Dorothee Soelle

Dorothee Soelle (born 1929), German theologian, political activist, and feminist, was a leader among the generation of liberation theologians who reinterpreted the Christian message within the context of socialism and pacifism.

Dorothee Soelle was born September 30, 1929, in Cologne, West Germany, to a middle-class Protestant family. Her father was a lawyer who attempted to maintain a distance from both the Hitler regime and the church. He impressed upon the young Dorothee the importance of education and a disregard for material wealth. Despite parental indifference to religion Dorothee became interested in the church (Evangelical Church of the Rhineland) and theology as a high school student. She studied philology, philosophy, theology, and German literature at the Universities of Cologne, Freiburg, and Göttingen and was awarded the doctoral degree by the University of Göttingen in 1959, where her teachers were Friedrich Gogarten and Ernst Käsemann.

She taught German and theology in high school from 1954 to 1960, when she became a research assistant at the Philosophical Institute of Aachen until 1962. At that time she returned to Cologne to teach in the Institute of Germanic Philology at the university. She was a lecturer on the theological faculty of the University of Mainz from 1972 to 1975. Unable to secure a permanent position in a German university because of her political activities, she was the Harry Emerson Fosdick Visiting Professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York beginning in 1975. She spent half of each year in the United States and half in Germany, where she continued to be one of the leading spokespersons against nuclear proliferation and the oppressive South American and South African regimes and a critic of capitalism.

She married Fulbert Steffensky, a professor of religion and education at the University of Hamburg who in the 1970s was co-founder with Soelle of the religiously oriented, socially active Politisches Nachtgebet. Founded initially as a protest against First World countries' intervention in Vietnam, the group also addressed itself to problems of economic and social discrimination in West Germany. Soelle had two daughters and a son by a first marriage, and she and Steffensky had a daughter, Mirjam.

The content of Soelle's works is theological and political, but their styles are diverse and include books of poetry. Among her more important works are Christ the Representative (1967), The Truth Is Concrete (1967), Beyond Mere Obedience (1968), Suffering (1973), Political Theology (1974), Death by Bread Alone (1975), Choosing Life (1980), The Arms Race Kills (1982), Of War and Love (1983), The Strength of the Weak: Toward a Christian Feminist Identity (1984), and numerous articles. In 1995 Soelle co-authored, Great Women of the Bible in Art and Literature with J.H. Kirchberger and Hebert Haag.

Soelle's first book, Christ the Representative, was her response to the then-current "death of God" theology. It reflects her effort to understand and to reconcile the reality of what had happened in World War II (symbolized by Auschwitz) with the idea of an all-seeing, all-loving God "who leads all things to Good." In Christ the Representative Soelle declared an end to the traditional "vertical" idea of God as the all-powerful lord of history controlling the world from above. In God's place, as God's representative, is the Christ who suffers and dies with us; but as Christ represents God, humans must also represent Christ to each other. This became the foundation upon which Soelle developed her theology in social and political terms.

In her book Political Theology Soelle worked from a base of the existential theology of Rudolf Bultmann to build a foundation for her political theology. Bultmann's theology, she argued, is truncated; he properly grounds theological reflection in an understanding of the structures of concrete human existence, but fails to see that that existence is inherently social and not simply individual. Forgiveness is inseparable from responsibility and is socially mediated. God does not offer private forgiveness, but rather, as we learn from the Sermon on the Mount, "admonishes us to go and first be reconciled to our brother" (Matthew 5:14). Resurrection occurs within the context of history as we bring about an end to oppression and transform those social structures that are its cause.

In later years, as a direct outgrowth of her political and social activism grounded in theological reflection, there emerged a new emphasis in Soelle's thought: on the one hand contemporary feminism and on the other Christian mystical tradition. Soelle understood feminist theology as a liberation theology and always dealt with the oppression and liberation of women together with the issues of racism and exploitation of the proletariat. In that context she referred to sexism as the "colonialization" of women. The task of both an authentic Christianity and an authentic politics can only be human liberation, which integrally involves militant action against the madness of nuclearism. The creation of genuinely non-exploitative human society inherently entails the building of the peaceable kingdom, of shalom with all its fullness of meaning.

Soelle defined mysticism as the Cognitio Dei Experimentalis, the "perception of God through experience." It is in mystical experience—which Soelle did not regard as esoteric but as widely experienced by ordinary people— that the contemporary Christian feminist can find warrant for a direct, personal-social, anti-authoritarian, and creative relationship to the Christian tradition and to contemporary structures of oppression. Soelle emphasized in this connection the subversive, "anarchical" character of the mystical tradition.

For Soelle the only mode of theological reflection appropriate to both the nature of Christian faith and the task of liberation in the real human world was "inductive" and "narrative." Theology may be grounded firmly in the concrete experiences of people undergoing suffering and incompleteness in their lives, rather than beginning "deductively" with doctrines. Soelle's own theological writing, especially during the 1970s and early 1980s, was a remarkably successful synthesis of the personal and the intellectual, the concrete and the analytical, the imaginative and the thoroughly knowledgeable. It was a theological style which provided an entirely congruent medium for her unification of feminism, mysticism, and socialist pacifism.

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Further Reading on Dorothee Soelle

There does not appear to be any full studies of the life or work of Dorothee Soelle. Some of her work tends to be autobiographical in nature (Death by Bread Alone offers some personal insights). There is a short biographical sketch in the introduction to the English translation of Political Theology by John Shelley. Peter Hodgson comments on Christ the Representative in his book Jesus—Word and Presence (1971). Reactions from the Jewish perspective are found in the book Contemporary Christologies: A Jewish Response (1980) by Eugene B. Borowitz. Soelle was a frequent contributor to Christianity and Crisis and other liberal Christian periodicals.