Sunday, 27 February 2011

Lives of Jesus 5: Marcus Borg

While I'm on the subject of The Jesus Seminar, the various members of the Seminar are a great illustration of how it is possible to start at the same point and yet end up somewhere radically different.  Enter Marcus Borg, Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, prominent member of The Jesus Seminar and advocate of "progressive Christianity".

Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time was published in 1994, just before the Jesus Seminar publication The Five Gospels (with whose contents Borg was intimately familiar) and two years before Robert Funk's Honest to JesusBorg shares with Funk the basic presuppositions that drove the work of The Jesus Seminar - that the gospels are layered works in which it is necessary to peel back later additions to arrive at the true Jesus; that the earliest layers are those involving Jesus' distinctive parables and aphorisms, while later layers include his references to himself as God's Son and messiah, his prophecies of the coming Kingdom, and the stories of his birth, death and resurrection.  Yet for something with the same basic starting point this book could hardly be more different to Honest to Jesus.  Where Funk seems lost and angry, Borg seems at peace.  Where Funk destroys, Borg builds.

Perhaps it's presumptuous to say so, but the difference seems to lie not in the scholarship of the books (which is very similar) but in their spirituality.  As well as a Life of Jesus, Meeting Jesus Again has elements of spiritual biography, especially at the beginning where Borg summarises his own spiritual journey.  Brought up in a devout Lutheran family he spent his childhood and youth immersed in traditional Christianity.  Yet through his teen years and his young adulthood, despite a brilliant theological education and a career studying and teaching in seminaries, he describes himself as a "closet atheist", unable to reconcile the faith he learnt as a child with either the critical scholarship of his seminary studies or the broader modern worldview which has an atheist bedrock.

So far so Funk.  However, in his mid 30's Borg had his own deep spiritual experiences.  He doesn't go into any detail but describes them as a form of "nature mysticism", an awareness that there is more to the world around us than its mere physicality, that the universe is inhabited by an intelligence that we refer to as God.

It is this insight that informs Meeting Jesus Again.  He briefly rejects two common ideas about Jesus - the orthodox view that he saw himself as the Messiah, and Albert Schweitzer's view of him as an eschatalogical prophet.  However, unlike Funk he doesn't dwell on what he rejects.  Instead he focuses on four aspects of Jesus' personality and ministry which he sees as summing up his enduring message.

First, he sees Jesus as a "spirit person".  By this he means a person who has had a direct, personal encounter with God, which he spends his life trying to communicate to those around him.  This puts him in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who came before him, the apostles who came after him (he includes Paul in this category) and sages and spirit people from other religious traditions.  This aspect of his personality and teaching can be seen in factors such as referring to God as "Abba" (roughly translated into Aussie idiom as "Dad"), his being portrayed as "speaking with authority" and his proclamation in the synagogue of Nazareth using the words of Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me".  In this aspect, his desire is to bring us to the same intimacy with God that he has.

Second, Jesus is a "social prophet", challenging and criticising the elites of his time and place with a message of inclusion and compassion.  This aspect of his mission involved a deep critique of the ideas of purity and exclusiveness which guided the leaders of first century Judaism.  His reaching out to lepers, blind people, tax collectors, women and other social outcasts, including them amongst his disciples and welcoming them at his table, set him apart from the religious leaders of his day.  He backed this up with trenchant criticism of their attitudes and practices, recorded in various Gospel sayings.

Thirdly, and closely associated this this, is his role as a "teacher of wisdom".  In this role he challenges the conventional wisdom (of his day and ours) based on the idea of right behaviour, rewards and punishments.  In its place he puts a wisdom based on the abundant goodness of God, who clothes the flowers of the field, sends his rain on the just and unjust, pays the labourers who have worked one hour as much as those who have laboured an entire day, and forgives the son who has squandered his wealth.

Finally he sees Jesus as a "movement founder", setting his followers on the same road as himself, sending them out to spread his message of unconventional wisdom, social challenge and deep personal experience of God.  Hence, he doesn't share Funk's anger at the Church and the first century disciples who added layers to the Gospels and the movement's message.  He doesn't see these additions as harmful or bad, he sees them as natural developments in the movement Jesus founded, as it spread his message into new, non-Jewish communities and dealt with new issues and needs.  These additions, he implies, have their own value.  They just don't go back to Jesus.

Through all this is a firm but loving critique of orthodox, conventional Christianity.  I have referred to this in an earlier post, so just to briefly summarise.  In the church, he says, we have turned the message of Jesus into a piece of conventional wisdom, similar to that of the Pharisees.  Christianity has come to be primarily about believing certain intellectual propositions about Jesus.  Those who believe are rewarded, those who don't are punished.  His problem is not so much that these beliefs are later additions to the life of Jesus, but that they contradict his core message.  His unconventional wisdom points to the goodness of God poured out freely and indicriminately on all.  His social message is about inclusion, about breaking down barriers not erecting them.  And his spiritual message is about the possibility of a direct, intimate contact with God.  Jesus is not asking for our assent to theological propositions, he is asking for our transformation.

Conservative Christians hate Borg because he denies the divinity of Jesus which is the cornerstone of orthodox theology.  He does so on the basis of an approach to Biblical criticism which has substantial flaws.  Yet we should not allow this question to blind us to his positive message.  It is not enough to assent to Jesus' teachings and revere him as a divine being.  All this is meaningless if we don't allow his message to transform us, to bring us into contact with God and to change the way we treat each other, to lead us to bring outcasts and pariahs into our fellowship and to allow the abundant generosity of God to flow through us.

1 comment:

dd said...

The divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ is THE basis of Christian teaching. God revealed himself to mankind by coming to this earth as a man because this is/was the only way our limited minds could take in the infiniteness of God.