Last week I had a rare opportunity (rare for me) to spend an entire week listening to the very orderly ponderings of Marcus Borg as he shared his latest work, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored (2011), with a group of clergy and Christian Educators at the Western Christian Educators Conference (WCEC) at Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center in Lake Tahoe, California. I have been fascinated by Borg’s writings for many years, and I find myself reading them not to agree or disagree, but to be challenged in my own assumptions about my faith and catholic faith I claim (catholic in the classical terminology of “universal” or “all encompassing” Christian tradition).
I’ve only just begun reading his new book, and, as usual, he offers a fascinating perspective on reclaiming words like salvation, redemption, justice, kingdom of God from what they have become. This is particularly fascinating given Borg’s reputation for deconstructing Christianity and his part in The Jesus Seminar and reclaiming the historical Jesus as much as is possible 2,000 years removed from the actual events that birthed the Christian movement. I have long had a knee jerk reaction to these terms with images in my mind of them being used abusively to convert people or otherwise beat people into becoming “followers,” usually of one person’s way of being Christian. With exception of “justice”, I find myself working hard to avoid some of the words that have become the code language for evangelical conservative Christians. Not that I have any hatred for evangelical conservative Christians, their flavor of Christianity just does not resonate with my personal and communal experience of the radically inclusive and loving God I find in scripture and life.
I imagine that if Borg were to claim the term “deconstruct”, he might say it was only to reconstruct the faith in order to be truer to its roots and to its meaning for our times. He does not mince words when he speaks out against a literal interpretation of the Bible, and even claims that “inerrancy” is a modern phenomenon within the past 200 years or so. For Borg, as I understand him, the language of scripture is more metaphorical, culturally bound, and has a specific historical context. That is not to say it has nothing to offer us today. In fact, to the contrary, Borg seems to approach the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as holding a wealth of perspective that can speak to and inform our modern and post-modern understandings of God. The Bible, he says, is not a scientific collection of books—rather, it is a collection of theological understandings of God in specific times and in response to specific circumstances, some of which we may never fully understand.
What struck me most during our week together in Lake Tahoe (along with about 100 other people) was not so much what he said, but how he said it. Contrary to how he is often portrayed by those who disagree with him, Marcus Borg is a man of devout faith who is truly trying to get at the heart of the teachings of a God-man named Jesus (to borrow St. Anselm’s term)—a quest he shares in his 2004 book, The Heart of Christianity. What I heard last week was a man who is meek in his demeanor, though the reflections and truth he shares is radical for our time. I found myself pulled in to his way of thinking, again, not to agree or disagree, but to be changed. He invites people into relationship with him so that both he and the others can be transformed by the experience, whether or not there are intellectual arguments for or against.
Don’t get me wrong, Borg is very intellectual and academic, and there are valid arguments for and against the perspective he shares. But, somehow, I don’t think that is the point of his work. Having read a number of his books, watching him on DVDs like the Living the Questions series, and now after actually being only a few feet away from him, I have a deeper understanding and respect for what he is trying to do. And what is that? I believe he is trying to help us develop a deeper understanding of what Jesus did and a the kind of relationship God is seeking with us. He is not about political or theological rhetoric, he is about faithfulness, truth (beyond facts), and, ultimately, compassionate and just relationships.
I hope those of you who read this might be interested in picking up his new book, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored, and sharing your thoughts with me.