The National Catholic Review

My initial exposure to the theology of Rosemary Radford Ruether took place as I studied for my master’s in theology. After reading Sexism and God-Talk, I remember thinking how grateful I was for her scholarship, her theological clarity and her courage to rethink systematics in light of women’s questions. Now, over 20 years later, I am given the opportunity to review another well-researched, insightfully honest and engaging book by a scholar who continually challenges her readers to rethink their presuppositions concerning the contemporary American family.

In Christianity and the Making of the Human Family, Ruether contests and refutes the assumptions of the Christian Right, who believe they promote a biblically rooted and divinely sanctioned model for the ideal Christian family. In fact, her research proves that the family model promoted by conservative Christians is in truth a reflection of Victorian, white, middle-class America. The quest for the ideal Christian family is in actuality a desire to impose a family structure in which women are usually suppressed, where the agenda is politically conservative and where those of color need not apply.

Ruether’s method is extremely clear. She recovers the history of family structures beginning with Jewish and Greco-Roman times up to and including the changing family realities at the end of the 20th century. The chapter on the making of the Victorian family is by far one of the most fascinating in the book. I used it recently in a course on American Catholicism. It is a content-fueled, marvelous discussion on how the Catholic immigrant ancestors of the students in the class attempted to fit into the Victorian family model. Ruether’s findings here will be useable in a variety of settings.

After laying out her research for the reader, who is by now entirely captivated by what she has uncovered, Ruether presents the agenda of the Christian Right. It is her intent to use her historical findings as a corrective and critique of the many claims coming from this conservative group. I was eminently satisfied with Ruether’s exposé of the family agenda of those who have targeted affirmative action and multiculturalism. She questions their political allegiance and their refusal to acknowledge the changing face of the modern family. If Ruether is to be criticized, it might be for failing to say anything positive about those who stand with the Christian Right; it is hard to believe that there is nothing in their vision of the family worth appropriating.

Ruether then shares her thoughts on the many faces of American families in the year 2000. Hers is definitely a postmodern view, which focuses on the reasons for instability within the American family. She uses the phrase American kin networks to describe the varied forms of American households. Even though Ruether correctly assesses the network-like existence of the American family, the phrase she uses leaves one cold. In fact, this chapter is rather tedious and lacks the energy of the earlier sections. It makes one yearn for times long pastwhich probably explains why the Christian Right returns to the model of the Victorian era. Ruether’s assessment of the present-day American family is uncomfortable and downright depressing.

The final chapter, Reimagining Families, is the most creative and inspiring in the book. Methodologically it is the author’s moment for reconstruction. Ruether proposes five covenanting ceremonies, which would replace present-day life ceremonies that unfortunately limit themselves to heterosexual marriage for life, baptism and confirmation. She recognizes that there are other significant life moments that are never celebrated. As a result, many individuals are excluded from meaningful rituals and moments celebrating commitment. The goal of this chapter is to reimagine families as redemptive communities. These communities will, it is hoped, be free of the dualisms that have plagued Christianity for centuries. As our family structures are realigned and re-envisioned, our entire society will benefit. Ruether is to be applauded for her ability to broaden the vision of Christian commitment. Our churches would be wise to listen to her words.

The appeal of Ruether’s book is wide. It should be recommended to advocates for the family, theologians, historians, political analysts and educators, to mention a few. Its breadth demonstrates Ruether’s ability to connect themes and draw original conclusions from well-documented research. It forces the reader to assess his or her own understanding of family and family systems. It also explains the many modern realities that burden our families, making it seem that the only answer is to return to a bygone era. Ultimately, however, I believe that Ruether is hopeful for the future of the contemporary family. Her new vision of family, home and work is based on the mutuality of whole human beings and on creating a dynamic interrelation of eros, philia and agape. It is love, the greatest virtue of all, that has the potential to build up what society has torn down. It is redemptive community that will be the welcoming force for the brokenhearted in our families. It is the just and faithful God of all faiths who can show us the way toward reconciliation. Ruether’s book is long overdue.

Nancy Hawkins, I.H.M., is an assistant professor of systematic theology at St. Bernard’s Institute in Rochester, N.Y.