This is another book that has been on my to read list for some time and I was so excited to read it. This book was translated into English (from Swedish) and published for English readers in 2016. For those not familiar with Söderblom, here’s the one sentence summary – he would end up becoming the archbishop of the Church of Sweden and he is considered by many to be the main reason why ecumenism exists in our era.
But of course there is more to his life than just that. This is a traditional biography in the sense that it follows his life from birth to death. The author though makes it clear that his focus is on Söderblom’s theology and work, not getting into his personal life beyond anything that would shape his life’s work.
Söderblom was a unique individual in many ways. He was often ill throughout his life, sometimes near death. This probably had an influence on him in a way that shaped his drive and life’s work. “Nathan Söderblom was convinced that uniquely chosen people determine the choice of paths for humanity. Now the responsibility was laid upon him.” (Pg. 2). This is quite the statement in so many ways, but it gives us a window into the expectations he had for himself.
If you want to understand Nathan Söderblom, it is helpful to understand the theology that drove him. “His theological presuppositions remained largely constant. The first was that God is a living God. who reveals himself through prophets, historical events, and in all authentic religion, acting through humans who place themselves at his disposal. The second was that the church as an organization assumes different expressions, but that Christendom has a ‘soul’ that is common, enduring, and centered around the atoning cross. The third was that all churches – Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and those of the Reformation – share equally in ‘evangelical catholicity’ and that the office of the bishop is a visible expression of their solidarity and connection to common origins. Added to this was his conviction that Sweden, through historical circumstances, had received a special commission to bring the churches together and to contribute to peace in the world.” (Pg. 3).
The beginning part of the book follows Söderblom’s early life which wasn’t easy. He was raised in a preacher’s home, a preacher who was very strict and austere. “Nathan had no sacramental tradition from his home and all sacramentalism was thus foreign to him. The whole of his youth was marked by a strict, individualistic, and other-worldly piety encompassed within general Lutheran customs.” (Pg. 14-15).
He took the opportunity to study in Uppsala, and eventually became an academic, which is often how he saw himself. Throughout his time, he would create lifelong friendships, as well as enemies who would oppose him every step along the way. At the heart of these relationships was theology and a theological outlook that differed from the settled dogmatic approach of the time which discouraged questions. “Revelation was not a word in a book or a doctrine that at every point must be agreed to by Christians, but rather a narrative concerning a living and active God who through Christ seeks to gather all people into his fellowship. the Bible as such is not the Word of God, but the Word of God is found in the Bible.” (Pg. 35).
This insight would put him at odds with influential theologians of the time. But this never stopped him. He would argue his case and find friendly listeners where he could, regardless of where they were or the religious tradition they held. He traveled to many places over the course of his life, and studied a variety of religions with the hopes of opening dialogue and commonality where he could. Another sentence that sums Soderblom up fairly well was this – “He expected a great deal from himself and desired to use his influence to change things, no to preserve them.” (Pg. 57).
His travels would not only take him to a variety of locations, but also open him to a variety of idea for him to explore and consider. One such example was his time in Erfurt, where he encountered Friedrich Naumann who “emphasized that a Christianity that forgets its friendship with Jesus, who was himself a friend to the suffering and the poor, does not amount to much. Yet Christians seem content with giving charity instead of being representatives of justice and mercy. They should pay attention to the social movements, for if Christianity does not stand up for its highest ideals, it has no future.” (Pg. 86). This would influence his outlook greatly.
He thought about the intersection of religion and politics and how they overlapped and the danger of that overlap too. “He believed, however, that political socialism should not be mixed with Christianity and he was surely not an advocate of revolution. Christianity must hold itself to its own principles; it would lose itself if it became subordinate to other entities.” (Pg. 89). In many regards, this principle is still true today, whether we are talking about the socialism of the late 19th century or the partisanship in the US in the early 21st. He would go on to talk about the “sickness of nationalism.” (Pg. 96). Again, an appropriate diagnosis still applicable today.
One of the reasons for studying Söderblom is because in many ways, his time is similar to our own. He lived in the time of nationalism being a problem in the world. He lived in a time in which there were great fights about social progress. And he lived in a time of church decline.
“Christianity was under attack from many directions. Many clergy were convinced that they belonged to the last generation before the death of the church. In Uppsala, the number of theology students had shrunk in ten years from 275 to 193. One had to count on a severe shortage of clergy all over. Söderblom encouraged them like no one else…” (Pg. 101). He would address those students speaking bold words – “…you serve what is supposed to be an outdated cause, that of Christianity, or at least – and the distinction must be carefully drawn – because you serve an outdated church…I congratulate you on those who will be your companions: [here he lists a variety of prophets and theologians through history]. And high above all of these, the Master, the Lord Jesus, who grows before our eyes the closer we come to him. He is the one whom you, yourselves set free by submitting to his yoke, are to present to your brethren. In the history of religion the human heart will reveal its deepest secret: its longing for God.” (Pg. 101)
The author spends some time describing how Söderblom’s life changed over time – from his upbringing with its strict pietistic bent to something far different. This, of course, would come from his travels to different cultures, his examination of various theological traditions, and his studies of other religions. He would shift from his upbringing and the concern over correct belief to a more experiential reality with God. “Christianity at its innermost was not a doctrine but an encounter with the Living.” (Pg. 113). “The church was not primarily institutional by spiritual…Authoritarian guardianship of doctrine and every limitation of freedom of conscience were foreign to him.” (Pg. 150).
Söderblom came to the position of archbishop right at the time of the First World War. He was speaking about it and the challenges that the world faced. “There was a struggle between the gods of nationalism and the God of Christianity. In a sermon in Uppsala a few weeks before his consecration, he had sharply attacked the distortion of the Christian picture of God that came in the wake of war. The gods of nationalism, choosing sides with different warring parties, were soon as numerous as were people and nations. War time religion, which in times of peace was commonly a religion of class, wounded authentic Christianity deeply. The God of Jesus Christ was mixed up with false gods of self-interest.” (Pg. 213).
He was outspoken in a variety of ways and on many issues – “Woe to the unconcealed yet spacious self-interest of individuals or classes that indifferently close their eyes to their brothers suffering and thereby make themselves unworthy of society’s protection…At a Service of Prayer in the Uppsala Cathedral on May 1, 1917, when four thousand workers demonstrated in Uppsala, he sharpened his tone and attacked the exorbitant profits made in the economies of industrialism and financial speculation. He demanded that the state intervene.” (Pg. 244). His sermons stand in the long line of prophets of old, and with pastors of today who speak similar words and are often criticized as being “too political” when the people who are complaining have a difficult time examining their own politics that comes in conflict with their claimed faith.
The last chapters of the book are devoted to the culmination of Söderblom’s work – an ecumenical conference in Stockholm. “Churches had been alien to each other for centuries and believed that differences in doctrine amounted to heresy. Now they gathered for the first time ever for authentic dialogue dealing with their common responsibility for peace and social justice.” (Pg. 364). There would be envoys from a variety of Christian sects and denominations, even including Orthodox Christians – a huge victory for Söderblom. But he was never able to secure representation from the Roman Catholic Church, who resisted efforts to talk with Reformation churches, seeing any contact with them as a form of legitimizing the church bodies.
The Stockholm Conference was the high point of Söderblom’s life. And due to the stress of the work over several years, it would impact his health. He was never a healthy person, always having heart issues, and the stress would hit him. But he was able to see the conference come to fruition. From the conference would come future ecumenical cooperation and conversation that continues to this day.
The book is a fascinating look at a historical figure that has done exactly what he set out to do – make an impact on the world. Nathan Söderblom was an interesting person and theologian. Someone worthy of study and reflection.