Monday, July 25, 2011

A More Feminine God


The only guide we have is this nonauthoritarian, powerless Christ who has nothing but love, who exerts no power, has no armies to call on, shouts no one down, as God did Job out of the whirlwind, who has nothing with which to save us but his love. His powerlessness constitutes his inner authority. We are not his because he sired us, created us, made us. We are his because love is his weaponless power, and that power is stronger than death.
Dorothee Soelle

In the summer of 1980, Dorothee Soelle, the professor of systematic theology at Union Seminary (as well as mother, theologian, activist and poet) gave a university lecture that laid out a common ground for feminists, mystics and advocates for radical liberation: a set of convictions that led to an authentic lifestyle characterized by a vigilant "search for nonauthoritarian relationships and conditions."

This "search" led Soelle to actively protest the Vietnam War, nuclear weapon build-up and 3rd World injustices of the Cold War era through her poetry, theological writings, outspoken lectures and her creative political nightprayers that she wrote with her husband, the Benedictine monk Fullbert Steffensky. And now, her work is more current than ever in a post-9/11 world of massive economic injustice, ecological degradation and the continual political and theological rhetoric of Christian fundamentalists (what she called "Christofacists") who are obsessed with strong-arming America back to a mythical Christian nation status that never existed. Soelle's legacy is to call all Christians to embrace feminism, mysticism and a rugged focus on liberation at the very heart of their faith.

Soelle masterfully critiqued the very nature of salvation as framed by Western Protestant Christianity:

Redemption is not the granting of salvation to a specific individual. It is instead an occurrence that takes place in this world and for everyone of this world. It does not touch just some individuals but has instead a liberating character for all humankind.

God is in the business of liberating humanity from every aspect of our lives: economic, political, social, psychological, cultural and religious life. With that said, Soelle compelled her students to embrace a more mystical faith in God: a focus on experiencing God outside of doctrines, beliefs, Bible-reading and pastoral sermonizing. To be mystical is to immerse ourselves in the Movement of God, the Living Wind and Source of all things, in our unique context instead of seeking to honor a remote, sacrifice-demanding God because he is a powerful and dominating Father who is all to quick to deal out punishments.

Soelle's narrative approach proposed that we start with real life issues like "my father-in-law has pancreatic cancer" and "the California Legislature just cut another $500 million from public universities" and then setting these experiences "against the promise of a whole life, the promise of the Kingdom of God," instead of the overwhelming tendency to start Christian faith with principles like "Jesus was the Son of God" and "God created the heavens and the earth" and then applying them to our lives. Christian faith, for mystics like Soelle, is all about improvising with the Character of self-donating love present in our struggle for peace and justice.

At the heart of mysticism is a belief in a God who vulnerably joins humanity in a solidarity that

...asks that we change the image of God from that of a power-dispensing father to one of a liberating and unifying force, and we cease to be objects and become subjects involved in this process of change, that we learn cooperation rather than wait for things to come to us from on high.

Soelle subverted these "phallocratic fantasies" of God with a more holistic and inclusive feminism because, let's face it, it's "not limited to people with female reproductive organs." Jesus himself was a feminist not just because of his attitudes and treatment towards women, but because he sought to tear down hierarchical rules of 1st century Palestinian Judaism within the paterfamilias of the Roman Empire. In short, he addressed both symptoms and systems. And so should we:

What we need is another culture with goals and values different from the ones currently in force. The essence of feminism is not just a big “Me, too!” It is the creation of something new.

A more feminist faith will liberate women from the internalized helplessness that is soaked into their consciousness in a patriarchal society, but it will also liberate men from the entitlement of unearned privilege and unacknowledged oppression of women. It will allow all of us, regardless of gender, to hear the woman's voice much clearer in our marriages, the marketplace, our government and our faith communities (the church, Soelle laments, has been "the lubricant" of women's oppression in our culture).

Our world desperately needs Christian communities that flip the Western patriarchal, institutional and personal salvation scripts and embrace more mystical, liberationist and feminist strands. Three decades ago, Soelle inspired her students to leave the world (all that comes with the American Dream), leave the self (our apathy, our image-obsession, our restlessness) and leave God (the commanding, dominating, authoritarian version in our imaginations) behind in order to live out the good news of the weaponless power of the death-transforming love of Christ. We find God when we pour out this love into all the spaces in our lives where the vulnerable, marginalized and oppressed reside.
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*Today's image of God as an African-American woman is from a sketch that artist Leo Hartshorn drew for a tattoo for one of his friends. Check out his blog for more of his beautiful work.

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