Sunday, July 14, 2013

Soelle and God-talk - "A Different Language"

I continue to struggle a great deal with Soelle's writings. I find richness in her poetry and the prose that is more descriptive and evocative than polemical. Much of the rest I find terribly frustrating. I had to smile when, after picking up The Theology of Dorothee Soelle (Pinnock, ed., which I've barely glanced at so far), I ran across an essay that spoke about her "binary oppositions" and referenced Marx. "Ah," I thought, "THAT Marx" (not to mention traces of Kantian "categorical imperative").

What Soelle says about language is so contrary to everything I know about language, from studies in literature, linguistics, philosophy, the philosophy of science, and science, to readings in literature, history, and a wide range of non-fiction, especially personal narrative that uses the language of science to both observe the "natural" world and reflect on perceptions and conceptions informed by science. I have tried very hard to put aside what I think I know and be open to what Soelle is saying from the perspective she creates as a religious writer. While I'm beginning to appreciate more of it on some levels, the only way I can penetrate it is to remember her experiences with the academy and the German Protestant churches.

When she speaks, for example, of the coldness of "scientific language" and how science is not a reliable source of the truth, what she seems to be really addressing is academic language and the norms for producing and evaluating academic writing. Clearly her poetic imagination and talent for poetic writing did not fit well into traditional academic departments or satisfy their usual norms (I should note that even now, even in the U.S., poets and fiction writers who teach and work within the confines of the academy, have difficulties of various kinds, even in those colleges and universities that claim to welcome them and seek them out).  In light of the problems of being a poet (no doubt magnified by the state of the German academy at the time), along with those stemming from her radical Left political views, I can see how it made particular sense to write in terms of opposition and resistance to the status quo, in terms of both theological inquiry and the language of religious institutions.

This approach makes it difficult to put the pieces together. We hear a lot about what God is not - specifically, not a supernatural, independent being or agency that can or does direct or intervene in what happens in the human and non-human earthly environment. The God(s) Soelle speaks of and to are Jesus and the Creator/Creation, only occasionally referring to, in passing, the Ground of Being (or a similar phrase, which I gather is pretty close to Tillich's conception) and Kierkegaard's view of the need for God as "human perfection."

I do understand that Soelle does not intend to even sketch, let alone explain, any kind of systematic theology (in fact, much of what she writes comes across as a spirited attack on such endeavors). I also suspect that one cannot fully experience, and thus understand, her writings from reading Dianne Oliver's book (the best we have, I know) which is more of a scrapbook of what Oliver thinks are the essential passages rather than a more conventional anthology that gathers whole essays or entire chapters or sections from one work and then another.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that the thrust of what Soelle offers is her way of talking "to" and "about" God more or less together. She does not intend to postulate what God "is." Instead, she ably points out the dangers that often arise from thinking, praying, and acting on the supposition that God is someone or something that dominates and controls all or has even limited powers to intervene. What God "is" is simply unknowable, but instead of subsuming all in Mystery (as many of us often do), she uses Eckhart's term sumber warumbe ("without a why"), which is infinitely richer because it is not so much a description or explanation of what God "is" but rather a state of being -- the "essential being, of the 'innermost ground'" (EW 199) in which we must live and breathe and "be" ourselves. In other words, knowing God is one and the same as being with (and of?) God.

In this, I cannot help but agree, but I find that her polemics often distract from and, at times, undermine her advocacy for a poetic vision and language of speaking to and about God. What I gather she wants overall is a movement away from the abstract and theoretical, and most especially the legalistic and super logical, which she associates with Logos. She wants to not only move towards but jump into language that reflects personal, subjective, and emotional experience with and knowledge of God -- in a kind of big splash that is both thought and sensation, with non-essentials tossed high into the sky and thrown far from where humans and "God" intersect in dialogue and share in Being.

In many respects, there is nothing new about her approach. She draws expressly from mysticism, which she and others have recognized, is often deeply subversive of the religious traditions in which it has grown and coexisted with (in some times and places more uncomfortably than others). Her experience with cold, dry brands of Continental Protestantism does not often account for the wild varieties of emotional religious expression elsewhere (e.g. Pentecostalism and other charismatic flavors, the deep emotion of religious expression that grew from African slavery in the Americas, and the various ways in which non-Christian indigenous cultures have impacted Christianity wherever it has supplanted native religions).

Nor does her subjective approach, in response to her German experience, take into account religion in the context of U.S. history and culture, which has long placed a very high value on the freedom to choose one's religion and to break away from religious institutions, but which has enabled many to exercise that freedom so as to create and maintain authoritarian practices within new denominations, sects, and even wholly independent congregations -- many of which have paradoxically been fiercely independent in relation to outsiders but have repressed free thought and action within.

Soelle seems not the least bit concerned about what can happen when everyone is free to reject tradition and/or to reject religious institutions as not being faithful to their origins and can fairly easily go off and create their own versions of what they think best reflects the one true faith. Anthropologically and sociologically, her model of the faith of the Village as it gets transplanted in the City does not at all fit the U.S. where the patterns of settlement are most typically inclusive of varieties of mainline Protestants, independent Protestants, Roman Catholics (and occasionally Orthodox) all within not only the same cities but often in the same small towns and communities. While the tavern, town hall, and general store may, at times, have brought some kind of civic unity, even today it is not uncommon to see, for examples, active churches representing the varieties of Lutheran denominations (ECLA, Missouri Synod, and Wisconsin Synod - or at least two of the three) in the tiniest of Midwestern communities, along with a Roman Catholic church, whichever of the other historic Protestant churches came along and managed to stay, and, almost invariably, a huge new building that houses one of the newer brands of supposedly independent, evangelicals (Assembly of God, Four-Square, etc.).

By making these observations I do not mean to suggest that Soelle could or should have been something she is not. Her writings are intentionally personal and subjective and in counterpoint to much she encountered that was neither. As such, it is valuable as a voice of protest, resistance, and action, both in the realm of personal reflection, meditation, and prayer and in the larger realm of social and political action. But the polemical strains of her writing are sometimes voiced in language that sounds as imperious and prescriptive as that which she opposes. More importantly, it tends to ignore the implications of the subjectivity of her approach when it comes to both reforming, revising, and revitalizing Christianity and to communicating God (in one conception or another) to those who are not, like she is, grappling with the constraints of institutionalized Christianity.

Taken on its own, Soelle's poetry and more poetic prose writings are richly suggestive to those who find something compelling in the figure of Jesus but are confused, frustrated, or angered by much of what traditional Christian theology makes of him. In that sense, Soelle's "theological work" (rather than "theology," as she describes herself as a "theological worker"), can serve to both inspire and guide those who choose to work in or along with Christian institutions. As far as I can tell, she does not call for founding a new religion based on her ideas but rather hopes to nurture a kind of reformation that transforms individuals -- the kind of transformation that Jesus both historically and ahistorically sought to bring about, originally without much regard (for or against) religious institutions.

Most tellingly, she does not advocate abandoning all forms of institutionalized religion. Somewhere (I can't find it now, I'm afraid) she says something to the effect that there is not only a need for images and myths "to name our most important experiences, our fears and desires" (EW 214), but also a need to have something to hand down to future generations, as well as to communicate among our own. She speaks to the problem directly and eloquently in "Why I Can't Share God" (EW 129) and in "Don't Forget the Best" (which comes from the end of AW and is employed as the Epilogue to EW -- a text that is not assigned until the end of this course), but mostly as a lament. She does not seem to contemplate that opposition and resistance, at least in terms of theological thought and language, can, if pursued too vigorously, lead to a dead-end and/or create obstacles with regard to access by those not already within or deeply attracted to large parts of the tradition she opposes.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to Soelle's revised question,"To which God are we really speaking?" and her explanatory statement, "We can only speak about God when we speak to God." Reading so much Soelle makes me want to ask, provocatively, "Why speak to or about God?" Soelle presupposes that God exists at least in the sense that God must be spoken to and about. More importantly, she seems to be asserting that the speaking is not only essential but that the particular words and ways of speaking are critical to (in my own words) "getting it right."

Yes, the premise is sumber warumbe (without a "why") -- i.e. being with and of God without regard for why -- but not without regard for "whom" we speak to and about. And the question, "which God" is important in a world of increasing fundamentalism and tribalism, which is growing both within and across geographical and political boundaries, asserting an offensive defense of Us against Them. So also, perhaps, is speaking to (as well as about) the "right" kind of God so as to find strength, comfort, courage, joy and wonder in resisting and opposing the "wrong" kinds.

But the question begs the larger question of why religion or conceptions of God at all? For Soelle, and I suspect most or all of us in this course, it is because we cannot help but to at least sense and experience what we need to name, in one way or another, as God. Yet an increasing number of people, especially in secular Western societies, as illustrated by the taxi driver Soelle met, do not seem to share these feelings or thoughts.

Soelle holds out hope that some kind of new religious language (and with it, presumably, experience), will reach them, as well as correct the distortions and manipulations of the old kinds for those who already practice religion or have some memory of it. Like many progressives in the more humanitarian and less authoritarian brands of institutional Christianity, she assumes that demythologizing the old language (i.e. eliminating the bad stuff) and remythologizing new language (i.e. creating or recreating the good stuff), will revitalize religion and make it attractive to those who have been put off and/or harmed by the old kinds.

I do not suppose that her hopes are entirely misplaced or misguided. But her emphasis on language worries me. First, in practice, reformulation of religious language tends (perhaps necessarily) to be a top down process controlled, even in the more democratic of religious institutions, by a clerical and lay elite, who often speak in an echo chamber far removed from the real lives and experiences of ordinary lay religious persons and of non-religious persons outside the institutions (who are described and understood in terms of what surveys and opinion polls produce).  Reformulating religious language in this fashion can work out to be contrary to what Soelle aspires to and, at her best, demonstrates -- direct religious experience born of personal images of, conversations with, and simply being with God.

Indeed, when she recounts the story of the woman whose son was killed while garbage-picking, Soelle embraces the woman's words that names God as "father." (EW 202-203). And at the end of AW ("Don't Forget the Best") she admits that her "language has perhaps become more 'pious'," not by her "subjective development alone," but as a result of her "participation in the worldwide Christian movement toward a Conciliar Process in which justice, peace, and the integrity of the creation finally, clearly represent the heart of the faith." (AW 166). This suggests to me that what has ultimately moved and inspired her the most was the way in which fellow Christians have acted upon their beliefs, even and perhaps especially those who thought and used traditional religious language to subvert and oppose those who exercise political and religious institutional power for contrary purposes.

Second, Soelle's exaltation of what she calls religious language ignores the extent to which humans, by their biological natures and functions, may be intrinsically oriented towards some kinds of altruistic impulses and behaviors, and the extent to which humans, as social animals with memory, language, and the complex tool-kit and environment that might be described as culture, construct ethical norms, as well as poetry and myth. These, rather than "religion" per se (itself an odd intellectual construct born Western Enlightenment along with its supposed opposite, secularity), may cause some people to feel and think and act in harmony with many of the values Soelle and others find in the best of the Christian tradition and other religions. Without delving into what science has recently has had to say about the biological and social grounds for ethical and religious thought and action, it just seems short-sighted to me to assume that "religion," as we know it, is likely to be the saving grace of humanity and the earthly world we inhabit, and to reject, as its polar opposite, "science." (See e.g. "It seems that the question of truth can no longer be raised in the historical world and that is completely impossible to answer it with the help of science."  EW 175).

Third, science - in the sense of empirically observing the world around us and reflecting on those observations and in the sense of testing theories and assumptions against experience -- is vital to humanism, at least in the Western tradition. Without humanism, Christianity would have likely remained entrapped the inhumane, authoritarianism that Soelle rightly abhors. To this day it provides an important base for questioning and undermining the fundamentalist religions and ideologies that run rampant throughout the world. Increasing communications and even economic interactions across a wide range of peoples and cultures have fostered both critical thinking and resistance in some quarters, which previously would have been unimaginable.

Of course there are plenty of ways that science and the global economy cause harm, to individual humans and to the planet as a whole. Materialism, capitalism, consumerism threaten so much that both religion and some varieties of secular humanism value. But for Christ's sake (and I do mean Soelle's Christ) it is not all about language, especially if it is conceived in oppositional terms and rigid categories. It is, at its essence, about how we treat one another and the non-human environment in which we live.

I was particularly struck, this past week, by what one of my favorite (and lesser known) theologians (perhaps I should say theological workers, as he, like Soelle, has been largely repudiated by the theological establishment of his religious tradition), Bill Lindsey had to say (here) and the Andrew Sullivan essay he commented on (here) about the need for religious reform. It seems to me that in the increasingly culturally divided world they describe, religious and non-religious people need to cooperate in opposing fundamentalism and promoting ways of thinking and acting. We have to draw from shared values and cross-religious and cultural notions of empathy (as described by an even lesser known, old dog blogger here).  We also have to somehow deal with the possibility that we might have more in common with people who profess no religion than those that do.

Maybe we do not need to talk about God at all.  Maybe we must first and foremost act and be as with God and stop worrying so much about how we talk about or to God or whether we need to persuade others to engage in God-talk.  The track record in human history suggests that actions speak far louder than words.

Finally, in offering my critical reading of Soelle and throwing out this last bit of heresy, I do not mean to devalue religion or language, or to suggest that Soelle's mind, as well as heart, is not in the right place. Language is important (as the recent struggles over "marriage" show). Religion does offer much needed hope to many, myself included, and, as Lindsey and Sullivan point out, reform from within may be as  important as opposition from without.  But placing too much emphasis on either religion or language, especially when they are narrowly conceived, seems to me to risk distraction from the basics. Also, if opposition and resistance are pursued with such vigor that they become the predominant modes of thinking and acting, the risk is that they will become ends unto themselves, fostering new, insular tribes with their own languages and fortresses against calcified notions of what they sought to oppose.

Needless to say, that is not what Soelle wanted or worked for. Nor is it in any way the inevitable result of being inspired and guided by her words. Personally, I find the greatest value in her poetry, her life, and the writings that most directly reflect her own wrestling with God and the rich and complex life she led. Others, as Lindy might say, may get their mileage elsewhere and in ways I am too short-sighted to imagine. This is simply where I am with Soelle this week.

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