What Dorothee Soelle Taught Me about Creativity by Elise M. Edwards


Elise EdwardsI’m currently developing a book that considers how theological and ethical considerations in architectural design can define good architecture.  My book discusses five virtues related to the architectural design process that promote human participation in bringing out God’s intention of flourishing for humanity and creation.  Those five virtues (or values) are: empathy, creativity, discernment, beauty, and sustainability.  In the book, I’ll explain how these virtues orient design tasks to the social and ethical aims of architecture.

In this virtual space, I want to have a discussion about what these virtues mean from a feminist standpoint.  In my writing, I draw from theological ethics, architectural theory, and feminist theory to emphasize community discernment and participation.  It’s fitting, then, to claim opportunities in my work to acknowledge the feminists who have influenced me while also opening up the dialogue to the feminists in this community who continue to inspire and guide me to do my best work.

As I’ve been writing and reading about writing, I’ve spent time considerable time thinking about creativity and the nature of the creative process.  What purpose does creativity serve?  Why should we honor creativity? Dorothee Soelle helped me understand that human creativity is a form of co-creation with God.  She’s not the first–nor hopefully the last–to claim that humanity participates in the ongoing task of shaping our world, a process Christians believe is initiated by God, the Creator, or the Trinity. Yet Soelle so powerfully helped me understand that co-creation must be a task of liberation if it is to be relevant, meaningful, or beneficial to our world.

Many of our contemporary issues and debates result from destruction and division.  Environmental degradation and crisis, continual warfare and violence, racism, economic exploitation, sexism, LGBT bias and exclusion, and most biomedical ethical issues like abortion and euthanasia concern the creation of life, destruction of life, and devaluing of some lives over others.  Soelle, a postwar German theologian, suggested that liberation is the proper response to the crises that confront us.  We address these crises by affirming our role as co-creators.  She explains:

Creative power is something we all have but often ignore or relinquish.  My creative power is my power to renew the world for someone or for a community.  Through it I attempt to rebuild the house of life out of the ruins in which we now live. – p. 37, To Work and To Love

Soelle’s book To Work and to Love: A Theology of Creation was published in 1984, so it may not be familiar to some contemporary feminists.  It originated from a series of lectures entitled “Creation, Work, and Sexuality” delivered at Union Theological Seminary in the spring of 1983.  As the title suggests, Soelle develops a new understanding of the Christian doctrine of creation that addresses the nature of work and labor, the image of God and humanity, reconciliation with nature, and human sexuality.

This feminist thinker revealed the interconnected realities of creative power, creation, and sexuality to me. She exposed the sins of alienation and exploitation that maintain power imbalances in our work patterns, our love lives, our economic structures, and our political arrangements.   And so she convinced me that liberation is where our creative work must begin.

Artists embrace the call to be creative.  Creativity is absolutely essential to the practice and discipline of any kind of art.  Creativity is the impulse that drives designers of every sort: architectural designers, graphic designers, industrial designers.  But creativity does not belong to the professionals alone.  Each one of us is creative when we shape the world around us.  When we make something possible that was not possible before, we are exercising our creativity.  Whether the task before us is as common as preparing a meal or as uncommon as composing the musical score to a summer blockbuster, humans continually create and shape the world around us.

When we consciously attempt to reconcile people with one another, with the divine, or with nature, we are bringing the task of liberation into our role as co-creators.  Liberation, in a theological sense, is about freedom from all kinds of sins, especially structural sins.  When we use love as a force to bridge divides of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation, we ground our liberative work in the highest virtue.  Soelle’s writings reaffirmed for me that feminists have an important role to play in co-creating our world by challenging problematic conceptions of creation and work and love.  We have the ability and responsibility to create new ways of being in the world that are more just.

In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the risks associated with creativity.  As writer Julia Cameron points out, there are so many false myths and toxic beliefs about artists, so I chose to begin this series of posts by affirming the necessity and value of artists and others who do creative work.  Dorothee Soelle was not the first theologian or feminist writer I encountered who influenced my view of creativity.  But her work has touched me profoundly, and I cited her in my essay about creation as creative activity in Christian Doctrines for Global Gender Justice edited by Jenny Daggers and Grace Ji-Sun Kim.  Other feminists and womanists who inspire and influence my views on creativity include bell hooks, Emilie Townes, Deborah Haynes, and Angela Y. Davis.  I look forward to discussing them.  In the meantime, please comment below.  What do you think about creativity?  Which feminists or religious thinkers have influenced your views?

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.

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Categories: Art, Black Feminism, Books, Christianity, Church Doctrine, Climate Change, Community, environment, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Ethics, Feminist Theology, Foremothers, Gender and Sexuality, God, Healing, Justice, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Power relations, Racism, Reform, Relationality, Social Justice, Theology, Violence

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22 replies

  1. According to process philosophy in every moment, every individual exercises creative freedom, transforming what is into a new creative synthesis. I think our culture makes a mistake in mystifying creativity and attributing it primarily to “artists.”

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    • I agree that creativity is not restricted to artists, and I think our culture deliberately creates this myth in order to push people into being ‘consumers’.

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      • Yes, I agree with you both. Artists are very important for us- they intentionally cultivate creativity and sensitivity to culture in a way that should provoke us all to embrace our roles as agents in the world. I think it is because they are aware of the power of creativity that we are taught that they are different and dangerous. Imagine if more people became agents for change instead of consumers.

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  2. Thanks Elise, —also that meaningful commitment to liberation is what in the background is blending our energies in a highly inspirational and productive manner here at FAR.

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  3. Fascinating post. I look forward to reading more of your work.

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  4. Thank you for this post, a lot to think about, and thank you for introducing us to Dorothee Soelle. I did not know about her writings and your post has me wanting to learn more.

    The most conservative and orthodox elements of my faith tradition heavily criticize the creative process (competing with God rationale). I have had to justify to my own self why creativity is so important and what constitutes ‘divine inspiration’.

    I don’t know if he is a feminist, but John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” totally blew me away, particularly his observations on the female nude.

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    • Interesting, nmr, your mention on ways of seeing and the female nude — I myself did some nude modelling when I was young for a friend, because she couldn’t afford to hire a model, and then sometime afterward she had an exhibition in NYC of those nude drawings of me, and I had to attend the opening. SEEING the exhibition was an amazing experience. I was in my 20’s then, so I was fearless and the drawings were beautiful.

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      • I’ll have to look into Berger’s observations on the female nude. I’m intrigued!

        I used to be more concerned about the competing with God rationale, too. It’s a story as old as Icarus and his wings. Or as old as the Tower of Babel. We create and get so carried away that we claim powers that rightfully belong to God. BUT… that is always the risk of human creation. It’s the temptation in science, in medicine, in technology. As I mentioned, most of the ethical issues we face today have to do with the creation and destruction of life or its devaluing. I think this is because we don’t claim our every day, ordinary powers of creation. By denying the ways we do shape our world–a world that already has meaning and value and structure–we shirk our responsibility to participate in God’s ongoing work. So if more conservative thinkers are comfortable with re-creating rather than co-creating, that may be a better way to think of it. The world continues to be re-created. We can either create in ways that honor God and each other or we can let others re-create it for us to suit their own purposes.

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    • There’s a collection of Soelle’s Essential Writings that I recommend. I love her commitment to liberation. She taught in the US for a time, but she writes from a German context, which is also illuminating for me, since I typically associate liberation theologies with the Americas.

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      • John Berger’s 1972 tv series is called “Ways of Seeing” and the female nude is addressed in Episode 2. However, if you have a tight nanny control on your computer it may be hard to find this particular episode, as it is often labeled as ‘pornography’.

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  5. Picking up on your first statement, “how theological and ethical considerations in architectural design can define good architecture” I think of two distinctive local buildings, one designed and built for the Aga Khan and the other designed and built for the aboriginal community. The first one has only straight lines; the second one primarily curves. The Aga Khan’s building is situated so that you can see the sun through specific windows on specific days, and has clever numerological designs on the floor, but it felt very masculine to me. Their theology has very specifically-defined roles for women and men. I felt more comfortable in the aboriginal center (Wabano), both with the architecture and the theology.

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  6. Thank you for this thoughtful introduction, Elise. I look forward to how you bring the subject of architecture into this interdisciplinary work.

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