Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A Positive Articulation of Marcus Borg's Theology (Intro)

When I was a fundamentalist I understood those whose views challenged my understanding of the Christian faith in an entirely negative way. I mean negative here in two ways: first, that I had a very negative evaluation of their worth (no interpretive charity whatsoever) and second, that I understood their work primarily in terms of what they denied rather than in terms of what they affirmed. I think that these two ways of being negative are related. If you see in someone else's work simply a rejection of your own beliefs, then it is much less likely that you will be able to interpret their work charitably, as it stands only as a challenge to your own faith.

While Marcus Borg is now a very important influence on me (in fact, it may be impossible to understand what I'm trying to do here without understanding something of Borg), in my fundamentalist days, to the extent that I was aware of him at all, I considered him to be an enemy of the faith. I never read him myself, of course. I simply read what others wrote about him, and in their summations of him I saw a threat to my way of being Christian. I saw someone who denied what I considered to be the fundamentals of faith, and so wondered aloud if he wasn't some kind of anti-Christ, sent to deceive the faithful by pretending to be one of us while leading us astray.

I have no interest in commenting now on this religious paranoia. I have clearly grown since then, even if my more conservative friends think that I have gone from one extreme (a rigid, fundamentalist concept of orthodoxy that can't view any opposition with any degree of charity) to another (a kind of "liberal" theology that denies beliefs that are essential to the Christian faith).

At his blog, Levellers, Michael Westmoreland-White has published some thoughts on Marcus Borg. In them, while he articulates serious disagreements with Borg's presentation of the historical Jesus, he engages in the sort of interpretive charity that I wish would characterize all theological disagreements. Before he gets into any contentious points, he first rattles off a list of many of the things that he likes about Borg's approach. Then, after that careful consideration of the usefulness of some of Borg's work, he outlines what in Borg he thinks doesn't work, while also pointing out that Borg is not the only scholar who misses the mark on these disputed points.

Most importantly, in my mind, Michael Westmoreland-White links Borg's "errors" with similar errors in more conservative theologians, resisting the all-too-common impulse to paint academic and theological debate as a polemical conversation between two opposing teams. The tendency to see the world as divided into two kinds of people (conservatives and liberals, Christians and non-Christians, gays and straights, us and them) and to see no common ground between the two is at the heart of the breakdown of interpretive charity in our culture, and interpretive charity is vital for authentic communication. Authentic communication is vital for understanding, and understanding is vital for peace. We live in such a contentious culture in part because more people do not make moves like Michael did in his post on Borg.

His post, however, inspired me to write my own series of posts articulating an even more positive articulation of Borg's theology. This is not because of any real flaw I've seen in Michael's post - though I do have some disagreements with him over both the value of Borg and what exactly Borg is saying. This is instead because Borg is so much more important to me than he is to Michael, and I thought that a Borg-ite (though hopefully I am not an uncritical one) should post something countering the trend to paint people like Borg in terms of what they deny instead of what they affirm.

Perhaps the next few posts will be my penance for saying things like: He denies (fill in the blank)!?! How can he call himself a Christian?!? In any event, I hope in them to articulate a few key points from Borg in a positive way:

1. Borg's understanding of the reality of God and the validity of religious experience.

2. Borg's understanding of Jesus as a "Spirit Person," that is, as one who has had a profound personal experience of God, and who shares that experience with others.

3. Borg's understanding of Jesus as - by being a rather unique example of a "Spirit Person" - one who reveals God to us.

4. Borg's understanding of the political nature of Jesus' message.

5. Borg's understanding of Jesus as a Wisdom Teacher.

6. Borg's understanding of Jesus as presenting us with a "participatory" or "collaborative eschatology."

7. Borg's understanding of the metaphoric nature of religious language.

8. Borg's understanding of the nature of faith.

There may be a few other key points as well, and some of these presented here have some overlap. Also, because Borg's positive views - that which he affirms - are articulated over and against more traditional understandings of Christianity, it may be impossible to fully explore what Borg affirms without also dealing with what he rejects. It may also be somewhat dishonest to present a picture of Borg's theology that deals only with what he affirms, as such a picture may give the false impression that he is an entirely harmless figure who should simply be ignored by conservative Christians. The fact is, Borg is a threat of sorts to more conservative theology, though I happen to agree with him on many points that others might see as threatening. To deny, then, the threat that he poses to the belief systems of some faithful Christians is to risk denying their experience of the faith.

That said, my primary goal here is to understand Borg as a Christians, writing to Christians, trying to remain as far as is possible in connection to the Christian tradition(s) (there is not a single Christian tradition any more than there is a single Christian history or a single Christian theology - despite our emphasis on orthodoxy, we have always had and will always have a pluriform faith) while also seeking to reform that tradition. To that end, my focus will be on what he affirms rather than what he rejects, as I see him trying to articulate a new form of Christianity, a project that is much more about affirming new understandings than it is about rejecting older ones.

Nowhere is this need to affirm something new without entirely rejecting the old more clear than in this passage from the opening chapter of The Heart of Christianity, which follows his summary of what he calls the Emerging Paradigm, defined against what he calls the Earlier Paradigm:

...the issue isn't that one of these visions of Christianity is right and the other wrong. Rather, the issue is functionality, whether a paradigm "works" or "gets in the way." For millions, the earlier paradigm still works. And if it works for you - if it hasn't become an obstacle and if it genuinely nourishes your life with God and produces growth in compassion within you - there's no reason for you to change. Being Christian isn't about getting our beliefs (or our paradigm) "right."

But for millions of others, the earlier paradigm no longer works. Unpersuasive to them, it has become a stumbling block. What is the Christian message, the Christian gospel, for people who can't be literalists or exclusivists? What do we have to say to them?

Borg's task is to articulate this vision of Christianity, and that articulation is much more important than any negation of other visions of Christianity. Of course, by saying things like "Being Christian isn't about getting our beliefs... right," he is in fact negating a vision of Christianity, even as he charitably tries not to. Still, as far as is possible, I will seek to articulate what I hear Borg affirming rather than what many hear him negating.


JZ said...

great into. looking forward to reading the rest. i too am an ex-fundy who viewed "liberal" theology as a threat to my specific biblical hermeneutic. cause lets be honest, biblical literalism brings a healthy amount of (in)experience and prejudice in viewing the "good book". borg is really the only rope i have left before i drop on sam harris' lap.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Thanks for the compliments on my "interpretive charity." I learned this sometimes the hard way--by having people misunderstand me. But remember how thorough Barth's critique of Schleiermacher was? Yet when he had students who tried to outdo him, he would point to the picture of Schleiermacher he kept in his office and shout, "He, too, is a Christian!" :-)

I look forward to the rest of your series.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I give thanks, regularly, that I was not raised fundamentalist. I have sometimes been forced into fundamentalist contexts (I was a seminarian at SBTS during the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC!), but I have no fundamentalist past to rebel against, unlike Borg or you. That helps me, I think, to avoid extremes.
Am I more liberal on some parts of my theology today than previously? Undoubtedly--and more conservative on others, while still other aspects of my theology do not track on standard "left vs. right" axes. But if I believe something, I do not do so because it is liberal or conservative, still less because I am so, but because, rightly or wrongly, I believe it to be true.

Sometimes I arrive at conservative conclusions via arguments usually reserved for liberals. Sometimes vice versa.

With Borg I share a strong bedrock view of God encountered mystically. But I do so in a more personal fashion than he describes. Maybe I am the last of the Boston Personalists (once so influential in your own Methodist circles)--believing that personality is the ultimate reality.

Regardless, you seem to be praising Borg more as a theologian than as a Jesus scholar--and most of my critiques were leveled at his historical work. But his theological work does seem to suffer from his determination to NOT return to his conservative Lutheran youth (without, I should add, trying to demean everything traditional or part of what he calls the "old paradigm" using a VERY overused term) or his skepticism as a young adult. He's still rebelling against his past--now both his pasts.

It seems to me that such reactionary moves are dangerous theologically. Which is why I give thanks, again, that I was never a fundamentalist and do not need to begin by negating what I was before.

Sandalstraps said...


I am praising Borg more as a theologian than as Jesus scholar, in part because I am much more a theologian than a Jesus scholar. My training, such as it is, is in philosophy first, theology second, and history not much at all.

That said, some of my future posts will venture into his treatment of the historical Jesus. With Borg I share a concern to draw out the political implications of Jesus teachings and ministry, against the backdrop of the Roman Domination System.

The most interesting post for you may be the discussion of Borg's understanding of mission and message as one of "participatory eschatology" or "collaborative eschatology." In either case, an eschatology understood as an invitation to participate in the work of rather than a waiting for a work that God has already accomplished. As this deals with Jesus' eschatology, and as you disagree with Borg's earlier treatments (denials?) of the subject, I suspect this could spark a nice conversation.

Sandalstraps said...

One more thing:

I, too, am grateful that you weren't raised as a fundamentalist. Neither was I. Both of my parents are fairly secular, so fundamentalism crept in during my teenage years to fill a vacuum.

You may be right about the dangers of reacting against your own past. I would add, however, that for those of us with checkered theological pasts, it might be even more dangerous not to rebell!