The heterodox theologian and controversialist Marcus Borg, who died recently at age 72, has been eulogized in countless blogs and articles by admirers acclaiming his spiritual insights. Others, including some theological traditionalists, have recalled him personally as kind, thoughtful, and gracious. Doubtless he was cherished by his many grieving friends and family, and may God comfort them all in their loss.
Unfortunately, Borg did not believe in the kind of personal deity, or “supernatural theism” as he derided it, who provides this kind of direct comfort to individuals. Instead, he advocated an impersonal deity understood through panentheism (distinct from straight pantheism), which asserts that all creation is a part of God. As professor at Oregon State University, and as scholar at the once widely publicized Jesus Seminar, he specialized in deconstructing traditional Christian beliefs about God, Christ, and the Bible.
Twenty and thirty years ago the Jesus Seminar got routine headlines for its regular and supposedly scholarly “discoveries” that Jesus never claimed divinity or rose from the dead or said much of anything ascribed to Him in the Bible. Instead, surprise, surprise, Jesus was actually an irenic social justice philosopher and activist, just like most of the Jesus Seminar academics.
Borg’s obituaries have credited him for his relative respectfulness to more orthodox Christian scholars, in contrast with the disdain exuded by many of the Jesus Seminar’s philosopher kings. His colleague Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong specializes in sarcastic contempt for orthodox Christianity and its unwashed adherents. Borg enjoyed debate with his theological adversaries, for years conducting public exchanges with his friendly interlocutor Tom Wright, the British biblical scholar and Church of England bishop. The two even authored a book together offering their different versions of Jesus, one a divine Savior announcing God’s Kingdom, according to Wright, the other a mortal Jewish mystic later deified by the church, according to Borg.
Fifteen years ago, in a typical exchange, Borg and Wright spoke at National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., which I attended and reported. Borg of course said much of the Gospels, like the Virgin Birth and Jesus’ multiplying of the loaves or walking on the sea, were “history metaphorized.” Likely Jesus didn’t think Himself a messiah or anticipate His death. Instead his martyrdom made him like Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Borg described Jesus as a Jewish mystic or “spirit person,” whose “visions of the sacred” were “shamanic,” “peak experiences,” or “altered states of consciousness.”
Like Buddha, Jesus taught “wisdom,” and Jesus was also a social prophet who critiqued the “domination system” of His day. “Does it matter if Jesus thought He was messiah?” Borg asked. “Tom says yes. I say no.” He rejected an “interventionist God” who performs miracles or directly inspires Scripture.
Although erudite and polished, Borg could be a little snippy with traditional believers, especially if they lacked academic pedigree. One questioner in the cathedral audience asked if the Holy Spirit had guided interpretation of the Bible. “I don’t know if the Holy Spirit would be helpful in judging the factuality of the Gospels,” responded Borg. “The Holy Spirit is irrelevant in that decision making process.” Responding to another questioner, he said Jesus only became divine metaphorically in the church’s memory after Easter. And the Resurrection didn’t mean anything actually happened to His corpse. Again, more metaphor, merely showing Jesus to be “at one with God.”
Over the years I heard Borg speak on numerous occasions, usually at liberal Protestant events whose audiences were typically old, nearly all white and tied to academia or the clergy of declining Mainline denominations. Borg himself became a cannon theologian at an Episcopal cathedral, and his wife is an Episcopal priest.
Even though he professed Christianity, Borg was frank about rejecting nearly all core Christian beliefs. The “pre-Easter Jesus is a figure of the past, dead and gone. He isn’t anywhere,” with talk about his corpse or an empty tomb merely “irrelevant distractions.” Only an arrogant, delusional Jesus would have claimed divinity or predicted resurrection, Borg noted, adding, “We have categories of psychology for people who talk that way about themselves.”
Accordingly Borg didn’t think God answered prayer, didn’t believe in a specific afterlife, didn’t think Christianity was uniquely true or would even necessarily persist, and did not believe in a creator God or even a personal God, concepts more suitable for children who lack “critical thinking” than for adults.
Raised in a traditional Lutheran home, Borg apparently first gained enlightenment through liberal theology at Union Seminary in New York. He at times recalled that he once believed in the Christmas story as literally involving a virgin birth, a “magic star,” and Wise Men, when he lacked the “mental equipment” in his youth to think otherwise. Only with education and post-adolescent critical thinking did he reject “childlike literalization of the personifications of God.”
Rejecting God as a personal creator who presides over creation, Borg hailed panentheism for recognizing “we and everything that is are in God. God is not something else. God is right here and all around us. We are within God.” He explained: “The best way to refer to God is You, the You who is right here.”
With this notion of self-deification, along with Jesus’ supposed “shamanic journeys,” Borg believed in “paranormal healings,” visions, and altered states of consciousness. Of course, Borg rejected notions of sin and salvation, along with conventional “moralistic” standards, preferring self-enlightenment and self-empowerment.
Christianity for Borg was only a helpful “lens” through which to view the sacred. “If we stop using the Christian lens, then we cease to be Christian and that’s not the end of the world. If humanity lasts 10,000 years, then I expect that, if Christianity lasts at all, then it will be a tiny sect like Zoroastrianism. We’re not going to last forever in the Christian tradition. The Christian lens will eventually fall into disuse.”
Bizarrely, Borg, speaking in the 1990s, thought liberal Mainline churches were losing members because they still clung to biblical “literalism” instead of embracing his idea of enlightenment. But they would have a “very bright future” once they reinterpreted their faith “metaphorically.” In contrast, “fundamentalism” had “reached its high water mark.”
Borg’s deity did not hear prayer, forgive sin, exude grace, inspire love, or offer heaven. For Borg, an abstract deity within self and nature can be reached in self-generated visions or altered states of consciousness. His panentheism ultimately incorporated even evil into the divine, making virtue and love nonsensical. Such a vision is depressing and illogical. Why it, if fully contemplated, should have inspired anybody is unclear.
Yet Borg had his fans among some liberal Christians. Along with his leftist politics and critique of traditional Christians, perhaps they identified with how he clung tenaciously to Jesus as “light of the world,” even if only a metaphor. He rejected absolute truth yet also resisted nihilism. Seemingly some kernel of faith from his Lutheran childhood survived and hopefully reignited when Borg finally faced the afterlife and personal deity he had for years rejected.
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