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 obediencein 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.

About Terri C Pilarski

I am an Episcopal priest serving a delightfully progressive, interesting, creative congregation. I have been married more than half my life to the same man. We have two grown children, plus two dogs and two cats, although the number of four legged household members changes from time to time. I love to garden, knit, read, and play on Facebook or with my blog. I have been a practitioner of daily meditation since I was nineteen. I practice yoga five days a week and walk every where I am able too.
This entry was posted in Dorothee Soelle, obedience, Soelle Summer. Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. Gloria says:

    Thank you, Terri. This makes me wish I had taken part in this course. Soelle has long been one of the shapers of my theological thought.

  2. Lisa :-] says:

    Interesting to read about your unraveling of the toxic situation of that call. This retreat seems to have given you the permission/inspiration to share some very private things about that time, and I appreciate the insights you have gained.

  3. Jane R says:

    Dear Terri, Thank you so much for this and for your previous reflection. You are engaging in such rich thought and writing, using the course as a springboard. Would you give me permission to share the link to your blog (I assume it is public since we can all see it but I'd rather check since I always prefer erring on the side of boundaries) both on my public blog and on Facebook? I won't do anything until I hear from you and won't share if you don't want me to. And I will reply more at length to both wonderful reflections. I have been busy catching up on course postings and have had to make that a priority, but I didn't want you to think I did not appreciate your blog posts. Thank you! Gloria, perhaps I will teach it again. It is a hybrid of course and retreat and thus a bit of an experiment, but we have a great group of people, all busy adults and from different occupations and regions. I am learning a lot from their perspectives, and I am very grateful.

  4. Terri says:

    Jane, My blog is public and I have linked it on both my Facebook page and the EWC Facebook page, so you may link to it as well. Oh, and I have posted links to it in the comments on the retreat blog as well. Thank you for your comment and feedback, I appreciate it!

  5. Jane R says:

    Yes, I first saw the links in the comments to the course blog! Thanks for your permission. I may not post the links till the middle of the weekend, just so you know.

  6. klady says:

    Teri,Thank you so much for this. It brought tears to my eyes, and is still hard to say anything in response. I know too, too many priests and pastors who have gone through some variety of what you went through, and some pretty much the same thing. If you haven't heard of them already, see the blog and the book written by the authors of do really get how the alcoholism fits into the picture. I have a formerly close friend who recently destroyed our friendship out of her control issues, and my late husband, the oldest child of an alcoholic, had similar problems (though thankfully, we were able to work them out as far as our relationship was concerned). Then there were the years in Al-Anon when my first husband was actively drinking. It's a lifelong challenge not to fall into the traps set by what we had to do to survive the insanity. I'm so glad you could talk about it.Kathy

  7. Terri says:

    Thank you Kathy. I do know the blog, dirtysexyministry. I also know many other clergy women who have been through similar experiences. It's a sad reality. I do appreciate sharing your insights, thank you.

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