The internet is packed with responses to the news that Marcus Borg died a few days ago. ABC carried the original news release. Marcus’s colleagues at HarperOne wrote a beautiful piece to honor Marcus. Blogs byBarkley Thompson and The Naked PastorDavid Hayward stand out among the many personal pieces, and Patheos has just published an entire section of tributes.
Among the responses, Brian McLaren’s post was particularly warm … and insightful. I especially noticed his description of the things that he overheard people saying to Marcus: “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be a Christian today … I dropped out of church but came back after I read one of your books … I’m still a Christian because of you … I became a Christian because of your books.”
If you don’t already have The Heart of Christianity on your bookshelf, go buy it now. Of all of Borg’s 20+ books, it is the one that most clearly expresses the kind of Christianity that most of us want our lives to be associated with.
If you want a quick sample of Borg’s writing, browse the Borg quotes on Goodreads, or check out the excerpts on SpiritualityandPractice.com. Or just read Borg’s answerto the question, “What would it have been like to be a companion of Jesus?”
In these and other posts you can find enough beautiful anecdotes about Borg’s life that I don’t need to add more here. (Brian McLaren and I, along with many others, worked with Marcus on the Big Tent Christianity project. He was a great ally and friend. There are stories to tell, but I’ll save those for another time.)
I want to ask a different question: why was Marcus Borg an ally for us — those of us who look for, and seek to bring about, a more just and generous Christianity? And what does that fact tell us about what we’re really looking for?
Think of all the reasons why Borg shouldn’t have been an ally. He was an older white male, of the sort that most people are tired of listening to. He was an academic — a New Testament scholar, no less, associated with the “third wave” of the so-called quest for the historical Jesus. Many of his most avid readers were denominational people, comfortable in their Presbyterian and Episcopal worlds. And Borg was an open, out-of-the-closet liberal. (He even used the word!) Don’t we know that “emergent types” generally disassociate themselves with mainline / establishment / liberal / denominational types?
What catches my attention is that, despite all the reasons that Marcus Borg should have seemed stodgy, institutional, and irrelevant, he wasn’t. There are a couple of important reasons for the surprising attractiveness of Borg’s message. These reasons matter because they function as a sort of mirror to us. At their best, they help us see more clearly what it is that we’re looking for:
- Borg was hopelessly Jesus-centric. Nothing in the history of Christianity or its present-day institutions could turn him away from this Jesus — not the great ideas and theologies of intellectuals, not the debates over the historicity of the New Testament, not the frustrating trivialities of bureaucratic functionaries. If the entire institutional side of the Christian church should go down in flames — and many think that it is — Borg’s faith would be untouched. Borg was unwaveringly drawn to the Jesus of the gospels; he couldn’t imagine building his life around anyone else. I’d like to think that Emergence Christianity at its best does precisely this.
- Borg described a God worth believing in. Borg’s writings (and his person) consistently convey belief in a loving and compassionate God. He wasted little ink on theological disputes. The only thing he consistently wrote about God was that he was a panentheist: God is immanent in the world, as the world is immanent in God. The rest of the metaphysical debates about the divine went into the “optional” category for him. So did the battles over Christian orthodoxy, from substitutionary atonement to pre-incarnate Logos to pre-millennial eschatology.
Here, too, Borg is a mirror for us. Many of us have grown impatient with the multitude of “-isms” that have divided Christians for centuries. But somehow that impatience doesn’t drive us to atheism and humanism. Borg writes that
“Jesus’s message and activity were grounded in his experience of the Spirit of God… for Jesus, God was an experiential reality and … this was central and foundational to all that he became” (Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, 125). This God that Jesus knew, the one he called abba, is worth holding onto.
- Borg’s unencumbered Christianity didn’t negate other religions and spiritual paths. It didn’t tell you that you have to hate gays or proselytize Buddhists or be wary of your neighbor’s doctrine of Scripture. Love is not a zero-sum game. Following Jesus is not first about propositions, stacking up true ones on your side and attacking the false propositions of your enemies. Borg’s humility, which so many of us experienced, was the natural expression of a Christian faith built around Jesus’ radical way of compassion first, with everything else a distant second. Isn’t it fair to say that what has drawn so many to the emergence movement is this same message: a Christianity without exclusion or intolerance?
- Borg knew that we have to pare Christianity back down to the basics… or else. The age of Christian Empire has passed (thank God). The Church is no longer the center of American society, as the Harvard Pluralism Project has so clearly shown. The fastest growing religious group in America are the non-affiliated. As the famous process theologian John Cobb said in a talk recently, “The more progressive denominations on the whole have been losing members and resources. There are many reasons. But I think the deepest one may be that what we do and say does not seem to be terribly important.”
As that Titanic institution, the Christian Church in America, continues to list further and further, most theologians and denominational administrators seem preoccupied with rearranging the deck chairs. Borg was among a smaller number who realize that the damage is too great, the paradigm change surrounding us too radical, for minor adjustments. A Christianity that wishes speak to today’s world must be rebuilt from its heart outwards. While others work to revise a doctrine here, a hymnal there, Borg wrote of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. That same radical spirit, that willingness to start over again with what matters most, infuses the work of this motley movement to which many of us belong.
Prophets come in all shapes and sizes; they often don’t look the way you would expect. There are lots of reasons why you might want to disregard Marcus Borg — or even to vilify him, as our more conservative brethren have.
But, for the reasons just given, I recommend you don’t. It’s time for us to get back to basics, even to start over again if we have to. And this is an awesome place to begin.
Follow Philip Clayton, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pdclayton7