Dorothee Sölle

Radical feminist theologian

Dorothee Nipperdey, theologian and activist: born Cologne 30 September 1929; married 1954 Dietrich Sölle (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1963), 1969 Fulbert Steffensky (one daughter); died Göppingen, Germany 27 April 2003.

"I speak to you as a woman from one of the wealthiest countries in the world; a country whose history is tainted with bloodshed and the stench of gas." Dorothee Sölle's opening words of her address to the 1983 assembly of the World Council of Churches in Vancouver were typical of her desire to shock her audience and shake out any complacency. She went on to attack the "militarism" of the European and North American Churches and their "apartheid theology" against the Third World.

The leaders of her own Lutheran Church in West Germany - long uneasy at her radical attitudes - were unhappy that she had been invited to give such a high-profile address and publicly distanced their church from her. They disliked her commitment to left-wing causes, including opposing the Vietnam War and Nato's decision to base US nuclear weapons in West Germany, and supporting the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.

Her commitment to international solidarity and green politics ran deep. She was scathing about capitalism and materialism. She would later call for only a slow reunification of East and West Germany, and opposed the post-11 September US-led invasion of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq this year.

It was in the heady days of 1968 that Sölle joined forces with the Benedictine monk Fulbert Steffensky (whom she would marry the following year) to launch "Political Evening Prayer", so called because the wary organisers of a Catholic conference in Essen deliberately scheduled the event for 11pm. Over the next four years, at packed liturgies in the Antoniterkirche in Cologne, woolly prayers for peace and justice were out while politicised praying was in.

She described these liturgies as "theological/political reflection and action, which aims at an understanding of and feeling for the crucified Christ today, and how Christians need to respond".

Sölle was the product of her times. The daughter of a law professor, she became disillusioned with the inadequacies of German middle-class values, especially the failure to resist Nazism. She did not exempt her Lutheran Church from her criticism. One result of her wartime experience was an early post-war visit to Israel to meet the Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber.

She studied literature, philosophy and theology at Cologne University before gaining a doctorate at Göttingen in 1954, the year she married an artist. After teaching German and religion in school she became a research assistant at the Technical University of Aachen and then, from 1964, taught German at Cologne University. She later taught in Mainz.

Influenced by Rudolf Bultmann and neo-Marxism, her writings focused on "theology after the death of God". She regarded sin as alienation. She criticised the preoccupation with material possessions. She rejected the "otherness" of God, arguing that God was incarnational and embodied in communities. She interpreted Jesus's crucifixion as a political act of solidarity with the world's suffering.

She claimed she was never offered a lectureship in theology at a German university because of her radical political views, but eventually found a congenial home in the United States. From 1975 to 1987 she spent six months each year in New York as Professor of Systematic Theology at the liberal Protestant Union Theological Seminary.

It was there that she developed her views as a feminist theologian, partly spurred by conversations with colleagues but which built on the rejection she already espoused of an all-powerful male God. "My objections to the divine 'super-power' began to make themselves felt when I was in Auschwitz," she recalled in 1985 of a visit she had made to the Nazi death camp two decades earlier. Her 1984 book The Strength of the Weak: toward a Christian feminist identity encapsulated her thought.

Articulate, telegenic and a powerful speaker, Sölle often attracted full houses to her talks. Her more than 30 books - including volumes of poetry - built up a wider following. Although her first marriage ended in trauma, her second was happy and fulfilling (even if she could not persuade Steffensky of the merits of jazz and he could not persuade her of the charms of Gregorian chant).

In the last five years she went on the road with Grupo Sal to present programmes of readings and songs to protest against violence in all its forms, to the earth, to individuals and what she called the "global violence of neo-liberal economy". Proceeds went to support the work of another daughter, a doctor in Bolivia.

Felix Corley

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