Alice Keefe. Photo: Alice Keefe.
In Memory of Rita Gross
By Alice Keefe
I first met Rita Gross in 1996 at the Fifth International Conference of the Society for Buddhist Christian Studies in Chicago. By happenstance, we were paired up as roommates, and I could not have been more thrilled. Rita was already something of a hero to me, an intellectual grandmother, whose vision, courage and acumen had helped to establish the new and emerging academic field of feminist studies in religion. At the time, I was a freshly minted Ph.D. and junior professor in this field, cautiously sticking my toe into the waters of Buddhist Christian dialogue with a paper on “Visions of Interconnectedness in Engaged Buddhism and Feminism.” With much in common, Rita and I bonded quickly, talking long into the night about our lives, our Buddhist commitments, and our feminism. She even liked my paper! This new friendship was an important reason I became involved with the Society for Buddhist Christian Studies, a scholarly organization devoted to inter-religious dialogue. The Society was, by her own account, Rita’s most treasured and important academic home. She was involved in its work and conversations from its very beginnings, reading her groundbreaking paper on “Buddhism and Feminism” at the inaugural meeting of the Society at the University of Hawaii in 1980. Over the next 35 years, she was a pillar of our organization, filling various officer positions, co-editing our journal Buddhist Christian Studies for ten years plus, and always ensuring that feminist questions and concerns were part of our conversations. I was just finishing out my term as President of the Society last November when we received word of Rita’s stroke, and then her passing. Her death comes as a tremendous loss to the Society for Buddhist Christian Studies, for she was to us a treasured friend and colleague, an incisive conversation partner, and a powerful prophetic voice.
Reflecting on Rita’s life and immense intellectual legacy, I am struck by how by her uncompromising commitments to both feminism and inter-religious dialogue sprang from the same source—the pain and trauma inflicted upon her younger self by proponents of highly patriarchal and exclusive form of Lutheran Christianity. As a child, she was told again and again that women’s purpose in life is to serve men, that women are by God’s design inferior to men, and that in no way could anything female serve as a symbol for the Sacred; God was male, men were closer to God, and women, thanks to Eve, were the root of sin. She was also told again and again, that this particular branch of Christianity was the only true form of religion; not only were Buddhists, Jews, Hindus and all other religious “others” bound for hell, but so were adherents to any other form of Christianity other than her own. As a teenager, she was constantly under suspicion for her questions about religion, and was sharply censored for suggesting that perhaps, just perhaps, people in other faiths might be worshiping the same God, even though they called God by different names. The tensions culminated just as she was about to leave for the University of Chicago to begin her graduate studies; her pastor stopped by to let her know that he was excommunicating her as due punishment for the heresy of studying comparative religion. Her upbringing in a deeply patriarchal and theologically exclusive church scarred her deeply, but did not destroy her; rather it became her lifework to critique these paired ideologies— patriarchalism and doctrinal exclusivism—because she knew from her own experience how much harm they inflict upon children and other living beings.
Rita’s engagement with the dharma and her steady meditation practice opened a path by which she could transform her anger and her pain into wisdom for the benefit of others. Even as she unpacked the patriarchal character of traditional forms of Buddhism, she also found resources in the dharma for a critique of patriarchy, and she envisioned the possibility of a “Buddhism beyond patriarchy.” She delighted to discover in Tibetan Buddhism female symbols of the Sacred, such as the red, naked, and beautiful icon of enlightenment Vajrayogini; at last she had found iconography and a practice that was wholly affirming of her own female embodiment. And she found that Buddhist teachings on non-duality, non-attachment and non-harming offered powerful conceptual resources for a critique of exclusive truth claims in religion and for a vigorous affirmation of religious diversity.
Rita’s mind was like Manjushri’s sword, cutting through ignorance like butter, exposing the delusions that lead to injustice and intolerance, and opening the way for wisdom. I will miss her deeply, but am consoled by the immense body of scholarship she has left us. She was indeed a scholar-saint, combining tremendous intellectual ability with deep contemplative wisdom, and through that combination, she produced a legacy of writing in religious feminism and feminist Buddhism that will continue to nurture us for many years ahead.
Alice A. Keefe, Ph.D., is a feminist scholar of religion who teaches Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. She is the author of Woman's Body and the Social Body in Hosea (Sheffield, 2001) and numerous articles in the field of feminist biblical interpretation. She is also a dual practitioner, identifying both as a Buddhist and a Christian, and has been involved for nearly twenty years with the Society for Buddhist Christian Studies, most recently serving as the Society's president.