"On Earth as in Heaven" Pt. 1

Dorothee Soelle is a German theologian whose writing is in many ways written in the shadow of Nazi Germany. She writes, remembering the dehumanizing actions of the Nazi’s in the 1940’s and responds with an attitude of “never again.” She offers the idea of an eschatological and anthropological soteriology which hopes for freedom. It is soteriology which is not disconnected from the bodies and blood of the here and now or in our history—a soteriology which is not separated from the action and vision of real people. Her vision of salvation is holistic—encompassing body and soul—for all of creation. We’re not dealing with a soteriology which is primarily about the conversion of people, “accepting Jesus into my heart,” as in some popular western conceptions. Soelle seeks, rather, a restoration of the world to dignity—a soteriology which remembers hungry and excluded people.
This soteriology is both anthropological and eschatological. It is anthropological in that it is deeply rooted in restoring people’s dignity, restoring people to who they really are and treating them that way. It’s about treating people as people and not as raw material or something which can be consumed. If we are confused about what a person is and how they should be treated we will not understand how to restore them. She aims this soteriology corporately, thus we are dealing not on an individualistic level but on a level where neighbor cannot be neglected.
This corporate element of Soelle’s soteriology is eschatological in that it is about a vision for the world. If it is not for all people—all the world—then it’s not true salvation. It’s about the future of society and thus the “end” of the world. This “end” is not a sort of end “where time stops” or “where the story ends.” Rather, it is the end we desire for the world, it’s the state in which we want the world to be, a vision of how the world should be forever. This is not an eschatology which involves only the metaphysical. It is not disconnected from the physical wellbeing of the world as a whole. It is “on earth as in heaven” not just heaven. In other words the kind of soteriology she is looking for is not about souls going to heaven but it is about heaven crashing down to earth and eschatologically taking residence here.
The book, On Earth as in Heaven, is strategically written in what she sees as a standard method for liberation theology. Beginning with praxis, then “identifying the cause,” then “meditation,” and lastly moving into a “renewed praxix.” “Whereas traditional theology starts with the text, liberation theology starts with the context” or the “praxis” (p.x from the introduction). Soelle’s first section, The Dispossessed, lays out the primary problems (praxis). The second section, Vision, aims to help the reader see the causes of these problems and see vision for transforming these issues. The third section, Biblical Roots, is a form of meditation, looking for what the Bible could say about the issues and finding new ways to read the Bible, with a hermeneutic of poverty. And finally in the fourth section, Transformation, she looks to find new language and new understanding toward approaching the issues.
The first section, The Dispossessed, begins with a discussion about poverty in the U.S.A. Soelle writes about some of the visits she and others have made regularly to the homeless on the streets of the United States. These visits, she says, are not only about providing materials, it’s about talking with them, touching them, and embracing them as people (p.4). As important as materials are, she says, poverty is about more. Many government projects to resolve the issues of homelessness are misguided, making the problem invisible (p.4). They build prisons and homeless shelters “to make this third world invisible to the splendid first” (p.5). Contrary to the presuppositions of capitalism there is very little opportunity for such as these to have the type of success it so shamelessly advocates. One homeless person in the U.S. whom Soelle had worked with wrote about the situation of the children on the street (who are half a million of the three million homeless in the U.S. p.4) “Their only college is the prison, and an early death on the street is their social security” (p.5). The situation is seemingly hopeless and certainly serious. But Soelle argues hat the true issue is not materials but dignity. Not all poverty is destruction of dignity, this is a “materialist superstition” (p.15). By covering up these issues and making them invisible the first world in the U.S. “destroy not only the human dignity of the poor but also their own” (p.14). They place all their own dignity as well as the dignity of the poor in possessions (p.14-15). Salvation is such a situation, therefore, is more than material redistribution but also solidarity. The destruction of dignity is the real problem and this happens only in societies where the poor are considered less than the rich, where the societies caters toward the rich and away from the poor, where people are not poor together. “The future of God is the future of the poor… God will make them rich in being, not in having; rich in relationship, not in possessions; rich in God, if we may speak this way, as poor Jesus, St. Francis and St. Clare, Dorthy Day, and many others were” (p.17). Salvation in redistribution, yes, but it is also unity and inclusion. In this discussion the phrase “because you are rich, you have never lived,” rings throughout.
With this sort of Salvation in mind, a salvation in being, we turn to a discussion of women in patriarchic society, especially in the church. “Today the most sensitive women often feel homeless in Christianity and forced out of churches” (p.18). This is a hidden poverty which destroys dignity. It doesn’t make much sense, Soelle is arguing, that the church as an institution should despise women and force them to powerlessness. It doesn’t make sense because Jesus, essentially the founder of the religion that bears his name, “found ‘greater love and more faith’ among women” (p.19). It also doesn’t make sense because very early in their tradition (in the letters of Paul) there is a great appreciation, a counter-cultural appreciation of women. Theirs, the early Christians, was a movement in conflict with society toward the “last”—Jesus said “the last will be first” and this message permeated itself thought Jesus teachings. In ancient Rome, “Being a woman was last of all!” (p.20). The message of Jesus is hope for women. Jesus, in the true sense of the word, was a feminist and so, therefore, his Church should be also. In our society women have been pushed aside and in the church there is little resistance against this move. Women are denied any power in the church and are reduced to objects. Soelle’s soteriology here is a restoration of the last in society, thus a restoration of women to dignity. It is a reminder that people were created “male and female” and not as slaves and objects.