A Cranky and Beautiful Faith
Process Theology, Nadia Bolz-Weber,
and the House for All Sinners and Saints
She’s the tattooed, Lutheran pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, a church where a chocolate fountain, a blessing of the bicycles, and serious liturgy come together. She's a face of the Emerging Church — redefining what church is, with deep reverence for tradition.
-- from On Being with Krista Tippett
God Loves It When We Have Nothing in Common
What is the current demographic of the House for All Sinners and Saints? The house is a church in Denver, Colorado, USA. On the website we read:
"Well, at this point we are a community of around 180 people. There are married couples, young families, Baby Boomers and a few folks in their 70s. Other than that, it's mostly folks who are between the ages of 22 and 42 and single. Maybe a quarter of us identify as Lutherans; the rest are post-Evangelicals, Methodists, agnostics, Reformed, Episcopalian, and the ever-popular 'nothing'. Actually, it's pretty easy to look around on any given Sunday and think, "I'm unclear what all these people have in common."
This makes such good sense from a process perspective. From our perspective God loves harmony, but harmony is not sameness. It is differentiation, filled with contrasts between things (people, for example) that are uniquely idiosyncratic. At the House for All Sinners and Saints, the Lord's table is a place where people and their differences come together without losing individual identities. It's called Holy Communion, and rightly so.
Saint and Sinner
Admittedly, the people have one thing in common: they are all saints and sinners. A saint is someone who carries in her heart the image of God, which gives her the capacity to become fully herself in a spirit of love. She actualizes this potential from time to time. A sinner is someone who carries in her heart the capacity to fall short of the image in periods of self-harm and other-harm, which she also actualizes from time to time. A saint and sinner is someone who often does both simultaneously if not in sequence.
The good news is that the mystery in whose life we walk, stumble, and dance is tattooed in our hearts as a love who never gives up on us. A love who is as vulnerable as our own sometimes broken hearts, and yet powerful enough to arrive in the world as a fresh possibility for healing and hope. In process theology we speak of this fresh possibility as God's initial aim, but that phrase is overly abstract. Better just to call it creative transformation or, to use a very simple word, grace.
What makes Jesus Jesus is that his own life -- his healing ministry, his hopes and fears, his death and resurrection -- were revelations of this grace. There is no need to place him on a pedestal and pretend that he was all-powerful. He was like the rest of us; part of his beauty was his weakness.
Was he sinless? Probably not. How can we imagine him at age seventeen always being nice to his mother and father, sisters and brothers? Surely, at least as a teenager, he fell short of the divine calling to generosity. But perhaps he, like the rest of us, learned to grow into the likeness of the Mystery in whose image we all are made. And perhaps he, so much more than most of us, wanted to show us all how deep and gracious the love of the Mystery. He even went willingly to a cross to show the non-violence of divine love. We can only guess that, at times, he would throw up if he knew how much harm we sometimes cause others, sometimes even in his name.
* The video at the top is the unedited, unabridged version of an interview for On Being recorded with a live audience at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina.
Producer: Trent Gilliss
Camera: Angel Huertas, Julio Marin
Audio: Chris Heagle
Editor: J.D. O'Brien
A case for Christianity, like the case for any religion, is not made by proof but rather by stories. Not so much the stories of how the world was created or even how salvation might be found, but rather the stories of how people's lives, as individuals and as communities, are creatively transformed by the teachings and practices of the religions at issue.
Nadia Bolz-Weber would be the first to say that creative transformation is an ongoing process of death-and-resurrection, at the heart of which lies the grace of One who never gives up on anybody. Anybody! She tells her story in Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint.
She knows that there are dimensions of the divine mystery that she'll never understand and never needs to understand. But the dimension of the mystery she knows best and loves most is that which was revealed in the vulnerability and power of a carpenter from Nazareth. She wants to share in his journey and help others do the same. And they want to help her, too. It takes a village.
Her village is "the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, a church where a chocolate fountain, a blessing of the bicycles, and serious liturgy come together." Yes, "she's a face of the Emerging Church — redefining what church is, with deep reverence for tradition." It is almost as if she sees the past as an invitation to novelty and liturgy as a catalyst for creativity. Sounds like process theology to me. Or maybe radical orthodoxy.
Process theology speaks of creative transformation as a primary way that God is present in the world, anytime and all the time, in a gracious but sometimes unsettling way. God comes to us through the presence of new possibilities, inviting and often challenging, which bring new flesh for old bones. We cannot predict these possibilities in advance; they are like a man returning from death after three days, having died on a cross.
Process theology adds, along with Nadia Bolz-Weber, that the God who comes through new possibilities is also in the suffering of the man on the cross. And in all other people, too, and animals as well. The power of God is not that of a divine Caesar who feels sympathy for suffering from afar. The power is that of a cosmic Lover whose heart is broken, and flesh torn, with every instance of suffering on our planet and all other planets as well. The sufferings of the world and the joys, too, are God's tattoos, and more are added every moment.
At one point in the interview Krista Tippett raises a question she (Krista) raises in many other interviews: that of theodicy. How does Nadia understand God's relation to the countless people in our world who have been lost to addiction, to violence, to depression, to self-harm -- and never recovered. Nadia responds by pointing to the suffering of God, and of course this is true. Process theologians further propose that the One who suffers is not almighty. Yes, God is continuously active in the world, but always as one whose power is requires the cooperation of others for its realization. God's power is relational not unilateral, persuasive not coercive, animating but not dominating. And it has always been this way. God did not create the universe out of nothing, but rather out of a creative chaos which had power of its own.
But such speculations miss the point of what is most important to Christians such as Nadia Bolz-Weber. What is important to her, and to most process theologians as well, is the fact of creative transformation itself, again and again. Death-and-resurrection: that's the heart of it.
Death-and-resurrection reveals a mystery that we need not comprehend, but in which we can dance, again and again, in community with others, with help from liturgy and fountains of chocolate. Tradition and innovation, remembrance and surprise, roots and wings -- that's the heart of emerging Christianity as presented by Nadia Bolz-Weber. And that's the heart of process theology, too.
To live, to die, to hope, to struggle, to share, to love, to forgive, to be forgiven, with or without tattoos. It takes a special kind of faith to see things this way. God is seen in the underside of life, from the vantage point of flesh and faith. Not just simple faith but cranky faith, deeply human but touching something crazy enough to be human and divine at the same time. Crazy enough to be called incarnation.
What in the World is Process Theology?
Process Theology is an evolving, multi-religious tradition influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Its key ideas can be found on this website in What Do Process Thinkers Believe? It truly is a worldwide tradition, and one of its leading edges is mainland China. See Why Process in China? It's a Lifestyle.
One of the most important emerging forms of process theology is Jewish process theology, developed by Rabbi Bradley Artson of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University. His forthcoming God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology (Jewish Light Publishing, Fall 2013), gives a very good introduction; an abbreviated version of which can be found in Constellation of Process Theology and in God Almighty? No Way!
For a sample of how process theology influences multiple traditions, see Religions in the Making: Whitehead and the Wisdom Traditions of the World, edited by John B. Cobb, Jr. There you find chapters on Process Theology and Islam, Process Theology and Buddhism, Process Theology and Hinduism, etc. You may also find many articles in this website helpful.
Process theology has also played, and continues to play, an important role in some circles within Catholic and Protestant Christianity, including the emerging church movement. If you want to get a sense for process theology and the emerging church, you might turn to Bruce Epperly's Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed. the online sources of the Center for Process Studies and Process and Faith, based in Claremont, CA, and the podcasts of Homebrewed Christianity. Or you might just go to church and participate in a liturgy that helps you participate in - no, become -- death-and-resurrection, again and again.