Thursday, June 27, 2013

Soelle - Authority and Obedience

More thoughts on readings in a course on Dorothee Soelle:

I understand now more about what compelled Soelle to speak out so forcefully about authority and obedience. Ultimately, it was the key to her search for answers to the question of why the Germans failed to stop the Nazis from committing mass murder.

What was interesting about her account of the war years was that she said she was in "a natural state of opposition" to her parents and to her oldest brother, that she became very close to a teacher who sympathized with the Nazis, to whom she confided, near the end of the war, that her parents wanted Germany to lose. It seems she was horrified all along at what was happening to the Jews in her country. At the same time, however, she seems to have embraced the nationalistic spirit of the times, and was admonished by her father for her "political convictions," which apparently were alarming enough for him to ask whether she "seriously intended to defend the Nazis."  And even after the war ended, what she first felt most keenly was the blow to national identity, which she later recalled with horror, how "all of us, in our anguish cried out to heaven while we flatly denied the far greater injustice we had done to the other peoples of Europe." [Dorothee Soelle, Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian (Augsburg Fortress Press 1999), chapter 2, "The Diary of an Adolescent"].

In other words, it was not until later that she experienced the deep shock and horror and shame, which led her to first teach her students about the Nazis and search for answers to the hard question of how and why did the German people let it all happen.

Even with the additional readings, it was hard for me to follow (though not hard to imagine) how she came to identify authority and obedience as key parts of the answer. What was more difficult to follow was the connection between these elements in Christianity and German culture -- in other words, was she suggesting that the German reverence for authority and obedience came from orthodox Christianity, or that Christianity simply needed to be cleansed of those elements because the Nazi era of German history illustrated what might happen to anyone who might be influenced by them?

Either way, Soelle seems to be asserting that authority and obedience are values deeply embedded in the Christian tradition and have been used to oppress people, especially women, down through the centuries.  She also seems to be saying that such values are responsible for all sorts of cruelties, death, and destruction, in places like Vietnam, as well as Nazi Germany.

I don't doubt that any culture or institution that places too high a value on authority and obedience will suppress the development and exercise of individual conscience.   Nor do I have any reason to doubt that this was a factor that helped create and sustain the Nazis' totalitarian state and its crimes against humanity.  It is interesting to note, however, that Soelle never gives any examples of German people who were unduly obedient or subservient to the state or to anyone else, or any particulars as to how such principles were taught or used in German churches (though there are hints of that with regard to her accounts of the Catholic schools she attended).  Of course, in the context of her memoirs, she was recording her own experience, which was to have been surrounded by a family who was very much conscience-stricken by the Nazis, and to have experienced adolescent rebellion, which led her and her friends into a necessary escape into German romanticism, to survive living in a police state and dealing with air raids, fear and hunger.

At least in our readings, Soelle does not fill in the gap between that experience and her conviction that reverence for authority and obedience were the fatal flaws in German culture that led to Nazism.  There are bits and pieces about post-war religion classes in her Catholic school, nihilism, existentialism, and, in "Waking Up," Anne Frank, but nothing (not even in the later chapter in AW, "Stations of a Theological Biography"], that traces the development of (or even explosion) of her thinking on these issues.

As far as Germany was concerned, there probably was no need to explain how and why she reached that conclusion.  What I feel is missing, however, is how and why she reached the same conclusions about Christianity.  I've read feminist theologians who explore Biblical texts and point to specific ways in which both the Bible and some of its interpretations have been used in furtherance of patriarchy and oppression of women and others.  But that does not seem to be the method used by Soelle.  The stimulus for her thinking appears to have been the Nazi state and her passion for resisting militarism and social injustice.  It appears that these are what prompted her to simply assert that authority and obedience are, in effect, the enemy for people of good conscience in general and those who would follow Jesus in particular.

What perplexes me is how her thinking is intended to or might otherwise apply in contexts other than post-War Germany.  With regard to the U.S., she refers to the tradition of American civil disobedience (which she admires) in the excerpt from her book Creative Disobedience.  In her memoir, in the chapter about her first experience living and teaching in New York City, she wrote:
Since in the United States there exists no traditional authority, or very little of it, there is no need to kill the authority.  There is no need to despise the father, when right away, as a matter of course, one addresses him by his first name.
(Against the Wind, p. 58).

This seems to be at odds, somewhat, with her stance that traditional Christian thought and practice promotes blind submission to authority, self-abrogation, subjection and infantilization. While there certainly are elements of autocratic rule by pastors over individual congregations in some branches of American Protestantism, the kind of authoritarian religion Soelle speaks of seems to exist primarily in the Roman Catholic church.

Neither Protestantism nor Catholicism, however, seems to have operated to suppress dissent in American social and political culture, which has a long history going back to the religious dissenters, who were among the first European settlers, the social and political unrest that led to the American Revolution, the resistance to Puritan authority, both in the early days of its rule in Massachusetts and in the growth of Unitarianism during and after Revolutionary times, and the faith-based abolitionist movement in the 19th century.  Add to that the European immigrants (many with Roman Catholic backgrounds, though presumably many of the socialists and communists were atheists), who were part of the labor movement in the early to mid 20th century, the conscience objectors to both WWI and WWII, the activism of Dorothy Day, etc., and you find little evidence that institutionalized Christianity was, by the very nature of its theology, the driving force of social and political oppression.  While they may have some role in supporting the status quo, and certainly played a collaborative role in the institution of slavery in the South, none of the American churches have had the kind of close working relationship with the power-brokers in government and industry as, perhaps, the Roman Catholic church in Latin America and elsewhere (most notably Franco's Spain), saving perhaps some Episcopalians (still known, to some, as the "Republican Party at Prayer").

It is very different here in the U.S., where we not only have a history of principled civil disobedience, we are also not very keen on authority or obedience in general.  A key element of our national myth is rugged individualism, the frontier spirit, rough justice outside the bounds of lawful authority, disregard and disrespect for authority figures of all kinds, and individual conscience (think of Huck Finn choosing to "go to hell").  And while church leaders (mostly male) have often been autocratic in ruling their congregations, the whole wild mess of Protestant denominations, the splitting off into countless branches, the growth of churches independent from any hierarchy, all suggest a picture far more complex than the German church culture or whatever models of Christianity Soelle was rejecting.

It may be that undue reverence for authority and blind obedience were what fueled, or at least enabled, the Nazi horrors. It also may have been a factor in other situations where people have been controlled and manipulated to ill ends (Jim Jones, for example, and the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church). But do they define traditional Christianity, especially as practiced here in the U.S.? Are they characteristic of cultures where genocide has occurred? Rwanda? Cambodia? Is something more basic involved?  Raw power, the fear of the Other, the fear of reprisal, and the self-driven need for survival?  Soelle's view of German compliance with the Holocaust seems to ignore more fundamental aspects of human nature that can lead to widespread cruelty, unconstrained power, delusional thinking, and deep fear of speaking out or acting against it all.

Also, I am wondering whether the core of Soelle's thinking in "From Dominion to Solidarity" [from Dorothee Soelle: Essential Writings (Orbis books 1999) (EW)] is based on Roman Catholicism, or perhaps even a caricature of Roman Catholicism, from the perspective of an elitist intellectual raised in what she called the tradition of the Enlightenment.  Soelle writes:
The main virtue of an authoritarian religion is obedience; self-abrogation is its center of gravity.  This is in sharp contrast to a humanitarian religion, where self-realization is the chief virtue and resistance to growth is the cardinal sin.  
[EW, p. 44].  This paradigm, which Soelle says is drawn from Eric Fromm's 1950 book, Psychoanalysis and Religion, does not seem to fit American church culture at all.  Although one would hardly call it "humanitarian," the strain in American fundamentalism, which emphasizes a personal relationship with Jesus and being "reborn," seems to fit more in the second category than the first.

While using the psychoanalytic theory of the mid-20th century (which has since been rejected and now is largely ignored in both academic and clinical psychology and what is left of psychiatry), as the foundation for her diagnosis of the ills of traditional Christianity, Soelle also uses it to express her contempt and ridicule for what clearly must be Catholic practices.  In a passage that sounds more like the kind of anti-Catholic prejudice I grew up with, (which came to full voice in 1959-60, imagining that those Other ethnic Catholics were nothing but dumb sheep, and was especially fearful of Vatican domination of the U.S. if we were to elect John F. Kennedy as our first Roman Catholic President), Soelle writes:
Authoritarian religion leads to that infantile clinging to consolation we can observe in the sentimentality of religious art and the history of devotionalism. [T]his goes together with a compulsive need for order, a fear of confusion and chaos, and a desire for supervision and control.
[EW, p. 45].

I'll talk more about this kind of attitude later, but for now, let me just say that I am frustrated trying to find some kind of foundation for the case Soelle makes against the terms and concepts of traditional Christianity.  I have a lot of sympathy for and some understanding of feminist critiques of the tradition, and am well aware of how Christianity, which was founded on the Easter women, systematically worked to exclude women from the positions they once held in the early church and built large chunks of theology to justify it.

That perspective, however, does not justify the kind of disrespect Soelle often lets slip regarding not only Catholic practices, and beliefs, but the people who find consolation in them.  She seems to ignore the fact that such practices and beliefs, in large part, were at the core of what Polish Catholics drew upon in their resistance to Communism and the power of the Soviet Union, as well as those who resisted autocratic governmental regimes in Latin America and elsewhere, where people may have fought to break apart the cozy relationships between church and state, but did not stop lighting candles or attending mass or otherwise expressed the need to have Christian existentialism liberate them from either the church or the state that were oppressing them.

In short, while I think I get where Soelle is coming from, I'm not sure I understand how the part of her theology that speaks to authority and obedience, dominion and solidarity, applies to the Christian tradition, as such.  I'm very much with her in terms of strengthening individual consciences, informed by the heart of the Gospel and the person of Jesus, and acting upon what our consciences should tell us is wrong with the social and political world around us.  While I really do not care whether her theology is systematic or academic (and indeed I understand that her intention was not to be), and in the end, all that really counts is that she understands Jesus and did her best to live that, I fear that some devotees of Soelle will take some her theological thoughts and ideas to places they should not go.

Soelle is the kind of spirited, passionate writer who inspires with bold declarations and assertions.  As a call to action, her words serve well.  As a way to think seriously about God or even religious institutions, the source of evil and human suffering, not so much.  Personally I prefer to go directly to some of her sources -- Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, and Tillich, for example, for the theology -- and I would inject a strong dose of Henri Nouwen for correcting some of Soelle's excesses.

In the end, what I find most lacking in Soelle, (at least so far), are not ideas, but human empathy and understanding and self-awareness and self-criticism.   She is impatient and dismissive of those who seek consolation from religion, and she seems remarkably unaware of how her own life-long spirit of rebellion might color her thinking or lead her to run roughshod over others' feelings, wants, and needs.

I speak, of course, of the Soelle of the writings, not the person, who apparently was much beloved, as well as admired.  Even as to the former, there is much to commend in her writing as a good rebel and heretic, not beholden to civil or religious authorities.  None of that, however, should preclude critical examination of her ideas and questioning of some of the premises upon which she operated.  I, for one, find much to question and puzzle over.

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