Marcus Borg, Jesus Scholar
by Paschal Baute, notes from
a three day conference in Lexington, Ky on
"Being a Christian in the 21st Century,
Held at Christ
Church Episcopal, Feb 22-24. 2002
I had the opportunity to hear
a first class, internationally recognized biblical scholar, author of
eleven books, Marcus Borg, this past weekend, Feb 22-24, at Christ Church
Cathedral, in Lexington. I attended four of the five of his conferences
and will present some of his ideas. I have read and enjoyed several
of his books. Overall, I am impressed with his ability to explain the
value of the historical-metaphorical approach to the Bible, his ability
to integrate new understandings with older traditions, and his clarity
and persuasiveness in doing so.
Note on Marcus Borg. Described
by the New York Times as " a leading figure among the new generation
of Jesus scholars," he has appeared on NBC*s Today Show, PBS news
hour and Peter Jennings Prime Time. Reference to his books (now in 7
languages) will be made later. I have read three of them.
Borg divided his talks between:
"Seeing the Bible Again," "Seeing God Again," "Seeing
Jesus Again," and then some implications in his last talk, "Closed
Hearts, Thin Places and Open Hearts." I did not attend Sat. afternoon,
"Seeing the Christian Life Again."
Borg, 1 Seeing the Bible
B. began by talking about being a Christian in the 21st century, with major paradigm shifts between 2 ways of seeing the Bible.
Something of major significance is happening;
...Some are calling it a New Reformation.
Early Tradition to a new emerging view of the last 100 years.
Conflict about the Bible is the most frequent problem among and within churches.
A shift from Literalist to Non-literalist.
Whether the Bible is an infallible
in-errant guide, of Divine Authority, protected from serious error, or
whether God can speak in-errantly in symbol and metaphor.
Literal sounds "traditional," but in fact fundamentalism is less than 100 years old,
and the literalist tradition is a product only of the last 300 years, and is largely a Protestant reaction to Modernism.
B. noted here that Literalism can be benign if it is not used aggressively.
B. also noted that "Believing has little transforming power."
This statement is one of the most significant for me that I remember him saying.
To which I say: Amen. Believing
itself has no transforming power, no power to affect the human heart.
Metaphor means More than the literal meaning of language.
E.g. God as Father is a metaphor.
But modern Western culture is the only culture that has identified truth with factuality.
Fundamentalism regards the
Bible as the Holy Encyclopedia, to look up things about God.
But the Bible is a human product of two communities: Jewish and Christian.
It is also a response to their
experience of community and of worshiping.
The Bible was not "sacred" when it was written: OT over a period of 500 years, and NT over a period of 300 years. There was a continuing conversation and search for identity.
The Bible as Word is symbol
His approach (and that of current biblical research) is Historical-Metaphorical.
The bible is not written for us or to us.
It is a mixture of memory and metaphor.
The bible is (David Tracy)
"a religious classic."
The Historical metaphorical approach is the ability to hear the stories as true without
worrying about their historical
accuracy. (As a hidden message for us: my words)
A major need in the church and in education is help the people move from
A. a pre-critical naivete, thru
B. Critical thinking (How much do I take with me into adult life) to
C. Post-critical naivete: that is, able to hear as "true" events not factual.
"Now I don*t know for sure whether it happened this way or not, but this story is true...."
"The bible is true, and
some of it actually happened."
B. ended w. 3 metaphors for the bible:
1. Bible as lens: some people think we need to believe in the lens, rather than use the lens.
2. Bible as a finger pointing to the More of human life
3.The Bible is sacrament of
the sacred, through which we are spoken to.
Being Christian is primarily a relationship with Godde.
Theology is poetry plus, not science minus.
The plus or the more means there is a surplus of meaning,
thus the historical metaphorical meaning is much richer than the literal.
And besides the literal was not written to us or for us
but for a different world and
Borg, 2, Seeing God Again.
"How we see" matters,
the images and concepts we hold are significant. Not because God wants
us to get it right, but bec. It affects how we think and act. It is
interesting that B. began each conference with a brief centering prayer,
one minute exercise, attempting to create a Thin Place for his words.
In this conference he divided his remarks between 1. Reality, 2. Personal
and 3. Character.
The central religious issue
in our culture is the reality of God. Using William James terminology,
is there a "More" to everything we see and do in our ordinary
reality, our material world? Or not? Our world view is our image of
reality, our LENS, our view of what is real and possible. In the typical
scientific or modern or naturalist view, there is no "More,"
but only what we can measure, taste, touch. Many accept the modern world
view and then put "God" as a supernatural reality outside
this universe.[B. Commented in passing that this view of God was, in
practice, for many Christians, an hypothesis, that is, I will pray,
go to church, etc, on the assumption that God is out there, but when
"He" does not intervene upon an urgent request, then I have
doubt... the actual view was IF God is out there, then I will be so
The religious view is that
More exists, and until recently this was the virtual human unanimity.
Data is the evidence of the world's religions, religious experience,
and post-modern physics. That is, the most fundamental, foundational
properties occur outside space and time. God is the IS-ESS of everything,
without limitations. "God" is the name we give to the wondrous,
stupendous More. In passing, B. noted that he could not accept the view
of an interventionist Deity outside the universe, the typical super
Parent God of some traditional theology.
Under Personal, B distinguished
between the Wholesale and Retail God. The Wholesale God is the philosophical,
theological, abstracted, Numinous Transcendent, whereas the Retail God
is the one of the particular Wisdom tradition and religious devotion,
the One named as the central character of the story, the one personified
As If. This is the natural language of devotion, but with problems.
Literalization can be "hard"
e.g. The right hand of God, God as male, etc. or "soft" e.g.
God as a personal being separated from the world, God Out There, distant.
The Christian alternative to this is panentheism, that is everything
is in God even as God is More than everything.
In the Natural language of
devotion, 1. Our relationship w. God is personal, at our deepest, most
passionate level.2. God is more a Presence, in which we use "You
or Thou" rather than It.3. God reveals herself to us, speaks to
us, w. prodding and leanings. That is, we have a sense that this Mystery
is present and acting.
3. The Character of God (same as a person's "character"...)That is, what is Your God most like? What is the character of your personal God, how would you describe this mystery?
For example, is your God primarily a Judge and Lawgiver?
is your God primarily a God of requirements and rewards?
is your God primarily a God of heaven and hell?
is your God mostly a nice person, the devotional picture of the kind and gentle Jesus?
is your God primarily the Apocalyptic ?
is your God one of Justice
and Compassion ?
It makes a difference how we
see the character of our God...The traditional view has been two fold:
God as Perfect and Finished, as Omnipotent and omniscient, on one hand,
and on the other, a God of relationship and compassion, that is, we
are each and all the beloved of God. More manuscripts on the Canticle
of Canticles, Song of Songs, in the Middle Ages than on any other book
of the bible. We must find a way to speak, but we cannot speak without
(Here I got lost in my own
thoughts about ways to say what he was trying to say, in my own words
and my understandings from Process Theology...)
A key to our devotional life of faith and prayer is
what are the images of God
that we prefer?
A thought from yesterdays
meeting of our regular SGN group: God cannot be known by
the mind, but only by the heart. the Mind will play all sorts of tricks
with the idea of God. and another: God can be loved but he
cannot be thought. He can be grasped by love but never by concepts.
So less thinking and more loving."This is William Johnston's
summary of the message of The Cloud of Unknowing. (new book)+
Borg, 3: Seeing Jesus Again
B. said John Dominic Crossen
was the best known Jesus scholar of today and quoted him several times.
He quoted a reaction from a preacher friend to one of B*s students going
to hear JDC talk: :"Why Crossen is to the left of Borg. B said
both he and Crossen were to the right of Jesus, and that Jesus was to
the right of God. (laughter, for those who caught the joke)
Why the historical study of Jesus matters (this was the subject of his talk):
1. Because the older image of Jesus has become unpersuasive to us and to many of our children. Here he spoke of a hard and soft literalism. I am not sure whether I got all that he said. But he did say that to see Death as the purpose of Jesus life was to miss its meaning and his teaching. We need new ways to appreciate Jesus today.
2. Because of the distortion between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus, the historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith, or what He became after his death. Without studying the historical Jesus we risk losing both of these, by putting all the belief in one pot. With the Christ of Faith, we lose Jesus as a credible human being, and lose track of the incredible human being Jesus was. Here he quoted one of my favorite books and writers, which many years ago introduced me again to Jesus: Albert Nolan: Jesus Before Christianity, Maryknoll Press. Not to study the historical Jesus is to deprive him of his genuine and real greatness. Nolan said Jesus is a much under-rated man.
3. It helps us grasp the nature of the gospels and understand them better: the early and later levels of material that was developing before any was written down. That is there was both Memory and Testimony, both history and metaphor, and both matter. In every gospel there are two voices: that of Jesus and that of the community. And without study we cannot answer what does this story mean?
Here he gave an example to contrast the literal and the metaphorical meanings re Jesus changing of wine at the wedding feast of Cana. The literal meaning is just that Jesus changed water into wine, his first miracle, at his mother*s request. But the Cana wedding and miracle is much richer as a metaphor of the Christian life, understood as a wedding banquet, which continued, as the typical Jewish wedding continued for seven days and nights, and was the most festive occasion in Jewish life, where adult women were allowed to dance with their hair down, and where the wine
never runs out, and where the best is saved until last. Thus this event is flattened in a literal interpretation but greatly enriched when seen as metaphor. He said many parts of the bible were not meant to be taken literally.
4. Because the historical-metaphorical study helps us to see the meaning of our christological language: Jesus, Son of God, Lord, Messiah, Wisdom of God, etc. which is, not the language of Jesus but
A. the Language of the early community. Thus it is a testimony of the community after Easter, and thereby is more impressive as we see Jesus through their eyes...
B. Christological language is intrinsically metaphorical: Bread of God, Lamb of God, Word of God, Son of God. We have tended to literalize "Son of God" but it is actually a metaphor. We are all sons and daughters of God.
C. Metaphor means to see AS something else.
D. It is the language of confession and commitment, e.g. "Light of the World,"
E. Christological is the cumulative meaning, what it all adds up to for us: example: "I see Jesus as the Light of the World." (To which one can say so what?) A. Jesus is for us Christians the decisive revelation of God to this world, and what can be seen of God in human life? This is the decisive epiphany and the bible here is always subordinate. In Jesus we see what an embodiment of God would look like, what a life filled with God would look like.
F. We can say that Jesus is decisive for us, without insisting that Jesus is the only way for others. To say that Jesus is the only way is devotional, a hyperbole of the heart. Thus we can sing our love stories without disparaging and telling dirty stories about other religions. We can tell why we love Jesus without being defensive if other do not love him and believe in him at all. Thus the historical study of Jesus can lead to his uniqueness for us, without needing to demean or put down others Ways of Wisdom.
5. What we can come to about Jesus can be summarized in five strokes:
A. Jesus was a Jewish mystic.
B. He was a Hebrew healer and exorcist.
C. He was a Jewish Wisdom Teacher, of an unconventional path, one of direct accessibility to God.
D. He was a social prophet, within the Hebrew tradition of God-initiated voices of social protest.
E. He was a movement initiator,
egalitarian, w. open table fellowship or common meal practice. +
Borg, 4, his last talk, Sunday, Feb 24.
Continuation of Seeing the Christian Life Again...
Closed Hearts, Thin Places
and Open Hearts.
Borg proposed this as a continuation
of his distinctions between two types of understandings in religion,
the contrast between a believing understanding (Creeds, literal and
fundamentalist understanding) and a relational understanding. What is
our life together as Church about?
Closed Hearts. In the bible
the heart is the metaphor for the self at the deepest level. The bible
speaks of this in many ways: hard hearts, closed hearts, fat hearts,
hearts of stone. This is the most typical image of the human condition:
our hearts are typically closed. This can be a blindness, a limited
vision, shut eyes, silent hearts. The closed heart affects the mind,
as it darkens and conceals, lacks gratitude, closed to awe and wonder,
forgets God, lacks compassion, cannot feel a sense of injustice, insensitive
to suffering. The closed heart is associated with aggression, violence,
arrogance and greed. It is self-protective, and self-sealing.
This is regarded in the Bible
as the typical human condition. There may be many reasons...certainly
it is the natural result of the process of socialization, as we learn
to measure ourselves as to how well we are measuring up to norms and
What opens or closes the heart
on specific occasions? Many experiences. We may feel grumpy or tired
or have been hurt, or rejected or abused or betrayed, or experienced
A simple yet comprehensive
image of our life with God is that the Christian life is about the hatching
of the heart.
Thin Places. This metaphor presupposes a particular way of thinking about God, of being open to God, as Presence, as encompassing Spirit, "in whom we live and move and have our being..."
That is, there is a non-material
dimension of reality that is the kingdom of Godde, thus we always live
in two worlds, and Thin Places are places where these worlds meet, where
the veil between the two worlds is momentarily lifted. This may be specific
places of pilgrimage, e.g., Jerusalem, but Thin Places is really a metaphor
for the opening of our hearts to the spiritual, thus, Thin Places are
sacraments of the sacred, which may be music, nature, silence, poetry,
story, art, singing hymns, etc. Church worship is meant to create the
thin place for us. Also devotional reading of Scripture, meditation,
centering prayer, esp prayer of inner silence. Spirituality is about
spending time in spiritual places.
Open Hearts. What are we like?
Are we seeing clearly? Are we alive to awe and wonder in our daily
life? How extraordinary that we are here, with all our senses, minds
and hearts, gratitude, passion for justice, compassion. There was a
question about mystics? Mystics, he said, are those whose heart and
mind membranes are thin. They live more between these two worlds, and
often do not need the structures that others need.
The Christian life is about
living with an open heart, then, in awe, gratitude, wonder, compassion,
understanding and loving.
Coming home after this conference
this morning I thought about how wrong is Andrew Greeley*s metaphor
for the widespread sexual abuse of children and its denial and cover
up in the RC church. His answer was misplaced or "sinful compassion."
If anything, the continued
and widespread abuse represents a total lack of compassion, a closed
heart to the suffering of literally thousands of children and families.
Not just in the USA, as there have also been widespread scandals in
Canada, Ireland and Africa that we have learned about. We have learned
that these are not simply isolated incidents, but systemic abuse. This
hierarchy and RC system, I thought today on the way home, can best be
characterized as having a Closed Heart, which is contrary to all that
we know and understand about Jesus.+
I have been reading many books re Jesus research for many years.
Albert Nolan is a great one to start with.
Others on this list may wish to post their favorites.
Also enjoyed and can recommend these four:
I have read three by Borg, all very readable,
short paperbacks, less than 200 pp.
_The God We Never Knew_
_Jesus: A New Vision_
_Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time_.
_Rabbi Jesus_ by Bruce Chilton
(The Jewish life and Teaching that inspired Christianity)
Also I am an associate member
of the Westar Institute, and receive
their publication: The Fourth
R (An Advocate for Religious Literacy)
Do we need religious literacy
in a global village?
"In a recent editorial
in the NY Times Thomas Friedman penned a fictional letter of President
Bush to Saudi Arabia*s minister of Islamic Affairs. In it Mr. Friedman
reminds the Saudis that 15 of the young hijackers were recent graduates
of Saudi schools, which specialize in religious instruction. Those schools
are under the control of conservative clergy that teach that non-Muslims
are inferior to Muslims and must be converted or confronted. To make
matters worse, the Saudis finance thousands of Islamic schools and mosques
around the globe which teach and advocate the same thing.
"In the global age, we
are now entering, how we teach our kids is a strategic issue. If we
are to prepare our children for the global age, we must ourselves be
well informed.. Indeed our literacy, both religious and scientific,
may be the crucial issue for the future of the planet." *Robert
Discussion of these matters is ongoing in our regular SGN meetings. We also have an opportunity to share our own journey and our spiritual struggles. Come and See+++.