Friday, July 31, 2015


You've been a fool
And so have I,
But come and be my wife.
And let us try,
Before we die,
To make some sense of life.
We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow...
And make our garden grow.

I thought the world
Was sugar cake
For so our master said.
But, now I'll teach
My hands to bake
Our loaf of daily bread.

We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow...
And make our garden grow.

(ensemble enters in gardening gear and a cow walks on)

Let dreamers dream
What worlds they please
Those Edens can't be found.
The sweetest flowers,
The fairest trees
Are grown in solid ground.

ENSEMBLE (a cappella)
We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow.
And make our garden grow!

(The cow dies)

Ah, me! The pox!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Psalm 34

Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.
I will bless the Lord at all times;
   his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
   let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me,
   and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
   and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
   so your* faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
   and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps
   around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
   happy are those who take refuge in him.
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
   for those who fear him have no want.
The young lions suffer want and hunger,
   but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

Come, O children, listen to me;
   I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
Which of you desires life,
   and covets many days to enjoy good?
Keep your tongue from evil,
   and your lips from speaking deceit.
Depart from evil, and do good;
   seek peace, and pursue it.

The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
   and his ears are open to their cry.
The face of the Lord is against evildoers,
   to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears,
   and rescues them from all their troubles.
The Lord is near to the broken-hearted,
   and saves the crushed in spirit.

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
   but the Lord rescues them from them all.
He keeps all their bones;
   not one of them will be broken.
Evil brings death to the wicked,
   and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
   none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

James 1:2-8, 16-18

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Do not be deceived, my beloved.

 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

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.

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.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

There was worse than death

Durer Revelation Four Riders
Albrecht Dürer, The Revelation of St John: The Four Riders of 
the Apocalypse, 1497-98, Woodcut, 39 x 28 cm, Staatliche Kunsthalle

Et vidi quod aperuisset Agnus unum de septem sigillis, et audivi unum de quattuor animalibus, dicens, tamquam vocem tonitrui: Veni, et vide.

And I saw that the Lamb had opened one of the seven seals. And I heard one of the four living creatures saying, in a voice like thunder: “Draw near and see.”

                                                                                        - Revelation 6:1                  
Latin Vulgate text, English translation (CPDV)

When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, "Come and see!" I looked and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
— Revelation 6:7-8 (NIV)

Resignation was ever the fount of man's strength and new hope.  Man accepted the reality of death and built the meaning of his bodily life upon it.  He resigned himself to the truth that he had a soul to lose and that there was worse than death, and founded his freedom upon it.  He resigns himself, in our time, to the reality of society which means the end of that freedom. ...  Uncomplaining acceptance of the reality of society gives man indomitable courage and strength to remove all removable injustice and unfreedom.
        - Karl Polyani     
         [Preface to Margaret R. Somers, Genealogies of Citizenship (2008)]

On this day, in this week, of horrific killings, probably the last thing most people want to think about is Death, Hades, and the Apocalypse.  We want to think of blessed angels (the cherubic kind) and feel the sharp pain of their loss, while doing our best to keep from being engulfed in the horrific images their slaughter brings to mind.  Their innocence magnifies that pain, but it also gives us hope.  The radiance that surrounds our images of them, before and after death, gives us a glimmer of light in the midst of the darkest of tragedies.  

This is as it should be, or at least is the best many of us can muster, while reeling from shock and pain.  The only immediate sense to be made of such brutal, heartless, deranged acts is to grasp the good that was lost and embrace all the more those that we love and hold most dear.

But what follows, sooner for some than others, are deeper questions and the pressing need to take action, to do whatever conceivably can be done to keep something like this from happening -- yet again.  Hence the talk of gun control, better access to and quality of treatment for mental illness, and help for families with troubled youth.  No one expects that any particular measure or measures will prevent all mass killings. Nor does anyone suggest that their implementation, alone, would have averted the tragedies of this past week.  What is hoped is that these tragedies will at last bring open-minded and clear-sighted discussion of what reasonably can be done to reduce the extraordinarily high incidence of gun violence in the U.S., which is unparalleled in the world.  And what is lamented is things both done and left undone.

None of this -- neither the radiance of angels nor the drive to seek practical solutions   -- can ever take us away from the reality of Death, the Pale Rider and his fellows, with Hades following close behind. Death is cruel, whether it comes in a sudden explosion of violence, calamity, or disease, or slowly from infirmity, ending in a last rattling gasp for breath.  It is nothing to be sensed or known other than in its gaping, bleeding, ashen loss of the living, breathing flesh that was human. And it always comes, sooner or alter, pounding down the road. 

Nevertheless, whether we deal with death in terms of resignation, acceptance, protest or denial, there remains what is "worse than death."  In times past when most people saw the End of Times as a prophetic vision of the near future, it was the spectre of Hades, eternal torment and separation from God.  Polanyi suggests that this vision may have given those who lived in times and places with little or no hope in their daily lives, a kind of freedom in knowing that they might be saved from "worse than death" for eternity.  No matter what horrors The Horsemen brought, no matter how grinding and awful their daily lives, with Death all around, there was still hope of salvation.  

Polyani further suggests that this kind of freedom has been lost in modern society but that another kind may be found in the hope that comes from the courage and will to seek to "remove all removable injustice and unfreedom."   Secular humanists no doubt would agree, while contemporary mainstream Christians would contend that Kingdom building on earth does not replace hope of eternal salvation but rather is an essential part of that hope, now and in the days to come.

However we might employ systems of thought, such as theology or social or political philosophy, to sort this out, in the end what remains is  "worse than death" -- not things that we might imagine are or could be worse than dying, but rather the gut feeling and knowing that there is, indeed, "worse than death." 

A tragedy like the killings in Newtown makes no sense, no matter how much we may try to reduce it to a political or social problem or enlarge it to the forces of Evil.  There is no picture, no way to conceive of this kind of slaughter of innocents, which has no context.  The Four Horsemen do not capture it.  Nor is there any social or political context of the kind that would give us some kind of perspective, such as what we have for acts of terrorism, torture, and tyranny.

We must weep.  We must mourn.  We must comfort the afflicted.  This must come first.  But we must also dig deep into our incomprehension, pain and search for truth.

There lies our deepest fear: senselessness gripping and grinding us up in its jaws. Freedom from fear requires something other than diving into bunkers, clutching our material belongings, brandishing our guns, and guarding ourselves from the Government, dark-skinned or Spanish-speaking people, or any others whom we think might take our property and guns away.  Freedom from fear requires something more than engineering our safety by means of even better lock-down procedures at schools and  gun control.  Freedom from fear requires searching deeply, thoughtfully, with humility and love, for what gives us the sense of "worse than death," and rejecting the mad, self-centered, self-protecting ways of trying to run ahead of the galloping horses. 

We cannot stop the riders but we can slow them down.

Thursday, November 1, 2012