A unique synthesis of mysticism, activism and feminism which still resonates in a world that’s filled with both beauty and injustice.
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was murdered by the Gestapo on April 9 1945 because of his opposition to Nazi ideology, a voice was stilled that would surely have made a profound contribution to post-World War II theology in a world that was literally dripping with blood. Like Bonhoeffer, Dorothee Soelle (or Sölle) was a German Protestant Christian who dedicated her life to the integration of politics with theology. She was born in Cologne in 1929 and died at a congress in Göppingen 74 years later.
Soelle was fifteen when Bonhoeffer was hanged, but she was deeply influenced by his example. Paying tribute to his work later in her life, she spoke of him as “the one German theologian who will leads us into the third millennium”—and in effect that’s what she helped to do herself. As a woman Soelle brought a particular perspective to both her theology and to her work for justice. She was a mystic who was also an activist, and a theologian who fitted no conventional categories. But her unique gifts made her one of the most important spiritual-political figures of the twentieth century.
As a child and a teenager, Soelle was aware that her parents were anti-Nazi at home, but she was warned to keep quiet lest they all be sent to a concentration camp. A few months after the War ended she learned that her father was one-quarter Jewish. It was the shadow of the camps and the questions they raised about God and suffering that shaped all of her work. ‘Is theology possible after Auschwitz?’ was a central and recurring theme.
She studied literature and theology, and her ideas began to develop around a critique of another German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, whose focus on the individual’s experience (or ‘existential hermeneutics’) attracted her. But she parted ways with him precisely because his understanding of sin and grace were so individualistic. For Soelle, sin was also social and political, so theology must always have a critical stance towards the ideologies of the era in which a person lives. The power of personal experience in confronting these ideologies, however, was something that never left her.
Beginning in 1968 in Cologne, she and her friends launched a series of what became known as ‘Political Evensongs’ which demonstrated how Soelle always sought to make connections between theology and life. Working in an ecumenical context, they created Sunday evening services which—through prayer, reflection and considerations of protest—addressed issues such as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the war in Vietnam, authoritarian structures in the church, faith and politics, and many more. These Evensongs met much resistance from established church leaders.
Soelle’s leadership in this movement was one reason why she was always considered ineligible for membership by the German theological academy. Another was that her work didn’t fit into any neat theological categories, so she was never offered a professorship. This may have been something of a disappointment, but it worked to her advantage as a freelance thinker and writer on the cutting edge of liberation theology. As a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York between 1975 and 1987 she was exposed to new currents in radical theology and feminism and became a respected teacher and colleague, influencing an important rising generation of young theologians that included Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz who later developed mujerista theology.
In her memoir Against the Wind she set forth her own Credo, asserting that “I believe in God who created the world not ready made…but who desires the counter-arguments of the living and the alteration of every condition through our work, through our politics.” To Soelle, twentieth-century German Protestantism seemed unable to connect faith and politics in this way. As a liberation theologian she asserted that “God is justice,” and that peace cannot develop in any other context. With friends she protested against the installation of nuclear weapons in Germany and all other forms of injustice—where there was protest there was Soelle. Yet she also expressed her theology and spirituality in her poetry, and it was to poetry and mysticism that she turned when injustice and oppression seemed overwhelming.
As a Lutheran, the Christian mystical tradition appeared closed to her, other than Luther’s powerful experience of conversion. However, it was in mysticism that Soelle found the integration of inner and outer experience that she was looking for. In her book The Silent Cry (which focuses on mysticism and resistance) she spoke of this as a “mysticism of wide open eyes”—eyes that are open to the world in God. She studied the female mystics of the medieval period including Marguerite Porete who was burned at the stake in Paris in 1310 for her teachings. Like Porete, Soelle asserted that women have direct, unmediated access to God independent of ecclesial structures, and that the suffering of all persons must be reflected in a strong stand against every form of discrimination.
“Wherever theology undergoes changes, mysticism plays a part in it” she wrote in The Silent Cry, identifying five ‘places’ of mystical experience: nature, eroticism, suffering, community and joy. Soelle was a liberation theologian and a Christian socialist, so the links between mysticism and human suffering were always her primary concern. She found in Latin American liberation theology and its “option for the poor” a social mysticism, a dimension of religious experience outside of most academic language and categories.
The suffering these theologians spoke of resonated with Soelle’s own interpretations and experience. In her work on Suffering, her concern is with people’s actual experience and not disembodied pain and injustice. Her extensive travels in Latin America and her friendships with liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez helped her ideas to become ever more rooted in the lived realities of the poor.
Throughout her work Soelle grappled with the never-ending questions that are raised by suffering: why does injustice exist? Can pain have any meaning? Why do some forms of suffering overpower us while others enrich and strengthen us? She insisted that Christians take sides with those who suffer and that they work collectively to abolish the conditions which produce it like hunger, war, oppression, violence and torture. While Auschwitz was the consistent background to her reflections, the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s—which she named as a ‘contemporary crucifixion’—also shaped her questioning.
Married first to the artist Dietrich Soelle and later to a former Catholic priest Fulbert Steffansky, she was the mother of three daughters and a son. As a mother she knew the pain of childbirth and used that image powerfully when she explored the links between suffering and mysticism. For Soelle, mystics were people who attempted to transmute suffering into the birth of something new. Just as a woman can endure labour pains for the hope of the life of her child, mystics such as Meister Eckhart taught that suffering has meaning through the process of dying to oneself and thereby becoming more receptive to God. Suffering thus has a profound spiritual significance that can only be learned from inside the experience, not as a bystander. In Suffering she asserted that “God has no other hands than ours.”
It was not until Soelle began to teach at Union Theological Seminary that she realised that her theology had always been implicitly feminist. When she first met Rosemary Radford Ruether (a leading feminist scholar) in the mid 1980s, Soelle was surprised to find that Ruether shared her concern that gender should not be separated from race and class in social and theological analysis. She had earlier been biased against American feminism because it appeared to ignore class struggle and workers’ rights.
Christine Gudorf, who was Soelle’s graduate assistant at the Seminary in the 1970s, remembers that Soelle was at first baffled by American feminism since she saw it as a position of privileged, white middle-class women who seemed unconcerned about other issues of injustice. She insisted that in Germany she never felt discrimination as a woman, but other Germans (men and women) saw her exclusion from the Germany academy as clear evidence that she had suffered in this way.
Soelle was a complex and fascinating person. Her wide-ranging theological interests spoke to academics from outside the academy but she also spoke powerfully to activists. A constant voice for justice, she found in the experience of mysticism—in the real experience of God—the foundation of strength to stand with the poor and oppressed, whether in Germany, Latin America or the United States. Her theology is a unique synthesis of spirituality and social justice that has the power to resonate in a 21st century world that is filled with suffering and the questions it continues to raise.