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.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Soelle - A Spirituality of Creation - II

More from Soelle,  "A Spirituality of Creation":
We are able to notice, to observe, to perceive in a purposeless way that we call aesthetics.  In German, the verb "to perceive" is wahrnehmen.  Its literal meaning, which is "to take something is true," demonstrates that perception is related to truth.  Our aesthetic perception lures us into truth.  "When the doors to perception are cleansed," as  Blake put it, we see more and we perceive the created world in a different way.  The world appears no longer as disposable dead stuff but as a vital living organism. In aesthetics we are all animists who believe that there is a soul in every living being.  Our perception of aesthetic objects makes them responsive.  A dialogue ensues between the perceiver and the otherwise inanimate object.  We grasp the interrelatedness of creation in this dialogue between the sun and me, birch and me.  Perhaps then we see as God saw in the beginning when she said, "It is very good." . . . . To believe in creation is to perceive and engage in the aesthetic mode of perception.  One cannot love God if one does not know what beauty is . . . .
I'm struggling with what Soelle means by this.  Part of my difficulty is with the terms she uses.  "Perception" means something different in English (and perhaps also in contemporary German, as well).

One definition is "the collection, identification, organization, and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the environment."  [Schacter, Daniel (2011). Psychology. Worth Publishers].  Its primary goal is empirical observation and knowledge, rather than aesthetic or philosophical apprehension.  Although the two can be juxtaposed, as in the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Annie Dillard, they are inevitably in tension and sometimes opposition.  [See, e.g. Jane Bennett, Thoreau's Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild; Pamela A. Smith, The Ecotheology Of Annie Dillard: A Study In Ambivalence; Margaret Loewen Reimer, The Dialectical Vision of Annie Dillard's A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek].

Soelle, however, seems to frame perception in terms of a Kantian view of aesthetics:
Kant argues that such aesthetic judgments (or ‘judgments of taste’) must have four key distinguishing features. First, they are disinterested, meaning that we take pleasure in something because we judge it beautiful, rather than judging it beautiful because we find it pleasurable…. 
Second and third, such judgments are both universal and necessary. This means roughly that it is an intrinsic part of the activity of such a judgment to expect others to agree with us. Although we may say ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, that is not how we act. Instead, we debate and argue about our aesthetic judgments – and especially about works of art -and we tend to believe that such debates and arguments can actually achieve something. Indeed, for many purposes, ‘beauty’ behaves as if it were a real property of an object, like its weight or chemical composition. But Kant insists that universality and necessity are in fact a product of features of the human mind (Kant calls these features ‘common sense’), and that there is no objective property of a thing that makes it beautiful. 
Fourth, through aesthetic judgments, beautiful objects appear to be ‘purposive without purpose’ (sometimes translated as ‘final without end’).
"Kant's Aesthetics" (International Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  Perhaps Gestalt psychology also comes into play.  [See Arthur Brühlmeier, Psychologie der Wahrnehmung].

The notions that aesthetics involves something universal (in the perceived and/or the human faculty of perception), that the process of perception and/or the quality of the perceived is "purposeless," that this kind of perception leads to "truth," that such truth is or points to "God," are simply beyond my experience and understanding of "nature," science, mysticism, or God.  Add to that Soelle's declaration that one cannot love God without knowing beauty (or know God without loving beauty?), and her suggestion that such knowledge requires education and practice, and I'm left puzzled as to what on earth she means by "cleansing the doors of perception."  It seems to me that she has clogged them up with almost as much idiosyncratic, cultural debris as she wishes to discard.

I can only speculate that the kind of "cleansing" she is talking about involves two (or three) different things. First must be the ways in which past God-images and conceptions have blocked the view.  Blake's use of the phrase suggests a "cleansing" that "expunges" with "corrosives," "melting apparent surfaces away":
The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell. 
For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at the tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite, and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt. 
This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment. 
But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, is to be expunged: this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid. 
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.
The Marriage of Heaven Hell (at Plate 14).  Both Blake and Aldous Huxley (who later wrote his essay "The Doors of Perception" in 1954) had axes to grind against orthodox and institutionalized religion, and presumably that perspective resonated with Soelle.  She certainly echoed it in the passage she quotes from Alice Walker's The Color Purple about giving up on a God who is  "big and old and tall and graybearded and white" who "sit up there glorying in being deef...."  But the connection with God came not from education in the science or art of aesthetics, but rather from paying attention to the color purple in a field when "sometimes it [God] just manifests itself even if you are not looking, or don't know what you're looking for."  While Shug found a "God-talk" that had nothing to do with the old, white man, there was no suggestion that she could not see or would not have noticed the purple flowers in the field before she discarded him.

Luis Alberto Urrea (a writer whom Soelle probably did not know), has written and talked about the garbage pickers in the garbage dumps in Tijuana, Mexico, where he worked with them as a missionary for four years and has traveled back to visit since.  There are no fields or flowers there, just an awful stench and a wide variety of organisims, such as lice, scabies, tapeworm, and ringworm, rats, flies, and mounds of maggots.  Yet what he found there was
"a kind of an absolute faith that is based on experience rather than church. They feel that they see God everywhere in every way and that God loves them perhaps because they have to." ....  "Where else do you turn? You can't just absorb and swallow the belief that you're nothing. That you don't have right to your place on this earth and that you know, you are completely abandoned in the universe. And so they cling to God. You know, you need someone to hold on to."
(interview with Bill Moyers).  I don't know if the people of the "dompes" regularly experience awe, wonder, or the "reasonless joy of being alive," but it seems as if they know God one way or another.

Soelle, of course, is not presuming to tell slaves or garbage pickers how to find God.  What she is doing is expressing her own indefatigable love of creation, how it inspired her political activism, and how she believes it might inspire others, to know God, revere Creation, and, perhaps, be willing to fight to keep it alive.  I just think she's got things terribly confused by talking about cleansing of mental images and outworn theological concepts without any coherent explanation or description of how or what we should be "seeing" through those cleansed, bare doors.  Instead of reaching outward, she seems to have collapsed inward, with her words about creation failing at every turn.

Annie Dillard speaks of two different kinds of seeing (at least two) in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  There is the passive kind of falling in, an almost mystical merging with the world around her, and the active, observing, inquiring kind.  Soelle's awkward use of language ("the world" as "vital growing organism" rather than "disposable stuff"; "the interrelatedness of creation in this dialogue between the sun and me"; and the "dialogue" between "the perceiver and the otherwise inanimate object") suggests she has little understanding or intimate experience with the geobiotic world -- mud, marshes, insects, reptiles, rock, canyons, deserts, or mountains.   She speaks as an outside perceiver, conceptualizing and admiring some aspects of non-human nature, but does not observe anything in it with any kind of consciousness of her role as both a human observer and a participant in the whole (in the words of Aldo Leopold, as inevitably both a "conqueror" -- whether she wants to be or not -- and "plain citizen" of the geobiotic community).  The best she can do is see herself as "interrelated" to at least the "living" parts of the whole.

There's nothing wrong with that as an approach to spiritual practice -- in fact, there is much to commend any way in which we might periodically try to empty ourselves of "self," to give ourselves over to something Other than human, to quiet the inner mind-voice, to focus on the present, and set aside the petty and mundane concerns of everyday life.  Meditation, prayer, and the mystical traditions of various religions have long been recognized as vital to spiritual life.  More recently, scientists have recognized that some of these practices promote mental, physical, and emotional health, as well.  While my more ecological frame of mind may bristle some at the Kant and Goethe cocktail she seems to be suggesting as preparation for an experience with "nature," I can and do regularly delight in the wonders of my immediate surroundings, with the sounds of the birds, the wind rustling in the trees, the view of the hills afar, the flowers in the garden and growing wild on the side of the road.  (Though it doesn't necessarily bring me joy, especially in the winter, with the brutal, icy west wind piercing through).

What bothered me was Soelle's suggestion that her kind of experience leads people "to a deep trust and a belief in the goodness of creation," and that what is essential is satisfying  a "need to wonder, to be amazed, to be in awe, to [be] renew[ed] in the rhythm of creation, to perceive its beauty, to rejoice in creation, and to praise the source of life."  On its own terms, it does not make a lot of sense.

If it is so important, in Soelle's view, to dispense with a conception of God as omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, how can she reconcile "cleansing" religion of such a God with creating another one personified as someone one can (and presumably must) "trust"?  How can the woman who struggled with finding meaning and hope after the Holocaust talk about the "goodness of creation"? Does she believe that the Holocaust happened somewhere other than in the midst of creation?  Did anyone but the creatures, the living organisms, of that creation cause all that sorrow, cruel dying, death and destruction?

What I expected from Soelle was something more like Bonhoeffer's words from prison:
God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matthew 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. 
Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a letter to Eberhard Bethge, July 16, 1944, from his Letters & Papers from Prison).  

If God is weak and powerless in the world, forsakes us, yet is with us in our suffering, we can still love God, trust in his faithfulness, and embrace the power of love that he has shown and shares with us.  But trust in the "goodness" of creation? I don't see how (or why, for that matter).

Creation -- that is, all that is, human and non-human, organic and inorganic matter, energy, stars and black holes, the whole shebang -- is neither good nor not good.  It is.  It  may well be of God, suffused by, and infused with God.  We have our creation myths, our human attempts at imagining what creation was and is like in our own, very human terms.  We like the idea of God, imagined as a woman stopping after a long hard day of baking, drying, pickling, and storing, saying, with some quiet satisfaction, "It is good."  But how, here on earth or by the sun and the moon and all the stars above do we know, let alone trust or judge, that there is "goodness" in it all, bound or boundless by time and space?  

When it comes down to it, maybe we are best served by myths and poetry and the fanciful constructs that we use in science, for awhile.   Maybe we just have to understand that we do not and cannot understand, that whether we experience joy or sorrow, we must keep taking risks, on account of, beside, and before our God.  As C.S. Lewis once imagined it:
"Are you not thirsty?" said the Lion.
"I’m dying of thirst", said Jill.
"May I –  could I  – would you mind going away while I do?", said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the  mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic. 
"Will you promise not to – do anything to me, if I do come?", said Jill. 
"I make no promise", said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
"Do you eat girls?", she said.
"I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms", said the Lion.  It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
"I daren’t come and drink", said Jill.
"Then you will die of thirst", said the Lion.
"Oh dear!", said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream then."
"There is no other stream", said the Lion.
C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair.

Sunday, June 23, 2013


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.