Sunday, July 15, 2007

“The Truth Is Concrete:” God’s presence in the world and the Good Samaritan

A Summer Series post.

I just read a whole book (well, half read and half skimmed, depending on the relevance of the chapters to my current writing projects) by theologian (and poet and peace activist) Dorothee Soelle. (Or Sölle, as it is spelled in German.) It’s a book I had never read, since the Graduate Theological Union library (GTU, in Berkeley) didn't have it during my recent Ph.D. studies and although I had seen its title in Soelle’s very long bibliography, it was "only" a series of talks she gave on the radio, published in book form in the original German in 1967 and in English in the U.K. in 1969. It was never published in the U.S. as far as I know. God love the Harvard Divinity School (HDS, my M.Div. alma mater) library, where I found it last Monday.


Dorothee Sölle, The Truth is Concrete, trans. Dinah Livingstone (London: Burns & Oates, 1969) Original: Die Wahrheit ist konkret (Olten: Walter-Verlag, 1967).


Here are a few excerpts, with the part at the end of particular interest to some of us since it pertains to the Good Samaritan, about whom we hear tomorrow (well, today, I have just burned the midnight oil) in churches using the various major lectionaries.

I have changed the gender-exclusive language to match our contemporary sensibilities (and Sölle’s own later sensibilities) and put the changes in brackets.

Padre Mickey, you will like this first paragraph.

When Brecht was in exile in Denmark he had on his study wall the motto I have taken for the title of this book. It is an old sentence derived from Hegel by the Marxist tradition and now part of its wisdom. In Lenin it reads” This is the foundation of the dialectic: there is no such thing as abstract truth; truth is always concrete.” This principle is in harmony with the Christian notion of truth, or at least that Christian notion which I hold. It dismisses the view that truth is simply there and can be given unchanging expression. It considers the situations in which people live and the needs they feel. It does not forget the oppressed. For these determine our truth. Christianity sees the truth as concrete, historical and partisan. (p. 7)
Religion joins earthly to heavenly life by making the eternal present through liturgy and prayer, but it also shuts it up in a house and separates it from the profane things which lie outside the sanctuary. ... (p. 92)God no longer encounters [human beings] in the house of religion. What did this house mean to him? If prayer originally meant to exercise power, it was an attempt to control an even stronger power. The stronger power is conceived as far away, threatening and elusive. Ritual actions and prayers seek to bring God near. The idea is to make God present through holy vessels, actions, words or person. God’s presence must be conjured up.Now it becomes plain why Jesus no longer needs to keep people in the house of religion. God does not have to be made present, [God] is present. Religion seeks to overcome the gulf between God and [humanity]. But for Jesus this gulf no longer exists. God is out in the open, or, to be more precise, out in the open on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, even though [God] is overlooked by the priest and the Levite and only noticed by the Samaritan. No place can be more sacred than the place where the man who fell among thieves lies helpless and thirsty. No time is more solemn and closer to God than the time when people pass him by in his need. No words could be more pious than the Samaritan’s careful instructions to the innkeeper. “Take care of him and if you spend any more I will repay you when I come back.” If it is true that God is the most important person in this story, even though [God’s] name is not mentioned, it follows that there is no more need for ritual to make [God] present because [God] is already there. Jesus sends [us] out into the open because that is where God is, not in a special place but in the everyday life of every [person]. (p. 93)

Note: Sölle was not anti-ritual or anti-worship. She was more of a both/and person. But she is making a point here about what matters to Jesus and ought to matter to us. Note also when and where she is writing.

Within a year of the German publication of this book, Sölle and a group of friends, Catholic and Protestant, had begun monthly prayer gatherings now known as "Political Evensong" (Politisches Nachtgebet, more accurately translated "Political Evening Prayer") which blended socio-political reflection on current events and biblical study and prayer. Christians of various affiliations took part in these gatherings, as did religiously unaffiliated people. Most of the gatherings took place in Köln (Cologne). The experiment lasted about two years. Sölle, a Protestant of the Lutheran tradition, later married one of her companions from the group, former Benedictine Catholic monk and philosopher Fulbert Steffensky.

Illustration: Sadao Watanabe, The Good Samaritan.

1 comment:

Ed said...

If it is true that God is the most important person in this story, even though [God’s] name is not mentioned, it follows that there is no more need for ritual to make [God] present because [God] is already there. Jesus sends [us] out into the open because that is where God is, not in a special place but in the everyday life of every [person].

A salutary reminder. Thanks for posting this.