Patrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint – part deux

Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber

I’m sure Rev. Bolz-Weber would be the first to say her book is not meant to be a theology textbook, definitely not a Systematic Theology treatment. I expect she would also be quick to say it does not necessarily reflect or even represent Progressive Christianity. It is her personal faith. Yet, it is about her “faith” and she makes statements of “faith” which represent what she believes to be true about God and Jesus and people and the dynamic of living and believing. She does so as a Pastor with a seminary education and as a “spiritual leader”. She has taken up the position to minister to people with regard to their relationship to God and Jesus, however, she might view it. As confused as she might feel she is about such things and as mysterious as she may think they are, she has set out to speak with some “authority” about them or perhaps some knowledge.

Despite the contention often voiced that God is bigger than our conceptions, that God is ultimately a mystery, that God cannot be contained in propositions, and that faith is not the same as statements of scientific fact or other forms of knowledge, it’s hard to ignore what appear to be “propositions” about Jesus and God. These are made as statements of what is true. They are also made against the backdrop of being raised in the very conservative and fundamentalist Church of Christ. She often interacts with what she was taught and other expressions of the same sort of beliefs to contract them with what she now believes and preaches.

In the book there are recurring ideas and themes. There is the theme, “Where is God in suffering” in which she also touches on the cross and incarnation. There is what she finds as the compelling dynamic of “death and resurrection” by which God makes people whole, over and over and the overarching theme of grace, or perhaps Grace, with a big “G” which she considers the hallmark of Lutheranism and of her perspective on God, Jesus and Christianity. These are the things she seeks to represent in her life, preaching and her ministry to people. This latter touches on the resurrection of Jesus after his death on the cross.

Perhaps she would distance all of this from “theology” or things like “Christology” and “Anthropology” and all the other classic subsets of Theology proper, but nonetheless, that what her statements represent, soft and tentative as they may be in their presentation. No matter how personal they might be. What’s more, she supports these from the Bible. She acknowledges that there are a lot of awful parts of the Bible, parts she heard in the Church of Christ, but also some really “awesome” parts. She acknowledges that it is foolish to believe the Bible was “written by God”, but yet, being written by people, it is still, in some way, revelatory of true knowledge about the divine.

She states she never ceased to believe in God during her sojourn outside the Church. She simply turned her back on what she had been taught for the most part. She seems to have embraced some of it, added to it as with the “goddess” and female side of God, modified it and then brought it back into the realm of the Church and Lutheranism and the Bible, reframed it, recast it and baptized it. She states she never did become an atheist and in response to a conversation while interning as a Hospital Chaplain tells one woman who identifies as an atheist, she could “never pull that off”.

So, I will look at statements she makes about these sort of “theology” type things and see what I can make of them and ask my own questions. My primary question is, “How exactly does that work”? “Can you be a bit more specific, flesh it out a little”?

As I’ve said, it is an engaging, if not for me rather frustrating at time, read. I believe the most troubling and perhaps most telling aspect of her view and perhaps most determinitive of her answer to my “Why”? questions is her “anthropology” or view of “people”. Here is a quote on trying to be Unitarian.

“In the end, as much as I desperately wanted to be Unitarian, I couldn’t, because what I needed was a specific divine source of reconciliation and wholeness, a source that is connected to me in love, bue does not come from inside of me”.

Earlier in the passage she states:

“Unitarians are such smart, good people. They seem so hopeful. They vote Democrat and recycle and love women and they let you believe anything you want to, and I wanted to be one of them badly. But I couldn’t pull it off. Four years of sobriety hadn’t come to me as the result of hopefulness and positive thinking. It wzs grace. Unitarians just don’t talk much about our need for God’s grace. They have a higher opinion of human beings than I have ever felt comfortable claiming, as someone who both reads the paper and knows the condition of my own heart”. …. “I couldn’t be comforted by my own divinity or awesomeness, although I’d love it if I could”.

She sees herself and others as broken or at least not whole, and in desperate need of something entirely outside of themselves and of divine, essentially supernatural, origin to just get by. The need does not seem to admit of much progress. It seems to be a cycle of a few steps forward and some lessor number of steps backward. It is something that requires a cycle of dying and being raised again over and over entirely from something outside yourself by a power you cannot in any way lay claim to. This is a desperate anthropology and not really that different from the traditional Christian view of people.

Is Progressive Christianity the answer? A (sort of) review of Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber

“Pastrix The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint” by Nadia Bolz-Weber

I follow rabbit trails.

Anyone who knows me knows this. I’ll start describing something I am thinking about, some idea I had, something I ran across and those who do not know me with get this “What the Fuck” look on their faces. Those who do know me will simply smile and ask, “How did you end up there”? What follows is a description of a rather torturous trail from one apparently non-sequester to another until the map from A to ZZ has been drawn. Usually it makes some sense.

So it was with this particular “find”. It began with discussions with a young Christian woman who is wrestling with the Church, with what she believes, with what the Bible appears to say and who she knows herself to be. There is the conflict between the “better angels of her nature” as she has come to know them and the devils of her upbringing. Only in this case the devils are in the Church and the angels are outside of it. In an attempt to seek out something which she might be able to embrace, something that would allow her to exorcise the devils but keep the angels as angles, as expressions of her beliefs and faith, I set out to explore Progressive Christianity. I find that it is perhaps different from Liberal Christianity and certainly “hell and gone” from Fundamentalist Christianity, the sort in which she was raised, benign as it was. I thought perhaps she, the young woman, might be able to find a home there in that community of beliefs and experience. The truth is there are aspects of Christianity or perhaps just theism which are important to her, but so much chaff which is unpalatable and rightly so.

That search took me to Patheos and it’s “Progressive Christian” Channel and that introduced me to Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of House of All Saints and Sinners in Denver Colorado, a mission work of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Reading her blog a bit, listening to a snippet of a sermon, seeing pictures of her in various venues speaking lead me to her “best selling” books, one of which is “Pastrix”. Perhaps, I thought, this will explain how one can embrace Christianity, yet retain a scholarly, educated view of the Bible and Christian theology. Perhaps, this auto-biography of a sort, her “conversion” story as it were, would describe what that might be like. So, I bought the digital copy of the book, started to read buy was stuck on the second page…..of the introduction.

“Suddenly, in that moment, all I could think was: What the hell am I doing? Seminary? Seriously? With a universe this vast and unknowable, what are the odds that this story of Jesus is true? Come on, Nadia. It’s a fucking fairy tale.

And in the very next moment I thought this: Except that throughout my life, I’ve experienced it to be true.

Even when my mind protests, I still can’t deny my experiences.”

I would have ended the first sentence with an exclamation point; full stop; end of story! In fact, I did, although for me it was after seminary and after sixteen years in the ministry of a conservative Presbyterian Church. It was after another six years of wondering if I was throwing the baby out with the bath water. As I’ve been fond of saying, I finally realized, there was no baby. I could safely throw out the dirty, tepid water, clean out the bath, and use it for something else.

Here is the crux of the matter. Why Christianity? I can understand having some belief in some “higher power”, some deity, some sense of the divine, but why nestle that within the bosom of Christianity? If Christianity is an “expression” of the divine and that is found in many religions, why not simply cut to the chase, drop the window dressing and go for the unvarnished, raw truth?

What is it about the Bible that appeals to you? After all, while it will have to be and is construed differently (the Bible that is), you can’t have Christianity without the Bible. Even if you are going to go with experience and allow it to trump your intellect, your reason, why frame that experience in terms of Christianity? After all, without the Bible, you wouldn’t know about Jesus. Without the Bible, you wouldn’t know what sort of “god” he talked about, or what ethics he espoused or what experiences he had. Yet, you have to radically rewrite so much of the Bible, even, yes, the New Testament to make even Jesus palatable. At the very least you have to come up with some other “hermeneutics”. I’ve contemplated going through a harmony of the Gospels to paint a picture of the “other” Jesus, the one whose not so likable or loving or patient or kind.

Further, the measure of truth here is “experience”. How can I deny my experience? When it comes to determining what is truth, I have to listen to my experience, not to reason, or intellect! This, I believe, is the cry of those who wish to believe something in spite of evidence or reasons to the contrary. Make no mistake. What Ms. Bolz-Weber says here is a truth claim about the real world. It is not only about HER real world, but about YOUR real world as well. What she has experienced, you too can experience.

It’s not that experience, some kind of experience, cannot be a measure of what is true. I might say, “My experience is that I can change the oil in my car every 8000 miles rather than every 5000 miles as the owner’s manuals says I should”. However, this is still an evidence based claim about the real world. It is based on my observation of the evidence for no difference in wear or longevity between changing my oil at 8000 miles rather than 5000 miles. Even in this case however, it would be good to check my experience. It would be good to ask questions like, is this because I only buy a certain model car or use a certain type of oil, ¬†or drive a certain way, or perhaps have been extraordinarily lucky in the cars I have bought. In this case my own experience is not the sole basis on which to based a truth claim about the real world.

On the other hand, if I am falling asleep at night and see little people standing on my bed, I might rightly question whether they are really there. I might rightly note that people are usually not that small, that they usually weight something so there would be other indications other than visual if they were real. I might note that seeing little people is not a common experience for me or other people. I might rightly conclude this is a case of Lilliputian Hallucinations and not a reason to start believing in fairies or leprechauns in the face of evidence and reasons to the contrary. Some people would make that leap. It’ just that other spiritual claims of “experiencing God” don’t seem so fantastical though they should.

One key difference is that the latter experience is a personal experience, that is a subjective experience upon which it is questionable to base a claim to objective reality or truth. It is not an experience others can share. That is, they cannot validate or verify my personal experience. They may have similar personal experiences and assume theirs and mine are the same, but they cannot verify my particular experience.

This latter sort of argument from experience, it seems to me, is the sort of claim from experience being made here in her book, right at the outset, and in many claims to spiritual truth. It is a claim to objective truth based on subjective personal experience in the face of evidence and reasons to the contrary. It’s not just in absence of evidence and reason, but, as she says her, contrary to them. I suppose this is, she would say, what faith is about. Then again, many people exercise this sort of faith in all other sorts of religions and other matters of belief. This too is not unique to Christianity yet the claims in which these diverse people have faith are so different as to be totally incompatible.

I’ll continue to read and perhaps to write here. I was hoping for something better. Perhaps I’ll find it. I should add, I’ve now read part of the book and it’s well done. She writes well and is funny. Good for her!