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Marcus Borg: The Heart of Christianity

Marcus Borg: The Heart of Christianity (Rediscovering a Life of Faith) (2003)

Here’s a book for both theological conservatives and liberals. Or maybe ex-conservatives who couldn’t cope with the rigidities of the Christianity they were taught, and for liberals whose Christianity is so ‘mushy’ that they’ve opted to believe anything or nothing.

Marcus Borg offers a brilliant alternative to the dogma-centric Christian paradigm of the last few hundred years. He is highly critical of Christian right-wing fundamentalism with its wooden adherance to beliefs about an inerrant-Bible-read-literally, and its exclusiveness. His ’emerging paradigm’ is about the meaning rather than the historicity of the biblical stories; it’s about loving God and respecting others – especially others with differing religious faith-traditions.

Is Jesus ‘The Way’? Yes, says Borg, but it all depends on what you mean. If you want the John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 texts to mean there’s no truth in other religions, then you’ve got it wrong. All ‘transformational’ religion is about death and resurrection, about dying to what is old (‘sin’ if you need to use that term) and ‘rising’ to a new life of faith, hope and love. All the great religions are, in essence, about this, but all of them have developed ‘monstrous’ distortions as well – including, of course, Christianity.

Now conservatives will have problems with Borg’s skepticism about an ‘interventionist’ God (and therefore, by inference, with his disbelief in ‘Jesus as God’) and the biblical miracle stories. The most important questions about the creation-stories, or the Exodus, or Jesus walking on water, or Jesus’ resurrection are not about ‘Did it happen exactly like this?’ but ‘Why are these stories preserved in our faith-tradition/s, and what do they mean?’ His question is not ‘Could that have been video-taped?’ but rather ‘What did/does it mean?’

Borg’s God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being: it’s his favourite biblical description of God. He likes Tillich’s ‘God as Ground of Being’, and the notion of panentheism (God is the life in every living entity). But above all, God is ‘the More’.

But Borg’s God is also the creator of the universe. Which raises obvious questions for conservatives and liberals alike: Can’t a Creator-God go on creating (see John 5:17), and, ergo, be involved in the world and the lives of God’s creatures in ways we might not understand (ie. miracles)? And what are we supposed to believe about intercessory/petitionary prayer? Borg believes in intercessory prayer (Bishop Spong apparently doesn’t).

Another important question Borg revisits regularly in this book is the meaning of ‘salvation’. His ‘Emerging Paradigm’ is highly critical of the simplistic ‘repent and be saved so that you will go to heaven’ notion. Salvation – wholeness/shalom – is about the whole of life; and it’s about this life in addition to – or rather, in preference to – a preoccupation with the afterlife. And salvation is not merely personal (his chapter on being ‘born again’ is terrific), it’s also about social and political transformation. So compassion and justice are integral to the New Paradigm.

You may not agree with everything here, but I would now put this book in the Top 10 thoughtful Christians, ‘ex-Christians’ and ‘wannabe Christians’ should read. Borg is irenic and respectful: a few times he says ‘If your paradigm works for you, fine. You don’t have to agree with what I say and buy into this Emerging Paradigm. But at least give it some thought.’ He’s also humble enough to say from time to time (e.g. about the after-life) ‘I don’t know’. Theologically he’s to the left of Brian McLaren, and to the right of Spong. (See McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy for an equally important book offering an intelligent purview of contemporary Christianity. [1] Borg says McLaren’s thinking is a ‘form’ of the Emerging Paradigm).

Borg writes as a passionate Christian, whose faith is rooted in a church community/tradition and worship (Episcopal, you guessed it). The book begins with Borg’s hermeneutic, where he engages our minds; in the second (homiletical) half he speaks to the heart; some of the latter chapters have an eminently preachable lyrical quality.


Here are some quotes/jottings from this book which ‘gave me pause’:

* A Gallup Poll in the U.S. in 1963 found that 65% agreed with the statement ‘The Bible is the actual Word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word’. In 2001 only 27% agreed (p.4)

* The earlier paradigm had the language of God’s grace and compassion and love but its own internal logic turns being a Christian into a life of requirements and rewards, thereby compromising the notion of grace (11)

* The notions of biblical infallibility and inerrancy first appeared in the 1600s and became insistantly affirmed by some Protestants only in the 19th and 20th centuries. Papal infallibility was affirmed only in 1870 (12)

* The two primary ways of thinking about God – ‘supernatural theism’ and ‘panentheism’ ran side by side throughout the history of the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Karen Armstrong, A History of God) (65)

* In his recent book Why Religion Matters Huston Smith refers to two contemporary physicists who have said that the most fundamental processes of the universe occur outside space and time (64)

* For our ancestors ‘up there’ or ‘out there’ were not very far away. The God in ‘Our Father who art in heaven’ is not very far away (68)

* (In reference to the Lord’s Prayer) ‘debt’ and ‘bread’ were/are primary survival issues in peasant life. Indebtedness could lead to loss of one’s land if one still owned some, and descent into the even more precarious world of the tenant farmer or day laborer. If peasants were landless, indebtedness could cause them and their families to be sold into indentured labor (134)

* Re prayers of petition and intercession: to refuse to do them because I can’t imagine how prayer works would be an act of intellectual pride: if I can’t imagine how something works. then it can’t work. To think thus involves more than a bit of hubris (197). My (Rowland’s) comment: doesn’t the same rationale apply to miracles?

* Borg’s students re Christianity: commonly five adjectives: Christians are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental and bigoted. Where did they get all that? Christian radio/TV, conservative evangelical College Christianity, Christian participation in the political right (ie. the ‘earlier paradigm’).


And now for some areas where I think Borg and I disagree (but I’m still cogitating on some of these):

* Borg seems to me to believe some unique/impossible things about God as Creator and Jesus’ unique ‘Son of God’ attributes – but has problems with miracles.

* ‘The Bible is sacred scripture, but not because it is a divine product. It is sacred in its status and function, but not in its origin’ (14). Status: it is sacred, ‘the most important collection of documents we know’. Function: it is foundational to our identity and our ‘wisdom tradition’ (47). ‘The Bible is both Sacred Scripture and a human product. It is important to affirm both’ (48)

* ‘The Genesis stories of creation are Israel’s stories of creation, not God’s stories of creation. They therefore have no more of a divine guarantee to be true in a literal-factual sense than do the creation stories of other cultures. They are metaphorical, not factual accounts’ (52)

* ‘The twin notions that being Christian is about “believing” in Christianity and that faith is about “belief” are a modern development of the last few hundred years’ (26). My response: I don’t think the writer of 1 John, or the apostle Paul would agree. And where do we put the early church’s creeds into all this?

* ‘”Credo” does not mean ‘I hereby agree to the literal factual truth of the following statements’. Rather its Latin roots combine to mean ‘I give my heart to…’ (40)

* ‘The bible is the product of two historical communities, ancient Israel and the early Christian movement: it is a human product, not a divine product. This claim in no way denies the reality of God. Rather, it sees the Bible as the response of these two ancient communities to God’ (45)

* ‘[In the emerging paradigm] “inspiration” refers to the movement of the Spirit in the lives of the people who produced the Bible. The emphasis is not upon words inspired by God, but a people moved by their experience of the Spirit’ (46)

* ‘A literal reading of the wedding in Cana can flatten the text… emphasizing a spectacular deed: if Jesus could change 120-150 gallons of water into wine, he must have had the power of God. A metaphorical reading is richer: it’s about a wedding banquet at which the wine never runs out, and the best is saved for last’ (85)

* Exalted titles [like] Son of God, Lord, Messiah, Word of God, Wisdom of God, Great High Priest and Sacrifice, Lamb of God, Light of the World, Bread of Life, True vine etc… this language is post-Easter. A strong majority of mainline scholars think it unlikely that Jesus said those things about himself… All of this language is metaphorical’ (eg. Jesus as both the ‘door’ and standing knocking at the door – metaphorically – but not literally – both) (86)

* ‘The story of Nicodemas and the need to be “born again” most probably doesn’t go back to Jesus – iit is most likely the voice of the community (105)

* ‘I cannot believe God is an interventionist. And yet I do petitionary and intercessory prayer. I think prayers for healing sometimes have an effect. The statistical data about the effect of prayers for healing are very interesting, though not conclusive. But I refuse to use interventionism as the explanation. I also refuse to use psychosomatic explanations’ (196)

* ‘If one must be a Christian to be in right relationship with God then there is a requirement and we are no longer talking about grace. If our relationship with God is based on grace, then it is not based on requirements, not even the requirement of being Christian’ (220)

* Jews, Muslims etc. ‘I cannot believe that God cares which of these we are. All are paths of relationship and transformation’ (223)


Where I agree with Borg.

* Advocates of the emerging paradigm are particularly perplexed and often impatient with the earlier paradigm – eg. subordination of women, a negative attitude towards gays and lesbians, and a preoccupation with conservative political issues rather than issues of justice (16)

* Being ‘Christian’ can’t be about getting one’s beliefs ‘right’ – there is no single right way of being Christian (17)

* Christian faith means affirming the centrality of the Bible. Just as Jesus is for us the Word of God disclosed in a person, so the Bible is the word of God disclosed in a book (38)

* The creation ‘myth’ (‘myths are stories about the way things never were, but always are’ – Thomas Mann) is not so much literal and factual but metaphorical narratives. ‘God is the creator of all that is. The creation is good, indeed very good. We are created in the image of God. But we live our lives east of Eden: something has gone wrong. And we are yet to return.’ (52)

* To my students: ‘Believe whatever you want about whether it happened this way; but now let’s talk about what the story means’ (54)

* If Jesus had been only a mystic, healer and wisdom teacher, he almost certainly would not have been executed. Rather, he was killed because of his politics – because of his passion for God’s justice (92)… and because we see Jesus as the revelation of God, we see in his life and death the passion of God (97).

* The central metaphor of the Gospels is the Kingdom of God – about being ‘born again’ and the Kingdom of God. The Bible is political as well as personal  (126)

* Though of course I would like you to agree with me, I am less concerned with soliciting agreement than I am with provoking thoughtfulness about the way our life together is, and could be, structured (143)

* Of course worship is about praising God. But worship is not about God needing praise. Worship is directed to God, but is, in an important sense, for us (157)

* The sense of a ‘More’ is the ground of our hope, and even more of our trust. We live in God. We move in God. We have our being in God, and when we die we do not die into nothingness; we die into God (182)

* ‘We Christians have been pretty good at proclaiming God’s love for us, but we have been less good at emphasizing the importance of our love for God’ (Dorothy Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance) (187)

* The three central values of U.S. culture are the three ‘A’s’ – attractiveness, advancement, and affluence (190)

* Compassion and justice are the primary ethical fruits of the Christian life (195) – caring for people who are suffering and transforming the conditions that produce suffering (203)

* Prayer is primarily about paying attention to God – verbal prayer (words), meditation (reflecting on an image or phrase and remaining with it), and contemplation (internal silence) (196)

* When a Christian seeker asked the Dalai Lama whether she should become a Buddhist, his response: ‘No, become more deeply Christian; live more deeply in your own tradition’. Huston Smith: if you’re looking for water, better to dig one well sixty feet deep than to dig six wells ten feet deep’ (223)

[1] For a review of McLaren’s book visit http://jmm.org.au/articles/19626.htm

Rowland Croucher

March 31, 2009

Updated December 15, 2010.


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