Thursday, April 05, 2007

A Positive Articulation of Marcus Borg's Theology (Part I)

(For the Introduction to this series, see here.)

Marcus Borg is known best for being a historical Jesus scholar and a member of the Jesus Seminar, and rightly so. Because of this some (though hopefully not many) people mistakenly think that he has no starting point, no agenda of his own. This is false, of course, because no scholar, no matter how objectively they try to present their own work, is without some presuppositions and agendas of their own. They are, after all, only human. To understand Borg's work, as to understand anyone else's work, it helps to understand some of the presuppositions he brings to his work, as well as to - if possible - understand why he might bring those presuppositions.

Because Borg is lumped by some more conservative Christians into the broad category of "skeptics," those who call into question some of the more traditional beliefs about Jesus, some wrongly assume that he presuppositions are modern ones, about the impossibility of miracles, divine healings, mystical experiences, or bodily resurrection. His most fundamental presuppositions, instead, involve the reality of God and the validity of religious experience.

In the opening chapter of his Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Borg, as a way of introducing his views of Jesus, provides a brief autobiographical sketch of his spiritual journey. In it he recounts his precritical understanding of Jesus, his adolescent doubts, and his exposure in college to a new way of thinking about religion, which, he writes, "didn't help me to believe," but instead "provided a framework within which I could take my perplexity seriously." From there he recalls briefly his seminary experience, which also failed to help his faltering faith (he described himself as a "closet agnostic," a phrase that sometimes describes me, as well), though it did help shape his theological mind.

In his mid-thirties Borg had a series of experiences that he now calls a kind of "nature mysticism." These experiences, I believe, are one key to understanding his views of Jesus, which are shaped by the presupposition - in light of his own mystical experiences - of the reality of God and the validity of religious experience.

In his work on Jesus, Borg assumes both that there is a God, and that Jesus experienced that God in a profound way. But, what kind of God does Borg believe in, and as such posit (at least implicitly) as the God experienced by Jesus? The first key to understanding Borg's concept of God is found in the phrase "believe in." For Borg (and, incidentally, for me, but we'll get to that later) the key is to believe in God, and not to believe certain things about God. Not that what we believe about God isn't important. It is, as it shapes how we encounter and experience everything else. But that the primary subject of faith is not a set of propositions concerning God to be accepted or rejected, but rather a belief in and trusting of God. (There will be more on Borg's understanding of faith in a later post.)

Marcus Borg grew up believing in and about a God external to the natural universe. God was, he puts it, "out there," or "up in heaven." God was, in other words, far removed from our experience. In traditional theological language, God was transcendent, rather than immanent. His mystical experiences - which he doesn't make too much of - helped reveal a more interior, more immanent God. As he puts it, after those experiences,

I began to see [that] the word God refers to the sacred at the center of existence, the holy mystery that is all around us and within us. God is the nonmaterial ground and source and presence in which, to cite the words attributed to Paul by the author of Acts, "we live and move and have our being."

To see God as being within the created order, as "all around us and within us," is not just to see God through the lens of mysticism. It is also, and related, to see God through the lens of panentheism. In his most overtly theological work, The Heart of Christianity, Borg revisits more overtly the subject of panentheism:

The universe is not separate from God, but in God. Indeed, this is the meaning of the Greek roots of the work "panentheism": pan means "everything," en means "in," and theism comes from the Greek work for "God," theos.

While Borg notes that the word "panentheism" is a relatively new one (just a couple hundred years old), this way of thinking about God is ancient, and is even found in Scripture (see, for instance, his earlier quote from Acts). Panentheism as a concept is also comprises one half of the traditional Christian articulation of the nature of God; the immanent that stands alongside the transcendent.

My first exposure to panentheism as a way of thinking and talking about God came when I read Sally McFague's The Body of God in a Religion, Ethics, and the Environment class in college. In it McFague connects a panentheistic way of viewing God with an expansion of the traditional Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. To McFague, to say that God has been made incarnate is to say more than just that we find the divine in Jesus. It is to say that the natural universe comprises the "body of God." God is found within nature. McFague distinguishes this from pantheism by saying that in her view God is not identical to the natural universe, nor is God limited to this single "body." But, in her view, we find God within nature, even if God is not bound to nature.

While Borg does not cite McFague in his discussion of panentheism, the view of God that he articulates is very similar to hers, in that in it God is found within the natural realm, but is not to be equated with the natural realm:

Significantly, this concept of God does not reduce God to the universe or identify God with the universe. As an encompassing Spirit, God is more than everything, even as everything is in God. Thus God is not only "right here," but is also "more than right here."

This notion of God as "more than right here," even as it is presented along side a concept of everything being in God as God is in everything, is another key to understanding Borg's view of God. In fact, Borg often calls God, per the framework laid out in William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, "the More."

Mircea Eliade - the famous historian of religions who, like Borg, begins with an assumption of the reality of the divine - sees our experience of the world as divided between two spheres, "the sacred and the profane." Within religion, and as the ultimate subject of religion, Eliade argues, "the sacred... manifests itself" within the profane and as "something wholly different from the profane." This understanding, though again it is not cited by Borg, permeates Borg's view of our relationship with God.

In The Heart of Christianity, Borg writes of "thin places," places where, to use Eliade's terminology, the division between the sacred and the profane becomes thin. Borg writes that he owes this metaphor of "thin places" to Celtic Christianity and the recent recovery of Celtic spirituality. As the following passage reveals, his understanding of "thin places" is deeply connected to his panentheism, his articulation of God as "the More," and his - like Eliade - division of the world into layers of reality:

"Thin places" has its home in a particular way of thinking about God. Deeply rooted in the Bible and the Christian tradition, this way of thinking sees God, "the More," as the encompassing Spirit in which everything is. God is not somewhere else, but "right here." In words attributed to Paul in the book of Acts, God is "the one in whom we live and move and have our being." Note how the words work: we are in God, we live in God, we move and have our being in God. God is a nonmaterial layer of reality all around us, "right here" as well as "more than right here." This way of thinking thus affirms that there are minimally two layers or dimensions of reality, the visible world of our ordinary experience and God, the sacred, Spirit.

That quote looks similar (nearly identical!) to some earlier quotes for a reason. We see Borg both circling around and revisiting ideas as he develops his own understanding of Christianity; an understanding that he takes great pains to keep in continuity with Christian tradition. He adopts the views that he adopts ultimately not because he thinks that they are objectively true (though he certainly doesn't think them false!), but because they are useful both for understanding his inexplicable mystical experiences, and for doing the work of religion to facilitate contact with and be transformed by the divine. This approach perhaps finds it fruition in the idea of "thin places":

"Thin places" are places where these two levels [in Eliade's framework the "sacred" and the "profane," in Borg's "the visible world of our ordinary experience" and "the More," or "God," or "Spirit," etc.] of reality meet and intersect. They are places where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold God, experience the one in whom we live, all around and within us.

Borg argues that thin places can quite literally be places, or they can be practices which facilitate the lifting of the veil.

"Thin places" as places should not be a very foreign concept to many of us. We can certainly see how various religions hold certain places as holy ground. Be it cities like Jerusalem, Rome, or Mecca, or be it the Burning Bush of Moses or some other inexplicable site, those places where humans have historically encountered the divine are places that are revered for their participate in that divine-human encounter. But these holy places need not have global-historical significance to be "thin places." For me, the thinnest place of all is the sanctuary of my church, where the very architecture of the building helps create a space in me that is receptive of the divine. I suspect that each of us have such a thin place, a place where it is easiest for us to experience God. Perhaps that place is thin because of its association with our past experiences of God, or perhaps it is thin because of something about it in and of itself. In any event, it is where we are most open to feeling the presence of God within us and all around us, and it is where we experience God as the very ground of our being.

But thin places are, as noted above, not just places. They are also practices. Borg notes within his articulation of "thin places" that traditional Christian practices also can be spaces within which we encounter God. In fact, facilitating this encounter is exactly what these practices are about. These practices include, but are not limited to, worship, sacraments (which he lists as baptism and the Eucharist, though other traditions have more sacraments), sermons, reading the Bible, liturgy, prayer, recitation of creedal statements, and even participation in the liturgical calendar. Each of these - and no doubt many others - help us encounter God.

To sum up this first part of my Positive Articulation of Marcus Borg's Theology, Borg begins with an assumption of the reality of God. That assumption of God's reality is rooted in his own experience of God, and so he also assumes the validity of religious experience. His own experiences led him to a panentheistic understanding of God; that is an understanding of God as being found within the natural realm, and an understanding of the natural realm as being found within God. This does not, however, limit God to nature.

Borg's panentheistic understanding of God is also personal; that is, God is not only within nature as nature is within God, God is also within us as we are within God. To borrow Tillich's language for a moment, God is not only the Ground of Being, God is also the ground of my being. This realization is brought home in mystical experiences at "thin places." And the role of Christianity is (at least in part) to facilitate such thin places.

In Part II of this series we will look at how Borg's presuppositions concerning the reality of God and the validity of religious experiences help shape his understanding of Jesus as a "Spirit Person."


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I am a panentheist in the Moltmannian fashion. We do participate in God's redeeming work in the world--because God invites us to do so by grace. But Borg sees this in far more an evolutionary (process?) fashion than in the apocalyptic fashion that shaped Jesus' world. He may or may not be right: but he should not project that back upon Jesus.

Anonymous said...

Most of the other scholars in the Jesus Seminar have turned atheist, I believe.