Wineskins Archive

February 5, 2014

Book Review: The Silent Cry (Jan-Feb 2005)

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by Greg Newton
January – February, 2005

Modern pragmatism has stripped ethics of theological grounding in much of public and private life. This contributes to churches obsessed with measuring themselves empirically, but mysticism calls for action born of belief rather than justified by results.

American Christianity desperately needs ethics which are broader than simply good behavior with respect to a cursory list of moral choices but which are more importantly a theologically rich response to everything God has ordered physically and socially. While much of the activism of American churches is a self-indulgent quest for the preservation of its civil status and privilege, humanity and creation, meanwhile, suffers.

Embracing a mystical faith means, in part, shattering the modern categories which have enabled Christians to preach forgiveness and rape the environment, to speak of heaven while practicing an economic “survival of the fittest.” Mystical oneness with God in everything allows no such tragic irony.

In The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, Dorothee Soelle writes urgently from a conviction that the church will either be mystical or it will not be at all. Soelle contends—using the language of Friedrich von Huegel—that the intellectual (Pauline) and institutional (Petrine) traditions of the church must embrace the mystical (Johannine) tradition. Siding with Thomas Muntzer in his criticism of Luther, Soelle claims that Protestantism’s defensive stance against emotions and its sanction of the mystical self has made faith non-existential. Mystics are the ones who would point us to where God is found in creation, and in all our fellow human beings—not just other Christians, a risky wholism rather than a comfortable reductionism. The theological ground for world-relevant ethics can only be found in this approach that embraces all of existence.

Her favorite quote seems to be from Rumi, a Muslim mystic who said, “Why, when God’s world is so big, did you fall asleep in a prison of all places?” For Soelle this statement names both the mystical wonder one enjoys in a world filled by God’s presence, and the tragic imprisonment not only of humanity but of the church as well. She names the prison in which we have fallen asleep: globalization and individualization.

In order for our prison to be revealed to an unsuspecting church, Soelle introduces the reader to mysticism in the first of three major sections.

Soelle avoids a modern analysis and speaks as a mystic inviting us to see what she sees, but she remains tantalizingly obtuse to the typical thinking of the modernist. She refuses an elitist stance and rather promotes a democratization of mysticism. Drawing examples liberally from a variety of world religions Soelle asserts that we are all mystics. In childhood experiences, romantic love, and other ecstatic experiences we all taste wholeness, at-one-ness, and mystical awareness. These, she says, share to some degree in the mystical way which is classically delineated in Christianity as a journey of purgatio (purging), illuminatio (illumination), and unio (unification).

This process begins with a “stepping out of oneself” and results ultimately in a union with and lostness in God. Faith moves from something believed through a witness to the experience of divine love directly, without mediation. The severest conflict of mystical experience with more traditional orthodox notions is this challenge to sola scriptura. Mystics find the God of scripture in everything.

When Jesus says that he and the Father are one, his mystical statement is too much for the religious establishment to bear. His claim is beyond the Law and the Prophets. “Too much love for God” creates conflict with institutions “concerned with regularity and order.”

Soelle describes mysticism as momentary but transforming experiences of God’s unmediated love that give one a sense of wholeness in union with God. Then one says with C.S. Lewis “I am what I do” and like Meister Eckhart one acts sunder warumbe (without a why and wherefore) for no other purpose but love.

When such divine love is expressed through a vision of God in everything, it produces what Soelle calls resistance—her term denoting ethics as a lifestyle which emanates from one’s being. By contrast, pragmatic ethics are actions calculated to achieve a predetermined result.

Before fleshing out this faith-action which she names resistance, the second section of the book describes the “places” where mysticism is experienced: nature, eroticism, suffering, community, and joy. Each venue is explored with newness astounding to the intellectual approach.

Seen through mystical eyes, these are participatory union with God, rather than something outside that all-defining relationship, to be run from or to. Here Soelle explain in concrete ways how in a mystical worldview this wholeness of unity and love is translated into and through the experiences of life. The paradoxical language that is associated with mysticism becomes paradoxical living and experience.

Almost seeming like an interlude in the book, this second part is essential in setting the context for resistance—for the description of the ethics of mysticism. Unless one comprehends the mystic’s vision of God in nature, one will be hard pressed to find Christian faith in water conservation. Without a sense of unio in human suffering there are only the commands to feed the hungry and no joining with the suffering God and existential solidarity with the oppressed.

In the third part of the book Soelle describes why our prison is globalization and individualization. Her robust mysticism demands not a concentration on the well-being of one’s soul, a type of individualization of mysticism, but active engagement with God in creation.

Poverty, exploitation of the third world by the consumerism of the developed world, ecological abuse, and every ego-centric destructive indulgence is tyranny to be resisted. Individualization removes our concern for others.

Globalization is a super-engine that needs homo oeconomicus, “an individual fit for business and pleasure, showing no interest in the anti-personnel mines that his car manufacturer produces, no interest in the water that his grandchildren will use—not to mention interest in God.” Unaware of divine love and un-unified with God’s presence, we live in this prison and call our condition “freedom.”

The best guard for our prison is the ego. Our ego-fixation keeps us slaves to ourselves instead of free to God. Soelle argues that mystical union with God eradicates egocentricity. The conflict of ego and egolessness is resolved not through our action but a state of mystical being formed in unmediated love from God. Should we “go where we are nothing” then globalization loses its partner. This is resistance and will lead to resistance.

But ego is not the only guard of our prison; possession and violence are two other totalitarian masters. We are not free because of our practice of ownership. Eckhart spoke of an inward poverty of desiring nothing, knowing nothing, and having nothing.

The freedom inherent in possessionlessness is obvious but frightening. The call to give up ownership is too radical for many who would rather have a faith of personal salvation than a wholistic realignment in Christ, a life seen in Jesus himself and the early apostolic community.

The relationship to the third guard is obvious: if we have possessions then we need weapons. The union of all living things that is apparent to mystics prohibits violence. Violence is cowardice which only appears to resolve conflicts but in fact sows seeds of bitterness and hatred. The mystical ethic seeks “to forego the desire to win and to avoid the defeat of enemies, which always includes their humiliation.”

The mystical way of resistance is non-violent non-cooperation, even in democratic societies. Justice cannot wait until the next election, and the conscience cannot be postponed until a later day.

Soelle’s description of her own resistance and that of many other mystics reveals an earthy and practical spirituality that is largely foreign to Christianity as formed in modernity. She proposes a compelling alternative to the classical formula of purgatio, illuminatio, and unio. Her starting point, like that of George Fox, is not with original sin, but original blessing.

The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance by Dorothee SoelleSoelle speaks of via positiva (wonder, amazement), via negativa (letting go), and via transformativa (healing, resisting). For the church she would “erase the distinction between a mystical internal and a political external” so that we have options other than withdrawal from the world or its transformation through revolution.

Instead, resistance is an emphatic No! which is lived for its own sake and not measured by success. The metaphor is not liberation as in the exodus, but resistance as in the Babylonian exile.

Soelle does not reject the classical elements of mysticism, but she gives new emphasis to the sense of worth reflected in Eckhart’s conviction that we have “not been created for small things” in the via positiva, and to the need for a unity of faith and action in the via transformativa.

There is much to learn about our prison, about radical freedom, and the vision of wholeness and divine love that leads to the via transformativa. Perhaps the mystics know the way out of the quagmire of Christianity clothed in modernity—and to relevance in a postmodern world. New Wineskins


Dorothy Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance [More information]

Greg NewtonGreg Newton, his wife Marsha, and their two children live in Birmingham, Alabama where they settled after eight years of planting churches in Tanzania, East Africa. A graduate of Freed-Hardeman and Abilene Christian universities, Greg now serves within a spiritual village of believers who call themselves Disciples’ Fellowship. Greg considers himself unusually blessed to share life and ministry with these friends and mentors. In addition to his relationships with these fellow-travelers, he enjoys the creativity of writing and art, video games, classic rock, and history.

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