New Transcendentalist
15 min readSep 23, 2022

“A sort of Christofascistic Religion” Dorothee Soelle’s Foreword to Beyond Mere Obedience (1982)/Creative Disobedience (1990)

If you like this, please clap/share/subscribe, find me on instagram and/or youtube. You can financially support on venmo or paypal.

As far as I am aware, there are two places Dorothee Sölle makes explicit reference (in English) to this warning that American Fundamentalism could/would lead to a “Christofascism.” First, in the following foreword to the 1982 edition of her Beyond Mere Obedience. To make this really complicated, that book was originally a 1968 German text: Phantasie und Gehorsam: Überlegungen zu einer künftigen christlichen Ethik (trans. “Imagination and Obedience: Reflections on a Future Christian Ethic”) then released in English in 1970 as Beyond Mere Obedience — (I was unable to find/consult this 1970 edition) — then again in 1982 with a new foreword and again in 1990 (with another updated foreword) as Creative Disobedience — that 1990 edition omitted the reference to the Moral Majority and Christofascism. The following contains both the 1982 and the 1990 version of that particular section.

The second place I am aware of is a collection of essays also released in 1990 under the title The Window of Vulnerability: A Political Spirituality. This collection has a 9 page essay with the title “Christofascism.” I typed up that entire essay here, and read it aloud here.

Foreword to “Beyond Mere Obedience” (1982)

This book is an attempt to work through the oppressive aspects of traditions of obedience I inherited in my national, religious, and sexual identity. Being a German, a Christian, and a woman I was brought up in three kinds of traditions that demanded obedience. This fact fills me with pain, with anger, and with shame.

It is painful to discover that one obeyed the rules of a game without a clear personal understanding as to where these rules would lead. One feels anger against those who enforce obedience. And shame at being collectively obedient too long. Shame, however, is a revolutionary emotion, as Karl Marx once said. It changes those who venture to go through it.

Speaking of my own shame at being too obedient, I have to reflect on the history of my people. I have to take my national identity seriously. There is a key event that occurred in this century which stained everything before and after in German history.

This event twisted words, language, ideas and images and gave them irrevocably different meanings. They lost their original innocence. Take words like “star” or “hair” or “smoke” and reflect for a moment on how they could be used in 1930 and in 1943 and in 1980. Do they sound different? Is there a smell attached to the words when they were used after what I refer to as the “event”? Can you imagine a German writer, a person who consciously deals with language, using the word “star” as if it were nothing but a celestial lamp? Can you think of someone from my country with any capacity for remembrance at all who could use the word “star” without thinking of the yellow star which Jews were forced to wear before being gassed?

Again, is it possible to think about a moral philosopher or theologian who would use the word “obedience” as if nothing had happened? It seems dangerous to me to talk about morality as a concept that is separate from history, and abstracted from one’s national identity. We have to own our history. Being a German after the Holocaust means that my theological concepts and the words which I use to express them have no life apart from their history. They either discuss history and try to serve grief work or they are a meaningless, church kind of talk, without remembrance and therefore without hope. I neither can nor want to forget what happened. How could I continue in the naivete of doing theology in a suprahistorical context?

If the concept of obedience was used by idealistic or stupid young Nazis to commit the greatest crime in the history of my people, then one has to reflect on what was wrong with this concept. The results of these reflections are given in this book. A friend gave the first edition of this volume to Theodore W. Adorno in 1968. Adorno read it and was deeply impressed, as he wrote in a letter to my friend. I mention this because it highlights the connections between the Frankfurt School, which started as a critique of the authoritarian personality, and people like myself, who grew up after Auschwitz and spent so many years of their lives with the question “How could it happen?”

You may ask yourselves what all of this has to say to American readers. I recall a discussion at Union Theological Seminary where a male colleague mentioned this book as being “very typically German.” Another colleague, a woman, burst into laughter on hearing this remark. Obviously she did not consider obedience simply as a German matter. She knew too well who had been victimized in America through this concept. She later told me that she recalled her mother’s life when she read what I wrote here about Brecht’s shameless old woman. Another student, who had listened to our conversation mentioned Lieutenant Calley’s use of the concept of obedience to justify what [the massacre] he had done at My Lai. We talked about the Vietnam War and about Calley’s fellow soldiers who fought and killed and died in obedience to the wrong cause. Blind obedience in which people gave up their reason and conscience to someone else is not limited to specific nations. nor is collective shame for the deeds of one’s nation. There is even an international solidarity among those who feel ashamed about what their governments have done in the name of their peoples and this solidarity of shame deserves the adjective “revolutionary.”

.

The second tradition of obedience to which this book speaks is the religious tradition with its strong emphasis on father authority and children’s obedience. There are three structural elements of religious obedience:

  • Acceptance of a superior power which controls our destiny and excludes self-determination
  • Subjection to the rule of this power which needs no moral legitimation, in love or justice
  • A deep-rooted pessimism about humans, seen as powerless and meaningless beings incapable of truth and love.

Erich Fromm has distinguished between humanitarian forms of religion and authoritarian ones (Psychoanalysis and Religion). The Jewish prophets, the historical Jesus, early Buddhists and the mystics of most religions display a kind of religion which is not repressive, not based on one-sided and asymmetric dependence. This religion operates with a force which springs from the inner life of the spirit. There is one creative power in God as well as in people. Obedience presupposes duality: one who speaks and one who listens; one who knows and one who is ignorant; a ruler and ruled ones. Religious groups who broke away from the spirit of dependency and obedience cherish different values such as mutuality and interdependence. It is precisely in the historical context of a different religion that one begins to question the social-psychological implications of the father-symbol and religious emphasis on obedience. The main virtue of an authoritarian religion is obedience. Self-abrogation is the center of gravity, in contrast with humanitarian religion, where the chief virtue is self-realisation and resistance to growth is the cardinal sin.

From the point of view of social history such an authoritarian concept of religion affirms a given society and has a stabilizing influence on its prevailing tendencies. In this context authoritarian religion discourages any willingness to aim at a greater emancipation and critical attempt to rise above the established realities, also–and particularly–when these trends base their arguments on religious grounds: God’s love and righteousness are less important than God’s power.

Authoritarian religion leads to that infantile clinging to consolation which we can observe in the sentimentality of religious art and the history of devotionalism. But this goes together with a compulsive need for order, a fear of confusion and chaos, a desire for supervision and control.

The dangers of the religious ideology of obedience do not come to an end when religion itself loses its spell and binding power. The Nazi ideology with its anti-religious leanings proves the point that after disenchantment of the world, to use Max Weber’s phrase, there is still domination and unquestioned authority and obedience. It is as if the worst qualities of religion survived its form. This is even more true today in a post religious technocratic culture where obedience is seen not in terms of charismatic leaders but of the market forces of the economy, the use of energy and the growing militarizations of societies which, without being actually engaged in war, act as if they were. Technocrats, no doubt, have long since become our priests. But even in the new situation where obedience is preferably spoken of in terms of “the rules of the game,” the structural elements of authoritarian religion persist and the remaining traces of religious education prepare the increasingly a-religious education for an obedience from which all personal features, based on trust and sacrifice have vanished. When religion is dying out it is precisely this rigidity which survives; it is the authoritarian bonds which mostly persist in a life that is understood as dominated by technocracy. The Milgram experiment at Yale a few years ago showed that a vast majority of the ordinary people included in the research were quite prepared, under scientific direction, to torture innocent fellow humans with electrical current which is precisely what happens in a “culture” of obedience. Obedience operates in the barbaric ethos of fascism, but also in that of technocracy as well.

But why do people worship a God whose supreme quality is power, not justice; whose interest lies in subjection, not in mutuality; who fears equality?

Today’s Moral Majority gives us an almost perfect example of an authoritarian religion based on blind and substanceless obedience. The electronic church talks about “being saved” or “taking Jesus as Savior and Lord” without even thinking of translating these religious concepts into the context of our world, as if the repetition of pious formulas could save anyone! If the concept of obedience is never spelled out, if there is not even a need for explaining what obedience to God means in a socio-historical context, then it simply shores up the values of the status quo. Those who use religious language and talk about religious obedience towards God without telling us what they mean, have a clear message for their audiences. It is identical with the prevailing values of the given culture. In my opinion the message of the Moral Majority can be summed up as “Make War Not Love.” There is no fear of more militarism and more preparation for a nuclear holocaust. There is no call to break away from those who are obsessed with death. There is instead a tremendous fear of sexuality–one’s own and one’s neighbors. Authoritarian religion is based on obedience and the God it obeys loves war and death and hates and punishes the powers of imagination and liberated sexuality.

The growth of the Moral Majority in the last years is a sign of victory of authoritarian religion over a humanitarian one. It may not be too much to say that it indicates a kind of creeping fascistization. The first edition of this book, written long before this new development in the United States, tries to underline the consequences of such a religion. The nightmarish vision which I now see clearer than before and in the U.S. clearer than in Europe is a sort of christofascistic religion. It leaves out the prophetic call for justice and the Jesusanic understanding of our being one with God. It negates the humanistic and liberating tendencies in the Biblical tradition and trains its followers instead for a cost-free discipleship and substance-free obedience.

[In the 1990 updated and retitled Creative Disobedience those last two paragraphs are replaced by the following:]

Fundamentalism is on the rise in many places of monotheistic religions. Judaism and Islam, as well as Christianity, have developed branches of an authoritarian religion based on blind and substanceless obedience. Religious concepts such as “being saved” or “taking Jesus as my Savior and Lord” are used without even thinking of translating them into the context of our world, as if the repetition of pious formulas could save anyone! If the concept of obedience to God is never spelled out, then it simply shores up the values of the status quo.

With the beginning of the 1990s I sense a new thrust of rigid individualism, at least in the now re-unified Europe. A peaceful development, based on socioeconomic justice and the integrity of creation seems more distant than ever from our way of living. Authoritarian religion with its dichotomic perspective of “us” and “them” furthers the illusion of an individual salvation. It leaves out the prophetic call for justice and the understanding of our being one with God as taught and lived by the historical Jesus. It negates the humanistic and liberating tendencies in the biblical tradition and trains its followers instead for cost-free discipleship and a substance-free obedience.

.

There is a third oppressive tradition which made me write this book besides my national and my religious identity. Coming out of German protestantism and desperately seeking for meaning inside this distorted tradition, I was not so much aware of this third power of oppression. But now I think the deepest roots to struggle with in the concept of obedience are given in my sexual identity, though I did not know this at the time the book was written. It took my American friends half a dozen years to make me aware of what I felt and wrote. When I first came to this country and started to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York, the faculty and students asked me again and again: “What has your theology to do with your being a woman?” I did not know how to respond. Of course I knew of some things which I intensely disliked in male theological circles: namely the springing from one quotation to the next in their writing without having the courage to use personal talk; the almost anal obsession with footnotes called “scientific style;” the conscious, but much worse, the unconscious craving for orthodoxy and the shelter it offers to the professional theologian; the neglect of historical reflection while glibly talking about “historicity;” the failure to evaluate an reflect on praxis. I also felt a certain lack of candidness, honesty and the need for being personally exposed to the truth of Scripture and tradition. The theological method almost always started with “Scripture tells us…” After that I expected a “but” which seldom appeared. I was angry, though I did not quite understand why.

When my friends exposed to me my own latent feminism I learned to understand my anger much better. In my student years I had learned to distinguish between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This was a relevant and unforgettable insight. But none of these theologians then mentioned the God of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel. There was silence. The “fathers of the faith” were reflected in the idea of a father in heaven, but the “mothers of the faith” were left in a limbo of obscurity. They are unremembered, forgotten, in fact, repressed. This repression does not only affect the 51 percent of humankind, who as a result, never found their theological voice (and maybe it wouldn’t have been such an obedient voice!). It also has a catastrophic affect on the way the theologians who are part of the other 49 percent express themselves.

The ignoring of the female component of the soul and the running down of everything that has a feminine flavor has done more damage to the way theologians speak and write than any assault from the secular world. This purging and impoverishing process has led to the repression of the emphatic wholeness, awareness and integration which marked the language of the Gospel. Some of the objections against the concept of obedience raised in this book are clearer to me now as an outcry of a woman against a so-called scientific language devoid of a sense of emotional awareness. Much of male theological language is unaware of the emotions of the speaking person; it is insensitive to what people experience; it has no interest and no appeal to change the world; it has no partisanship. It has a dull flatness because it leaves no room for doubt, that shadow of faith. It does not only talk about obedience, it presents itself as an act of obedient talk: blind, insensitive, imaginationless and neither reflecting nor projecting any form of Christian praxis.

There was a hidden feminist in me who opposed this language, this virtue and this religion. When I set out to study theology, I had no clear idea what the word GOD meant. How could anyone, given the historical situation after the Holocaust, talk about an omnipotent heavenly Being who obviously prefers to stay in the position of an observer? What was great about this God who saw and knew what happened to people in Treblinka and Buchenwald and did not intervene? Nietzsche’s announcement that God is dead made a lot of sense to me and I could describe my position as radically Christocentric. God cannot be experienced by humans. We should cling to the powerless non-dominant Christ who has nothing more to persuade us with than his love. His very powerlessness constitutes an inner-personal authority; not because he begot, created or made us are we his, but simply because his only power is love, and this love, without any weapons is stronger than death itself.

My difficulties about God as father, begetter, ruler and the manager of history grew as I began to understand more clearly what it means to be born a woman, and therefore “incomplete,” and so to have to live in a patriarchal society. How could I want power to be the dominant characteristic of my life? And how could I worship a God who was only a male?

Male power, for me, is something to do with roaring, shooting and giving orders. I do not think that this patriarchal culture has done me any more damage than it has done other women. It only became constantly more obvious to me that any identification with the aggressor, the ruler, the violator, is the worst thing that can happen to a woman.

Thus I set out to find a better theological language that could get rid of the streak of domination. I was helped by the language of the mystics.

“Source of all that is good,” “life-giving wind,” “water of life,” “light” are all symbols of GOd which do not imply power of authority and do not smack of any chauvinism. There is no room for “supreme power,” domination, or the denial of one’s own validity in the mystical tradition. It often explicitly criticizes the lord-servant relationship and it has been superseded particularly by the mystics inventive use of language.

In this tradition religion means the experience of being one with the whole, of belonging together, but never of subjection. In this perspective people do not worship God because of his power and domination. They rather want to “drown” themselves in God’s love, which is the “ground” of their existence. There is a preference for symbols like “depth,” “sea,” and those referring to motherhood and to nature at large. Here our relationship to God is not one of obedience but of union; it is not a matter of a distant God exacting sacrifice and self-denial, but rather a matter of agreement and consent, of being at one with what is alive. And this then becomes what religion is about. When this happens solidarity will replace obedience as the dominant virtue.

Using the word solidarity tells you where I moved to from this attempt to go beyond obedience. Imagination and the claim for happiness are concepts I used in that time of transition I went through. Perhaps many people in this country may not need to hear that because the pursuit of happiness is already written in their Constitution. But there are still many others for whom the Constitution was never realized, who were told to stay in their places. Women, racial minorities and the poor are not freed from the culture of obedience and still must travel a long way from domination to self-determination. On this long road some of my friends who were Christians dropped religion and gave up on understanding it as a means for human liberation. I sadly disagree with them. In this sense the book is conservative and aimst to convert people to “that old time religion.” During the last years we often sang this good old spiritual and we always added some new verses: “It was good enough for Sarah, it was good enough for Mary, it was good enough for Sojourner Truth, it was good enough for Mother Jones, it was good enough for Rosa Luxembourg and it’s good enough for me.”

When I wrote this book I knew some things about obedience: out of the history of my country; out of the dogmatics of my religious education; and unconsciously, out of my being a woman. What I lacked is clearer to me now, after having spent some six years in the United States. I learned that there was a tradition of civil disobedience in this country. I did not know that there were people who burned their draft cards with napalm and blocked trains that would transport weapons to Vietnam. To hear this, to meet people who almost casually tell me that they spent time in jail because of some religious and political activities made me more aware of the alternative than before. It made me fall in love with this nonobedient tradition in the United States. It gave me hope, it renewed my trust in the better parts in the religious tradition.

The state authorities who wish to deploy nuclear weapons all over Europe are looking for help from the churches. Some church leaders and lay Christians are resisting the idea to bless weapons for a third World War. What does it mean to be a Christian in these times? Is it the tradition of obedience or the tradition of resistance we are choosing? Is there anything that goes beyond mere obedience in the Christian faith? Should we prepare ourselves, as the authorities want us to do, to kill each Russian baby not only nine times but at least eleven times, and this four minutes after someone in the Pentagon has told us to push the button?

Beyond obedience there is resistance. I learned so much from people in the States about resistance that I would like to give something back. I hope that this book could be of some help in teaching how obedience works for Death and resistance for Life. Imagination is needed and new forms of disobedience for the struggles to come. There will be a time when we will have more than the solidarity of shame.

Dorothee Soelle

[Read the whole book on archive.org, or buy on biblio]

New Transcendentalist

“The good of publishing ones own thoughts is that of hooking you to likeminded people.” -Ralph Emerson. Clap, Share, Follow!