“I let go of the notion that the Bible is a divine product. I learned that it is a human cultural product, the product of two ancient communities, biblical Israel and early Christianity. As such, it contained their understandings and affirmations, not statements coming directly or somewhat directly from God. . . I realized that whatever “divine revelation” and the “inspiration of the Bible” meant (if they meant anything), they did not mean that the Bible was a divine product with divine authority.”
The person who wrote those words died last week. His name was Marcus Borg. He also wrote that he “takes the Bible seriously, even if not literally.” I appreciate those words and have taken them for my own mantra. Borg was controversial – some would say radical. He was an author, an academic, a scholar, and an internationally revered speaker. Having said all that, I realize that the name Marcus Borg may not be a household word, except, that is, unless you are like me and dabble in biblical and/or theological subjects. A 2007 article on Borg began with these words: “Oregon’s leading theologian walks his dog down the trendy streets of the Pearl District. His neighbors know Henry, the shaggy gray Glen of Imaal terrier, whose short legs set the pace. But few recognize Marcus J. Borg, the graying guy in the wool cap, as the spokesman for a different approach to Jesus Christ.” I suspect that most people could not pick him out of a lineup.
Marcus Borg was a liberal Jesus and biblical scholar. He, along with noted scholars Paula Fredriksen, John Dominic Crossan, and N. T. “Tom” Wright helped create a resurgent interest in the historical Jesus – a quest to retrieve a historically accurate portrait of Jesus – and for two decades shaped and reshaped its discussion.
Borg was a prominent leader of the Jesus Seminar – a group of about 150 critical scholars and laypersons who attempt to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus by asking who he was, what he did, what he said, and what his saying meant, using a number of tools such as voting with colored beads to decide their collective view of the historicity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, these scholars attempt to separate fact from myth in the gospels.
Borg was especially interested in maintaining the Jewishness of Jesus, a subject that is dear to my heart. He argued that Jesus was a prophet who wanted to replace Jewish holiness codes with an ethic of compassion. Following many liberal renditions of Jesus, Borg denied the historicity of the Virgin Birth of Jesus and his Resurrection. Yet unlike many liberal scholars, he was sympathetic to the spiritual and the miraculous.
The youngest of four children, Marcus J. Borg was born on 11 March 1942 in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and reared in a traditional Lutheran family. He attended Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota where he majored in philosophy and political science.
While at Concordia, Borg became fascinated by the New Testament, however, and accepted a fellowship to do graduate work at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he was able to delve deeply into the Jewish background of the Gospels in general and of Jesus of Nazareth in particular and studied with some of the major theologians teaching there. Borg apparently first gained enlightenment through the liberal theology at Union Seminary. He recalled that he once believed in the Christmas story as literally involving a virgin birth, a “magic star,” and Wise Men, when he lacked the “mental equipment” in his youth to think otherwise. Only with education and post-adolescent critical thinking did he reject “childlike literalization of the personifications of God.”
From Union Theological Seminary, Borg went on to further studies at Oxford University and taught at various Midwest universities on his return to the United States. In 1979, he joined the faculty at Oregon State University where he held the Hundere Endowed Chair of Religion and Culture at the time of his retirement in 2007. His long career has included appointment as Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon, where he frequently lectured and was given the title of canon theologian. With self-deprecating humor, he said his wife Marianne, an Episcopal priest, informed him that “canon” meant “big shot.” He was chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature and co‐chair of its International New Testament Program Committee, president of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars, and a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar.
Borg did not believe in the kind of personal deity, or “supernatural theism” as he derided it, who provides a kind of direct comfort to individuals. Borg’s deity did not hear prayer, forgive sin, exude grace, inspire love, or offer heaven. Instead, he advocated an impersonal deity understood through panentheism, which asserts that all creation is a part of God. Rejecting God as a personal creator who presides over creation, Borg hailed panentheism for recognizing “we and everything that is are in God. God is not something else. God is right here and all around us. We are within God.”
I wish that I had personally known Marcus Borg, but I only knew him through his books. He wrote twenty-one books, beginning with 1984’s Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus and ending with Convictions: How I Have Learned What Matters Most, published last year. Of all of Borg’s books, The Heart of Christianity, published in 2003 is probably the one that most clearly expresses the kind of Christianity with which most of us want our lives to be associated. I would also recommend Jesus: A New Vision (1987), Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994), The God We Never Knew (1997), and The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (1999), co-authored with N.T. Wright, an Anglican biblical scholar and bishop who took a more orthodox view of the gospels. Even though he and Wright differed on many issues, Wright nevertheless recommended many of Borg’s books and lectured alongside him on several occasion.
Many words have been written about Marcus Borg since his death. He has been eulogized in countless blogs and articles by admirers acclaiming his spiritual insights. Others, especially those from the evangelical wing of the church, have taken the opportunity to criticize his ideas and to denigrate him, yet still recall him personally as kind, thoughtful, and gracious.
But this lively, institutional, intellectual scholar holds great appeal to me and people like me. Why? Why was Borg such an attraction to me and to those like me who look for, and seek to bring about, a more just and generous Christianity?
Here are a just a few reasons – and they are important because they function as a sort of mirror to us.
First of all, Borg was hopelessly Jesus-centric. Nothing in the history of Christianity or its present-day institutions could turn him away from this Jesus of Nazareth. Not the great ideas and theologies of intellectuals, not the debates over the historicity of the New Testament, not the frustrating trivialities of bureaucratic functionaries could sway him from his unwavering attraction to the Jesus of the gospels. If the entire institutional side of the Christian church should go down in flames – and many think that it is – Borg’s faith would be untouched. From what I know about Marcus Borg, I suspect that he could not imagine building his life around anyone else.
Secondly, Borg’s unencumbered Christianity did not negate other religions and spiritual paths; it was a Christianity without exclusion or intolerance. Borg’s Christianity did not tell us that we have to hate gays or proselytize Buddhists or be wary of our neighbor’s doctrine of Scripture. Love was not a zero-sum game for him. For Borg, following Jesus was not about propositions – of stacking up true ones on our side and attacking the false ones of our enemies. For Borg, the Christian faith was built around Jesus’ radical way of compassion first, with everything else a distant second.
And third and lastly, Borg knew that we have to pare Christianity back down to the basics – or else. The age of the Christian Empire has passed (thank God). That the Church is no longer the center of American society is clearly shown by the Harvard Pluralism Project, whose mission is to help Americans engage with the realities of religious diversity through research, outreach, and the active dissemination of resources. The fastest growing religious group in America is not any particular denomination, but the non-affiliated. A few years ago, the well-known theologian John B. Cobb Jr., spoke to the annual conference of the United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination. He offered a perceptive analysis of the situation in American churches today: “The more progressive denominations on the whole have been losing members and resources. There are many reasons. But I think the deepest one may be that what we do and say does not seem to be terribly important. This is true with regard to our children whom we bring up in the church. They may have a positive attitude toward it, but they do not see any reason to give much, if any, of their time and energy to its support.” Retired Episcopal Bishop John Selby Spong says much the same thing in his book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile.
Like the doomed RMS Titanic, the Christian Church in America continues to list further and further, and most theologians and denominational administrators seem preoccupied simply with rearranging the deck chairs, as the saying goes. Borg was among a smaller number who realized that the damage was too great and the necessary changes were too radical for minor adjustments. A Christianity that wishes to speak to today’s world must be rebuilt from its core outwards. While others work to revise an ancient doctrine, or to produce an inclusive hymnal, or to write a more relevant ritual, Marcus Borg wrote of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. That provocative title, that radical spirit behind it, that willingness to start over again with what matters most, infused the work of this scholarly man with the graying hair, who used to walk his dog down the streets of the Pearl District of Portland, Oregon.
Prophets come in all shapes and sizes; they often do not look the way we expect. Borg, for example, was an academic – a New Testament scholar, no less; an open, out-of-the-closet liberal. (He even used the word!) But he was a prophet to our generation nonetheless. There are lots of reasons why some might want to disregard Marcus Borg – or even to vilify him, as our more evangelical or orthodox sisters and brothers are want to do, both while he was alive and now in his death.
But I recommend that we do not do that. It is time for Christians to get back to basics, even to start over again if we have to. And Marcus Borg is an awesome place to begin that journey.
Requiescat in pace, Marcus Borg.