by Dorothee Solle
|The great German feminist and theologian
speaks out against a
globalization that reduces us all to one-dimensional beings — the homo
oeconomicus. In this unitary
world of production and consumption the nation-state is weakened and
the 'social and ecological webs' which hold us all together are
Why, when God's world is so big,did you fall asleep in a prison
of all places?
The prison we have fallen asleep in: globalization and individualization
I take up Rumi's idea of the "prison" in which we humans who have no thought of God have fallen asleep. I try to describe our first world prison at the beginning of the millennium. As I see it, this prison is determined by two trends that match perfectly: "globalization" and "individualization".
Since 1989, we have been living in a standardized, globalized, technocratic economic order that demands and achieves total disposition over space, time and creation. Its engine runs on, driven by the coercion to produce more and more and confirmed by technological success. This engine is programmed for ever more speed, productivity, consumption and profit - for about twenty per cent of humankind. In all of human history, no empire has been more efficient or more brutal. Within this super-engine, human beings are not only "alienated" from what they might become, as Karl Marx observed, but they are also addicted and dependent as never before.
One of the spiritual difficulties in our situation is the inner connection between globalization and individualization. The more globally the market economy structures itself, the less interest it demonstrates in the social and ecological webs in which humans live, and the more it requires the individual who is without any relation whatsoever. The partner that our global market economy needs is homo oeconomicus: a one-dimensional individual, fit for business and pleasure, but showing no interest in the anti-personnel mines that his car manufacturer produces, or in the water that his grandchildren will use - not to mention interest in God.
As the agent of justice and protector of the weak, the nation-state is "down sized", dismantled and disempowered. At the same time, the individual inside the rich world is built up as the being with an unlimited capacity for consumption. By now, choice, purchase, presentation and enjoyment have long found their own forms of religious staging and production: "cult marketing". The religion of consumption no longer needs the old and milder forms of the opium of the people. Much more efficient opiates are for sale everywhere.
Living with the super-engine, I do not find the New Testament and many other items of the religious tradition of humanity "mythologically encoded". I find them enlightening and clarifying. The New Testament describes the normal condition of human beings under Roman imperial rule as being-in-death. "We know that we have passed from death into life," the First Letter of John exclaims (1 Jn 3.14). Here, normative submission to the all-governing power is called death. Alienation, sin and addiction are different names for the spiritual death that masquerades as life, the death that "surrounds" us.
In the same manner, Paul speaks of us having been "enemies" of God (Rom 5.10). This expression also contains nothing that we must dismiss as mythological projection. The tradition of religion helps us to identify correctly our role at the apex of world society: we are enemies of the earth, enemies of more than two-thirds of all human beings, enemies of the sky above us - and enemies of ourselves. Whoever believes that we can evade this role subjectively has already made an arrangement with the super-engine. Such a person uses the engine unknowingly, profits from "its positive side" and in so doing experiences the slow death that the engine has planned for the soul.
Within globalization, corporate world dominance collaborates with a novel form of unrelenting individualization that has no attachment to our fellow creatures. This collaboration appears to be beyond hope. Many regard it as a headlong rush towards an apocalyptic end; thoughtful people among them accept it as our unstoppable fate. Can we still live "as we believe we should live in a liberated world" (Theodor Adorno)? This would mean insisting on another vision of our life together, a vision that nourishes resistance.
But are not such visions long gone or turned into harmless private eccentricities? Are there any forms of resistance at all? Is there any point to protesting or studying and practising civil disobedience in new ways? Has not the spirituality of mysticism, from which resistance could emerge, itself already become an aspect of the market against which it promised to offer protection? I struggle with my own fear of the world and the feeling that religion is dying into a spiritless materialism: "fun culture" rules. It is no coincidence that I seek help exactly among those who know the "dark night" of history and of the eclipse of God.
When we only stare at the lords of this world and the mass of individuals rendered harmless, we do not yet have new eyes for seeing. Fear of the world then encircles us and locks us up in the most exquisitely furnished jail that has ever existed. The New Testament offers a new perspective. Its sociological world is neither the masses nor the individual, but the groups that set out on a new way. In the course of Christian mysticism, every rebellion appealed to the early churches and their situation in the ancient imperium. They looked back to a time in which it was not a patriarchically-ordered hierarchy that decided what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar. It was the groups themselves who appealed to the justice of God against that of the emperor. Their understanding of religion was not the performance of rituals that are judged harmless by Rome or by Washington. Religion as a private matter is a contemporary liberal idea. It knows nothing at all of the mystical ardour that another embodiment and reality of life has always needed and has always sought.
The early church refused to involve itself in many of the social benefits and obligations of the empire. Christians did not go to the theatres, the public baths or the circus. They shunned what Rome culture called circenses, games to entertain the masses and divert their attention from real problems. The public executions staged by Rome for deterrence effect were command performances, but Christians still tried to stay away. Every event connected with the military, the swearing of oaths or the offering of incense to the emperor, was seen to be of the devil. In a minority Christian culture, abstinence, separation, dissent, opposition and resistance flowed one into the other. It was to precisely these forms of negation of the dominant culture that later dissidents looked back.
This thinking presupposes that mysticism enables community even where its manifestation is extremely individualistic. Of necessity, mysticism desires to get away from the privatization of joy, happiness and oneness with God. The dance of the love of God cannot be danced alone; it brings people together. God's conviviality (Ruysbroeck) brings people out of the "purely religious" activity that is thought to be harmless. The understanding of human dignity, freedom, and the openness for God or the divine spark cannot be reduced to a special religious space where God can be served and enjoyed but not shared with the eighty per cent of people who do not share the blessings of the new economic order.
In the present scenario there are global players and satiated, isolated individuals. But it is the groups who are committed to voluntary effort, critical openness and taking their own initiatives that are the bearers of hope. Politically speaking, these nongovernmental organizations, among which I count those sections of the Christian church that are alive, are the carriers of resistance. From a spiritual perspective, they embody a different subject from the one that has fallen asleep in the prison of consumerism. What sustains those groups? What keeps them awake? Why do they not give up? I believe that it is elements of mysticism that cannot be extinguished.
God is nothing that seeks to be everything, says Jacob Bohme. My fear tells me that in the world of globalization this "nothing" is less and less noticeable, that more and more the silent cry is drowned out. But the nothing that wants to be everything generates its own imperturbability, yes, its own mystical defiance. Bohme conceives of God as a movement, as something flowing, growing, driving, as a process. When we engage ourselves in the process we become part of the God-movement and are connected with all others.
When we are part of the movement of nothing, we too live with our nothing, confront our nothing or, as mystics have always put it, become "annihilated". Unless we "disrobe" our faith, unless our faith becomes stark naked, we cannot take part in the process. Here I address the ego, possessions, and violence which are the focus of the disrobing of resistance. To be egoless, propertyless and nonviolent is to be identified with the nothing that wants to be everything.
Often tiny, sometimes at a loss as to what to do next, and frequently unorganized, groups of resistance come into being before our very eyes. To spot these new hope-bearers, to understand and strengthen them and protect oneself against one's own fear of the world, it is good to look for the element of mystical resistance in them. The subject that weaves itself into the web of networks and grows into resistance cannot be destroyed. That subject is and remains a "member," even if it does not always know it. The nothing that wants to become everything is also at work in and among us.
Out of the home into homelessness
At the theological seminary in New York where I used to teach, we were once asked about our religious experiences. There was an embarrassed silence; it was as if we had asked our grandmothers about their sex life. A young woman eventually spoke up and offered to present, in a week's time, an extensive report on her experiences. Accordingly, she told us that as a very young girl in the American mid-West, she had spent many hours reading in bed at night, without permission. One winter's night, she woke up at four in the morning, went outside and looked at the stars in the clear, frosty sky. She had a once-in a-lifetime feeling of happiness, of being connected with all of life, with God; a feeling of overwhelming clarity, of being sheltered and carried. She saw the stars as if she had never seen them before. She described the experience in these words, "Nothing can happen, I am indestructible, I am one with everything." This did not happen again until about ten years later when, in a different context, something similar took place. The new context was a huge demonstration against the Vietnam War. There, too, she knew that she was sheltered, a part of the whole, "indestructible", together with the others.
Struggling for words and with her own timidity, she brought both experiences together under the rubric of "religious experience".
Suppose that this young woman had lived in fourteenth century Flanders; she would have had at her disposal other traditions of language allowing her to say, "I heard a voice" or "I saw a light brighter than everything else." Our culture confines her to sobriety, self-restriction and scholarly manners of expression. How she fought these constraints and the very fact that she did so makes her story unforgettable. Mystical experience is bliss and simultaneously it makes one homeless. It takes people out of the home they have furnished for themselves into homelessness, as it did to young Gautama, known later as the Buddha. I sensed a bit of this ascetic homelessness in the student's report and in her feeling of being drawn more and more into a nonviolent life. The least that can be said is that being touched by religion produces a condition that evokes alienation; in terminology that conveys a degree of loathing, the New Testament specifies it as alienation from "this world". Distance from everyday reality does not necessarily legitimate the big word "resistance", but it does point to a different life. Bliss and homelessness, fulfilment and quest, God's presence and the bitterness of God's absence in everyday, violence-riddled reality belong together.
I am personally acquainted with many groups that practise pacifist and ecological resistance and, above all in the world's poorest countries, economic resistance. I learn from them ever anew that experience, analysis and insight alone are too weak to bring us out of the prison wherein we are asleep. We need a different language that keeps awake and shares the memory of liberation and the promise of freedom for all. We need a different hope than that of political strategies and scientific prediction.
"Go where you are nothing!"
Egolessness is not a task to be performed; initially, it is happiness; the flowers in the garden really do resemble Monet more than his photo! A greater freedom is possible, fear and inconsolability fall away and, yes, consciousness, this needy individual being, recedes. "My soul was so captivated and delighted that I had no thought about my own salvation, and scarce reflected that there was a creature such as myself," writes an 18th-century man about a moment of mystic rapture. (William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, 1929, p.210). Egocentricity melts away before the sun of mystical union.
According to Meister Eckhart, the goal of human life is to become free from oneself and all things. This freedom from the ego is not only a supra-temporal religious-ethical idea; the ego to be relinquished plays its particular role as the agent "of this world" where its binding function can be abolished in the process of letting oneself go. Today it oversees us in the prison of the false economic order by aligning our needs with that order. It makes sure that we venerate, research and pay for the violence named "security". It makes us dependent on what Eckhart called the spirit of "mercantilism", on what John of the Cross identified as "cravings".
"Go where you are nothing!" I understand this "go where" as more than an inner process of consciousness-raising. It is also the real experience of real people who resist the principalities and powers that rule over them. The citizens of the democratically organized rich world have access to places where they are not simply nothing. They can elect parliamentary deputies; they can appeal through courts of law and attempt to make their voice heard, however increasingly restricted that is turning out to be. And yet, repeatedly, in essential issues concerning creation, our fellow-creatures, the disenfranchized and human labour, these very citizens experience failure. And then nothing seems more normal than to give up and let what cannot be changed stay as it is. "Go where you can accomplish something!" seems to be the imperative that has more rationality. What is to be learned from mystical egolessness goes beyond this.
John of the Cross speaks of the dark night that we enter into unprotected, without all the security mechanisms that we use for consolation and diversion. "Go where you are nothing" means trying to make manifest what has no lobby for its work, what exposes you in your nothingness, your inconsequentiality, the negation of the self. And you are not to be ashamed of your nothingness. You are to let go of your fear of being nothing and be free for "the nothing that wants to be everything".
Those who have freely chosen this way of becoming egoless, in the sense of having no power and authority, include many highly gifted 20th century people with affinities to mysticism. The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 - 1951) chose to give away his millions and become a grade school teacher. Simone Weil worked on a factory assembly line. Albert Schweitzer went into the jungle at Lambarene. They all chose a place where they were nothing. "Go where you are nothing" also holds true for those who, in trying to block transports of nuclear waste, face the superior strength of a heavily armed police. At the atomic waste site of Gorleben in Germany, resisters - and life itself - are nothing. Martin Buber said, "Success is not a name of God." Becoming subjects in our world means to go where we are nothing with this dream, this hope, this faith that God is the nothing that seeks to be everything. Resistance needs a different spirituality.
|Author: Dorothee Solle, a German Protestant, was a leading feminist liberation theologian and author. She died in April 2004 at the age of 73.|
Colloquium 2000, Faith
Communities and Social Movements Facing Globalization, edited by Ulrich
Duchrow, No 45. See www.kairoseuropa.de
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