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Search for a theology that works

06 March 2015

An insightful look at a slightly dated saint, says Lavinia Byrne

Dorothee Soelle: Life and work
Andrew Francis
Imagier Publishing £12.50
Church Times Bookshop £11.25 (Use code CT656 )

THE LIFE bit is easy: Dorothee Soelle, born in 1929, died in 2003 after devoting years to intense political activism and theological engagement. Her context: the spectacular and tragic events spanned by her lifetime. As a young woman studying theology, philosophy, and literature in post-war Cologne, and subsequently both in Germany and in New York, she was a product of her times. This gave her a role that she seized and engaged with to the full. Like Bonhoeffer, born 23 years before her, she has become the closest thing the Protestant community has to a canonised saint.

Interesting that a faith so firmly grounded in the triumph of faith over works finds its ultimate justification in the testimony of a life so dominated by works. Soelle dealt with this conundrum by reminding people that "we stand under grace which demands a complete change in pattern of faith-ful living."

Is this why appraising her work proves trickier, as there is so much of it? Andrew Francis is a fan and knows his subject backwards. He solves the problem of evaluating Soelle by breaking down her written output title by title, and offering an appraisal in terms of her own contention that "every theological statement must be a political statement as well." Ironically, this means that theology, too, has to make a difference - that is to say, it must "work".

So there are chapters in this brief survey that dwell on Soelle's books, and on the key theological themes that Francis extrapolates from these. These include her Christology, sense of discipleship, emerging eco-concerns, feminism, and, inevitably, peace-making. Essentially, his book offers an analysis of her written legacy which is unfailingly warm and insightful. Above all, he understands that "feminism, mysticism, meditation and theology were all subjects integral to Soelle's heart and mind, as vital to her as life itself." If context is all, then she ably embraced and interpreted her own.

But contexts change, and even saints can date.

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

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