Sölle, Dorothee

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SÖLLE, DOROTHEE . Dorothee Nipperdey Sölle (19292003) was born in Cologne, Germany, to a bourgeois family whose religious attitudes were formed by liberal Protestantism. She was a Lutheran and remained a member of the Lutheran Church throughout her life. In her family, culture was defined by familiarity with German philosophers and poets such as Immanuel Kant and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Until the last year of World War II, when food became scarce, Dorothee was preserved from the ugliness of the war. As an idealistic adolescent her deep sense of patriotism was overwhelmed by Germany's defeat. Following the war, she began to read the existentialists, especially Martin Heidegger and Jean Paul Sartre and entered into a period of nihilism. At university she studied post-Enlightenment philosophy. The works of Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, and Simone Weil led her to the study of theology, which became the basis of her life's work. In 1954 she married Dietrich Sölle. That marriage produced two children, a son and a daughter. After ten years, the marriage ended in divorce. In 1969 she married a former Benedictine priest, Fulbert Steffensky. That marriage produced a daughter and lasted until her death in 2003.

Sölle states that Kierkegaard seduced her into religion, but that she found her entrance into faith through studying with Rudolf Bultmann and Friedrich Gogarten. Intellectually, she was unable to leave behind the tenets of the Enlightenment to embrace faith, and through these two teachers she discovered this was not required. From this time onward she began her personal theological development. Characteristic of her theology was the conviction that the reading and writing of theology should make a practical difference not only in an individual's life, but also in the life of the nation, the hemisphere, and the planet. Symbolic of this belief was the formation of an ecumenical group in Cologne (19681972) named Political Evensong. Built upon the conviction that every robust theology has political implications, each meeting was marked by information, meditation, and action. The marriage of theology and political activism that was to become a hallmark of Sölle's theology was ill-received by both Catholics and more conventional Protestants.

Initially, Sölle's theology was deeply Christocentric. She regarded Christ as God's clearest voice. Although she never left behind this personal conviction, her later theology became more theocentric. In this way, she felt she was better able to embrace and include in her theology all the peoples of the earth. In the mid-1970s, Sölle began the move from designating her theology as political to designating it as liberation theology. She did this for several reasons, the primary one being her conviction that political theology had ambiguous beginnings in the works of some German ideologues. Her espousal of liberation theology, however, grew from her firm belief that its methodology was accurate. Theological reflection upon praxis became the basic characteristic of all of her subsequent writing.

As Sölle continued her practice of liberation theology, she concerned herself with various forms of praxis that reinforced the subjugation of women, that saw value in war, and that led to the ecological destruction of the planet. Subsequently, her reflection upon these practices in the light of the Gospel led her to become a feminist, a pacifist, and an ecological theologian. These interests led to her involvement in the conciliar process, the goal of which was to work for reconciliation in the areas of justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.

Sölle's allegiance to the church did not blind her to its moral inadequacies nor to the sometime ineptness of its doctrinal proclamations. In a conversation with the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, she concurred with his image of the church as an umbrella. It provided protection against the elements, sometimes better protection than at other times. She argued that the proper stance toward the church was one of affirmation and critique. In attempting to live a radical Christianity and in the endeavor to love God above all things, it was at times necessary, she contended, to distance oneself from the church and to break with certain traditional teachings, at least as they were commonly presented. Still, the church played an important role in her development: it passed on the tradition of Jesus and his "political" invitation to establish the kingdom. Sölle considered it a mistake of contemporaries who proposed that without tradition people are freer.

Sölle's entire life was marked by teaching and writing. She was a prolific writer. Her first book, Stellvertretung: ein Kapitel Theologie nach dem 'Tode Gotles' (Christ the Representative), was published in 1965. Her final book, Gegenwind (Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian) was published in 1999. In between, she wrote over twenty books, some of which included poetry, that addressed her liberation concerns. Among the most significant is Gott Denken (1990; Thinking about God). In this book, Sölle reveals her command of classical theology. She explains how theology is done within a certain paradigm or set of presuppositions and subsequently explicates the orthodox, liberal, and liberation theological paradigms. Then, she demonstrates how each of the basic tenets of Christian faith is understood within each paradigm. Finally, she concludes with two chapters on her approach to an understanding of God. In her mind, the question "Do you believe in God?" was superficial and close to meaningless. Instead, she insisted, the question is "Do you live out God?" According to her, the answer could only be derived from one's involvement in the works of justice demanded by the kingdom of God.

Sölle taught religion and theology at longer or shorter intervals throughout her life, beginning with a six-year period teaching at the Gymnasium for Girls in Cologne-Mulheim. Her longest engagement was as professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York (19751987).

Sölle died of a heart attack in 2003 in southern Germany at a conference at which she and her husband were keynote speakers.


Sölle, Dorothee. Christ the Representative: An Essay in Theology after the Death of God. Translated by David Lewis. Philadelphia, 1967. Sölle's first published work describes Christ as representing humankind before God, as well as representing God among humankind. It is a response to the "God is dead" theology prominent in that decade.

Sölle, Dorothee. Thinking about God: An Introduction to Theology. Translated by John Bowden. Philadelphia and London, 1990. This work describes three theological paradigms: orthodox, liberal, and liberation. Within that context, Sölle demonstrates how the basic tenets of Christianity are understood within each paradigm. She concludes the books with her understanding of the meaning of God.

Sölle, Dorothee. Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian. Translated by Barbara Rumscheidt and Martin Rumscheidt. Minneapolis, 1999. This memoir is an account of Sölle's personal and theological journey. In it, she notes the people and events that most influenced her development. It concludes with a poignant message to her children.

Nancy C. Ring (2005)