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.