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Epilogue to a Life: Dorothee Soelle

by Fulbert Steffensky Friday, Dec. 23, 2011 at 6:44 AM

Dorothee Soelle combined political activism and mysticism, unconventional thinking and passion for life. This epilogue written by her partner, the theologian and former Benedictine monk Fulbert Steffensky, reveals the feistyness and childlikeness of the liberation theologian.


By Fulbert Steffensky

[This eulogy of Dorothee Soelle by her husband, the theologian Fulbert Steffensky is translated from the German on the Internet. Dorothee Soelle was a liberation theologian with incrediblepassion, independence and activism who wrote “Suffering,” “On Earth as in Heaven,” “Thinking about God” and “The Arms Race Kills Even Without War.”]

[Translator’s introduction: “Why was I born in this culture of gas?” “God did not create the world finished like a thing.” “We must be wounded to be healed.” Dorothee Soelle combined political activism and mysticism, unconventional thinking and passion for life. This epilogue by her partner, the former Benedictine monk and theologian Fulbert Steffensky, reveals the feistiness and childlikeness of this liberation theologian and poetess. Links to free Internet books and articles follow the epilogue.

Christian ethics is resistance and solidarity. We live from those who said No to selfishness, herd instinct and conformism, to economic reductionism and resignation, to the triumph of appearance, short-term advantage, spiritless fundamentalism and consumerism. As Gunter Grass said, we are born in an egg and our life project is to break the shell. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, one act of obedience is more important than a hundred sermons. Faith is a leap across seventy thousand fathoms of water (Soren Kierkegaard) in sacrifice, truthfulness, renunciation, wonder and awe at transcendence. How happy life would be if all mankind took the time to journey to the center of the mind!

Education is the great transformer (John Kenneth Galbraith). Expanding awareness, replacing prejudice with understanding (Hans Georg Gadamer) and a culture of excess with a culture of access should be marks of an enlightened 21st century. Life is full of supernova explosions where stars remain invisible until they find their partner star. The vulgar materialist reduces all life to the material, measurable and quantifiable. The market fundamentalist reduces economics to profit maximization. There is a power in our decisions, our lifestyles and our questioning. The Great Unraveling (Paul Krugman) produces the Great Refusal.]

Can there be an epilogue to Dorothee Soelle’s sayings and words? This woman is hardly dead to me since I spoke, questioned and argued with her. She is dead and she lives. She has grown silent and many hear her voice. Who was she? How did people see her? How a person is seen, what traces are left behind with others and what expectations are awakened in them says something about the person. What did people say about Dorothee Soelle and what was expected of her?

Some say she wrecked the creed and irritated people in their faith. Others say they would not have remained in the church nor had their children baptized without her. Some say they despised the church and the funeral service for her should not have taken place in a Hamburg church. Others say she helped them continue as pastors. Some say she instrumentalized the gospel for political goals. Others distrusted her mysticism and piety as too apolitical. Dorothee Soelle was a contradictory person which was her strength. She could not be completely captured either by the pious or the political, either by the conservatives or by the enlightened. She was different – political to the pious, a church troublemaker to the bishops and a lover of the church to those estranged from the church. Many were irritated. Peter Bichsel wrote: “The sentence that has moved me most deeply in my life is the sentence from Dorothee Soelle: “Being a Christian means the right to be different.” She lived out the right to be different. I often said to her: “What is most beautiful in you is y8our contradictoriness.”

Contradictory persons are thirsty persons. Being nameable and recognizable in their limits is not enough for them. They thirst for more; they claim the right to be and become different. They are never entirely at home. They are difficult types in the Fatherlands in which they live, types without a native country.

Now I will try to describe Dorothee Soelle’s contradictoriness. Her contradictoriness is the mystical simultaneity of inconsistent facts. It is said of Francis of Assisi that he was sad and joyous at once and that to him the bitter was sweet and the sweet was bitter. The divided worlds are overcome and fall into the abyss of God’s unity. Two guards watch over these mystical mixtures. One is the fear of people who are extremely irritated when facts are not kept apart, categorized and separated. The other guards are the churchly and worldly rulers. Rulers can divide what is not connected. The two guards are interested in distinctions. Men should be distinguished from women, masters from servants, the holy from the unholy, the pure from the impure, God from people, Catholics from protestants and Amor from caritas. Faith demolishes borders and casts down barriers. Faith trusts in God and not in the artificial horizons of divided worlds.

Recently I was asked whether there is a point from which one can understand such opposite things as the political engagement and mysticism of Dorothee Soelle. I assume it was her love of God that enabled both piety and political reflection and action to be inseparable to her. In this mystical contemplation, God and the person were not one but were not to be distinguished. She beheld her God chopped up in poor and rich, top and bottom and dominated and ruling. She missed God when she missed the eyesight of the blind and the song of the dumb. For her, living in God meant sharing in the continuing creation. Living in God meant helping God heal his world.

She was a person capable of happiness. “God and Happiness was the theme of her last address. Astonishment and praise were primary words of her theology. In the address two nights before her death, she said: “Amazed is how God saw the world after the 6th day.” Thus God could say: it is good! Music cast her into jubilant amazement, nature and the awakening of spring. A person capable of praise and astonishment is capable of pain and anger where she saw the enemies of life. She was not a person of faint feelings. Her anger and her impatience were the gifts of a cultured heart able to see injustice and long for justice.

She was a political woman because she was an enlightened woman. No church satisfied her that accepted those fallen among robbers but did not speak against the robbers and their rampages. She could not separate the more political term solidarity and see it in competition to charity. “Love does not only think interpersonally but lives in the structural observance of reality.” So she formulated in this book. Both solidarity and charity are endangered. When cultural worlds lose their matter-of-factness, their keywords collapse with them along with the contents they express. The word solidarity became the password through the French Revolution and the history of the worker movement. The word love or charity was the watchword of Christianity. These two words were not only technical titles; they were the key formulae or nutshells of the movements in which they were mainly at home. Whoever used the word solidarity may have used it in connection with “international” according to socialism. But what happens when the cultural homes disappear or fade in which these words were at home? Can programmatic words and pictures wander about abandoned? Don’t they perish with their homes? Isn’t the cause endangered that these word-pictures intended? Humanitarian projects are not only represented by individuals. Great life options like solidarity and love only survive when they are embedded in cultures. Here I formulate a last political and religious anxiety of Dorothee Soelle. In her last address, she said she was fearful that the “addicted ego” seeking itself “does not miss being touched by the God of life.”

On occasion Dorothee Soelle was reproached for political moralism. In a time of dwindling morality, that reproach is honorable. She was criticized for instrumentalizing faith and biblical texts for political goals. In fact she never thought or said a religious sentence she had not felt in its political consequences. There was a center or heart in her faith that was not instrumentalized and was as little utilitarian as the playing of angels in the sight of God. She loved hardly anything more than the “sunder warumbe” of Meister Eckhart. In his mysticism book, she wrote: “What does this `without why’ mean in which we should live and in which life itself lives? It is the absence of all goals, all calculation, all quid pro quo, all something for something else, all rule that makes life into services… The “sunder warumbe” is what underlies all mystical love of God. In her last address two days before her death, she quoted the verse of Meister Eckhart she often cited in the past”

The rose is without shy,

It blossoms because it blossoms

It doesn’t keep an eye on itself

It doesn’t ask whether it is seen.

Dorothee Soelle fought, worked, discussed, demonstrated, meddled and did not keep her mouth shut. Still she did not live to fight and work. She was at home in play and in what did not justify itself through its projects. She played piano to her last day. She sang in the church choir in her last week. She played with her grandchildren. She read and wrote poems. She prayed and attended church. She was at home in the useless tidbits. Her composure in all anger had a foundation she formulated in her last address: “We begin the way to happiness not as seekers but as ones already found.” That is the exquisite formulation of what we call grace.

Free Internet Book: Dorothee Soelle: "Mysticism and Resistance"

Free Internet Book: Eberhard Arnold: "Salt and Light"

"The Dangerous Doctrine of Justification" by Dieter Potzel

"Elijah, Amos and Jeremiah" by Dieter Potzel

"Believing without Seeing" by Margot Kassmann

"Lilies of the Field" by Margot Kassmann

"Only the One who Cries for the Jews may Sing Gregorian" by Franz Segbers

Ellsberg, Robert: “Dorothee Soelle”

Soelle, Dorothee: “Justice is the Foundation of Peace”

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