A Conversation with Marcus Borg

There’s a very interesting audio interview with Marcus Borg over at the Christian Century. I’ve really grown to appreciate Borg’s scholarship. This interview is a good overview of where he’s coming from as a scholar and a believer.

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13 thoughts on “A Conversation with Marcus Borg

  1. i’m not trying to be all high and mighty, but would you really consider borg a believer? he’s notoriously a panentheist and denies the resurrection. i’m all for casting a wide net. i see christian universalists and roman catholics alike as my brothers and sisters (even though we disagree on a few things). and i’m for looking at accepted christian norms critically, but few things are more central to christian belief than the resurrection.

    plus he’s a member of the jesus seminar, which is honestly about 30-40 years behind the times in terms of where biblical scholarship (both of a theological and more secular historical-critical nature) is at right now. n.t. wright has taken their positions to task on multiple occasions.

    some of the things he’s said are spot on, especially when critiquing what conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists say about moral certitude and dogmatism (similar to what bill maher had to say in “religulous,” which was pretty good/funny). and yeah, he’s helped “keep people in the game.” but he did it by throwing out the baby with the bath water. he threw the bath tub out, too, for that matter.

  2. Sean, he may deny the historicity of the resurrection but he certainly doesn’t deny the meaning or the value of what he calls the early community’s resurrection narrative. one can deny the factual nature of an event but still maintain the value of what the event may represent in a metaphorical sense.

    Is borg right? i don’t know but I do know that he’s a man of faith, maybe in a different way you and I might be. Have you read any of his books?

  3. I’ve read a couple of his books (“Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions” by Borg and N.T. Wright is a good place to start if you want a general grounding in where historical Jesus research has been/is at), some interviews, essays, debates (here is a good one between Borg, Dom Crossan and Luke Johnson: http://www.ntgateway.com/xtalk/debate.html), and a few pieces about him here and there.

    He certainly is a sincere man of faith and focused on making a positive impact within the Christian community (which is more than I can say for dudes like Crossan). And yes, he does value what the resurrection narrative represents metaphorically.

    All that said, valuing what the resurrection represents (which, ultimately, means that it represents much less than what the apostles thought it meant and represented) doesn’t do the resurrection justice.

    If you divorce the idea of the resurrection from the actual event of the resurrection, you’re left with no real Christianity. In the resurrection, you find all of the things that we, as Christians, know about God. You have the incarnation (meaning that God is active in human history). You have the example of what it truly means to love others (to lower yourself below others, without bowing to what their expectations and/or desires may be). You have reconciliation — that we are not only reconciled to God, but we are reconciled to one another. You have renewal and regeneration. Paul sees the entire universe as being renewed because of what Jesus did, not just because of what his apostles think his ideas represented.

    And in the moment of the resurrection, you have Jesus saying that what he started is coming in full force. That being the kingdom of God. The resurrection means that the kingdom of God (the way we relate to one another, the way we treat the world, the way we order every portion of our lives) is oozing into this age because Jesus tore open the barrier between “heaven” and “earth” so that the two could and will overlap.

    If you deny the physical resurrection, you’re only paying lip service to these things at best. At worst, you’re completely denying them. Because then they become not much more than abstract concepts which may be good to live your life by.

    I’m not saying you have to accept everything in the Gospels as fact to be a Christian. I know plenty of Christian brothers and sisters who don’t. But there are some things you have to accept, not because there are a certain number of factual statements to which you must assent. No, you have to believe them because the Christian faith is based on them. Paul says it straight up, if there is no physical resurrection, then there is no Christian faith (a paraphrase, obviously).

    If you don’t have the resurrection but still want to try and be a Christian, then your God is not a immanent yet omnipresent God who has reconciled us and is mending us so that we can shine in his image as he intended.

    Either you end up with a God, like Crossan’s, who doesn’t exist at all really, except for the construct you create in your mind (and he pretty much says exactly that). Or you end up with a God like Borg’s, who has no character and is not active in the world. You have a God who is more like a glorified version of The Force.

    So if I had to say whether or not he’s a Christian based on his piety and sincerity, I would definitely say he is. I respect him immensely. He is a man who desparately wants to believe in A Christian God, but it’s not THE Christian God. As to whether or not that means he’s “saved” (and whatever that entails to whoever says it), I can’t say.

    But it does mean that he has fundamental misunderstandings of who God is, what God does, and subsequently, what our job as the Church is. While actions and intellectual acceptance of facts don’t determine who is and isn’t a Christian, the New Testament seems to make it clear that believers will have certain views on issues like the resurrection, and that they will act accordingly.

    And I want to be clear, I’m trying to define the God of Christianity as broadly as I can. As I’ve said before, I’m casting a wide net. There are plenty of folks with whom I disagree on a great many issues, but I would still consider them my brothers and sisters in the kingdom.

    Ok, I wrote way too much. Sorry about that. Hopefully we’re not all drowning in my sea of words.

  4. Fair enough, Sean. I don’t think you’re being excessively exclusive. I’m just not as convicted as you are that right belief in a historical resurrection is a precursor to truly experiencing life with God and being redeemed by a God who is, in our most faithful moments, still unknowable to us.

    I wonder what kind of God do humans end up with who’ve never had access to the story of Jesus and the Resurrection? Do they not experience the incarnation? Do they not know what it is to be humble and loving to others? Do they not experience reconciliation?

  5. This was the point I was making. That’s why I can’t say whether he is “saved” (again, whatever that entails). I never said that “right belief in a historical resurrection is a precursor to truly experiencing life with God and being redeemed by a God who is, in our most faithful moments, still unknowable to us.”

    In fact, that puts the cart before the horse (and many evangelicals are incredibly guilty of this). You don’t experience God and redemption because you believe in the resurrection. You believe in the resurrection because you have experienced God and redemption — and have been exposed to the message of the Gospel, as expressed in the Bible.

    The issues you raise in the second paragraph are things I thought about discussing, but didn’t want to digress into at the time (shoehorning it in would have made my last comment twice as long). I figured they would be tangentially relevant to the conversation, in that I thought this issue could be raised as something thought to be relevant by some — though not dealing at all with the points I was making.

    Yes, you can experience God without having knowledge of the resurrection story. I wholeheartedly believe (and some fellow Calvinists would find this abhorrent) that there are “Christians” out there who have no idea who Jesus is. They are people who are part of the kingdom. These people may well understand the incarnation in some form, and reconciliation as well. I’m not going to debate that.

    I say that if someone has been made regenerate by the Holy Spirit without hearing the explicit message of Jesus dead and resurrected, then they will understand the basic principles of the kingdom and how to live that out. These truths don’t hinge on believing facts. They hinge on the actual work of Jesus in his life, death and resurrection. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need people to hear stories in order to transform lives. And that was my initial point. If there is no resurrection, then there is none of that other stuff, whether or not you know it/want to admit it.

    My point is that if you have experienced these things, and then you are exposed to the message of Jesus and his life/death/resurrection, then you will accept these as fact because you will see the reason you were able to experience the kingdom is because of what Jesus did in his life, on the cross, and in the tomb — not just what he represented to his early followers.

    And yes, God is unknowable to us, in a sense. We can never fully grasp him, and in that I am in the apophatic camp, to an extent. While we can never fully know God, we can know what the New Testament tells us. And if, like Borg, you’ve spent your entire career studying the New Testament and will not allow yourself to believe facts because you have preconceived notions that are not based on your faith in Jesus, then you have no excuse.

    So in that sense, the second paragraph isn’t relevant to my points about Borg. He has certainly been exposed to those truths. As Wright says about his very dear friend, Borg will not allow himself to believe in the bodily resurrection because of his worldview. It doesn’t mean he isn’t a Christian, but it does cast some doubt on it.

    Not because of the fact that he doesn’t agree with me on the issue of resurrection. Nope. It’s because the New Testament says everywhere that the reason we believe in the resurrection is because of what the Holy Spirit has done to us. It has quickened us. The Holy Spirit has given us faith. We don’t have faith because we believe in the resurrection (as you seemed to think I was implying). We believe in the resurrection because we have faith.

    It might seem to be a small detail to some, but that is the crux of the matter. And it’s why so many evangelicals are needlessly dogmatic and legalistic, because they put the cart before the horse. They say actions and intellectual acceptance of facts are what make you a Christian. So it’s understandable why they get all worked up when someone disagrees with them or does something they aren’t keen on. But they’re still wrong. The actions and acceptance of certain facts are because you are a Christian, not a prerequisite to being a Christian.

  6. So it’s not that Borg, with his particular beliefs, can’t experience God’s love, grace and be redeemed. It’s just that you question whether or not he’s a Christian? I’m not sure I really get what the point is in all this.

  7. I’m just saying that I don’t know if I would call him a Christian, because of what his belief system entails, which was the point of my first comment. It’s just like I wouldn’t call Ghandi a Christian. A great man, but what he believed didn’t line up with what the New Testament says and what the Church over the last two millenia has taught.

    Then my second comment was in response to your assumption that I think you have to ascribe to a certain set of facts before you can experience God. The point was that this assumption is wrong. But the New Testament also says all over that if you’ve experienced God, you will believe what it says about Jesus.

    I guess my point is that we can’t accept just anyone as a brother in Christ and member of the Church just because they’re good guys. The Bible sets limits not for who will go to heaven or hell, but for who can and can’t be part of the Church. I should have made that distinction from the beginning. Some people disagree on small things, or even not so small things regarding what the boundary markers are. Sometimes it’s whether or not they’re important, even whether or not they happened. That’s fine. But something like the resurrection shouldn’t be up for debate.

  8. I guess we’ll just agree to disagree. I couldn’t be more uninterested in the distinction you are making here. But if you’re right, I’ll take heaven and you can keep the church, 7 days a week.

  9. haha, i hear you. the problem is that the church isn’t some country club where we get special treatment. the church are the people who are supposed to be bringing the kingdom home to roost here on earth, so to speak.

    that’s why it’s important to identify who is and isn’t the church. because the people who say they’re the church are usually the ones sitting on their asses doing nothing. and the bible says that if you’re the church, you won’t just believe certain things, you’ll be doing the work of the kingdom, too. they go hand in hand.

  10. I don’t think that’s at all important. The problem is here is that we’re all to some degree wrong but at the same time no one is 100% wrong. While we have differences in our beliefs, we all have something to contribute, Borg included. To say that Borg should not be included in the body of Christ is a shame. He’s a valuable voice, even if he may be partly wrong. His writings on the nature of faith are some of the strongest I’ve ever read.

    It’s interesting you cite NT Wright as taking Borg’s view to task. NT Wright believes strongly that Borg is his brother in Christ and should not be excluded from the Body of Christ for his particular views.

  11. I know Wright has said this a few times, but Wright still does believe that Borg’s views are incredibly troubling. But from what I’ve read/heard directly from Wright and others that know Wright and Borg and their relationship, it mainly stems from the fact that Borg and Wright are close friends than anything else. Granted, I can’t know his motivations, but even he has hinted at that when asked about it (I’ve read stuff from him about this and have seen people ask him in person more than once when I’ve seen him), though never come out and said it.

    Here is what Wright says about believing in the bodily resurrection: “churches that lose their grip on the bodily resurrection are in deep trouble and that for healthy Christian life individually and corporately, belief in the bodily resurrection is foundational.”

    So the clear implication is that without the bodily resurrection, churches die and Christians spiritual lives share the same fate. If your spiritual life is dead and lifeless, you’re not going to be doing the work of the kingdom, living out the Sermon on the Mount.

    And I agree with you that Borg does have something good to contribute. But just because he has good things to say about faith (much like others who don’t claim Christianity at all) doesn’t mean that he has to be included in the Church. Plus, even if I wouldn’t call him a Christian (which I’m still undecided about, and these comments have been about why I might not), does that mean I (and the Church) can’t find any value in what he says?

    “The problem is here is that we’re all to some degree wrong but at the same time no one is 100% wrong.”

    I don’t think that’s the problem here at all. The problem is that we disagree on the amount of certainty to this statement “Marcus Borg is a Christian.” You say that Borg unequivocally is a Christian, and I’m saying that I don’t know and talking about why I don’t. I really don’t know if he is or not. But there are reasons why I might have trouble considering him a brother, and these I’ve been talking about the reasons.

    And then you seem to imply things I’m not saying from there. Like that I’m saying you have to believe in the resurrection to experience God at all. Or that you have to be completely right about everything to be part of the Church. Or that I won’t take anything positive from what Borg has to say. You seem to think I have all of these ideas about moral certitude and dogmatic rigidity as if I’m Mark Driscoll.

    I’m not saying, and have not said, that Borg is 100% wrong. And I haven’t said that we all have to be 100% right. Shit, I’m probably wrong on 50% or more of my Christian beliefs (there are plenty of things that most on the right and left of me disagree with, so it’s not like I don’t realize that it’s important to take in what others have to say).

    And the thing here is that I’m not talking about being 100% right to be in the Church. I’m talking about one single issue that the Bible says is one of the primary issues of the Christian faith and the Church over the last 2,000 years has said was one of the main issues.

    Borg has good things to say, but he is not in step with the New Testament and with Church history on one of the, if not THE, major tenets that makes up the substance of Christianity. And that is why I can say that what Borg believes about Jesus is not what constitutes Christianity. Whether he’s bound for heaven or hell, I don’t know. But, then again, I don’t really know what heaven and hell means anymore, so there you go on that, too.

  12. I’ve said all I care to say here, Sean. Just totally not interested in making the distinctions you are making here. Especially with those who I’ve never met or have a personal relationship with. While I don’t think you are exhibiting Driscoll-like rigidity and I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, I do feel you’re being a bit too uncharitable in questioning Borg’s place in the body of Christ.

  13. That’s fine. I understand where you’re coming from. I honestly lean more toward saying that Borg is a part of the Church, but if he is, he’s dangerously close to the edge of the boundary markers of the visible Church. I can certainly understand why that might be uncharitable in some eyes, though.

    What it was really about for me, though, was that I thought discussing the question “Is the physical resurrection essential to the message of Christianity?” was an important thing to do. Borg just happened to be involved. But I can understand if this isn’t the place for that discussion.

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