“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.”
Poet Muriel Rukeyser

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Rules of the Game, more on Soelle Summer and the "Tradition of Obedience"



Our retreat with Jane Redmont “SoelleSummer” is now in its second week. We are reading and learning much about the complex reality that formed and informed Dorothee Soelle (pronounced ZUH-lah with “u” pronounced as in “duh”).

Soelle, paraphrased from her book, “Creative Disobedience”:


A theological lexicon of the 1950s speaks of obedience as the "central point and key thought of the entire Christian message." Of course the meaning here is theological, that is, obedience in relationship to God. For centuries the notion of what a good Christian ought to be was shaped by this virtue. But it has its sociological and psychological consequences. What does it mean when obedience is given the central position? What are the social implications of such a theology?


Jane summarizes the characteristics Soelle offers regarding the “Tradition of obedience”:

Blind obedience in which people surrender their reason and conscience to someone else is not limited to specific nations; neither 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 their name, and this solidarity of shame deserves the adjective "revolutionary." (to which I add: Women, expectations of women, people of color, expectations of people of color, LGBT people, marriage equality, Vietnam, Guantanamo, etc)

The second tradition of obedience to which this book speaks is the religious tradition, with its strong emphasis on paternal authority and children's obedience. There are three structural elements of religious obedience:
- acceptance of a superior power that controls our destiny and excludes self-determination
- subjection to the rule of this power that 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.

I found this thought from Soelle to be particularly potent in my reflection:

It is painful to discover that one obeyed the rules of a game without a clear personal understanding of where these rules would lead.

I think of the times when I have refused to play the rules of the game. In that disastrous call of 2008-2009, when I ended up leaving a church position I had barely begun, I both tried to play by the rules and, for reasons of my own integrity could not play by the rules. 

The call was doomed either way, and as painful as it was in the process and the aftermath, I was intentional about maintaining my integrity as a person and as a priest. I was accused of being "authoritarian."  This accusation reveals the shadow side of that part of me that was formed by being the oldest child and only girl in an alcoholic family system. The accusation was also a projection onto me of what others were actually doing, as if it were me. Inherent in the behavior of others making this accusation was the denial of my voice, what I had to say was systematically not heard.  From my years of therapeutic work to unwend myself from that learned  childhood of “controlling” behavior, which is not my natural response in the first place, but a defensive one, I was doing an exhaustive amount of interior work. The primary experience of this time was that I was supposed to be obedient: obedient to the domineering members of the congregation who wanted to control the church through me and who thought, because I was a woman, that I would be obedient; and obedient to the Bishop who, instead of listening to me and taking into account my perspective on the situation, insisted on telling me what to do. Most of the time I did what he said, but in my heart I knew it would probably make things worse. And it did. But as a priest it is part of our ordination vows that we will “obey” our Bishop. (From the Presentation of the ordinand in the liturgy, the Bishop asks “…and will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey our bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?”).

Maybe you can see the predicament I was in….obeying and playing by the rules of the game came with a heavy price. The tax it took on me to be unable to us my own voice, to be devalued by the Bishop who rejected my perspective as a partner in this process, unable to have others in the midst of the conflict recognize that I had an understanding of the situation, which was based on living it day to day, was heavy. I spent hours in reflection with an outside consultant and worked with a spiritual director. I relied on my many years of therapy to further help my understand my inner landscape and how to be a healthy presence in conflict. The tension within me of trying to navigate these opposing poles of being denied a voice and working for deep understanding and awareness of myself and the situation, was taking a heavy toll on my health. I gained weight, I had constant headaches and acidic stomach, my adrenal gland all but stopped working from overwork, I had to have a hysterectomy, and I have developed a chronic habit of clenching my teeth.

One of my yoga instructors once said that tightness in the jaw is a sign of unspoken words. Yes, I had many unspoken words as I tried to find a way to play by the rules of the game without also losing my integrity.

Soelle writes:

In no area has the ossification of traditions had more serious consequences than in the area of conscience. Under the dictatorship of established norms and behavioral patterns, the sensitivity of the conscience wilts like a plant without moisture. Even the desert cactus is unable to endure such treatment over an extended period. The concept which was responsible for this ossification in both Catholic and Protestant thought was obedience.

…For Scripture to become "the Word of God," that is an enlightening, active, world-transforming event, there must be a reflection on and an understanding of one's own situation. ... It is not enough to ask what obedience is "essentially"; we must know what the results of such an obedience are in order to recognize what it is capable of becoming.

Playing the rules of the game, being "obedient" were not healthy choices for me in this situation. 

I am grateful for Soelle's description of "Creative Disobedience" for I think that is an apt term for the work I was doing then and the interior work I continue to do as I heal from that situation. 

I rejected Christianity for about sixteen years of my life in large part because I rejected the traditional notion of obedience to a "Father-God" who was small, narrow, and demanding. I returned to Christianity when I found a tradition that opened me up to a God is Father-Mother-Creator-Divine-Holy One. A God who is not about power but about love and justice, who offers "rules of the game" that I can live by.