Tuesday, April 17, 2007

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


Part I

All scholars begin their work with certain assumptions, certain presuppositions. Marcus Borg, as a Christian whose faith has been shaped by mystical experiences, begins his study of the "historical Jesus" assuming both the reality of God and the validity of religious experiences. These together help shape his view of Jesus as a "Spirit Person," a "mediator of the Sacred."

But before we look too deeply at this view of Jesus, it should be noted that in his work Borg makes a sharp distinction between the "pre-Easter" Jesus and the "post-Easter" Jesus. This distinction is basically the old distinction between the "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith," but Borg's decision to phrase this distinction the way that he does sheds some insight into his approach.

The distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith is a distinction between Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure and early Christian beliefs about Jesus as the Christ, as recorded in the Gospels and, later on, in creedal statements of faith and the like. It is the difference between the flesh and blood person of Jesus, and Jesus as he came to be understood within the Christian community after his death and the enduring experience of his resurrection.

Borg rephrases this distinction because of some discomfort with the terminology "Jesus of history" and "Christ of faith." In his mind the phrase "Christ of faith" amounts to a denial of the reality of the enduring presence of Jesus in the Christian tradition. It implies that "the 'real' Jesus is the Jesus of history, whereas the Christ of faith could only be believed in." Because for Borg the enduring experience of Jesus as a mediator of the Sacred in the Christian tradition is at least as important as the flesh and blood Jesus of history, and because the Easter experience is formative for shaping the Christian faith, he uses "pre-Easter" and "post-Easter" to make the same sort of distinction that "Jesus of history" and "Christ of faith" has generally made.

This distinction, however, is still fraught with many of the same difficulties that plague the quest for the historical Jesus (distinct from the Christ of faith). There is still next to no early information about Jesus found outside the emerging Christian tradition. There seems to have been nothing at all written about Jesus by anyone before his death and resurrection. This makes any attempt to separate the "pre-Easter" Jesus from the "post-Easter" Jesus a difficult task, and a task that requires adopting up-front certain assumptions about how to read sacred Christian texts when looking for history. That I share many of Borg's assumptions regarding the reading of such texts makes those assumptions no less problematic for those who do not share them.

Borg views the Bible as a "historical product," but not as a history text as we understand the term "history" today. As a "historical product" the Bible is human in origin, and not divine. It comes out of historical human communities, and provides us with insight into the thought-world of those communities. It is not an "absolute truth" from the vantage point of the divine, but instead is "relative" and "culturally conditioned," shaped by and meeting the needs of the human communities that produced it.

This means that when reading the Bible looking for historical information, one must take great pains to account for the way in which the communities from which the Biblical text emerged shaped that text to reflect their own views. In the case of looking for information about the "pre-Easter" Jesus in the Gospels, for instance, this means recognizing that the beliefs about Jesus that started emerging after Easter were written back into stories about the pre-Easter Jesus. As such, almost no statement can be made with absolute certainty concerning the pre-Easter Jesus.

This does not prevent Borg from having his own views, nor does it keep him from rigorously backing up those views. It simply keeps him (or anyone else) from being able to absolutize those views.

So, how does Borg vision the "pre-Easter" Jesus? To answer that question thoroughly would require as much space as he's taken up in his many books on the subject. Instead of offering a more thorough answer here, I'm simply going to highlight a few distinctive points, starting with (in this post) his understanding of Jesus as a "spirit person."

Borg did not first notice the phenomenon of "spirit persons" in his study of his own Christian tradition. Christianity, while it has a long history of mysticism, has not always been known for its mystical side. "spirit person" is a term that Borg applies to what had been known as a "holy man." He used "spirit person" because it clears up two problematic aspects of the older term:

1. Its exclusively male language, and

2. The connotation of "holiness" as a kind of moral piety.

"Spirit persons" are found in almost every religious tradition. They are those for whom, as Borg puts it, "the Spirit [is] an experiential reality." This is, as noted above, rooted in the assumptions of the reality of God and the validity of religious experience. So, for Borg, "spirit persons" really do experience something, and are valuable for their sharing of that experience with the rest of us, mediating the sacred for us.

One concern that any faithful Christian may have with Borg's understanding of Jesus as a "spirit person" is that it does not preserve the "uniqueness" of Jesus as Christ. That is to say, Christians have long held that Jesus is a kind of special and unique revelation of the nature of God. This is at minimum what our doctrine of the Incarnation means. So, to see Jesus as a "spirit person" - a category that includes many other persons through history - can be seen as calling into question the uniqueness of Jesus' revelation/mediation of the nature of God.

It is thus important to note that Borg does not just see Jesus as a "spirit person." He uses the phenomenon of "spirit persons," found in all sorts of religious traditions, as a framework with which to try to understand who Jesus was. But - especially as concerns the post-Easter Jesus - this is not the only framework Borg uses. It is, however, a useful framework; one that helps us flesh out more clearly what might be at stake in new Christological reflections.

However, on the subject of the uniqueness of Jesus, Borg decides strongly against Jesus being entirely unique, unlike anything else in the history of the divine-human relationship. In fact, he sees that understanding of Jesus as being quite harmful to the legitimacy of the Christian understanding of the revelation of God:

... when the truth of the Christian tradition was tied to the claim that the revelation of God was found only in this tradition... its truth became for me highly unlikely. What are the chances that God would speak only to and through this particular group of people (who just happen to be our group of people)?

However, seeing Jesus as participating in a type of person found in a variety of historical, social, cultural, and religious contexts makes, for Borg, his ability to reveal for us the nature and concerns of God much, much more likely. In fact, Borg finds the plurality of religious expression not a liability, but rather a tremendous asset. He sees the multitude of forms of religion as pointing to the reality of the Holy, the Sacred, the Other. His understanding of Jesus as a "spirit person" is connected to this. There really is a sacred to experience, there really are people who experience this sacred in a special way, and as such mediate it for us, and Jesus really was one such person.

But, as noted above, Jesus was/is not just a "spirit person." In fact, Borg's most recent book on Jesus (my favorite, by the way) makes no mention of "spirit persons." But a fuller picture of Borg's understanding of the pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus, as well as its connection to the enduring and emerging Christian tradition, will have to wait.

Some concerns to anticipate:

In what ways does Jesus uniquely reveal the nature and concerns of God within the Christian tradition? Within Christianity, after all, Jesus is - per Borg's use of language - not just a "spirit person," but our "spirit person."

What is the political content of Jesus' message and ministry, and how does/should that shape our own political concerns? Within that, there is some concern for the relationship between theology and politics, as well as some concern for the political nature of theology?

Is Jesus best seen as a prophet, or as a wisdom teacher? Or, do we have to choose between the two?

Does Borg allow for any discussion of the eschatological content of Jesus' message and ministry? (In Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time he does not, but in more recent work he may open the door, depending on how we flesh out his distinction between immanent eschatology and participatory eschatology.)

Finally, returning to more overtly theological concerns, we should look at the natures of faith, truth, and religious language. To phrase those concerns as questions:

What is faith, and is there a relationship between faith and belief? If so, what is the nature of that relationship? (To answer that, we will have to explore different meanings of both faith and belief.)

Is religious language primarily metaphorical in nature? And, if so, does that detract from or enhance its ability to speak to "truth"?


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Here's one of my problems with Borg's approach. He takes a cross-cultural category like spirit-person BEFORE he examines Jesus in his particular context. Thus, this outside category is imposed. Now there is no doubt that Jesus' relation with God's Spirit was/is vital (see James D.G. Dunn's Jesus and the Spirit), but Borg's approach seems to make Jesus into some kind of shaman.
If we start first with his own culture, the category that comes first to mind is "prophet." Now, if one wants to go beyond historical reconstruction to theological reflection, this, too, has limitations. We no more want to reduce Jesus to A prophet than to A "spirit person." But at least we would be starting with a Jewish category.

Sandalstraps said...

But Borg doesn't reduce Jesus to a spirit person. He uses the category of spirit person as one of many lenses through which to see Jesus. One could argue, as you do, that this is an inappropriate lens, as it would not have been part of Jesus' self-understanding. But, in light of the other lenses through which Boorg sees Jesus (including the more distinctly Jewish categories of "social prophet" and "teacher of wisdom") one cannnot in fairness say that Borg reduces Jesus to "spirit person." It is, however, a starting point, and I suspect it is offered as such because it deviates so much from other understandings of Jesus. It is, as far as I can tell, the only lens through which Borg sees Jesus that exclusively belongs to Borg, and so it is what distinguishes his understanding of Jesus from any other scholar's understanding.

Interestingly, in his newest book Borg makes no reference whatsoever to Jesus as a spirit person. I'm not sure what, if anything, to make of that.