[Rough Draft]

A weblog about god, doubt, insomnia, culture, baseball

5.12.2004

meeting marcus borg again for the first time

if you've been following my reading list, you've noticed i recently read marcus borg's meeting jesus again for the first time: the historical jesus & the heart of contemporary faith (san francisco: harpercollins, 1994) (it must be out of print b/c amazon only lists it in z-shops). now that i've "met" my brother marcus, i'm a little non-plussed, although he appears to be exactly as i imagined him. if you've read the book, and if you're familiar w/ me @ all, then you can probably guess that borg and i disagree about pretty much everything.

w/o going too in depth about the book, i want to emphasize some of borg's ideas that are not just heterodox but pretty close to heretical (if anyone from the diocese of massachusetts is reading this, you may want to stop now and click on something warm and fuzzy, perhaps a website about bengal cats). first of all, for all his blather about not reading the bible literally, borg cannot seem to comprehend that the gospel of john was written as a theological document, which does not mean that it's necessarily ahistorical. he condemns john to the trash heap of non-historical-ness (or some such word) and denies jesus ever said anything john records (like john 3.16, for instance); therefore, the book must be about the "christ of faith" and not the "jesus of history." his incredulity stems from his realization that all the stories he had been taught as a child (one imagines felt-boards and elderly sunday school teachers) were merely the products of human ingenuity; in short, lies. the idea of god speaking through israel's prophets and ordering salvation history became simply "impossible" for borg to believe (37). but jesus, that's another story -- that cat was a "spirit person," or "one for whom god was an experiential reality." once borg discovered this, and began to posit a duality b/tw the "pre-" and "post-easter" jesuses, "god was no longer a concept of belief, but had become an element of experience." perhaps borg should take a listen to the current series on npr about "new religions in america" to see what this open-ended model of experiential christianity can lead to.

indeed, borg sees fit to condemn the creeds and re-appraise god, this time doing it right. god's holiness and justice are cancelled out, it seems, by his "dominant quality" of compassion (54). thus, jesus' actions in "shattering the purity code" applies to everything now. for instance, to seize upon one of the issues of the day, it's as if gal. 3.28 reads, in borg's words, "in christ there is neither straight nor gay." he concedes: "granted, paul didn't say that, but the logic of 'life in the spirit' and the ethos of compassion imply it" (59). as for jesus' own authority, the "sovereign" tone of his proclamations arose from his "enlightenment experience" like other sages', and since jesus was obviously wrong about the central message of his ministry (the coming kingdom of god), jesus' actual invitation (whether he meant it or not) was to a life beyond boundaries, the aforementioned "life of the spirit" (87). for borg, this means a jump from "secondhand" religion (that which we have learned from the church, its creeds, tradition, our forefathers) to "firsthand" religion, which he defines as relationship to "the reality we call god" (87). after all, the creeds are suspect with all their trinitarian theology and the hogwash about dual natures of christ. borg claims that all the ways scripture speaks of jesus (son of god, etc.) are clearly metaphorical. for example, it wasn't actually jesus that was preexistent w/ god "in the beginning" as the church traditionally interprets st. john's prologue; rather, "proper" exegesis reveals that the wisdom (sophia) of god was preexistent. so it's more accurate to speak of jesus as "son of sophia," or "the wisdom of god," or @ least to recognize that "son of god" just means god was an experiential reality to our man in the desert.

borg's goal is, as he puts it, to "broaden our framework" for thinking about jesus (120), but in actuality he limits our framework by putting certain images of jesus beyond the pale of this new and enlightened orthodoxy. for instance, the "priestly story" of christian life and the sweep of history is off limits b/c the sacrifice necessary for such a story to make sense demands that god's forgiveness become "contingent or conditional" (131). b/c he can't conceive of a god that would make salvation contingent upon faith in the sacrifice of jesus, then this metanarrative obviously must be flawed, an invention of a patriarchal and androcentric culture in which the church came of age in the 4th century. "moreover," he writes,

this [priestly] story is very hard to believe. the notion that god's only son came to this planet to offer his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, and that god could not forgive us without that having happened, and that we are saved by believing this story, is simply incredible. taken metaphorically, this story can be very powerful. but taken literally, it is a profound obstacle to accepting the christian message (131).
i submit that is precisely the point, and it is also the reason the orthodox version of christianity is so hard for enlightened individuals like borg to swallow. the concept of sin, the necessity of forgiveness and the scandal of god's grace in jesus is, indeed, an obstacle, and that is as it should be. borg is so observant and well-written that he fairly accurately describes the problems w/ the modern western church, but he can't seem to bring himself to believe the problems are problems, so he casts his lot w/ the "generation or two of seminarians [that] got this message: we can't know much about jesus, and what we know is that he was wrong about the central conviction animating his ministry and message, and it doesn't really matter, for the historical jesus is theologically irrelevant" (12). indeed. the jesus borg has met (again) for the first time, and the one i met in the pages of this book, is just that: irrelevant.

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