We’ve tended to turn the debate about right belief or right action into an either/or. Either it is all about having the right beliefs (orthodoxy) or it is about having the right actions (orthopraxis). The belief people say that dis-ordered or wrong beliefs lead to distorted patterns of behavior. The action people say that what counts is how you act, not what you espouse as beliefs. The position is one many pragmatic Americans favor.
There is some amount of truth in both positions. But there’s something off with the basic set-up and tiresome debate. So it was refreshing to listen to Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber and hear her eschew both.
Early in the interview Lutheran pastor Bolz-Weber had said, “I don’t care if people believe or not. I just don’t think that should be the basis of belonging.” She went on to say, “I don’t feel responsible for what people believe; I feel very responsible for what they hear (i.e. for my preaching).”
So Terry Gross asked, “Are you more concerned about people’s actions than their beliefs?” NBW: “I’m not even really concerned about their actions, no. TG: “That wasn’t the answer I expected.” NBW: “I don’t monitor people’s behavior, I’ll put it that way.”
I loved this exchange, especially the part where Gross says, “That wasn’t the answer I expected.” She had expected a kind of typical liberal and American answer along the lines of, “What people say doesn’t matter; it’s what they do.” That sounds so robust and no-nonsense. Gross expected that. But NBW said, “I’m not even really concerned about their actions, no,” and they both broke out in laughter.
What we hear from NBW is not an indifferent pastor or theologian. What we hear is a person who is clear about what she is responsible for and in some measure in control of (the sermons she preaches), and what she is not responsible for or in control of, i.e. what other people think, believe and do.
This seems to me a healthy shift for pastors and churches. So often Christianity has been seen as somehow trying to make people believe this or that or do this or that. Which is to take responsibility for stuff you can’t control. Your job as pastor/ preacher is to take responsibility for the stuff with your name on it: what you preach, teach, say and pray. What people do with that is up to them.
Nadia Bolz-Weber describes her preaching as “confessional.” She shares/ confesses her faith. People listen in; do with that as they will. But that goes beyond pastor/ people. It’s life. What are any of us responsible for? The thoughts and behavior of other people?
No, we are responsible for our own thinking, our own acting, our own lives.
That’s quite enough.