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Issue Date:  September 15, 2006

Selected by James Brabazon
Orbis, 176 pages, $16
Selected by Dianne Oliver
Orbis, 237 pages, $18
Mystics in action

Albert Schweitzer and Dorothee Soelle are figures who speak to the modern world

Reviewed by JERRY RYAN

In two recent volumes of its “Modern Spiritual Masters” series, Orbis Books presents selections from the writings of Dorothee Soelle and Albert Schweitzer. Both of these personalities of German Lutheran heritage addressed their messages to the contemporary world and tried to do so in categories that would be meaningful to modern people. And both backed up their claims with action.

Of the two, Schweitzer is by far the better known. He was born in 1875 in Alsace, German territory at that time, the son of a Lutheran village pastor. At the University of Strasbourg he earned degrees in theology, philosophy and music. His early studies on “the historical Jesus” were considered revolutionary and even unorthodox at the time.

Schweitzer was an accomplished pianist and organist and authored several books on Bach. Yet at the heart of this brilliant scholar and artist was a restless and driving compassion that could not simply contemplate suffering. He made a vow to himself at the age of 30 that he would dedicate his life to the institutional alleviation of misery.

An article he chanced to see in a magazine determined the form this would take: Doctors were needed at the Lambarene Mission on the Ogowe River in the French colony of Gabon in Central Africa. Schweitzer studied tropical medicine for seven years until he was qualified as a doctor. In 1913, with his wife, Helene, who had trained as a nurse, he set out for Lambarene. Their first stay in Africa lasted four years until they were arrested as enemy aliens during the First World War and deported to France. When after the armistice they were free to return to Lambarene, Helene, whose health had failed, and their young daughter were unable to accompany him.

Back in Gabon, Schweitzer found the Lambarene hospital in ruins. He decided to start again a few miles upstream. He was 50 years old at that time, and his permanent home for the next 40 years would be a tiny room in the hospital he had built. World War II cut off the mission and also the supply of volunteers on which the mission depended. Schweitzer almost single-handedly assured its survival. By the end of the war, he was exhausted, discouraged and on the point of giving up. It was at this low point that a group of American missionaries discovered his hospital. They sent money, supplies and mounted a publicity campaign so effective that Schweitzer became a modern icon. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. TIME magazine called him “the greatest man in the world.” He died in his mission at age 90.

The career of Dorothee Soelle was much less spectacular. Born in Cologne in 1929, Soelle was brought up in a liberal bourgeois family. With the end of World War II and the fuller revelation of the horrors of the Holocaust, Soelle was shaken to the core of her being. The liberal Protestantism that had nurtured her and defined her had at its best not denounced the atrocities of the Nazis, and at its worst had participated in them. This failure alienated her from all forms of institutional Christianity. After a failed marriage, she found stability with a second partner, Fulbert Steffensky. Four children were born of these marriages.

In the 1960s she became involved in an ecumenical peace group that met to discuss theological questions and their political implications. A fierce opponent of the war in Vietnam, Soelle became interested in Marxism -- not so much for its ideology as for its analytical tools. While she slowly became a prominent figure through her work in the peace movement and through her writings, she pursued an academic career. She eventually received a doctorate. She was invited to be a visiting professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1975 and would stay on there until 1987. Soelle sympathized profoundly with the liberation theology movement in Latin America. She also became aware of the insights of feminist theology and its liberation aspects. She traveled widely and continued to participate in peace movements and acts of civil disobedience. She died of a heart attack in 2003 while leading a workshop with her husband.

The extracts from Schweitzer’s writings have been selected and presented by the British author James Brabazon, himself a biographer of Schweitzer. There are samples of Schweitzer’s early work on the historical Jesus, on music and its meaning, on his work in Africa. His exegetical studies on the Gospels were probably more “shocking” in his times than in ours. His writings on the music of Bach, Wagner and Beethoven evidence Schweitzer’s exquisite sensitivity; those describing his work in Africa are moving by their simplicity and integrity. The fact that many of these extracts are from letters to Helene make them more revelatory of Schweitzer’s fears and self-doubts and humility.

The final section on Schweitzer’s guiding philosophical and theological intuition -- “the reverence for life” -- is by far the densest and is the key to all the rest. The apparent banality of this term is deceptive. Behind it lie a profound sense of the interconnection of all beings in their will to live and a compassionate awareness of a common destiny. It is only in harmonizing one’s self to this will to live that truth and a strange peace will be found. By this aspect of his thought, Schweitzer provided, with anticipation, the foundations of environmental theology.

Dorothee Soelle also has a keen sense of the immanence of God and the vital link between mysticism and action. The God we “see” is the God we experience. To see things as God sees them is to see his image in all people. This leads to an active resistance to evil and inspires efforts to alleviate suffering. Such a vision renders certain attitudes unsupportable. For Soelle, the language and images we use to refer to God are inadequate -- especially those of traditional scientific theology, which treat God as an “object.” True knowledge is intuitive, personal and ineffable. It finds its expression in paradox and poetry. The exclusion of women from the theological dialogue has signified the debilitation of a particular type of complementary knowledge. These texts are presented by Dianne L. Oliver, a professor at the University of Evansville, Ind., who has published several studies of Soelle’s works.

It is easy to see why Orbis has included Schweitzer and Soelle in this “Modern Spiritual Masters” series. These are not ivory-tower mystics. Both testify to the power of the Gospel to make all things new, to lead us to a unique experience where one understands the message from within and is invaded by a light and urgency that confound all previously received categories.

And therein lies the problem. Both Soelle and Schweitzer claim, sometimes explicitly, to have rediscovered Christianity -- as if the Holy Spirit had, in fact, abandoned the church. This is certainly due, at least in part, to their Lutheran formation, which rejected the church’s role in transmitting the apostolic tradition and emphasized the subjective interpretation of scripture. It is also perhaps indicative of our postmodern mentality, which pretends to reinvent everything.

There is absolutely no reason to question the authenticity, validity and depth of the insights of Soelle and Schweitzer. However, these insights only take on all their force and meaning when they are incorporated into a greater wisdom that has been handed down through the centuries, washed in the blood of martyrs and illuminated by the lives and loving contemplation of the friends of God. It is true that there is much in the church that is warped and incomplete, mentalities that reflect historical ambiguities -- and there is also the sorry witness most of us give. Schweitzer and Soelle are right in criticizing all this. Yet one sometimes has the impression of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater.

Leon Bloy once wrote that “when one tries to speak lovingly of God, all human words are like the tears of blind lions seeking sources in the desert.” It is not asked of prophets that they proclaim the fullness of truth; it is only asked that they be faithful to their visions. Soelle and Schweitzer were loving prophets. For all their inadequacies, their visions recall certain basic exigencies of our faith that we too often neglect. In this respect, they are true “spiritual masters.”

Jerry Ryan is a freelance writer living in Winthrop, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2006

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