Dorothee Soelle - Mystic and Rebel: The
Fortress Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30
THIS nicely produced book is an act of pietas, a
testimony to the life and influence of Dorothee Soelle, written by
a fellow theologian and peace activist, Renate Wind.
Soelle was born in 1929 in Cologne, where she studied theology,
philosophy, and literature, and completed a doctorate on the
connections between theology and poetry. Subsequently, she spoke
out against the Vietnam War, the arms race of the Cold War, and
injustice in the developing world, while teaching both in Germany
and at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. She married
twice, and had four children.
Accused by some of "theological cynicism" because she found gaps
between the traditional understanding of God and the demands of
life in post-Holocaust, post-war Germany, Soelle wrote extensively
on suffering and Christian ethics. She enjoyed genuine celebrity in
Christian circles, and was a well-known and loved conference
speaker, valued for her original and challenging contention that
"every theological statement must be a political statement as
Her preferred platform was the ecumenical "Political Evensong" -
a forum for information, meditation, discussion, and action - which
she developed through the 1960s and '70s. Her biographer enhances
her profile by adding the word "mystic" in the title, claiming
spiritual authority for her writings as well.
In this book, the part played by Soelle is somewhat undermined
by the author's adulation and the constraints of the German
language. Wind heaps noun upon noun to assure us of her subject's
importance and integrity. She writes: "For Dorothee Soelle the
mystical love of God is indissolubly bound up with the longing for
a better world." So far so good. But then Wind adds: "She was a
path-breaker and a torch-carrier, a symbol and a role model . . .
an enlightened and therefore a politically active, fighting woman."
More is not always better, and I am not certain that the author has
been well-served by the rather wooden translation.
This is a careful examination, a eulogy rather than a critical
appraisal, of someone who was an important product of her times.
Post-war Germany needed a voice such as hers, and here it is
displayed; so, too, is the full extent of Soelle's political
But I am left wondering whether her value as a theologian stands
the test of time. To put it another way: does liberation theology
need new prophets and, in the 21st century, a more nuanced
Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.