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Resistant Chrisianity by Dorothee Soelle

by Dorothee Soelle Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2006 at 8:01 AM

Resistance is part of our nature as antibodies are part of our bodies. If Christianity is conformist and not revolutionary, it is only a caricature. Dorothee saw Christianity as ecumencial, feminist and mystical and as passion for justice.


By Dorothee Soelle

[This theological autobiography and introductory essay are translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Dorothee Soelle’s voice known beyond German Protestantism is now silent. If Dorothee Soelle had one theme, it was probably: “My Christianity is resistant, not triumphalist.” She always converted that into action: resistant, refractory but also humble, full of unrest, exploiting herself against the exploitation of the poor, the victims.

Dorothee Soelle, the skilled literary scholar and theologian out of passion, was one of the most important personalities of the international peace movement, a personality in whom many compatriots orient themselves.

Dorothee Soelle wrote much and wrote very well, clearly, passionately, profoundly, subtlely and without disguise: “Poems against Violence,” “Political Meditations on Happiness and Futility,” “Believing Atheistically in God,” Theological-Political Essays on Suffering and Non-Violence as well as many radio plays.

Politically, Dorothee emphasized the utopia; theologically, she was radically in this world.

Dorothee Soelle: “Resurrection is living for those who rise out of the sleep of security or the sleep of private interests.”

Dorothee Soelle revolted against the false securities kin the theology dominated by men and was a feminist theologian before the term appeared, a theologian who did not play off the God of the New Testament against the Old.

Dorothee Soelle: “With Jewish and feminist theologians, I have become increasingly critical about the idea of this omnipotent potentate. One cannot pray and at the same time twiddle one’s thumbs.”

Dorothee Soelle: “I criticize this kind of piety because it seems absolutely hypocritical to me. God needs friends. God depends on people. The notion that God is a higher being dependent on nothing, who created us but does not need us is a very problematic theology that contributed to the destruction of religion that confronts us today.”

The political night prayers from Koln during the 1968 era were uttered for a long time. The jazz masses at the church days ended. Dorothee Soelle’s moving and always self-critical appeals reached many people in the 1980s and 1990s, not only on church days.

Several years ago Dorothee Soelle was gravely ill but was still active, published the poetry volume “Praising without Lying” and began the book “Mysticism of Dying” that is still unfinished.

Two and a half years ago she presented a theological overview on SWR2.

Let us hear Dorothee Soelle.


By Dorothee Soelle

I did not come from a church world but from the educated German middle class where religion and piety still existed and replaced the question of the intelligence and honesty of a person. Whether someone went to church or did not attend because he or she expected nothing was insignificant for us. Whether someone was a Nazi, believed in the Fuhrer, told jokes about the Jews and rejoiced over the victories of the German army in the first war years – or thought differently was important in our family. We grew up in two languages. Foreign radio stations, reports from the front and news from emigrants strengthened us. Nothing of that could be brought outside. The other language prevailed in the school and among classmates. I owe much to my anti-Nazi parents.

Soon I asked myself whether my parents’ worldview of Goethe and Schiller, Beethoven and Schubert, Kant and Thomas Mann was sufficient against the barbarism of the century. Isn’t something lacking? Don’t we need a stronger foundation and a different certainty than post-Christian humanism? A female religious teacher who studied with Rudolf Bultmann convinced me that enlightenment and faith do not exclude each other. As a 17-year old, I noted in my journal: “The new teacher is a fantastically good Christian.” She taught me one need not leave one’s intelligence at the church door and become a naïve, dull and humble Christian. Jesus who died for his cause, God’s reign, fascinated me and also Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sophie Scholl and later Martin Luther King. Believing in love, I thought, is more than worshipping the heavenly button-pusher. For years, I thought critically about this theme, God’s omnipotence. Omnipotence is not the highest thing that can be said about God. The omnipotence delusion has produced disaster in the history of Christianity. “In this sign you will conquer,” it was prophesied to Emperor Constantine. This triumph was realized in rule, oppression and plundering. The innermost mystery of reality is wrongly described with the words “power,” rule and intervention from above. This ruler God is dead.

I was not a theist but was fascinated by the dream of another life in which all tears would be wiped away and fears would no longer rule over people. I loved the Bible, not every word of course but the promise that shines almost everywhere.

For a long time, I struggled with Christianity under the title “Theology after the Death of God.” This was the struggle of a young woman who would not abandon the horror of the Nazi time as quickly as the traditional theology that dreamt of God’s unlimited power undisturbed by the real events and praised a piety of surrender without any resistance. Did God “rule gloriously over all things” even in Auschwitz? Didn’t God prefer to be silent or look away? Was God really “the Almighty” about whom I heard as a child from Hitler with a roaring voice in the last years of the war? Later as a teacher of religion, I tried to impart fantasy and freedom of students, not “obedience.” In the middle of the 1960s, another central inheritance was increasingly clear to me through grappling with the Nazi time: the political consciousness supporting the Jewish and the Christian tradition.

“Justice” is a name for God in the Hebrew Bible. This led a group of catholic and evangelical Christians in Koln ever more deeply into the question about the social and political consequences of faith. We hardly wanted to dissolve the Christian faith in ethics though that occurred occasionally at that time. We meditated about what separates us from God, what is called “sin,” a word that has fallen out of fashion. This basic theological term has radically changed in the last 30 years. This is one of the achievements of my generation. What separates us from Jesus’ life happens in our lifestyle and politics, not in bed.

The “political night prayers” in Koln arose from that discovery and were based on a “politicizing of the conscience.” From whom do we buy our cheap coffee and the bananas? By whom do we enrich ourselves? How do our riches relate to the poverty of the majority of people? How do we relate to the creation and all its living beings? Where do our taxes go? we asked in the face of Germany’s rearmament. Have we learned nothing from the Nazi time? Must life always continue so barbarically? We learned with one another and from one another. “Political theology” arose. One of my basic theological experiences was learning the “theology of liberation” from the third world. He word “soteria,” rescue or healing was translated in a new way. It no longer meant “redemption” because too much individualism inheres in this word as though some could soar rescued to heaven. “Liberation” is a better translation. Liberation is near to Judaism because we all are still enslaved in Egypt under the rule of Pharaoh. That persons in the midst of misery have a different relation to faith, hope and love than us that we learn from the poor was spiritually a happy experience for me.

The ecumenical movement helped me greatly. This movement defined Christian existence in a new trinity of living, hoping and acting from the spirit of Christ, not of dogmas. Three things are central today for the future of faith, not only for the end of the 20th century: Justice, an economy not guided exclusively by profit interests.

Peace – a different kind of conflict resolution than bombardment still dominating us today and preservation of creation. What Christian existence means in our world occurs within these three fields.

In this way I focus on the future. Does the faith of Christians still have a chance of forming the world? How will this faith be lived in the next century? Where are its strengths? Where does the church stand in the way? What life forms will it develop?

The tasks of a theology after the Shoah include politicizing sin and defining onlookers as more or less willing executors. The question is what have you not done, not only what have you done. Why did you join in? What are you offering? You must overcome the childish-theistic idea of the intervening ruler of the worlds and take responsibility. Christians are at the beginning and must describe the role of Jesus and pious Jews in the prophetic tradition more clearly and less anti-Judaistically.

My vision for the Christianity of the future consists of three dimensions; it will be ecumenical, feminist and mystical. The ecumenical agreement has already begun and can expect many obstacles. However only professional specialists are still interested in the separations of the 16th century, not the Christian people.

People celebrate the church service, the Lord’s Supper and prayer together in many places. This experienced unity is more important than the church hierarchy that limps slowly behind. This unity can be felt wherever people think, pray and celebrate together ecumenical themes. My personal experience from the political night prayer is that we often did not know whether our co-workers were catholic or evangelical. Some surprises occurred. Today we share the Lord’s Supper, church services and prayer with one another. I don’t know whether all rites and forms, all forms and vestments are exchangeable. Learning from one another and living unity in diversity are necessary today. This language alienation is a great enrichment, recognizing the common cause in another dialect. Personally I have always felt at home in the church where our wishes and hopes are shared and do not run in different directions. The church office will lose hegemony in this Christian reality that is more democratized.

I have reached the second part of my vision. The exclusion of women from common responsibility and sacral power are ending. More women than men study theology today. This is a good sign even if it represents a sociological deterioration of a calling. Who are elementary school teachers aside from women! I am not worried about this feminization or humanization of a long-lasting privilege of men. The church services jointly organized by women have more warmth, more physical self-expression and more common interest. One important aid for me was and is feminist theology that insisted that a theology formulated by only half of humanity is necessarily inadequate like omnipotence. God is praised in a thousand languages and ways, dance steps and fragrances! I would not throw away the treasures of liturgy or transform them into pleasant trivialities. However the attempt to translate tradition on a boat named the church to another land named the present is vital. Everyone should participate whether laity or clergy.

One of the growing dangers of globalization and its unequal distribution of power, money and pleasure is that religion is made a private affair. God becomes a kind of “private property” and only concerns “you very personally.” Where this happens, where the Jewish inheritance that makes the neighbor, the vexatious neighbor, indispensable for the relationship to God, is thrown away, an individual private goddess comes out of the Creator of the world. The Jewish tradition of the poor man from Nazareth is abandoned and betrayed. Learning sharing is a feminist project that annuls the oldest injustice. God should be shared with others, not privately appropriated. Meister Eckhardt said: “God communicates to everyone.”

I learned the third necessary vision from the great catholic theologian Karl Rahner. He believed the Christianity of the next millennium with either be mystical or wont exist at all. He understood that the soul of every religion is the lived and appropriated experience of God that we can make in many places of our life. According to the mystical tradition, God hides in a puddle on the roadside, in a tramp or knight of the road, in the laugh of a child and a thousand other places. God does not only dwell in the sacraments or the scripture. God is greater than our heart, our institutions and organizations.

This mystical experience has little room in our churches now. Tradition has always ascribed it to the Apostle John and hoped that the institution symbolized by Peter and the spiritual clarity represented by Paul would find this third dimension. These three male figures need one another and go to ruin when they absolutize themselves. Peter, Paul and John stand for the three necessary elements of every living religion. Every religion needs an institution, a shelter, ritual, document and rabbi, pastor and teacher. It needs a tradition that passes from generation to generation. Secondly, every religion needs reflection and discourse, meditation and controversy to exist, in a word: spirit. Paul stands concretely for that in Protestantism as Peter rules in present-day Catholicism.

Thirdly, every living religion needs the spiritual or mystical element in which the individual is immersed in god in a profound emotion of the heart. If you cannot feel, you will never catch it. Piety, spirituality or mysticism means being deeply rooted with the world, knowledge of creatureliness and solidarity or shared identity. This element of religion is often homeless in our churches. Many, above all young persons, seek this solidarity in other places, in other rituals, languages and groups. However solidarity also lives in Christianity, in many different forms of meditation, becoming silent and letting go. “Enter into yourself” is a medieval formulation of this possible freedom. In the well-known hymn “O my heart, set out and seek joy,” Paul Gerhardt emphasized this deliverance from one’s own fears and depressions. Taize church services are marked by this simple spirituality that is often carried out in silence. The Quakers describe this mystery with a very simple formulation, “that of God in you.” Without this spark, religion is dead and we suffocate in the fun-culture. Being touched by God is also touching others and is the only ground of our hope for this creation. Without mysticism, the Christian faith dies, congealing in the presumptions of the church hierarchy and in the religion of cerebral or head-centered theology.

Sometimes I have this fear but I send it away. I do not trust it. “God's spark in us” can be buried and forgotten but not completely smothered. It knocks, waits and cries. Ultimately God needs “what is of God” for his world. At times I think Christianity has failed to educate us as Jesus’ adult friends. It has wrapped us in a children’s faith that desperately and childishly clings and then falls away. We have heard often enough that God loves, protects and warms us. But all true love is mutual requiring taking and giving. God has no other hands than our hands. How can we ever forget that! We can also love, protect and warm God who may become cold at times when he looks at this world. Loving God above all things is what mysticism can be for all of us.

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