Friday, January 23, 2015

Remembering Marcus Borg

One of my favorite theologians, Marcus Borg, has died.  I grew up Lutheran, stayed a Lutheran (of the campus ministry variety) through undergraduate and graduate school, drifted away, and then came back to church 5 years later when I was 33 or so. 

I remember the first time I read one of his books.  In 1999, I was writing an academic essay in which I compared the character of Lauren in Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower to Jesus.  I had the kind of knowledge about the historical Jesus that English majors have and that people who have grown up in the church have--but I knew that I might be wrong about some of the details. 

So, I did what every good academic does, and I headed to the library.  I read book after book by Jesus Seminar people.  I read all sorts of interesting history, especially in light of recent archaological discoveries.  And I haven't stopped reading, although my reading has broadened.

It wasn't Borg's writing that made me want to go to church--that would be Kathleen Norris.  But he was one of the scholars who convinced me that I could go to church and not have to leave my brain at the house.  And that aspect of modern Christianity has become increasingly important to me. 

I love Borg's willingness to express doubt.  He admits that he's not sure of how prayer works, or if it works, but he does it the way that he practices other good manners. And he does it because he's willing to admit that he doesn't know everything: "I myself have no clue what the explanatory mechanism is, and I am content not to. And this leads to my final reason for continuing to do prayers of petition and intercession. To refuse to do them because I can't imagine how prayer works would be an act of intellectual pride: if I can't imagine how something words, then it can't work. To think thus involves more than a bit of hubris" (The Heart of Christianity: Discovering a Life of Faith, page 197).

Marcus Borg, in The Heart of Christianity, says "We become what we do" (192).  That has been my rallying cry whenever I want to moan in the words of Samuel Beckett, "I can't go on like this!"  I would take this idea one step further.  We don't even have to believe in what we're doing.  We can fake the emotions, until the spring of faith renews.

Jesus comes to show us what a God-drenched life would look like. I recently rediscovered this quote by Marcus Borg (from a lecture that he gave in 2006) in my notebook: "Jesus is the epiphany of God. He shows us what can be seen of God in a human life. There's much of God that can't be shown in a human life, but Jesus shows what can be seen."

I love Borg's insistence that Christ's execution was not about atoning for the sins of the world.  It was Borg who first taught me that crucifixion was a punishment reserved for people who were a threat to the state.  It was Borg who made me think long and hard about this, when he notes:  "We should wonder what it was about Jesus and his movement that so provoked the authorities at the top of the domination systems of their time" (Jesus:  Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, p. 273).

Borg is not a believer in atonement theology, but his beliefs make sense, especially in light of his thorough examination of the domination systems that rule our world; Borg's primary focus is the political systems.  This quote sums up his view:  "According to the gospels, Jesus did not die for the sins of the world. The language of sacrificial substitution is absent from their stories.  But in an important sense, he was killed because of the sins of the world" (Jesus:  Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, p. 274).

But Borg doesn't leave us stranded back in Roman times.  He does a great job of showing us how this long-ago life of Jesus can transform the way we live.  My favorite book of his is The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith.  In this book, he talks about his own life as a Christian, in ways that surprised me.  I would have thought he would find it difficult to find a modern church where he could live within the mysteries.  But he insists on the importance of finding a good church, one that makes us happy at the thought of attending.  For those of us who say we're spiritual but not religious, Borg develops an idea that he credits Huston Smith for initiating:  ". . . religion is to spirituality as institutions of learning are to education" (The Heart of Christianity p. 219).  You could do it all yourself in the arena of religion/spirituality or learning/education.  You could read books and pray and teach yourself all kinds of things.  But why deny yourself the resources and community of the institution?
The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith is a wonderful book, full of experiences from regular life.  Here's one of my favorites:  "When I stand in a supermarket checkout line and all the people I see look kind of ugly, I know that my heart is closed" (page 154). We are called to have soft, open hearts.  Borg never moved far away from that concept in all of his theology. 

Marcus Borg may not have believed in the bodily Resurrection in the way that the church of my childhood taught it.  But when I read his books, he gets to the heart of what the Christ's resurrection should mean for us in a way that so many theologians don't.

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