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A Theological Balance by Dorothee Soelle

by Dorothee Soelle Monday, May. 14, 2007 at 9:17 AM

Believing in love is more than worshipping the heavenly button-pusher.. Our way of life and politics separate us from Jesus' life, not what happens in the bedroom.. Learning to share is a feminist project annulling the oldest injustice.


By Dorothee Soelle

[This address broadcast on February 2001 on SWR2 radio is translated from the German on the World Wide Web. The political night prayer from Koln, Germany in the 1968-era continued for a long time. Jazz masses have been performed in churches. Soelle’s stirring self-critical appeals reached many people in the 1980s and 1990s, not only on church days. While gravely ill, she was still active for many years. Her poetry volume “Praising without Lying” (Loben ohne Lugen) was published. Her book “Mysticism of Dying” (Mystik des Sterbens) is still unpublished.]

I do not come from a church world but from the educated German middle class. Religion and piety still existed but the question about the intelligence and honesty of a person was separated from religion and piety. Whether someone went to church or didn’t go because he or she expected nothing there hardly mattered for us at home. Whether someone was a Nazi, believed in the Fuhrer, told jokes about Jews and boasted about the victories of the German army in the first years of the war – or thought differently was important in our family. We grew up in two languages; one was supported by foreign radio broadcasts with reports from the front and news from emigrants. Nothing of that could be broadcast outside. The other language was heard in the school among classmates. The Christian faith was measured by the standard of politics. I owe much in this regard to my Nazi-critical parents.

Soon I asked myself whether the worldview from Goethe and Schiller, Beethoven and Schubert, Kant and Thomas Mann was enough against the barbarism of the century. Didn’t we need a stronger foundation and another certainty than post-Christian humanism could offer? A religious education teacher who earned a doctorate with Rudolf Bultmann convinced me enlightenment and faith do not contradict one another. In my journal, I noted as a 17-year old “The new teacher is a staggeringly good Christian.” She helped me understand one didn’t need to leave one’s intelligence at the church door to become a naïve, spiritless and submissive Christian woman. Jesus who went to his death for his cause, God’s kingdom or reign, fascinated me like 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 have critically pondered this theme, God’s omnipotence. Omnipotence is not the highest thing that can be said about God. The omnipotence mania caused disaster in the history of Christianity. “In this sign, you will conquer.” This was prophesied to Emperor Constantine and realized in domination, oppression and plundering. The innermost mystery of reality is falsely named with the words “power,” rule and intervention from above. This ruler-God is in fact dead. I was not a theist but fascinated by the dream of another life where all tears are wiped away and fears no longer rule over people. I loved the Bible, naturally not every word but the promise that shines almost everywhere.

For a long time, I wrestled with conventional Christianity under the title “Theology after the Death of God.” This was the opposition of a young woman who was not as quickly finished with the horror of the Nazi time as traditional theology. Traditional theology dreamt of God’s boundless power undisturbed by real events and praised a piety of surrender without any resistance. Did God “so gloriously reign over all things,” even in Auschwitz? That was my first question. Did God prefer to be silent or look away instead of intervening? Was God really “the Almighty” about whom as a child I heard Hitler speak sometimes with a moving voice in the last years of the war?

Later as a religious teacher, I tried to impart imagination and freedom, not “obedience” to students. In the middle of the 1960s, another central inheritance was clear to me through confrontation with the Nazi time, the political consciousness that supports the Jewish and 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 in the question about the social and political consequences of faith. We hardly wanted to dissolve the Christian faith in ethics for which we were sometimes charged. We thought about what separates us from god, about what is called “sin,” a word that is now out of fashion. This basic theological term has radically changed in the last 30 years. This is one of the achievements of my generation. Our way of life and politics separates us from Jesus’ life, not what happens in the bedroom. “Political night prayer” in Koln arose from this discovery. From whom do we buy our cheap coffee and bananas and enrich ourselves? What is the relation of our riches to the poverty of the majority of people? How do we relate to the creation and all living beings and where do our taxes go? we asked in view of Germany’s rearmament. Have we learned anything from the Nazi time? Must life continue barbarically? We learned with one another and from one another. “Political theology” arose. Learning the “theology of liberation” from the third world was one of my basic theological experiences. The word “soteria”, deliverance or healing, was translated in a new way. It no longer meant “redemption” because too much individualism is attached to this word as though some saved ones could soar to heaven. “Liberation” is the better translation. Liberation is nearer Judaism since we are all still enslaved in Egypt under the rule of Pharaoh. That the poor in the midst of misery had a different relation to faith, hope and love was a happy spiritual experience for me.

The ecumenical movement has helped me greatly in defining Christian life from living, hoping and acting out of Christ’s spirit, not from dogmas. Three fields are central today for the future of faith, not only for the end of the 20th century: justice, an economy not only controlled by profit interests, peace, another kind of conflict resolution than bombs and preservation of creation. Christian life in our world occurs within these three fields.

Let us focus on the future. Does the faith of Christians still have a chance in shaping 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 develop?

The tasks of a theology after the Shoah should be emphasized. Theology must politicize sin and define onlookers as willing executors more or less. The question is what have you not done, not only what have you done. Why did you join in? What did you do against war and injustice? The theistic-childish idea of the intervening ruler of the world must be overcome; responsibility must be accepted. Christians are still at the beginning here. The role of Jesus, the pious Jew, in the prophetic tradition must be described more clearly and in a less anti-Jewish way.

My vision for the Christianity of the future consists of three dimensions. Christianity will be ecumenical, feminist and mystical. Many obstacles or barriers existed when the ecumenical union began. Only professional specialists are still interested today in separations of the 16th century, no longer the Christian people. Together people celebrate church service, the Lord’s Supper and prayer in many places. I do not know whether all rites and forms, all hymns and robes are exchangeable. Still learning from one another, living unity in diversity and recognizing the shared cause in another dialect are imperative today. This language alienation is a great enrichment. Speaking personally I always feel at home in the church where our desires and hopes are shared and do not diverge. The church office will lose its hegemony in this more democratized Christian reality and be more organizational than substantive.

I come to the second part of my vision. The exclusion of women from the shared responsibility and sacred power is ending. More women than men are studying theology today. That is a good sign even if it represents a sociological decline of a calling. Who will be elementary school teachers if not women? This feminization or humanization of a man’s privilege does not worry me. Church services organized by women have more warmth, more emotion and more community. Feminist theology insists a theology formulated by only half of humanity like a theology of omnipotence is unnecessarily inadequate. God wants to be praised in a thousand languages and ways, dance steps and fragrances! I would not unscrupulously throw away the treasures of the liturgy or change them into friendly trivialities. The attempt to translate the tradition on one boat named church in another land named present is unavoidable. Everyone whether lay person or pastors can participate.

One of the growing dangers of globalization and its unjust distribution of power, money and consumption is that religion is made a private affair. God becomes a kind of “private property” and only concerns you very personally. The Creator of the world became an individual, private goddess where this happened, where the Jewish inheritance that makes the annoying neighbor indispensable for relations to God is thrown away. There the Jewish tradition of the poor man from Nazareth is abandoned and betrayed. Learning to share is a feminist project annulling the oldest injustice. God is shared with others, not privately appropriated. “God is the most common heritage.”

I learned the third necessary vision from the great catholic theologian Karl Rahner. He believed Christianity of the next millennium will be mystical or won’t exist at all. He understood 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 street, in a tramp, in the laugh of a child and in a thousand other places. God is greater than our heart, our institutions and organizations.

This mystical element has little room in our churches now. The traditions always ascribe it to the Apostle John and hope that the institution for which Peter stands and the spiritual clarity represented by Paul will meet in this third dimension. These three male figures need each other and decay when they each absolutize themselves. Peter, Paul and John stand for the three necessary elements of every living religion; living religion needs an institution, a shelter, a document and rabbis, pastors and teachers. It needs tradition that goes from generation to generation. Secondly, it needs reflection and discourse, meditation and controversy to exist, in a word spirit. Paul rules in Protestantism almost as absolutely as Peter rules in present-day Catholicism.

Thirdly, every living religion needs the spiritual or mystical element in which the impassioned person is immersed in God’s heart. If you do not feel, you will never catch it. A deep rootedness with the world and a knowledge of created existence and of the connection of life is called piety, spirituality or mysticism. This element of religion is often homeless in our churches. Many, particularly young persons, who long for this seek it in other places, in other religions, languages and groups. However it also lives in Christianity, in many different forms of meditation, being still and denying oneself. “Entering yourself” is a medieval formulation of this possible freedom. Paul Gerhardt intended this freedom from one’s own fears and depressions in the well-known hymn “Enter my heart and seek joy.” Every Taize church service is filled with this simple spirituality often occurring in silence.

The Quakers describe this mystery with a very simple phrase, “the spark of God in us.” 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 arrogance of the church hierarchy and in the religious discipline of cerebral or intellectual theology.

Sometimes I have this fear but I send it away. I do not trust it. Obviously “the spark of God in us” can be buried and forgotten. However it cannot be completely extinguished. It knocks, waits and cries. Ultimately God needs “the spark of God in us” for this world. At times I think Christianity has neglected to educate us to be adult friends of Jesus. It wraps us in a children’s faith, keeps us desperately childish and then falls away. We have heard often enough that God loves, protects and warms us. But all real love is mutual and needs taking and giving. God has no other hands than ours. We can always forget this! We could also love God, protect God and warm God who may be sometimes cold when he looks at this world. Loving God above all things is what mysticism can be for all of us.

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