted life drives are to be overcome, finally, in a holy conversion from competitive domination to relationality or empowering biophilic mutuality. By building new social structures and designing new ideologies, humans may grow toward greater altruism and consciousness and away from distorted relationships.


Ruether's examinations of Christology follow a similar line of argument.104 Those Christologies that emphasize Jesus' maleness as normative necessarily encourage the domination of women by men and are, consequently, not acceptable. Jesus' liberating qualities, not his maleness, are normative for Ruether. Moreover, exclusivist Christologies that emphasize Jesus as the divine Logos are unacceptable because they promote hierarchy. “Christology becomes the apex of a system of control over all those who in one way or another are ‘other.’ ”105 So, if understandings of Jesus' power and/or maleness encourage hierarchical domination on the one hand and female or lay obedience and disempowerment on the other, (p.108) then they are unhealthy. Acceptable Christologies emphasize Jesus as normatively liberating, not normatively male. Moreover, Christ is not limited to the Jesus of history but is disclosed again and again. Indeed, we can find Christ “in the form of our sister. Christ, the liberated humanity, is not confined to a static perfection. . . . Rather, redemptive humanity goes ahead of us, calling us to yet incompleted dimensions of human liberation.”106


These themes are also evident in Ruether's examination of the place of Mary in Christian theology.107 She asks if the veneration of Mary is healthy and good for the world and for the promotion of biophilic mutuality. If Mary is portrayed as a model for women's obedience and as a passive natural instrument or recipient of the dominating power of a transcendent God, then the answer, of course, is no. According to Ruether, this view is supported by the elite male desire to protect its own power. “Mariology has its appeal for males because it enshrines the dominant ego and active principle as masculine in relation to women, who become the symbol of passive dependency upon the male.”108 The veneration of Mary is appropriate only if she is portrayed as actively “choosing” pregnancy and faithfulness.109 Mary, properly understood, is shown to be a model for a responsible “new humanity freed from hierarchical power relations, including that of God and humanity.”110 Mariology, then, can be a force for the promotion of mutual empowerment and connectedness. However, if Mary is presented as passive matter through which an active transcendent power moves, then Mariology is a tool for domination. Thus, Ruether again draws the connection between domination, transcendence, and dualism.


Ruether's arguments about God and God language follow a similar tack. As we have seen, she is not merely proposing the use of inclusive, gender‐free names for God but a radical reshaping of our traditional understandings of God. She claims that traditional Christian appeals to a powerful and transcendent male God undergird a theology of domination that creates and sustains dualisms that are oppressive for women and others. Such a transcendent God, especially when tied to male language and images, instead of relativizing all human power, gives legitimacy to the powerful and perpetuates elite male subjugation of women, nature, and less powerful males. Moreover, divine transcendence, by placing ultimate value outside the world, encourages the devaluation of nature, body, and finite existence.

Ruether's understanding of God, then, attempts to overcome the dualism that associates a transcendent, powerful God with the good, the spiritual, and the masculine, and the natural world with the evil and the feminine. This dualism encourages and even excuses the overreaching of the life drives of the powerful and discourages the enactment of power and responsibility in the less powerful. Responsibility is discouraged when passivity is affirmed as a human value. Even (p.109) parental language for God is questioned because it suggests that humans are in the position of children, and so have little power or responsibility. Ruether writes, “God becomes a neurotic parent who does not want us to grow up. To become autonomous and responsible . . . is the gravest sin against God.”111 The concern, then, is that many traditional ideas and much language about God promote disempowered dependency and justify human domination. Whatever images and language are to be used for God, they should not encourage humans either to overreach or to abdicate their power.

Ruether turns to the language of “God/ess” to refer to the “primal matrix” of life. This “sign”“point[s] toward that yet unnameable understanding of the divine that would transcend patriarchal limitations and signal redemptive experience for women as well as men.”112 She claims that she is not simply opting for a radically immanent earth Goddess. “Ecofeminist theology and spirituality has tended to assume that the ‘Goddess’ we need for ecological well‐being is the reverse of the God we have had in the Semitic monotheistic tradition; immanent rather than transcendent, female rather than male identified, relational and interactive rather than dominating, pluriform and multicentered rather than uniform and mono‐centered.”113

Ruether suggests that we need not a reversal but a more “imaginative solution” that does not fall into the spirit‐matter dichotomy. In a discussion of the ultimate unity of matter and energy on a subatomic level, Ruether writes, “Thus what we have traditionally called ‘God,’ the ‘mind,’ or rational pattern holding all things together, and what we have called ‘matter,’ the ‘ground’ of physical objects, come together.”114 Thus divinity includes and unifies these aspects of life.

This conception is drawn from Ruether's process model of natural evolutionary development, which was previously described. The divine is the ground or source of that dynamic organic process of which humans are the growing edge. Ruether uses many names to refer to God/ess. The divine is called “the great womb,” the “primal” or “empowering matrix,”“the World egg,”“the encompassing source of new life,”“the ground of being,”“Divine Wisdom,”“the Great Self” and “the ongoing creative matrix of the whole.”115 These names point toward the divine as the source, power, and unity of the evolutionary organism.

We saw that Ruether's understanding of God is linked to human consciousness. In the human mind, the energy of the universe or the primal matrix is organized. Human consciousness is the “growing edge” of the evolutionary process.116 Our consciousness “reflects back on” this process. Ruether writes, “humans alone, amid all the earth creatures and on all the planets of these vast galaxies, are capable of reflective consciousness. We are . . . the ‘mind’ of the universe, the place where the universe becomes conscious of itself.”117 Human consciousness and altruism point toward the matrix of the evolutionary process. Ruether claims that that which “has flowered in us as consciousness must also be reflected in that universe as well, in the ongoing creative Matrix of the whole”118 Our unique human capacities express “this deeper source of life ‘beyond’ the biological. . . . To believe in divine being means to believe that those qualities in ourselves are rooted in and respond to the life power from which the universe itself arises.”119

Thus, our unique human capacities reflect something beyond us. They point (p.110) to “the source of life,” which is “also an impulse to consciousness and increased kindness that is still imperfectly realized. We humans are the evolutionary growing edge of this imperfectly realized impulse to consciousness and kindness.”120 For Ruether, then, the divine is not separate from, but one with, the entire cosmic process. This natural process includes both matter and consciousness. Therefore, God/ess is not subject to the divisions of matter and spirit or immanence and transcendence, because the whole process is a unified, dynamic pattern of energy that expresses itself in both matter and consciousness. In human consciousness, “the mind of the universe” reflects this “impulse” to consciousness and kindness that is the source of life.

Thus, Ruether's model of nature (including humans and the divine) is a unified, growing process of mutuality. In contrast, the characteristics that she finds in patriarchal theology (dualism, domination, and transcendence) are a distortion of authentic nature and the divine. Patriarchal theology is a “dysfunctional” and “distorted” system that is “imposed” to underwrite domination. God/ess theology, by contrast, reflects authentic reality.121 She writes of patriarchy:

This world arises in revolt against God/ess and in alienation from nature. It erects a false system of alienated dualisms modeled on distorted and oppressive relationships. God/ess liberates us from this false and alienated world . . . as a constant breakthrough that points us to new possibilities that are at the same time, the re‐grounding of ourselves in the primordial matrix, the original harmony. The liberation encounter with the God/ess is always an encounter with our authentic selves resurrected from underneath the alienated self.122

Ruether suggests that this new theology and way of being reflect the true nature of reality and the divine. By living out of this cooperative interdependence, humans will uncover their authentic selves and a truer understanding of the divine. Humans are called to live out this new vision not only in the creation of new theologies and psyches but also in the transformation of social structures. Ruether's optimism about fundamental social, theological, and psychological transformation is rooted in her model of the natural world.

New Social Structures

The recognition of human capacities for cooperative mutuality and the formation of new theologies are not enough for Ruether. Real change requires “a fundamental restructuring of all these relations from systems of domination/exploitation to ones of biophilic mutuality.”123 To transform ourselves and our worlds, then, we must imagine new social structures. Within these structures, humans are formed—either for good, for biophilic mutuality, or for ill, for domination or submission. Ruether's call for radical social change is found throughout her work. These proposals show a profound optimism about the potential for social change and about the impact of social change on the production of new psyches.

(p.111) New Families

If matricentric child‐rearing practices are among the causes of the male tendency to domination and the female tendency to passive acquiescence, then those practices must change for the health of the individuals and the ecosystem. For deeper social change to come about, men need to partake in the normal routines of childcare and housework.124 Ruether writes, “They need to do regularly what they have hardly ever done. . .:feed, clothe, wash, and hug children from infancy, cook food, and clean up wastes. Only when men are fully integrated into the culture of daily sustenance of life can men and women together begin to reshape the larger systems of economic, social, and political life.”125

These changes would do more than simply free up the time and energy of the many women who spend themselves in the maintenance of the home. The participation of males in child rearing and homemaking would also alter the formation of gender identity. If the psychological need for a transcendent realm develops, in part, out of male insecurity and overindividuation, then a change of gender formation and gender identity will undermine the need for a transcendent realm to sacralize domination. These proposals for new families suggest that social conditioning is the cause of the “crisis of domination” and can be the locus of new ways of being. They reflect Ruether's optimism about the capacity of humans and their social structures for profound transformation.

New Communities

The locus of human healing and reformation is not limited to the family. Local communities that share in worship and social action can also participate in the change of human psyche and soul.126 These small communities are not to neglect international issues but are encouraged to think and act both “locally” and “globally.”127 These “base communities” have several tasks. They are to encourage the creation of “personal therapies, spiritualities and corporate liturgies by which we nurture and symbolize a new biophilic consciousness.” These liturgical communities are reminiscent of the women's groups called for in Ruether's Women‐Church.128 The communities use local institutions as “pilot projects of ecological living.” Ruether's works are replete with recommendations for the day‐to‐day function of such “pilot projects.” They also build networks for interacting with other communities and with national and international systems in order to overcome global social and environmental domination.129 Although the community structure is small in scale, the intended impact is massive and widespread. Transformation not only of social structures but also of the human souls is the intended result.


Ruether does not stop with these changes in family and local community life. She also turns to broader political systems that were created to meet the sick needs of distorted human psyches. One of the primary “systems of political life” in need of (p.112) reshaping is militarism. Ruether connects the dominating mentality of militarism to the matricentric family structure. She writes, “I have suggested that the isolated male ego that demands invulnerable and dominating power over others is shaped developmentally through negation of interdependency with women, in the context of woman‐exploited child raising. But this type of masculine ego finds its most global manifestation in militarism.”130

Thus, militarism is the most threatening expression of men's isolation and competitive life drives. The achievement of true biophilic mutuality is not possible simply through the transformation of life drives in families or local communities. “Genuine demilitarization across the board . . . ” she writes, is “the sine qua non of any genuine, ecologically sustainable, biospheric economy.”131 The power drives of the elites keep this “system of destructive power” in place. Ruether calls for a “conversion . . . or change of heart . . . that recognizes that real ‘security’ lies not in dominating power and the impossible quest for total invulnerability, but rather in the acceptance of vulnerability, limits, and interdependency.”132 Militarism is crucial for Rosemary Ruether because it represents the epitome of the dominating male mentality that she opposes and that her new humanity and theology would transform.

New Government Policies

Ruether offers sweeping proposals for concrete policy changes that she contends would discourage systems of dominating power and promote biophilic mutual empowerment.133 She calls for a dramatic decrease in fossil fuel use. She promotes the complete revamping of transportation systems, including the “phasing out” of private automobiles. These changes would require the creation of new living, working, and recreational communities that decrease the use of private transportation. She suggests that we should “return to seasonal patterns of food, produced and distributed” regionally.134 Her lists of proposed changes are comprehensive and detailed. The transformation of the human psyche away from a hierarchical dualism that supports domination by appeals to a transcendent realm thus requires widespread social change. Clearly, these proposals reflect her optimism about the possibilities of radical social change and about the subsequent transformation of human values and psyches.


Ruether's continual reference to concrete suggestions for social change reflects her confidence in human nature and communities. Through the examination of the laws of nature and the expression of these laws in the capacities for consciousness and altruism, humans can know and do the good. Moreover, humans can create better social structures for the production of healthier psyches. Thus, social conditioning is both a part of the problem and a part of the solution.

(p.113) A Feminist Christian Realist Response

A Summary

As we have seen, Ruether's theological ethic develops from her model of nature. The locus of moral reflection and the divine is the natural evolutionary process. Human consciousness emerges within this process and has the capacity to further it through social change. To guide this change, moral norms can be known from nature, including human nature. Because humans have ignored these natural laws, the natural world (including human civilization) is on the brink of destruction. To save the world, humans need to develop social structures, psyches, and theologies in keeping with these natural laws. Ruether sees her theology and ethic as a part of this evolutionary transformation. She criticizes and hopes to transform the dominating mentality of elite males and the submissive mentality of women and other subordinate peoples. According to Ruether, the powerful justify their domination by associating themselves with the transcendent and the “other” with nature. The hierarchical dualism set in motion by this appeal leads to the cycle of domination and violence that is at the heart of the present social and ecological crises. Ruether's wide‐ranging theological revisions and social strategies are designed, then, to lessen domination, to ease the pain of subjugated peoples and the environment, and to promote “biophilic mutuality.” To this end, she proposes that we attend to and follow the laws of nature and the evolutionary development of consciousness and kindness. We can move beyond our difficulties by furthering the true nature of ourselves and the whole evolutionary process of which the divine is the ground. My primary question is simple. Given this analysis, will Ruether's naturalist moral and theological realism support her goal to undercut dominating power and promote mutual empowerment?

Analysis and Appropriation: Ruether's Naturalist Realism

When Ruether speaks of nature, she refers to the whole evolutionary process that includes nonhuman creation, human nature, human social forms, and the divine. Consequently, all of her ethic (including her theological realism) emerges from a naturalist realism. Next, I examine different aspects of this ethic.

Nature, Ethics, and Domination

Ruether's ethic and her hope are based on her assumptions about the cooperativeness of life forms in the natural world and the evolutionary growth of altruism and consciousness. Just as the natural world exhibits mutual dependency, so humans may further this natural tendency as they act altruistically in the world. This assumption raises several obvious questions. Given the brutalities of nature—including human nature—described in her work, is her hope firmly grounded? Is nature fundamentally cooperative? Do human beings have a growing capacity for altruism? If so, how do we account for the tenacity of sin, evil, and (p.114) domination? Given her optimism about nature, Ruether has difficulty making sense of the persistence of evil in human life and the violence in nature.

Moreover, Ruether's argument assumes that cooperativeness and interdependence are normative because they are the patterns that are said to exist in nature. This raises several questions. First, does the existence of a pattern in nature make it good for human life? Does the is justify the ought? If competition and survival were the laws of nature, including human nature, would those laws be normative? This question is made more serious by the fact that Ruether's ecological theories about the extent of cooperative mutuality in nature are by no means universally accepted. It is not difficult to imagine that some scientists would (and do) find less palatable laws and patterns in nature. If the male domination of the female is common among most animal groups, is it normative? This is not, of course, an idle question. Scientists have made that claim. Moreover, Christian natural law arguments have often turned to nature to justify male domination. If a feminist Christian realism were to draw substantive moral claims from human boundedness, it would have to account for and build in checks against these dangers of arguments from nature. It would also have to counter the tendency of ecologically based ethics to look out more for the interests of the whole than the interests of the individual.

Social Transformation: Coercion, Freedom, and Biophilic Mutuality

Ruether's naturalist ethic leaves her with a clear mandate and plan for the good life and good human communities. Her detailed political and social recommendations stem from her confidence in nature, human nature, and human communities. We can know the good; we can enact social changes to transform human psyches. If we educate and socialize properly, humans can move away from domination and toward biophilic mutuality. We can further the natural evolutionary process by social means.

Thus, Ruether's ethic leaves her confident about the possibility of creating a “new humanity” through social changes. The problem of how the world is converted from the old humanity to the new humanity, from domination to empowerment, raises troubling questions. Though our natures have a deep potential for goodness, according to Ruether, the radical distortion of our consciousness and the danger we present to each other and to the whole creation could hardly be more grimly painted. As we saw, Ruether compares her task to the “great cultural recycler” who stands in an “enormous toxic waste dump of ideas and images, sifting through, trying to find some usable material to create a new world.”135 Though Ruether produces scores of plans and blueprints for this social transformation, it is unclear, given her picture of the radical extent of our distortion, how we get to her new world from our present location in the toxic garbage heap. Moreover, given the reality of human domination, it is unclear what we do to maintain both some semblance of order and the protection of freedom in the meantime. Ruether generally rejects domination and hierarchical authority without explaining how we maintain some protection from life drives run amok, short (p.115) of the coercive rule of law. On a few occasions, however, she affirms coercive authority without delineating its limits. She is open to the possibility of extreme government control, not for basic protection or order but for the actual forced creation of “healthy psyches.” In a partial defense of communist China from Western criticism, she writes:

The drive for full equality for women in China shows no signs of stopping with a formal equality before the law. . . the Chinese have engaged in a prolonged cultural revolution intended to tear down and overthrow the psychological structures of hierarchicalism and elitism. The traditional elites of society have been forced to rub their noses in the dirt of peasant labor, while the traditionally subordinate groups have been encouraged to criticize tendencies to elitism in the former mandarins. Students criticize teachers; peasants, city folk; nurses, doctors; children, parents. This is intended to create a revolution in consciousness which destroys the traditional orders of authority and creates direct participation at the base. Women, the oldest subordinate in every hierarchy, find ample encouragement to struggle against every manifestation of chauvinism . . . . Emancipation is seen as a continual struggle to create a new culture, a new psychology, as well as a new social order . . . this authoritarianism gives women an immense advantage. It would be the male who would have to acknowledge his incorrectness if he were to be convicted of chauvinist ways of thinking.136

This quotation points to a crucial tension—even a contradiction—in Ruether's work. On the one hand, she denounces coercive hierarchies throughout her work. On the other hand, she defends in this quotation the use of extreme coercion and control to create a new, nonpatriarchal mentality. And, it is difficult to imagine that the radically distorted life drives and social structures that she describes so vividly for us could be changed significantly without substantial coercion. Moreover, the radical nature of Ruether's own suggestions for social change would seem to require some political force. But given Ruether's consistent rejection of domination and her affirmation of mutuality, she does not have a structure to justify this move. Even so, she seems to claim in this quotation that domination is justified in the name of the creation of new psyches. But how could one be forcefully coerced into a mentality of biophilic mutuality and empowerment?

Perhaps Ruether's partial acceptance of Chinese authoritarianism is itself an odd sort of evidence of her confidence in human nature and particularly in social groups. Because of her faith in social planning for the creation of a new psyche, she is more open to stringent government control. In the interest of promoting mutual empowerment or furthering the evolutionary process, authoritarian restrictions are justified. If some feminists argue that Niebuhr is too optimistic about the moral capacities of the self and too pessimistic about social groups and governments, perhaps Ruether represents the opposite problem. In this quotation, she justifies extreme social control for the sake of creating mutually cooperative societies and individuals.

In addition, Ruether's support of extreme government coercion for the sake of the “good” suggests that she may give a relatively low status to human freedom. The development of a certain type of human psyche that is consistent with natural evolution is more important than the maintenance of freedom of the self (p.116) to redefine and transform itself and its societies in radically new ways. In this evaluation of Chinese communism (admittedly an exception in Ruether's broader affirmations of socialist democracies), we see a greater emphasis on order and control than on freedom. Although this quotation is unusual in Ruether, it does reflect issues in her socialist plans for transforming cultures and psyches. To initiate Ruether's vision, our government would have to have much broader power and greater control than it now has. Again, this seems to point to a relatively higher value placed on order and community good and a lower value placed on freedom and individual rights. This tension is not strange for a natural law thinker, but it does present problems for feminists and others engaged in struggles for liberation. Given the profound limits that have been placed on women's freedoms by coercive governments and social structures, most feminists tend to be wary of any claims for extreme government coercion.

This position stands in contrast, of course, to Niebuhr, who advocates social coercion and control not so much for the creation of healthy psyches but to protect the interests of the weak and to constrain the powerful. Moreover, though he sees the necessity of government, he is always a political realist in his evaluation of it. And he supports forms of government (such as democracy) that place checks on the political powers. Of course, in his early years, he, like Ruether, affirmed the positive place for government in large‐scale social planning.137 But Niebuhr's political realism dampens his expectations for overwhelmingly positive transformation and heightens his suspicion of all political power in a way that contrasts sharply with Ruether. He might (and did) justify strong government coercion in some cases but for very different (politically realist) reasons.

In summary, Ruether's optimism about human capacities to further evolutionary development through broad social transformation sets up an internal tension in her work. In the interest of transforming old mentalities of domination and control to new mentalities of mutual, interdependent cooperation, she sometimes seems to justify extreme control and coercion. In her broader theory, however, systems of domination and coercion are rejected. The relation between Ruether's ethic and her understanding of power should be thought through more clearly. A feminist Christian realism would need to account for the place of government coercion in protecting the weak and promoting justice and flourishing while also defining the limits of that coercion.

Consciousness, Nature, and Freedom

Though Ruether's model of nature does make room for human freedom, she is critical of many appeals to human self‐transcendence. Ruether's criticisms of traditional formulations of human self‐transcendence center around their use to justify domination and hierarchical dualism and to devalue the finite. Ruether's focus on human consciousness offers an alternative understanding of transcendence or freedom. Humans are able through consciousness to “stand out from” their context, reflecting on it and transforming it. Ruether's model differs from Niebuhr's in several related ways. Ruether equates consciousness with mind, rationality, and thinking dimensions or impulses. This is quite different from (p.117) Niebuhr's insistence that self‐transcendence involves the self's further capacity to reflect on its own rational processes and consciousness. In all fairness, Ruether does suggest that consciousness includes self‐consciousness and a capacity to “stand out from” one's environment. And, as we saw in chapter 3, Niebuhr later included reason as one part of the experience of self‐transcendence. Even with these nuances, one still sees a difference between Ruether and Niebuhr.

For Ruether, consciousness is ultimately a further expression of nature and the natural evolutionary process. It is continuous with this process. For Niebuhr, human self‐transcendence or freedom is certainly a part of our nature, but it is more discontinuous with the created world than it is in Ruether. For Niebuhr, self‐transcendence is a distinctive part of human nature that he associates with the “imago dei.” Of course, for Ruether, human consciousness could also be called the “imago dei” in the sense that human consciousness is said to come from and reflect the process of which God/ess is the ground. But because their understandings of God are also so different, the comparison loses its force. The point here is that Niebuhr's self‐transcendence is somewhat more discontinuous with the created natural world. Ruether, of course, would not talk about the world in that way because she has one process in which everything is included. Even with all these nuances, Ruether's understanding of consciousness as freedom is more continuous with the natural, and thus more bound, than Niebuhr's self‐transcendence.138

Thus, both thinkers offer models of human life as bound and free. Niebuhr outlines the moral implications of our freedom in great detail, but he neglects the positive moral implications of boundedness. In contrast, Ruether draws substantial moral claims from our boundedness but neglects the implications of human freedom. This is because Ruether's freedom is properly understood and enacted in continuity with boundedness. For Niebuhr, however, boundedness is transformed, distorted, denied, and/or limited by human freedom. Thus, the roles played by consciousness in Ruether and self‐transcendence in Niebuhr are overlapping but significantly different.

Given this analysis, what does Ruether's understanding of consciousness offer to a feminist Christian realism? It does leave room for some human freedom to reflect on and further the natural evolutionary developments. Moreover, the continuity between her understanding of consciousness and boundedness avoids the partial tendency we saw in Niebuhr to discount or neglect boundedness as a ground for moral claims.

Ruether's understanding of consciousness also presents several problems. First, in an attempt to undermine hierarchy, Ruether has offered a model in which human consciousness and altruism represent the most advanced level of the natural evolutionary process. Though she has modified Teilhard's hierarchy, her model is still hierarchical. Second, does Ruether's optimism about human consciousness take into account the embeddedness of domination in our thinking processes? If we are relational, contextual selves, how is our evolving consciousness made free of the distortions of ideology? Perhaps it is not our consciousness but our capacity to transcend and reflect on consciousness and its distortions that offers greater potential to see that distortion. In traditional Christian language, how does Ruether's failure to take seriously the universal nature of human (p.118) sin affect the coherence of her larger Christian theological reflection on the future?

Finally, does Ruether's focus on human boundedness to natural evolution and her emphasis on the continuity between consciousness and other aspects of boundedness allow for the radical freedom that I argue is so central to feminism? To make sense of the feminist experience of standing outside and reflecting on cultural ideology and even the distortion of one's own consciousness, I argue that an adequate feminist ethic and theology must account for the experience of radical human freedom or self‐transcendence.139

Nature and the Divine

For Ruether, God/ess is in continuity with the natural evolutionary process as its “empowering matrix.” Within Ruether's theological realism, God/ess gives unity to diverse human moral claims. Its radical immanence also encourages the valuing of the natural. This continuity raises several questions. By rejecting traditional conceptions of God as somehow radically other than natural and human processes, Ruether gives up a function of God that has been central to many Christian and Jewish theologies. God's transcendence and otherness have served as a crucial foil to idolatry and tyranny, relativizing all human powers under the power of God. Ruether appeals to the prophetic liberating strand of Scripture as ethically normative. Yet to draw on the prophets while denying the greatness and otherness of the God whose judgment they proclaimed is an odd sort of revisionism. God's judgment of human life and human social patterns (including those of domination and passivity) reminds us that there are standards and judgments beyond our own sickness and distortion. If God is this evolutionary process of which we are the consciousness or the mind, where is the point of judgment on human consciousness and on nature?140 Contra Ruether's version of history, appeals to transcendence have often been used in the history of Christianity to provide the possibility of that judgment.


We turned from Niebuhr in search of a realist who grounded moral claims in human boundedness.141 In Ruether, we found a fully developed naturalist moral realism. Ruether combines an ecofeminist understanding of nature and a process Catholic natural law position with a liberal confidence in human nature and the possibilities for radical social transformation. In many ways, this model stands in sharp contrast to Niebuhr's realism. Ruether's naturalist moral realism makes much stronger claims about what humans can know about the good from observation of creation, including their own natures, and about what humans can do to further the good through the transformation of social structures, theologies, and their own psyches. Her understanding of human consciousness is much more continuous with the natural process than is Niebuhr's model of self‐transcendence.

Moreover, Ruether looks to the natural evolutionary process not only for moral norms but also for the divine. Within Ruether's theological realism, the divine (p.119) is the source and the unity of life. Because the divine is in continuity with the world, it lacks the relativizing role that it has in Niebuhr (for whom even God's “presence” is understood as an expression of God's “transcendence”). In many ways, Ruether's focus on the continuity of nature with ethics and God is an important resource for feminism. Within this project, it is a helpful corrective to Niebuhr's neglect of human boundedness as a source for moral norms. With Ruether and other natural law thinkers, the creation reflects the Creator and the Creator's intent for morally responsible human life. The difficulty in Ruether is not the moral realist turn to nature. The difficulty is her lack of political realism. Ruether's confident moral and theological realism are accompanied by only a partial political realism. She makes politically realist arguments about patriarchy, but tends to drop the “hermeneutic of suspicion” when she turns to some feminist assumptions and her own model. This inconsistency of her political realism may stem from the absence in her model of more traditional Christian arguments about the universal and radical nature of human sin.

As we have seen, Ruether lacks a thorough political realism, and Niebuhr neglects the normative implications of human boundedness within his moral realism. These contrasts should not obscure the fact that Niebuhr and Ruether share much in common. They both are moral and theological realists. They begin from human experience and emphasize (though to different degrees) the moral implications of human boundedness and freedom. They both are suspicious of the claims of the powerful. The similarities between the two seem even stronger when we compare them to our next figure, Sharon Welch. We will return to these comparisons and contrasts in the conclusion of this study.


(1.) Because Ruether has not outlined her ethic as systematically as she has her theology, my own explication is itself an argument. I rely heavily on the naturalist ethic sketched in Gaia and God, where she explores the four themes of creation, Fall, evil, and healing, subsequently developing an “ecological ethic” and an “ecofeminist theology.” The ethic presented is consistent with her earlier work and builds on her systematic feminist theology outlined in Sexism and God‐Talk. Drawing from these two books, as well as from themes in her earlier works, I have formulated the composite position presented here.

(2.) Rosemary Ruether et al., “Gaia and God: Responses to R. R. Ruether's New Book” (Papers presented at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, San Francisco, November 1992).

(3.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 12.

(4.) Ruether, New Woman/New Earth, 210–11.

(5.) For a more detailed account of this distinction, see chapter 1.

(6.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 256.

(7.) See, for example, Sexism and God‐Talk, 75ff., and New Woman/New Earth, 31ff.

(8.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 45.

(9.) William Shannon, ed., Thomas Merton: The Hidden Ground of Love, Letters on Religious Experience and Social Concerns (New York: Farrer, Straus, Giroux, 1985), 497.

(10.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 12–13.

(11.) Ruether's turn to Teilhard de Chardin will be examined more fully later. Ruether is explicit about her appropriation of Teilhard in several places. See, for example, Sexism and God‐Talk, 86ff.; The Radical Kingdom, 202; and Gaia and God, 242ff. The dependence is evident throughout her more recent work.

(12.) We will explore this dependency more fully later.

(13.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 68–69. See also Ruether, Womanguides: Readings toward a Feminist Theology (Boston, Beacon Press, 1985), 8.

(14.) Her understanding of God will be explored more fully later. See Sexism and God‐Talk, 85ff., 114, and 265–66; and Gaia and God, 86 and 252–53.

(15.) Ruether, New Woman/New Earth, 204.

(16.) Ibid., 204–5.

(17.) Ibid., 31.

(18.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 111.

(19.) Ibid., 256.

(20.) Ibid., 256–57.

(21.) Ibid., 141.

(22.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 180ff.

(23.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 141.

(24.) See, for example, Saiving, “The Human Situation,” 108–10; Plaskow, Sex, Sin and Grace;Carr, Transforming Grace; Hampson, Theology and Feminism; Vaughan, Sociality, Ethics and Social Change; and Keller, From a Broken Web.

(25.) See Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering; Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (New York: Harper and Row, 1976); and Peggy R. Sanday, Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), chapter 1.


(26.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 169.

(27.) Ibid., 171.

(28.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 220; and Gaia and God, 171–72.

(29.) Ruether, Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power (New York: Paulist Press, 1972), 95; New Woman/New Earth, 14, 18, and 204; and Gaia and God, 140.

(30.) Ruether , New Woman/New Earth, 14.

(31.) Ibid., 25.

(32.) Ibid., 74.

(33.) For example, Ruether, Gaia and God, 143ff. These theories are put forward in Marija Gimbutas, Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 6500–3500 BC: Myths and Cult Images (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); and Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987).

(34.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 200.

(35.) This analysis appears throughout Ruether's work. See, for example, Ruether, Liberation Theology, 119ff.; New Woman/New Earth, 5–17; Sexism and God‐Talk, 47ff.; and Gaia and God, 201.

(36.) Ruether, New Woman/New Earth, 10–11.

(37.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 48.

(38.) Ruether, New Woman/New Earth, 7.

(39.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 54.

(40.) Ruether, New Woman/New Earth, 14.

(41.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 200.

(42.) Ruether, New Woman/New Earth, 13–14.

(43.) Ruether, Liberation Theology, 122.

(44.) Ruether, New Woman/New Earth, 4; and Liberation Theology, 102.

(45.) Ruether, New Woman/New Earth, 89–110, especially 105ff.

(46.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 89.

(47.) Ibid., 89–91.

(48.) Ruether's critical analysis of several categories of Christian theology and her alternate proposals will be considered later.

(49.) Ruether, Disputed Questions: On Being a Christian (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989), 51.

(50.) Ruether, New Woman/New Earth, 211.

(51.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 58.

(52.) Ibid., 47.

(53.) These concepts will be described more fully later.

(54.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 249.

(55.) Ibid., 31.

(56.) Ibid., 1.

(57.) J. E. Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987); and Lynn Margulis and J.E. Lovelock, “Gaia and Geognosy,”Global Ecology: Towards a Science of Biosphere, Mitchell B. Rambler et al., eds. (San Diego, CA: Academic Press of America, 1989).

(58.) This is a continual theme in Ruether's work. From 1966 to 1968, Ruether and Thomas Merton exchanged letters. In their discussions of human creation and vocation, Merton suggested that while she wrote about “God's good creation, the goodness of the body, and all that,” she was removed from the sensuality of close contact with the earth and was actually “a very academic, cerebral, abstract type.”Ruether's next letter to Merton closed with the words:“P.S. I'm as fleshy as you, baby.”See, Shannon, Thomas Merton, 506 and 509.


(59.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 47.

(60.) Ibid.

(61.) Ibid., 48.

(62.) Ibid., 49.

(63.) See Margulis and Lovelock, “Gaia and Geognosy.”

(64.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 56.

(65.) Ibid.

(66.) Ibid., 31.

(67.) Ibid., 57.

(68.) Ibid., 31.

(69.) Ibid., 115.

(70.) At the most general level, Ruether's model of human consciousness is similar in some ways to Niebuhr's model of human self‐transcendence. The self stands out from its environment and is thereby able to transform it. For both thinkers, ethical responsibility is rooted in this capacity. The differences between the two models, however, are also striking. For Ruether, consciousness is more closely tied to human rationality. It develops as an extension of the natural evolutionary process and will ideally further that development. By contrast, Niebuhr links this unique human capacity not with rationality but with freedom. Moreover, while it is a part of human nature, it is much more deeply discontinuous with nature than in Ruether's model. These differences will be discussed more fully later.

(71.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 47.

(72.) Ibid., 249, emphasis mine.

(73.) Ruether turns to Teilhard throughout her work. See, for example, Sexism and God‐Talk, 86; Gaia and God, 242ff.; and Womanguides, 198.

(74.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 86.

(75.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 250.

(76.) Ibid., 31.

(77.) Ibid., 5.

(78.) Ibid.

(79.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 87–88.

(80.) Ibid., 89.

(81.) Ibid., 91–92.

(82.) Ibid., 88.

(83.) Ibid., 18–19.

(84.) This pattern will become more evident later as we examine her systematic categories.

(85.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 258.

(86.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 24.

(87.) Ibid.

(88.) Ruether, Womanguides, ix.

(89.) Ibid., ixff.

(90.) Ibid.

(91.) Ibid. The authors included in this new canon range from Plato, Philo, and Aquinas to Mary Baker Eddy, Friedrich Engels, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

(92.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 45.

(93.) Kathryn Rabuzzi, “The Socialist Feminist Vision of Rosemary Radford Ruether: A Challenge to Liberal Feminism,”Religious Studies Review 15 (January 1989): 6.

(94.) For a further explication of Ruether's criticism of transcendence, see previous discussion.

(95.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 54.


(96.) Ruether, Liberation Theology, 115–16.

(97.) Ruether, New Woman/New Earth, 74.

(98.) See, for example, Sheila Collins, Carol Christ, and Mary Daly.

(99.) Ruether, New Woman/New Earth, 63ff.; Sexism and God‐Talk, 193ff.; and Women‐Church: Theology and Practice of Feminist Liturgical Communities (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), 75–95.

(100.) Ruether, Women‐Church, 85–86.

(101.) Ruether, New Woman/New Earth, 74–76, emphasis mine.

(102.) It is ironic, of course, that Ruether, while rejecting simple dualisms of good and evil, seems to fall into the very thing she criticizes when she sets up such strong normative distinctions between oppressors and oppressed.

(103.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 163–64.

(104.) Ruether, To Change the World: Christology and Cultural Criticism (New York: Crossroad, 1981); Sexism and God‐Talk, 116ff.; and Disputed Questions, 56ff.

(105.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 125.

(106.) Ibid., 138.

(107.) Ruether, New Woman/New Earth, 36ff.; and Sexism and God‐Talk, 139ff.

(108.) Ruether, New Woman/New Earth, 56.

(109.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 154.

(110.) Ruether, New Woman/New Earth, 58.

(111.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 69.

(112.) Ibid., 46.

(113.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 247.

(114.) Ibid., 248–49.

(115.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 45ff., 85ff., and 266; and Gaia and God, 253.

(116.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 31.

(117.) Ibid., 249–50, emphasis mine.

(118.) Ibid., 253.

(119.) Ibid., 5.

(120.) Ibid., 31.

(121.) Ruether emphasizes the distortion of patriarchal theology and the authentic nature of biophilic theology in several places. See, for example, Sexism and God‐Talk, 48ff. and 71.

(122.) Ibid., 71.

(123.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 258.

(124.) Ruether, Sexism and God Talk, 233; and Gaia and God, 266.

(125.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 266.

(126.) Ruether, Sexism and God‐Talk, 201ff. and 231ff.

(127.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 272.

(128.) Ruether, Women‐Church.

(129.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 268–69.

(130.) Ibid., 266.

(131.) Ibid., 268.

(132.) Ibid.

(133.) Ruether, New Woman/New Earth, 204ff.; Sexism and God‐Talk, 232ff.; and Gaia and God, 258ff.

(134.) Ruether, Gaia and God, 261.

(135.) Ruether, “Gaia and God: Responses to R. R. Ruether's New Book.” See my section on Ruether's Task: A Summary.

(136.) Ruether, New Woman/New Earth, 178–79, emphasis mine.


(137.) Indeed, in the early years, he was also a socialist, even running for Congress on a Socialist ticket. He became, of course, increasingly critical of socialism over the course of his life. See Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr, 135–36.

(138.) It would be easy to overdraw the distinction here. Though I have appropriately conditioned this contrast, I believe it still stands.

(139.) This point will be discussed more fully in the final chapter. In addition, I will explore how self‐transcendence might be understood so that radical human freedom is maintained while taking into account some of Ruether's criticisms.

(140.) A more complete account of the function of divine transcendence in theology and ethics (especially my own) will be included in the final chapter.

(141.) This exploration of Ruether responds to criticisms of Niebuhr. As I noted in chapters 2 and 3, Niebuhr's relative ambivalence about human creatureliness and his neglect of boundedness as a source for moral claims is a problem for some feminist critics.