A Conversation with Marcus Borg, of “Blessed Memory”
Last week in my Facebook Devotional (https://www.facebook.com/northwaychristian) I talked about Donald Joy’s useful analogy of our lives as handheld trampolines. “Who’s got hold of yours,” he asks? Who is in your network of personal support? Who are the people, the family members and good friends, who have a firm grasp on a corner of your life, helping to hold you up? This notion of the trampoline of your life is a valuable pastoral counseling tool in Dr. Joy’s hands. I’ve used it many times when counseling with people. But I have also adapted the question, asking, “Who is your community of interpretation?” Who are the people who have hold of the corners of your faith? Who has had a strong hand in shaping what you believe? To whom do you turn to now when your faith seeks understanding? Whose voices do you listen to? Which teachers do you trust with your soul?
I think that it’s just as important spiritually to know who’s hanging onto your trampoline of faith as it is to be able to name who it is that’s got hold of your life emotionally and relationally. And as I said last week in that online devotional, once you’ve named your “community of interpretation,” the very next thing that you need to do is to see who’s not there. Whose voices aren’t you hearing? Whose books aren’t you reading? Whose perspectives aren’t you taking into consideration? And what are you missing because they aren’t there?
Since my Christian College days in the early 1970’s I have tried to live into the words of the Moravian Anabaptist Reformer Balthasar Hubmaier (1480-1528) – “I can err, for I am a man, but I cannot be a heretic, for I am willing to be taught better by anybody. And if anyone will teach me better, I acknowledge that I shall owe him great thanks.” I have a clear community of interpretation. I have teachers I deeply trust, books I highly prize and convictions to which I strongly hold fast. And it is from this familiar and comfortable community of interpretation that I consciously step out into the marketplace of ideas where I know that what is settled for me will be vigorously challenged by others.
One of my seminary professors said that we all ought to have a “house” theologian, someone whose writings are comprehensive and accessible enough for us to be able to consult them frequently, and whose teachings are compatible enough with what we already believe so that we can see our positions stated just as intelligently and convincingly as they possibly can be. It’s important for us to be able to see how some “really smart person” thinks and believes as we do. John Calvin, Richard Mouw, Gabriel Fackre, Carl F.H. Henry, Francis Schaeffer, Clark Pinnock, Donald Blosech and N.T. Wright have all played this role for me and my faith at one time or another. Having people like this holding onto the trampolines of our faith will help to keep us spiritually “grounded” my professor said. But then he quickly added that we all ought to also have a “house” skeptic, or critic, someone who will mercilessly challenge what we think. Somebody from the opposite camp who will relentlessly poke holes in the convictions that we hold dear. This will keep us spiritually “honest” he said. And someone who has done this for me in recent years has been Marcus Borg.
In fact, I actually thought of him last week as I was filming my Facebook Devotional and invited people to think about who was missing from the collection of people who were holding up their trampolines of faith. When I said that we all need to be serious about making room for intelligent and articulate people who believe and teach the exact opposite of what we believe and teach, I saw Marcus Borg in my imagination holding onto my own trampoline of faith, smiling. He was there as a friendly and faithful provocateur, as someone who challenged me and what I believe. That was Wednesday morning last week. Later that day, Marcus Borg died.
Lots of people have been posting in the last few days about how Marcus Borg saved their faith, about how he powerfully spoke to them and for them. I understand and respect those who are saying this. But that’s not what Marcus Borg did for me. Now, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I’ve read Marcus Borg. In fact, nearly all of his books sit on my shelf and they are colorfully highlighted and well-worn. He was always a delightful read, and I learned some really important things from him.
I think that what Marcus Borg wrote about Jesus as a “Spirit Person” – as someone who was both filled with the Holy Spirit and who was the conduit of the Holy Spirit into other people’s lives, and his exploration of the “Purity Maps” of first century Palestinian Judaism that Jesus Christ consciously challenged by His table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners, and his establishment of the category of Jesus Christ as “Sage” – a Jewish wisdom teacher, are all ideas that have profoundly shaped my own thinking and believing. “If anyone will teach me better, I acknowledge that I shall owe him great thanks.” Marcus Borg did, and I do.
But, at the point of presuppositions, my community of interpretation and that of Marcus Borg could not be further apart. One of his essays that has been making the rounds since his death last week is called “Has Christmas Been Swallowed by the Miraculous?” You can find it in its entirety at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/marcusborg/2014/12/has-christmas-been-swallowed-by-the-miraculous/ In many ways this is Marcus Borg at his very best – winsome, thoughtful, articulate, probing. I encourage you to jump over and read the essay right now — and then come back here… I’ll wait for you…
Here is the watershed between my community of interpretation and Marcus Borg’s –
The problem with the Christian meaning of Advent and Christmas is not primarily commercialism, though that affects many. Rather, Advent and Christmas have virtually been swallowed up by the miraculous. The angel Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary and tells her she will conceive without the involvement of a human father. Prophets foretell such a birth, and even its location in Bethlehem, despite Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth. A special star moves with the precision of a global-positioning device to lead wisemen from the east to the place of Jesus’s birth. Angels sing in the night sky to shepherds. These are the themes of Christmas cards, hymns, manger scenes, concerts, and pageants. To be candid, I do not think that any of this happened.
And then, after staking out his own position that the events of the Gospel story of Jesus Christ that we read in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John matter as symbolic expressions of spiritual truth but not as reliable reports of historical facts, Marcus Borg asked –
To those Christians who insist that the miraculous parts of the Christmas stories really happened, I gently and respectfully ask, “What is lost by letting go of that?” …Does the truth of Christmas depend upon the “happenedness” of the miraculous? Or is its truth more-than-factual?
Those are questions directed at me, and at my community of interpretation. And it seems to me – in light of his recent passing – that the very best way for me to honor Marcus Borg whose hands were on my trampoline of faith as one of my “house” critics, is to respectfully and thoughtfully answer these questions from the point of view of my own community of interpretation. And so over the next few weeks I will use this blog to try to explain “what is lost” when the “happenedness” of the Christ event is denied. My intention is not to persuade or to ridicule those with whom I disagree, but rather to explain how and what I believe, and to “honor” the faithful conversation that I have had for years with Marcus Borg, now of “blessed memory.”
“Seven Stanzas at Easter”
Make no mistake: if he rose at all it was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle, the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers, each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles; It was as His flesh; ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes, the same valved heart
That-pierced-died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might new strength enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages: Let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché, not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us the wide light of day.
And if we have an angel at the tomb, make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle, and crushed by remonstrance.