REFLECTIONS ON READINGS ABOUT AND BY DOROTHY SOELLE
Irrepressible enthusiasm, joyful nihilism (or post-nihilism), boldness, passion for social justice, openness and questioning of authority of all kinds, deep sense of wonder, focus on Jesus (in a non-traditional way), a tenacious (stubborn?) mind and spirit -- all words that come to mind reading about and reading Soelle. She sounds like an extraordinary, charismatic person, who would be wonderful to meet and work with in hands-on efforts to make or provoke changes.
I am beginning to wonder, however, whether her thoughts and writings are so bound up in her life, work, and personality, that they may be of limited value to those who will never know her or know those who knew her. While living a Christian life (not just talking or thinking about it) is, I take it, really the point of everything Soelle, I'm not sure if she's the best guide for someone who is, like her, full of questions and not about to do things the way someone did before her. Yes, she is a great inspiration and reminder that anyone who truly professes to be a Christian had better get off their duff and do something about and in the world around them. But is there anything more than a fascinating biography of someone who lived in interesting times and responded with intelligence, courage, and determination? I'm withholding my own judgment on that until I have read much more and meditated further on her writings, as well as had the benefit of what others in the group have to say as we go along.
The only assignment from this week that comes directly from Soelle is "A Spirituality of Creation" from the Essential Writings. This passage reflects much of what, so far, I like least about Soelle -- a kind of joyful, high-strung naiveté that is so extremely self-confident that it borders on arrogance. I appreciate her personal renewal and efforts to maintain and remember a sense of wonder and find ways to rejoice. But what she writes in this passage would be unthinkable for most American writers (and many elsewhere) who have lived and understood more fully what it is to fully interact with the natural, physical and biological world, unmediated by European settlement and without the lens of European Romanticism.
"People who believe that God has created them and all creatures, who trust in the goodness of creation." To this I respond: Melville, Rolvaag, and Cather, just to name a few.
Even worse is what Soelle says about "broken" people, or at least, in her view, a certain kind -- the "kaputter Typ." She describes them in terms of "no sense of relatedness to other people," "relationships are disturbed or even non-existent"; "the language of the broken cannot reach another person," etc. While these words could easily be used to describe someone who has neurological processing issues (i.e. autism, Aspergers) or someone who has suffered some great trauma or series of traumas or severe depression, Soelle imagines that there are such people who have been created simply as the result of being "socialized in a culture that threatens all the capacities of human beings to take in creation in wonder and in awe, in self-renewal and in appreciation of beauty, in joy and in expression of gratefulness and praise."
Soelle's answer seems to be that such people must "learn" how to wonder and then practice it regularly, perhaps borrowing from the sense of wonder children seem to have "naturally." She also suggests that one should incorporate or integrate the "elements of a creation-centered-spirituality -- wonder, renewal, a sense of beauty, and the capacity to rejoice" into "the act of praising creation."
There is nothing wrong, and in fact, much to commend in "praising creation" and taking the time and effort to regularly contemplate the world around us. But what disturbs me about what Soelle writes is that the critical problem between us humans and non-human Creation is that we do not begin to live in it, that we are destroying much of it daily, and we have no sense of what it is at all, as a whole, other than the tiny glimpses we get of it in urban, suburban, or even semi-rural life. And the kind of interaction she describes with non-human nature seems to focus only on the manicured, pretty bits, not the all of it all, which encompasses things to praise, wonder at, but also fear and horrify, and even dull. Yes, I understand that she is talking about "God" which somehow infuses or is a part of it all, but the "goodness of creation" sounds like she does not grasp the "all" or else that she contends that non-human creation is, in fact, all "good."
As for the human part of creation, I was partly amused and partly alarmed by her encounter with a "depressed student" and her description of the adult world of banality and dullness, to which people are prone to enter after losing the sense of wonder and amazement of the very young. While such observations are familiar, when encountering teens and some 20-somethings, not to mention many seemingly dull and lifeless strangers and acquaintances, I wonder if her response is nothing more than an all too easy, simple answer to both the causes and solutions for spiritual malaise.
When I think of the people, of all ages, whom I have judged, at least privately, as dull, lazy, self-centered, and full of self-pity, I realize it comes from a sense of futility just being around them, rather than any kind of real understanding of who they are, where they've been, and why they act the way they do. I also am well aware of those who might judge me similarly, were I to communicate the worst of what I think and feel in my most depressed states. Brokenness, its causes and cures, is something that cannot be approached or understood in the abstract.
In addition to individual causes of and treatments for spiritual, emotional, or mental dullness, Soelle seems to overlook (at least in this isolated passage), all the sound, sane reasons why one might not see or feel the kind of "goodness in creation" she speaks of. Yes, I've read not only the biographical texts but also the first part of her memoirs, so I know that she knows a great deal about suffering of all kinds and in all dimensions, and that she had to struggle mightily to work through the seemingly immutable fact of human suffering in our world. But even assuming that she has taken all that into account in writing this section, taken on its own, it strikes me as a shallow regurgitation of the German Romanticism she claims to have left behind.
Soelle begins by referencing her "own search for a new language of celebration" (apparently none of the old poems or prose are good enough). Elsewhere she embraces de-mythologizing religion and putting aside all old ways of imagining God. Here she quotes The Color Purple, itself a fiction written in the 20th century about slaves in the 19th c., imagining a dialogue that is moving and insightful, but most likely never would have occurred in the 19th c. In short, it is new fiction, new myth-making, and searing for those whose older conceptions of God have rendered him deaf, distant, and irrelevant. But it, too, is limited by time and context, no matter how inclusive and liberating it may strike those for whom it was written.
It's not as simple as taking away a conception of God that oppresses from those who do the oppressing, and freeing the oppressed to imagine a different God. As the whole sorry history of Protestantism suggests, obliterating images, icons, and statues, and buildings (and much else), does not take us to God or even away from the "wrong" God (or wrong "God"). As the history of Romanticism suggests, taking deep breaths and soaking up the wonder of the natural world around us, does little better.
I am looking forward to reading much more by Soelle, and I appreciate whatever context we can get about her own life and times from the biographical information we have started with. I am hoping, however, that there is something I can discover from her life and work that goes beyond what strikes me as well-trod territory -- European nihilism and existentialism; patriarchy, dominion, and kingly power in the Bible and in institutionalized Christianity; the supposed conflict between science and religion over supposed "supernaturalism"; etc. I know (or at least used to know) Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus. I've welcomed the fresh perspectives of much feminist theology. But I'm wondering whether Soelle has the depth and understanding of suffering as Bonhoeffer and Nouwen. Without that, I'm not sure what new I can get from her. Perhaps others who have already gotten on the same "page" she is on may better appreciate her articulation of what she has found.