A leader in liberal theology, Marcus Borg died last Wednesday, January 21. I remember using his 1993 book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith. In that best-seller he told of his traditional Christian upbringing, his questioning, the collapse of his childhood faith, the beginning of his career as a New Testament scholar, and then, in his thirties, a number of religious experiences of seeing the earth as ‘“filled with the glory of God,’ shining with a radiant presence.” They were also moments of connectedness in which I felt my linkable to what is.”
On the basis of his studies and experience, Borg developed a new concept of God and a new concept of Jesus. He concluded that Jesus’ “message was theocentric, not Christocentric—centered in God, not centered in a messianic proclamation about himself.” Nor did Jesus expect “the supernatural coming of the Kingdom of God as a world-ending event in his own generation.” His four main affirmations about Jesus were, first, that “the historical Jesus was a spirit person, one of those figures in human history with an experiential awareness of the reality of God.” Second, Jesus was a teacher of “a subversive and alternative form” of wisdom. Third, Jesus was a social prophet, criticizing elites and advocating “an alternative social vision.” Fourth, “Jesus was a movement founder who brought into being a Jewish renewal or revitalization movement that challenged and shattered the social boundaries of his day.”
Two years ago I participated in a class that worked with a DVD and book by Borg with Tim Scorer titled, Embracing An Adult Faith: Marcus Borg on What It Means to Be Christian. This 2010 package was divided into five intelligently organized sessions designed to prompt personal reflection and group discussion. He contrasted (1) “the God of supernatural theism, a person-like being separate from the universe, an all-powerful, all-knowing, lawgiving authority figure who loves us, but who may also punish us [forever in hell], and one who occasionally intervenes in human affairs; and (2) an encompassing reality or Spirit, the One in whom we live and move and have our being, the reality of all that is, the One of whom the mystics speak;, and “a luminous light shining through everything, a falling away of sharp boundaries between ourselves and the world that marks our everyday consciousness, a place of amazement, wonder, and joy in which I see more clearly than ever.”
On the topic of salvation he had this to say among other things.
The Bible has multiple images and metaphors for the human condition, the human predicament, the human problem, from which we need deliverance. Each of these ways of describing the problem points to a certain kind of solution as well. A central image: our problem is that we are in bondage. This is the heart of the Exodus story. It’s also the heart of the New Testament perception of our being in bondage to the principalities and powers, that is, structures of evil that rule the world. If our problem is bondage, then the solution is not forgiveness, but it’s liberation. Or we can be in bondage to the Pharaoh inside our heads—that psychological mechanism inside our midns that demands that we justify ourselves—that we measure up. That’s an internal bondage to which the solution is liberation.
The Bible frequently speaks of us as being blind; there are “those who have eyes and do not see.” If the problem is blindness, then the solution is gaining our sight, seeing again.
Another image: if the problem is a sense of separation, even alienation, then the need is to reconnect, and the means for doing that is a journey of reconnection, a journey of return. That’s the biblical image of exile and return.
Just one more: the Bible speaks of us being dead in the midst of life. . . . If you’re alive and yet dead then obviously the solution is resurrection or rebirth. My point is that all of these are images of salvation in the Bible, and all of them are about transformation this side of death.
This book and DVD were not of course intended to represent as advanced and careful theological thought. But I would submit that sometimes his contrasts were simplistic, with lots of negatives added into one alternative, and lots of positives added into the other (presumably adult) alternative. But readers/viewers with discerning versions of each alternatives might see them as complementary sides of a coherent and unified concept, such that each alternative needed pruning, and needed the other side for balance.
My critique comes with one more qualification. I have yet to meet a person who does not overplay his or her strengths. I remember the weeks after I retired from teaching in 2013. A series of major insights landed on me, about two per week, with a few days to recover from each one. It seemed as though they roughly alternated: one insight would be very humbling, a disclosure of a personal lack that I needed to address; and the next insight would lift me up and inspire me with the forward quest. The first two humbling ones were that I had overplayed my religion card, and I had overplayed my philosophy card. That is to say, I had used those strengths to excess—in situations where a different kind of response was called for. That is to say, I was using my strengths partly as a technique of dealing with reality sometimes substituted avoidance for understanding. Sometimes I needed to be more responsible to the humble material facts of the here and now; sometimes I needed to be more artistic in my interaction or more ethically active. A growing person has many occasions to recognize a mistake; so my critique is offered in family friendship.
I wish Marcus Borg Godspeed in the next chapter of his adventure into God.