Liberation Theology Blog Series. Post #2: Rosemary Radford Ruether in the “Terra Incognita” of a New Humanity

Below is part 2 of Dr. Lilian Barger’s post on Rosemary Radford Ruether. You can read part 1, Rosemary Radford Ruether and Women as the “First and Final Proletariat,” hereLiberation Theology Rosemary Ruether

Brief Author Biography:

Lilian Calles Barger, is an independent historian, her current book project The World Come of Age: Religious Intellectuals and the Challenge of Human Liberation is a long hemispheric history of the emergence of liberation theology. Contact her at [email protected].


While the North American liberal establishment of the 1970s was reticent in challenging homegrown liberation theologies, and compelled to focus on Latin America, early criticism came from Rosemary Radford Ruether. In multiple essays, she charged that black, feminist, and Latin American elites were struggling to identify with the oppressed through an intensely theoretical approach. The appeal to a common experience did not ring true as liberationist sought intellectual legitimacy. The rhetoric of sex, class, and race oppression failed to provide a way forward to an inclusive human liberation.

Before James Cone had published Black Theology and Black Power (1969), Ruether asked to what extent such theology was possible without being a form of parochial racist propaganda. She argued that a contextual black theology, in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr., had the potential to be universal and yet speak to the particular situation of the black church’s encounter with the alienating image of a Caucasian Christ.[1]Instead, she saw an emerging theology estranged from the people it professed to represent. She noted in 1971 that Cone, as the foremost black theologian, was on the agenda of every radical theological discussion, and represented the rise of “Negro intelligentsia…alienated from the living context of the black community.”[2] She viewed Cone as functioning within a male white power base addressing white people. This made his theology inadequate for the black community. It appeared that black caucuses within white institutions simply slid into bourgeois respectability disguised in militancy and abandoning the poor unchurched black masses.

Ruether viewed Cone’s theory of race and the association of whiteness with oppression and blackness with liberation as straining metaphors into an unworkable “contextual absolute.” He had failed to differentiate between kinds and levels of oppression, or to make clear that its manifestation was not intrinsic to a permanent racial identity. Blackness as a metaphor for universal humanity, and an uncritical claim to virtue in oppression, was wedded to denying humanity to white people and regarding them as evil. But not only did Cone reify racial categories, he failed to provide a theology grounded in black culture that saw black people as more than merely oppressed.

Besides the reification of race and alienation from the black community, Ruether identified a clear crisis developing between black theology, in the line of a “super-male-chauvinist tradition,” and feminist theology. They were pitted against each other in their respective enclaves within the white male dominated academy.[3] The complexity of the relationship between black and feminist theology was evident in the position of black women caught between racism, sexism, and concurrent with broader debates within feminism. Both black and feminist theology failed to see the terms on which they saw each other.

Ruether, whose profile was growing on the editorial board of Christianity and Crisis, addressed problems within the newly emerging feminist theology. Ruether’s critique of the feminist theology was similar to critiques of black and Latin American theologians as being insufficiently rooted in the people they claimed to speak for. The new group of elite women tended to be white, middle-class, childless, and career-focused, obscuring class and race in woman’s oppression. Their experience did not stand for the experience of all women. She saw clear evidence in the denigration of motherhood, with “abortion” the only word associated with it, which she saw as arising from the subversion of childbearing in the adopting of male career patterns.[4] Ruether, held that maternity represented the one source of power men did not have and thus used against women.Feminists’ inability to recapture motherhood as a positive experience accepted what Mary Daly had called “phallic morality.”[5]Ruether called for women theologians to unmask the false consciousness that produced misogyny even among feminists.

As early as 1970 Rosemary Radford Ruether expressed reluctance to replace the brotherhood of man with the sisterhood of the women’s movement. The idea of sisterhood raised the question of whether women constituted a people, similar to racial or ethnic groups. For Ruether sisterhood had a limited function as a “therapeutic community” to arrive at consciousness of oppression and alienation. The goal of feminism was a venture into a “terra incognita” to create an integrated “new humanity” free from the dualism of patriarchal power rather than to reify essentialism.[6] Modernity was struggling to overcome the hierarchy of traditional society in which subordinated groups experienced themselves through the definition of the dominant group. Through a cultural rebellion, women, blacks, and colonized people were seeking a communal recognition of their personhood yet they were in danger of reinscribing the false identities they were seeking to escape.

White men defined both the place and terms of rebellion for blacks and women. Ruether noted that blacks caught between assimilation, or embracing the traditional and unworkable identity of a slave, had a parallel in women’s history. The self-assertion of a new black identity, evident in the defiance of the Black Panthers, threatened to re-create the angry black man of the white imagination.[7] In the journey of revolutionary struggle, women either emulated men engaging in self-hatred, or embraced the societal definitions of womanhood. For women seeking to redefine themselves, the anger of radical sisterhood could simply read as acting out a dreaded feminine power. Both blacks and women needed to go beyond the parameters set by a hierarchal society in defining liberation.

A new ethos that recognized co-humanity required overcoming sexism as men and women in solidarity sought reintegration with nature and community. This was the meaning of biblical salvation – the overcoming of alienation. Quoting the apostle Paul, “there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek,” Ruether, considering herself a radical liberal, appealed to a spiritual androgyny and human solidarity rather than race, class or sex to arrive at a new humanity—a new universal. [8] Her position as a rising feminist theologian provided a platform to critique what confounded her male liberal cohorts operating under the modern notion of universalism. By doing so, Rosemary Radford Ruether initiated the way for subsequent revisions within black and feminist liberation theologies.


[1] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Black Theology and the Black Church” America (June 14, 1969), 684.

[2] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “ The Black Theology of James Cone,” Catholic World (October 1971), 18-20.

[3] Ruether, New Woman, New Earth, 116.

[4] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “ Crisis in Sex and Race: Black Theology vs. Feminist Theology” Christianity and Crisis (April 15, 1974), 72.

[5] Ruether, “ Crisis in Sex and Race: Black Theology vs. Feminist Theology,” 72.

[6] Ruether, New Woman New Earth, 159.

[7] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Women’s Liberation in Historical and Theological Perspective” Sounding, Vol 43:4 (Winter 1970): 371.

[8] Rosemary Radford Ruether “Sexism and the Theology of Liberation” Christian Century (December 12, 1973): 1228.



Breaking Women: Gender, Race, and the New Politics of Imprisonment by Dr. Jill A McCorkel

Below is a brief description of my colleague, Dr. Jill A. McCorkel’s new book, Breaking Women: Gender, Race, and the New Politics of Imprisonment.

Since the 1980s, when the War on Drugs kicked into high gear and prison populations soared, the increase in women’s rate of incarceration has steadily outpaced that of men. In Breaking Women, Jill A. McCorkel draws upon four years of on-the-ground research in a major US women’s prison to uncover why tougher drug policies have so greatly affected those incarcerated there, and how the very nature of punishment in women’s detention centers has been deeply altered as a result.

Through compelling interviews with prisoners and state personnel, McCorkel reveals that popular so-called “habilitation” drug treatment programs force women to accept a view of themselves as inherently damaged, aberrant addicts in order to secure an earlier release. These programs work to enforce stereotypes of deviancy that ultimately humiliate and degrade the women. The prisoners are left feeling lost and alienated in the end, and many never truly address their addiction as the programs’ organizers may have hoped. A fascinating and yet sobering study, Breaking Women foregrounds the gendered and racialized assumptions behind tough-on-crime policies while offering a vivid account of how the contemporary penal system impacts individual lives.





Foucauldian Strategies for the “Non-Purist” Contemporary Augustinian with Feminist and Social Justice Sensibilities or Deploying Foucauldian Insights to Problematize Alleged “Naturals”

I recently finished an essay on Augustine and Foucault that brings both thinkers into critical dialogue.  Although in the essay itself I highlight strengths and weaknesses of both Foucault and Augustine, the excerpt below (taken from my concluding section) focuses primarily on how a contemporary Augustinian of a particular sort might benefit from a dialogue with Foucault.[1]

What might a dissatisfied, contemporary Augustinian gain from a conversation with Foucault? First, Foucault’s conception of power relations are immensely valuable to Augustinians with feminist sensibilities and interests in peace and conflict studies as well as, those who desire to expand and develop Augustinian trajectories that might speak to contemporary social justice issues. Embedded in Foucault’s conception of power relations and resistance possibilities is his insight that freedom must be expressed bodily. As many critics of Augustine have pointed out, his position is wrought with dualistic tendencies,[2] which are then appealed to in order to defend a status quo position. For example, Augustine encourages slaves to submit to their masters and women to submit to their husbands even when both master and husband violently abuse them (see, e.g. City of God 19.16.) Such exhortations and calls to obedience are based, among other things, upon commitments to various dualisms. For example, spiritual freedom is touted as superior to bodily freedom just as the spiritual is superior to the material. In addition, the call to accept violent relations (such as slavery and spousal abuse) is often undergirded with an appeal to a future other-worldly justice where all wrongs will be set right.  If the Augustinian were to appropriate Foucault’s insight that freedom in this life must be expressed bodily, she could avoid some of the problematic dualisms that surface in Augustine and at the same time highlight the in-breaking of God’s transformative grace in this life.  That is, just as the redemptive power of the Christ-event irrupted into Augustine’s life, removing his bonds and re-integrating his life, so too can divine grace work through Christians and all people of good will to change unjust social structures and thus to bring healing to exploitative and violent human relationships. Of course, the Augustinian need not adopt false utopian hopes for a perfect society; Foucault had no such pseudo-hope.

Most Augustinians today readily acknowledge that relations of violence such as slavery and domestic violence hinder human flourishing and are incompatible with the Christian call to love and to promote human dignity for all. In light of these contemporary commitments, adopting some variant of Foucault’s critical philosophy of ongoing critique would be a helpful “tool” in reassessing gender relations, stereotypes, and other concepts that we have been conditioned to see as universal and necessary but which are in fact particular, historical, and contingent.

In other words, the Augustinian might engage in a type of “theologico-philosophical interrogation” that problematizes our current understanding of gender relations (or other dominating relations), re-tracing how its own tradition has come to its present position and how its past views were historically conditioned and shaped. Here the tradition asks itself:  How have we—for example, through formulating our own erroneous views (of women or slaves), adopting false views from other traditions, or misapplying our own principles—created a trajectory in the tradition that has diminished biblical emancipatory insights or worse has offered spiritualized interpretations of relations of violence that encourage their continuance rather than challenge their existence? For example, given our present understanding of slavery as intrinsically unjust and our rejection of women as rationally or morally inferior to men, what might a re-reading of St. Paul’s—“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”[3] and Genesis 1:26 look like? A Foucauldian-inspired genealogical study of power relations and relations of violence between husbands and wives and masters and slaves yield significant analytical and socio-political insights. Employing Foucault’s critical philosophy, what we find, for example, are alleged universal, “natural,” and necessary concepts of women and what it is to be a woman or a wife (e.g., receptive, passive, docile, submissive, morally or intellectually inferior—interestingly, these are more or less the same concepts regularly used to describe the “essence” of a slave) are in fact particular, contingent, and socially constructed concepts.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, for Foucault, there is no outside to power relations; however, given his understanding of the correlativity of power and resistance, neither is there an outside to resistance. In other words, resistance possibilities always exist so long as genuine power relations obtain. Given the contingent, historical character of power configurations and the ever-present possibility of resistance, change over time is possible.  Thus, there is room for hope and a cautious, but in no way naïve, optimism. Rather, as Foucault himself explains, “[t]here’s an optimism that consists in saying that things couldn’t be better. My optimism would consist rather in saying that so many things can be changed, fragile as they are, bound up more with circumstances than necessities.”[4]

Analogous to Foucault’s claim regarding the ubiquity of power, for Augustine there is no outside to sin. But as Augustine’s own story testifies, God’s grace is also operative in this world. Just as divine grace transformed Augustine, healing him and bringing him into intimate union with God, so too can God’s grace transform individuals and groups today, working through and with them to change institutional structures, legislation, cultural practices, and political and religious narratives so that they might better respect human dignity and foster human flourishing. Eschatological perfection is not the goal for this world; however, a communal striving with all people of goodwill to bring into being proleptic glimpses of the world to come is completely consonant with Christian hope.


[1] The arguments for my conclusions are given in the full essay; however, the complete essay is far too long for a blog post.

[2] Augustine does, of course, proclaim the goodness of creation, employing both philosophical (e.g. goodness and being are coextensive) and theological arguments (e.g., creation comes from God and thus must be good). Nonetheless, dualistic tendencies remain.

[3] Gal 3:28; New Revised Standard Version.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.

[4] Foucault, “Practicing Criticism,” 156.

Awkward Academic Moments: The Woman Issue, Red Herrings, and Other Nonsense

Although this post is written informally and seasoned with irony, humor, and sardonic flare, it is nonetheless substantive and speaks to issues of which I care deeply, assumptions that need challenging, and claims that ought to be deconstructed. As a female in a (white) male-dominant profession, viz. philosophy, I often find myself in the company of my (white) male colleagues in the workplace, at conferences, etc., engaged for the most part in intense, intellectually stimulating conversation. However, there are those awkward moments, which, honestly speaking, baffle, and, truth be told, frustrate me completely. For example, my otherwise savvy, thoughtful male counterparts somehow believe that being a woman or being a person of color gives one a free pass when it comes to academic positions, interviews, and the like.  Here are some common assertions that I encounter on a regular basis: (WM= white, male colleague) (WTF?= I assume that this is fairly clear. If not, google it.)

  1. WM: “I didn’t get the job because they gave it to some woman, and these days the women, African Americans, and other minorities get all the jobs.” Me: “And where did this ‘woman’ earn her Ph.D.?” WM: Notre Dame.  Me: “That is, after all, an excellent institution. Has she published anything?” WM: “She’s published 5 or so journal articles in peer-reviewed journals.” Me: “And have you published anything?” WM: “I’ve been working on this piece for 3 or so years; it’s just not ready for submission yet.” Me: “Perhaps this ‘woman’ was given the job because she earned it and not simply because she is a woman.” WM: “Look, I know that you get upset with the whole ‘woman’ issue and that you are a feminist. So let’s just talk about something else.” Me: (Baffled, but silently thinking—is this not a classic example of a red herring?)
  2. WM: “If my last name were ‘Sanchez’ or ‘Hernandez,’ then maybe I’d have a chance on the academic market.” Me: (Silently thinking, “I can’t believe he just said that. That’s incredibly racist.”)
  3. WM:  “This is my friend, Cynthia Nielsen. She recently accepted a position at Villanova. Being a woman and all, she was kind of a shoe-in.” Me: (Baffled, but silently thinking, WTF does that mean?)
  4. Me: How’s the job hunting lately? WM: It’s not going well. How about you? Me: I submitted 50 applications and had 4 interviews. WM: “Wow, you had four interviews this year. Well, I guess that makes sense given that you are a woman and all.” Me: “Could it be that the institutions actually value my work and  have a genuine interest in my past and current research projects? Would you say to your African American or Latino colleague, ‘you got the job/interview only because you are black/Latino?’ WM: “Oh, I forgot that you are really hypersensitive about these kinds of issues. Just calm down.” ME: (Baffled, but silently thinking, WTF?)

I would love to hear from my female colleagues and from people of color in the academy who have had similar experiences.  I would especially like to hear how you respond to awkward moments of this sort and whether any of your critical conversations with male colleagues have had positive results.

Feminist Perspectives on Music as Performative and Political

Related to my previous post on the philosophy of music, I want to say a few words about feminist perspectives of music, which like Adorno’s and Attali’s accounts are also attuned to the social and political dimensions of music. In particular, feminist musicologists such as Susan McClary and Ruth A. Solie seek to unearth the various ways that patriarchal narratives and practices have shaped our views of music. Keeping with certain shared feminist philosophical and political concerns, feminist theorists promote a diverse, multiple, inclusive view of music and are suspicious of theories limiting what counts as “genuine” music. Highlighting that such narrowly defined accounts have tended to portray Western, male-dominated, European (classical) music as the norm or ideal form of music, feminist theorists show how female composers and performers have been systematically excluded from making significant contributions to this musical “canon.” Rather than stress static, homogeneous, ideal musical forms, feminist musicologists emphasize diverse musical styles and dynamic musical practices—practices arising from particular historical periods and addressing specific socio-political concerns. As with other cultural practices, music too informs our views of “gender.” As a social force, music can help both to solidify and to subvert “gender” stereotypes.

Although unified with respect to their common goal of liberating women from all forms of patriarchal oppression, feminist music theorists employ diverse and, at times, conflicting philosophies and strategies. For example, some feminists appeal to an alleged “feminine essence” rooted in biological differences between the sexes. Consequently, those working in this vein of feminist thought argue for a distinctly female or matriarchal art, characterized by “natural” feminine traits—traits or characteristics often set in opposition to “natural” male traits. Perceiving dangers in the gender essentialism underlying the concept of matriarchal art, other feminist theorists articulate a social constructivist account of “gender,” applying constructivist theoretical principles to their analysis of music. That is, just as “gender” is constructed via socio-political practices, institutions, cultural narratives, and the like, so too our understanding of what “true” music is, who counts as a “master,” and what counts as an ideal musical work or performance is shaped by our views of “gender.” Thus, music, like “gender,” is performative and political, taking shape through embodied practices and emancipatory struggles.

On Changing Raced and Racist Habits


Changing unconscious habits of white privilege requires altering the political, social, physical, economic, psychological, aesthetic, and other environments that ‘feed’ them.  Correspondingly, a white person who wishes to try to change her raced and racist habits would do better to change the environments she inhabits than (to attempt) to use ‘will to power’ to change the way she thinks about and reacts to non-white people.  Whatever will power human beings have with regard to white privilege or any other habit is found in those habits themselves.  A person cannot merely intellectualize a change of habit by telling herself that she will no longer think or behave in particular ways.  The key to transformation is to find a way of disrupting a habit through environmental change and then hope that the changed environment will help produce an improved habit in its place” (Shannon Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness:  The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege, p. 9).

One of the main points that Sullivan stresses about racism is its systemic character.  In other words, racism is not simply some wrongheaded idea (though it is definitely a wrongheaded idea) in my head or your head.  Rather, racial privilege and disadvantage permeates our society in concrete ways-in the ways certain laws are crafted, in the ways that applications are designed and racial categories delineated, in the ways that different groups are portrayed in the media, racial profiling etc.  Institutions of course play an important role in shaping the way we think about race (as well as gender) and various ethnic groups.  As a graduate student and an adjunct at a local college, I have the opportunity both to observe how other professors discuss race and gender, and I have the opportunity to discuss these issues directly and indirectly with my students.  For example, as a female student, I find it extremely helpful and affirming when a professor uses secondary literature by female authors-particularly in my field, which has traditionally been dominated by (white) males.  (Don’t worry, I’m not a white-male-hater; I happen to be married to a wonderful white male).  As a teacher, I purpose to use inclusive language, reference the works of people of color, and in so far as the constraints of what I have to teach (in terms of texts) allow, I try to assign readings or projects that encourage dialogue with different ethnic groups and help expose students to new hermeneutical approaches. What I have found on the whole is that my students appreciate the inclusive language and having to wrestle with different ways of thinking.  In private conversations with female, African American, Latino/a, Asian American and others, students have time and again commented on how much they appreciate the ways I have tried to bring traditional subjects and authors in dialogue with contemporary hermeneutical approaches and  “non-standard” topics (feminist literature, African American studies, liberation theology, jazz discussions etc.)   There are of course always a few students who spend the whole semester sending me emails about why it is simply ridiculous to use inclusive language when anyone who is educated knows that “man” is a generic term.  Thus, by way of principle, the student boldly declares that he is not budging and refuses to use inclusive language in his papers.  Interestingly, I never demand that inclusive language be used.  I simply use it myself in the classroom.

As I am always trying to improve my teaching and ways of relating to my students, I would love to hear ideas from both students and those in the field of teaching regarding your experiences (either positive or negative) in the classroom along these lines.  In particular, what classroom ethos or actions encouraged or discouraged conversation about race in ways that might at least begin help to raise awareness of our racial habits?  Feel free to comment about gender as well.