Friday, July 19, 2013

Dorothee Soelle - Mysticism

Soelle's writings on mysticism ring out as inspired testimony of the power and potential for a mystical way of relating to God and to the world at large.  It is telling that she wrote The Silent Cry, one of her last works, after a lifetime of searching for and reflecting on mysticism, especially in light of the works of Meister Eckhart.  After recovering from a serious illness, which left her briefly in a coma, she drew together her readings and her experience to advocate for a kind of mysticism that combined both her deep love of God and her passion for social and political activism.

Her writing reminds me, in some ways, of the poetry of Walt Whitman  -- the great stretch for incorporating the world (and in her case, God, the Creator and her confidant, as well as the Creation) in herself, transcending the bounds of self in expansiveness.  The critical difference, of course, is that she aspires to the kind of emptying of self that Eckhart and other mystics describe.  But the similarity is that she comes close to being, in some senses, one and the same as, as well as with, God at the end of passages like this:

"What happens really in the soul's union with God in terms of liberation and of healing?  It is an exercise in seeing how God sees, the perception of what is little and unimportant; it is listening to the cry of God's children who are in Egypt. God calls upon the soul to give away its own ears and eyes and to let itself be given those of God.  Only they who hear with other ears can speak with the mouth of God…. To use God's senses does not mean simply turning inward but becoming free for a different way of life:  See what God sees! Hear what God hears!  Laugh where God laughs! Cry where God cries!"  (EW 202)

In other words, what she seeks is to see and hear and feel what God does, to encounter the world with God's senses.  The message is that if one gives oneself over to God's way of perceiving, one will see and hear those who are enslaved, in one way or another, and reach out to them, acting as God's hands, in a world in which God is powerless as an agent independent from humans. Humans are to act not only for God but as God would act if God were anything but Presence that both shares his senses and suffers and rejoices with us.  Such action requires resistance and seeks liberation from all that would destroy or diminish the aliveness and worth of each living member of the Creation.

Like so much of Soelle's writings, her work on mysticism stands on its own as a personal response to various issues and problems she has encountered.  It makes wonderful sense in that context, as well as for others who may find themselves in similar places, internally or externally.  It would, however, be a disservice to her to treat those writings as some kind of embalmed, sacred texts, which one should read and follow without some critical awareness of the limits, gaps, and questions that her writings pose.

I realize that it is outside the readings of this course (though we have seen some excerpts as supplemental readings) but I have found Laura Pinnock's The Theology of Dorothee Soelle especially helpful.  In her introduction, Pinnock outlines three areas of concern: (1) "Does Soelle portray an overly 'positive' vision of faith"; (2) with regard to the "originality and indebtedness of Soelle's thought": "What connections exist between Soelle and other thinkers, especially contemporary theologians and philosophers?"; and (3) in light of the "apparently spontaneous and fragmentary character of her writings": "Does incomplete development in areas of Soelle's theology indicate inconsistency?" (TDS, Introduction pp. 13-14).

I will not spend much time detailing these concerns, as anyone who is interested may be able to find a copy of the book (which I found used) and read for themselves.  But the set in the first category particularly struck me in light of Lindy's current situation in a foreign country where political oppression and repression is deadly, Robin's thoughts about those impacted by a loved one's suicide, and various recollections of my own, especially the violent deaths of two toddlers (in unrelated incidents) whose parents, grandparents, and a great grandparent were members of my former parish.

Flora Keshigan's essay in Pinnock's book (TDS, Chapter 7 "Witnessing Trauma") speaks particularly to the problem of non-redemptive suffering and of trauma research, which suggests that "barriers of silence and repression may not always be overcome," and that "the silence of victims is not only about submission" but "may be a strategy of survival and resistance" or simply "the absence, often described as a black hole, that so textures the experience of traumatic suffering." While Soelle's approach "focuses on language that, to her, is indication of agency and subjectivity," "[t]he subjectivity and sense of agency of trauma survivors remain unstable and uncentered."  Their "suffering is world- and self-destroying.  It literally overwhelms the self and eats away at life, leaving gaping holes."  Thus,"[the] process of dealing with traumatic suffering requires that the victimized let go of the need to find meaning in relation to it.  They also need to accept the absoluteness and irredeemability of the losses." (TDS 104-105).

Keshigan recognizes that "Soelle's notion of inconsolability witnesses to the unrelenting nature of suffering in the world," but cautions that "it does not, however, recognize sufficiently the plight of the inconsolable."  While Keshigan says that she is "moved by Soelle's passion and drawn to her portrayal of those who live unto God," nevertheless, given the examples given in The Silent Cry, she must note that Soelle's "focus is on those who chose suffering or who chose a course of action they knew could well lead to profound suffering." In contrast, "the victims of childhood abuse, crushing poverty, of genocide, and of torture have not chosen."  Id.

There is no doubt that Soelle had great compassion for those in such circumstances -- so much so that she was called to take action against authorities she saw as responsible for and unresponsive to some of the conditions that create such suffering. But her theology was nevertheless born of and partly bound by "the Christian tradition of redemption in suffering and by her perspective as a first-world person."

As another first-world person, I cannot fault Soelle for these limitations.  But her writings do pose questions about whether the high value she places on language, especially poetry and poetic language, goes beyond what I think she initially hoped to accomplish by encouraging those, whom she sees as voiceless or unheard, to give voice to their relations and knowledge of God in new words and forms.  Listening to others, witnessing their joys and sorrows, standing by those who are marginalized and forgotten, seems at times to be overshadowed by the imperative that people must speak, to be active, alive, to be with and of God.  Indeed, in the "act of speaking, the mystery of the world is upheld as speaking and hearing."  (EW 204). While silence is occasionally, but infrequently, valued, not speaking is anathema.

I do not mean to suggest that there is anything wrong with encouraging people to speak and think about and with God with their own voices and minds -- on the contrary. But I do mean to suggest that listening should be paramount and that no one should be demeaned or devalued because they find some things inexpressible or because they use language that has not been purified, re-invented, and liberated from others' subjective views of what are obstacles for themselves or what they "see" or "hear" God perceiving as domination or enslavement.  More importantly, listening to the stories of others' lives, their joys and suffering, should prevail over telling people whether and how to express those stories and how God does or may enter in.

We in the Episcopal Church live in a schizophrenic environment where, on the one hand, we have a wise and eloquent Presiding Bishop who could give us so much more in way of creative God-talk from the perspective of a feminist and a scientist, but whose administrative duties take up much of her time and whose religious writing and speaking is still, on occasion, attacked by conservatives (many of them now outside the church, so why do they bother?) as heretical, naïve, and unlearned.  At the same time, dioceses and parishes sometimes find themselves in the midst of needless church culture wars, which at one extreme includes laypersons who would like to worship in embalmed mutterings of the 1924 Prayer Book, and at the other includes clergy who declare holy wars on the King James version of the Lord Prayer and the use of kneeling rails.  Thankfully, good listening and communication skills, together with good will and compromise, can resolve or put aside sharp conflicts.  Yet the tension lurks, especially as anxiety mounts about whether young and new people will stay or join our faith communities.

Nowadays I do not much care about these issues, having at last found some space and communion relatively free of the tension and anxiety of the wider church culture.  I do care about listening and am often reminded of the one-day, regional, ecumenical session I attended as an introduction to the Stephen Ministries program.  I was struck by how the heart of the program is listening and being with others, and how the training can teach even those of us who know better from blurting out some kind of platitude or other religious language that we feel we must say to people who are suffering -- for the sake of simply saying something at all and/or for verbalizing our religious motivations for trying to help.  While caregivers must attend to their needs, as well, it should not come at the expense of blocking off or failing to see, listen to, or simply hold what grieving or troubled people may be experiencing. At the same time, by learning to read and respond to others, one may find, over time, that the experience informs the caretaker's thoughts, prayers, and consciousness in ways that help formulate new ways of speaking and thinking about God.

I think one of the contributors to Pinnock's book referred to Soelle, in passing, as an "action figure."  Indeed, action, as well as irrepressible words, is at the heart of the legacy she has left to us.  At times the frenetic energy of her speaking is simply too much for me. Listening to her, I sometimes wish she would slow down and stop to think more carefully about what she says and how she says it, but I realize (besides the obvious that she is done with speaking and writing in this life), that her flow of words and ideas is what it is because of her spontaneity and desire to explore widely with her own, unique voice. I also see her as a complex person, like the rest of us, who had the wisdom and compassion to sit with her mother, as she lay dying, singing old hymns and reciting the Psalms, as did Fulbert for her when it was her time.

In the end, words, music, and poetry are terribly important in sensing, knowing, and listening to God, both individually and in community.  I just hope that we never forget that silent witness and care are also vital, and that words inevitably fail, at least for a time.   Nothing that Soelle has written, or perhaps nothing anyone can write or say, will ever fully address the mystery of suffering or keep us safe from sorrow or despair.   At least sometimes we feel good enough to sing.


Dorothee Soelle, Essential Writings, ed. Dianne Oliver (Orbis Books, 2006) ("EW")

Dorothee Soelle, Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian (Fortress Press, 1999) ("AW")

Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Fortress Press, 2001) (excerpts found in Essential Writings)

Sarah K. Pinnock, The Theology of Dorothee Soelle (Trinity Press International 2003) ("TDS")

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.