Monday, April 30, 2007

Long Time No See

April is about to turn into May, and its been a while since I've posted anything. I owe you an explanation.

You can probably guess what that explanation is. I'm taking five seminary classes, and we're nearing the end of the semester. I have a two-year-old, and he demands a great deal of time and energy. I have a wife who'd like to see me from time to time. And, my wrist has healed to the point where I can (praise God!!!) play tennis again. Each of these have conspired together to keep me from the blogosphere.

And, you know what? I'm glad. My "real" life is at least as enriching as this bold social experiment. Sure I'm drowning in a sea of school work, and family life is almost as stressful as it is rewarding, but I feel like I've been doing things that are worth doing. And, in that context, spending time writing for this blog is less worth doing. That doesn't mean that I intend not to post again. It just means that like many people before me, I'm beginning to rethink my relationship with my blog.

What that means only time will tell. I suspect that my temporarily suspended blogging hiatus will not last forever. I'll be free from the tyranny of school from the middle of May through the middle of August, and without classmates to terrorize with my theological ramblings, I'll have to let any stray ideas loose on you, brave reader. But, until then, I'm not sure what I'm going to post or when I'm going to post it.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Earth Day Message Preview

Tomorrow is Earth Day. Coincidentally, I will also be preaching in the chapel communion service at my church tomorrow. Not coincidentally, in the chapel tomorrow, on Earth Day, I will be preaching on the tricky relationship between the Christian faith and the modern ecological crisis.

As a college senior I had the privilege and pleasure of doing an independent study comparing and contrasting Christian and Buddhist approaches to environmental ethics. For my sermon tomorrow I will be drawing on the research that I did for that independent study, arguing that our faith has a complicated relationship with the natural environment. While our creation myths call us to be good stewards of the natural environment, they also can be read as placing us outside, and above, the natural environment. Instead of seeing us as a part of a complex, interconnected and interdependent ecosystem, our mythos removes us from the ecosystem, a move which, while intended to carry with it a charge to act in a God given role as protector of the planet, in history has paved the way for the kind of domination over and subsuming of the ecosystem that is the root of the present ecological crisis.

I won't make that whole case here - at least not yet. As of this moment I haven't actually composed the sermon yet, so I can't post it here. However, I am posting here a link to what may still be the best exploration of the influence of Christianity on the ecosystem, Lynn White's "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," published in the journal Science in 1967. You can find a pdf version of it here.

Critics of White's essay have argued persuasively that his reading of Genesis is not the best possible reading. It is quite possible, in fact, to read God's charge to humanity in the two creation myths as one to protect and preserve, not dominate and subsume, the natural environment. But White's strength is in his ability to explain not the best reading, but the most problematic reading, the reading that has, as a matter of historical fact, carried the day for far, far too long. I read his essay not as a condemnation of Christianity or of the creation myths in Genesis, but as a call to repentance for the ways in which Christian-dominated cultures have set humans in opposition to the ecosystem.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sunday School Theology

This past Sunday I heard a thirteen-year-old Haitian-American girl say, in a discussion on how we image/imagine God:

All the stuff that happens in the world... If God were a She, She wouldn't let that stuff happen.

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"?

Monday, April 16, 2007

My Budding Geek

This morning my two-year-old son Adam, fresh off a morning spent listening to music with his Daddy, entered his preschool and proudly exclaimed

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones! Future Man play drums!

To which, I'm told, his teachers said, "What?"

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Prayer Life of a Theology Student

The other day a dear friend of mine, a fellow student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary studying to be a Presbyterian (USA) minister, asked me about my prayer life. That's the sort of question that may be taboo in everyday conversation, but which is appropriate and even expected on a seminary campus. My answer, however, wasn't so expected.

As you might imagine, I've developed a reputation among some of my fellow students for my theological depth. However, theological depth is all-too-often mistaken for spiritual depth, despite the fact that the two have little in common. My friend, in inquiring about my prayer life, may have expected some discourse on mystical prayer, but my answer was more frank, honest, and depressed.

"I don't really pray any more," I told him.

"What do you mean you don't really pray any more?" he asked, with more curiosity than judgment in his voice.

"I mean, I don't really pray any more. I don't really have a prayer life. I try to pray from time to time, but I simply can't do it."

My answer surprised even me, because it was one of the first times I'd admitted out loud what I'd long been keeping to myself. In my day-to-day life, prayer simply doesn't make sense any more. I'm more than a little bit troubled by this, in part because I still give at least lip service to the power of prayer and the authenticity of religious experience. I still can point to times in my life when I've prayed and found it quite helpful, or when I've experienced the presence and reality of God. But prayer is no longer a real factor, a live practice, in my life.

I've been reading Elizabeth Johnson's She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse in my spare time. (Yes, for the moment I'm off my Cone kick, though I'm sure I'll come back to Cone!) I guess I'm a little embarrassed that when my friend Amy nominated it for the Contemporary Theology Meme, I didn't know what it was. The problem with being mostly self-educated is that there are some gaping holes in my theological education, and so in what free time I get from the rigors of seminary, I try to fill those holes. So, I've been studying black theology and feminist theology of late, trying to add the voices of other traditions to my own, lest I think that my approach is the normative one.

Long before I picked up Johnson's classic work (winner of the 1993 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion!) I had been exposed to enough of the feminist theological critique to stop using exclusively masculine images of God. As such, Johnson has in me a fairly receptive and even friendly audience. So far I haven't seen anything in her work that condemns me and forces me to reconsider my stated positions and theological commitments. But her work has still encouraged me to look deep inside myself and consider how I approach my beliefs about and interactions with God. A particular passage, which I read just after my seminary friend inquired about my prayer life, helped me see why I might have trouble praying:

Feminist theological analysis makes clear that exclusive, literal, patriarchal speech about God has a twofold negative effect. It fails both human beings and divine mystery. In stereotyping and then banning female reality as suitable metaphor for Good, such speech justifies the dominance of men while denigrating the human dignity of women. Simultaneously this discourse so reduces divine mystery to the single, reified metaphor of the ruling man that the symbol itself loses its religious significance and the ability to point to ultimate truth. It becomes, in a word, an idol. These two effects are inseparable for damage to the Imago Dei in the creature inevitably shortchanges knowledge of the Creator in whose image she is made. Inauthentic ways of treating other human beings go hand-in-glove with falsifications of the idea of God.

I already understood that exclusively masculine images of and language about God denied females participation in the Imago Dei, the image of God, and as such denied full humanity and dignity to women. What I had not realized - or, at least, had not yet articulated to myself - before reading this is that exclusively male symbols for God also degrade the idea of God.

But, according to Johnson, identifying God exclusively as a "He" (or with other masculine images, such as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, etc.) in fact "has a twofold negative effect." It is not only a pastoral issue, harming women by denying them participation in the divine, and as such in effect placing men always and everywhere as in authority over them by virtue of their more complete participation in the nature of God. It is also a theological issue, confining God to a limited and inadequate set of symbols, thus limiting our concept of the divine and holy mystery.

While it is the first concern that caused me to stop using exclusive language to refer to God, it is the second concern that may be at the root of my impoverish prayer life. All my life, you see, I've interacted with a God who is unconsciously conceived of as a big, powerful, and wise man, standing outside, over and above the created order. It is this concept of God that was embedded in each of my religious experiences, and which has always been a part of my prayer life. But I no longer believe in, and so can no longer pray to, a Big Guy in the Sky. However, while my theology has developed some concepts of God to replace the inadequate one, my prayer life has not. As such, I can write about a more mature and better thought out concept of God, but that God exists only conceptually, not experientially. That God is a part of my developing theology, but not a part of my religious experience or practice.

Does anyone else out there in the Blogosphere share a similar problem?

Or, to put it another way:

How is your prayer life? How does it relate to your theology?

[Note: The long promised post on Marcus Borg's understanding of Jesus as a Spirit Person still sits unfinished in my hard drive, waiting for this most recent batch of papers to be written. I haven't forgotten it. I simply haven't had the time to finish it. I will post it as soon as I catch up on seminary work. I promise...]

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Adam Makes a Sharp Distinction

Like all two-year-olds, my son Adam sometimes gets frustrated. He is growing, and developing new abilities and strong opinions, but his ability to communicate is not quite as developed as his desire for self-determination. He gets frustrated when he really wants something, but can't make himself understood. And, like his father, his frustration is quickly translated into anger.

I don't want to give you the wrong opinion. He is a sweet kid, and he has a very well developed concept of justice. Often when he breaks our rules, he asks to go to time out, understanding that behaviors have consequences, both natural and contrived. But sometimes his anger gets the best of him, and, like most two-year-olds, he tantrums. And, when he tantrums, all bets are off. I wonder, in fact, if his tantrumming isn't somehow connected to his sense of justice. When he has crossed a line, he acts like there is simply no returning. If he's going to be bad, he's really going to be bad. If he's going to get in trouble, then, by God, he's going to earn it.

Consequently, sometimes he hits. We've talked a great deal about this, because like most parents, his mother and I find hitting problematic. Violence may be a form of communication, but it isn't a form of communication that we want to encourage. So we keep trying to find creative ways to curtail Adam's use of physical violence when he gets frustrated by his inability to express himself and make his voice heard.

When he starts to act out, we try to help him find words, impressing upon him the value and power of language. "Use your words, Adam," we often implore. We help him find words to express his emotions, and try not to judge the words he chooses to use, understanding that anger and sorrow may be defined by most as negative emotions, but they are universally experienced, and far better expressed in language than in most other media. We teach him to say, "I'm sad," or "I'm mad." We also try to teach him to explore why he feels the way that he feels, and to communicate that as well. "I'm mad [because] you won't let me jump on the bed," or even, "I'm mad at you."

Like most other parents, we also consistently use timeout as a way to discourage inappropriate forms of communication, like hitting or flopping to the floor or screaming. We understand these behaviors as forms of communication, and try to replace them with more appropriate forms of communication. Both of these points are vital:

1. For us, violence and other forms of acting out are forms of communication, an example of self-expression that serves some purpose for the child (or the adult, for that matter, as we see these behaviors in ourselves, as well), and

2. We must be consistent in our use of disciplinary tools like timeout, because for Adam to learn to replace an inappropriate or maladaptive form of communication with a more appropriate one, he will have to be able to predict the consequences of his behaviors.

Anyway, as you can tell, we've been wrestling with his use of violence as a form of communication. When things in his world get out of control, he lashes out as a way to reassert himself, and regain some kind of power over the direction of his life. He's been getting much better at using his words, and so he has been less inclined to hit lately, but I'd say that he still slugs somebody a few times a week.

This morning, as I was getting him out of his crib, he didn't want to get out. At first he started to tantrum, but he very quickly moved to his words.

"Daddy, I don't want to get up yet. I want to jump in my crib!"

Part of being consistent, for us, is honoring his requests whenever we can, so long as he makes those request appropriately. If, in other words, he uses his words to communicate, and it won't cause some disaster to give him what he wants, we do our best to grant his request. So, he and I made a deal, and I set the kitchen timer. He would have two minutes to jump in his crib, and then he would get up and get dressed.

The timer went off, and I reached into his crib to get him out. He smacked me twice on the chest, and started laughing. I wasn't amused. After talking it over with Sami, I informed him that for hitting me he would have to get dressed immediately (if he hit because he didn't want to get dressed, it wouldn't do any good to send him to timeout straight away, because that would have accomplished his goal of avoiding getting dressed) and then, as soon as he was dressed, he would have to go to timeout.

"But Daddy, it wasn't mad hit, it was fun hit!"

We've never made that distinction before, but I think that he just made it as his creative way of saying that he wasn't angry or trying to fight, he was trying to play, and was just a bit too wound up.

Impressed with his ability to make distinctions and form a kind of argument for why he should avoid timeout, I let him off the hook. I still don't know if that was the "right" thing to do, but I felt like I had to honor both his communication and his intentions. I'm beginning to see that in parenting there is no "right" thing to do, there is only a kind of halting mediation between varying degrees of risk.

Monday, April 09, 2007

What Do You Think About This Way of Being Church?

My planned series on Marcus Borg's theology has temporarily stalled out mid-post. I'm about two-thirds of the way through writing about Borg's view of Jesus as a "Spirit Person" and how that relates to his presuppositions concerning the reality of God and the validity of religious experiences, and I've had to stop on account of an oppressive amount of school work. It (and hopefully at least one more post in the series) should be up by Friday, after I've turned in a couple of papers for my History of the Christian Experience class.

In the meantime, while waiting for my brain to recharge so that I can re-engage my course work, I ran across this from the Christian Science Monitor. Union Street Brick Church, a Congregational church in Bangor, Maine led by Rev. Leland Witting is trying to redefine what it means to be a church. Perhaps their rather unconventional approach could be a good starting point for a conversation here about what it means to be a church...

If you're interested in a semi-open conversation on the subject, check out the article and leave a comment.

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."

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.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

More Palm Sunday Reading

If you didn't make it to church today, or if your sermon left something to be desired, you can always check out PamBG's Palm Sunday message. It's a good one, doing us the valuable service of undoing almost two thousand years of sanitizing to point out just how dangerous the Gospel is.

Palm Sunday

Despite the fact that Palm Sunday falls on April Fool's Day this year, thus opening a door that a more witty person might be able to walk through quite gracefully, I don't have anything new to add to my Textual Observations on Palm Sunday from last year. Still, today might be a good day for you to revisit that one, given that is is Palm Sunday and all.

Hopefully I'll be able to carve out the time to do a whole series on Holy Week this year, looking at it especially through the lens Jesus' resistance to the Roman Domination System that Marcus Borg lends us. Stay tuned.