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!

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