This week Marcus J. Borg delivered the 2009 Harry Vaughan Smith Lectures at Mercer University on the topic, “Rethinking the Big Questions: God, Jesus, and the Christian Life.” Borg is a world-renowned New Testament scholar, best known for his contributions to historical-Jesus research. He was an early member of the Jesus Seminar (and unlike some members, actually has a right to be so) and a prolific writer. I was only able to attend the final lecture yesterday. If any of my Mercer colleagues would like to write up a summary of the first two lectures, I’ll be glad to post them here.
Borg began with a deceptively simple question: What is the gospel? How would you have answered that question when you were maybe 10 or 12 years old? Borg suggests that most Christians of a generation or two ago might have given answers that were primarily about the afterlife (where you go when you die) and about sin and forgiveness. This dynamic then affects our perception of Jesus to the extent that the most important thing we can say about him is that “he died for our sins.” Finally, the gospel of this “common Christianity” as Borg calls it affirms that one is saved by believing these things.
What about now? For many Christians, this sort of summary of the gospel seems no longer sufficient—not that it is wrong, but that it is incomplete. For most of his lecture, Borg presented what might be called an alternative view. Although he spoke in particular of Christians on the more liberal or progressive end of the spectrum, I strongly suspect many who would call themselves “post-evangelical” or even plain old “evangelical” would agree with the alternative Borg presents, as would many Catholic and Orthodox believers and even the more “conservative” wing of the emergent movement (to the extent that I can make heads or tails of it; my benchmark is Scot McKnight, who I can see offering a hearty amen to most if not all of what Borg had to say).
For many, Borg says, the “common Christianity” of past generations has given way to a way of thinking about the Christian life that affirms three pairs of statements.
1. It’s not very much about the afterlife; it’s about transformation in this life
Borg doesn’t deny that the Christian gospel provides great comfort in the face of death, but he insists that when the central concern is with the afterlife, it tends to skew the message of Jesus toward self-preservation: what do I have to do (or believe) in order to get to heaven. On the contrary, Jesus was all about releasing people from inordinate concern for their own survival.
Furthermore, couching the Christian life in these terms forces people to figure out “who’s in” and “who’s out,” and for some this boils down to believing things that are, frankly, unbelievable. (Borg used the word “dumb.”)
The kingdom of God, however, is about transformation in the here and now. As Jesus announced in Mark 1:15, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” This declaration has profound implications for life in the present.
2. It’s not very much about believing; it’s about a relationship with God.
What makes this relationship specifically Christian is the affirmation that it is a relationship with God as God is known decisively in Jesus. Obviously, people can believe all the right things and still be jerks. They can still not be transformed. In fact, Borg opines that right beliefs are “much overrated.” After all, we can’t be saved by them!
Since relationship with God is important, we should be mindful of it. Borg asserts, and he is surely right, that we grow in our relationship with God the same way we grow in any other relationship: by paying attention to it. To that end, he commends to us such unexceptional habits as prayer and corporate worship as means to cultivate a thriving relationship with God.
3. It’s not just (or exclusively) about sin and forgiveness; it’s about bondage and liberty, exile and return, blindness and seeing, woundedness and healing, hard hearts and open hearts, dying and rising.
Borg rehearses the wide diversity of biblical imagery employed to speak of God’s redemptive interactions with human beings. While he doesn’t discount the idea of forgivness of sins, and even admits that sometimes what we most need to hear is the message that we have been forgiven, ultimately “forgiveness doesn’t do much to transform you.”
This was perhaps my favorite section of the lecture. I was appreciative that Borg put before us the entire scope of redemption, although I’m a still a bit perplexed at his statement that forgiveness is not (especially) transforming. I would have appreciated a bit of comment about the centrality of the sin-and-forgiveness dynamic seen, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15, in which Paul reminds the Corinthians of the content of the gospel he proclaimed to them as including the statement that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” Paul apparently considered this assertion more central to the Christian life than, for example, “Christ healed the sick” or “Christ ate with sinners”—neither of which appears in Paul’s summary.
Even so, Borg is quite right that for some very conservative Christians, the gospel begins and ends with the dynamic of sin and forgiveness. Genuine discipleship, character development, intellectual engagement with Christian texts and traditions, and many other vital aspects of faith fall to the wayside. This myopic view of the gospel needs to be put out of its misery, and sooner rather than later.
Borg then concludes with three summary statements of what the Christian life is about.
- It is about following Jesus, which involves being preoccupied with what preoccupied Jesus himself—the kingdom of God.
- It is about participating in God’s passion, which is for transformation.
- Finally, it is about “beloving God” and loving what God loves.
In this final statement Borg appeals to the pre-modern idea of “believing.” According to Borg, before around 1600, the verb “believe” was always used of a person and never of a statement. The word is etymologically related to “belove,” and thus to say one “believes” in God is not the same as saying one accepts as truthful certain assertions about God, but that one is in a “beloving” relationship with God.
With reference to Rudolf Bultmann, Dr. Harold Songer once commented, “I affirm what he affirms but I deny what he denies.” By that he meant that when Bultmann spoke about the deep existential implications of the Christian faith, he was in perfect agreement, but when he denied the historical reality of the physical resurrection of Jesus, for example, he denied that Bultmann was correct. It would have been more accurate to say “I affirm what he affirms but I also affirm what he denies,” but that might not have stuck in my memory for the past twenty years.
Borg is an excellent public speaker and I greatly appreciated what he had to say about “Thinking about the Christian Life Again.” At the same time, as much as I affirm what he affirmed, I find that I must also deny what he denied.
To explain, let me begin with his closing point, which, though rhetorically powerful was unfortunately largely irrelevant. It may well be etymologically correct that the English word “believe” is related to “belove” and that it was never used of anything but people before the era of the Enlightenment. This would only be relevant for understanding the Christian idea of “believing” if English had been the primary language of theology and prayer prior to 1600. In fact, during the formative period, Greek and Latin were the languages of Christian reflection, so ancient usage of the words πιστεύω and credo are much more pertinent to understanding what “Christian faith” means with respect to the proper direct object of the verb “believe.”
I’ll only mention in passing that when early Christians declared (whether in Greek or in Latin) “I believe in God” they followed immediately with “the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” They were as much describing the kind of God they believed in—not least because the Gnostics were making profoundly different theological claims—as indicating the existence of a loving relationship with that God. Borg’s assertion in fact runs aground before we even leave the New Testament. In the first biblical passage Borg himself quotes near the beginning of his lecture, Jesus calls men and women to “repent, and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15). Now, the “good news” may or may not be distillable into a set of “right beliefs,” although I’m pretty sure Borg would say that this news has some sort of factual content. After all, he made numerous statements throughout his lecture about what God likes, what God is passionate about, etc. If I told Dr. Borg that God doesn’t give a damn about transformation, would he say that I “believe the good news”?
But does believing the right things save? Borg says orthodoxy is “much overrated” in that it does not. If he means bare intellectual assent to a particular set of truth claims, absent any life-changing encounter with the divine, I wholeheartedly agree. But what am I then to do with this first-century use of the verb “believe”:
ὅτι ἐὰν ὁμολογήσῃς ἐν τῷ στόματί σου κύριον Ἰησοῦν, καὶ πιστεύσῃς ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ σου ὅτι ὁ θεὸς αὐτὸν ἤγειρεν ἐκ νεκρῶν, σωθήσῃ: καρδίᾳ γὰρ πιστεύεται εἰς δικαιοσύνην, στόματι δὲ ὁμολογεῖται εἰς σωτηρίαν.
because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved (Rom 10:9-10)
Whatever else this declaration means, it certainly means that faith has a content, and that “believing that” is as central to the Christian life as “believing in.” “Salvation” and “justification” are somehow tied into a system of belief. I’m not sure Borg’s “historical-metaphorical approach”—which essentially brackets out questions like “Do the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke intent to tell us anything at all about a biological miracle that happened in history?” as unimportant—is up to the task of affirming both the “relationship with” and “belief that” aspects of Christianity.
So in the end, I affirm what Borg affirms: his thoughts about the meaning of the Christian life are profound and worthy of careful consideration. At the same time I deny what he denies, because I remain unconvinced that the historical questions do not matter and I doubt the validity of a content-free gospel.