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Liberation theologian lionised

02 August 2013

Lavinia Byrne sees

the praise piled on

a peace activist


Dorothee Soelle - Mystic and Rebel: The biography

Renate Wind

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 well."

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 activism.

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 edge?

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

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