So, is there an afterlife, and if so, what will it be like? I don’t have a clue. But I am confident that the one who has buoyed us up in life will also buoy us up through death. We die into God. What more that means, I do not know. But that is all I need to know. – Marcus Borg
The controversy surrounding President Obama’s recent remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast reminded me of why the world will miss Marcus Borg, who died a few weeks ago at the age of 72. In comments that I am certain Borg would have approved, the President noted correctly that faith is sometimes “twisted and distorted, used as a wedge – or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.” He asked how we can best “reconcile . . . the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths” with “those who seek to hijack religion for their own murderous ends?” Humanity has been struggling with these issues throughout the course of time, the president said, and even Christianity owns its share of historical blemishes, from the Crusades and the Inquisition to Christians who used the Bible to justify slavery and Jim Crow. “[T]his is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”
Conservative Christians were predictably outraged, wrongly suggesting that the president had equated Christianity with Islamic extremism. But what I suspect really got under their “bible believing” skin was what the President said next:
[W]e should start with some basic humility. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt – not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.
Nothing drives self-righteous Christians crazier than the thought that perhaps we do not know all of the answers, and that a healthy dose of doubt and humility is a necessary component of a mature and abiding faith. In response to the president’s talk, Erick Erickson of RedState.com wrote that, by suggesting faith and doubt can co-exist, the president proved he is not really a Christian. “Christ himself is truth,” Erickson wrote. “When we possess Christ, we possess truth. . . So I wish the President would stop professing himself to be a Christian if he is not going to proclaim Christ as truth and the only way to salvation.”
The reaction on the right to the president’s speech reflects the great divide between liberal Protestantism and Christian fundamentalism. To the fundamentalist, expressions of doubt are the opposite of faith; it is unilateral disarmament in the fight to convert the world to the One True Way.
One of the many problems I have with the Christian Right is their belief that a very narrow brand of Christians are alone the sole possessors of the truth, and that anyone who expresses even a little humility on matters of faith, or who critically examines a passage of scripture or questions the authority and premise of established religious doctrine, is unworthy. For liberal, open-minded Christians more secure in their faith, acknowledging Christianity’s past transgressions – the Inquisition and the Crusades, centuries of Christian anti-Semitism in Europe and the Christian Church’s silence and complicity in the Holocaust, Christian justification in the American South for slavery and Jim Crow, or modern-day acts of violence in the name of Christianity against abortion clinics – simply reminds us that we live in a struggling, imperfect world. It appreciates that human beings are flawed and struggle throughout their lives for answers to existential and spiritual questions. And it accepts that, while all faith traditions contribute acts of compassion, comfort, and beauty, all have at times contended with sinful acts committed by people who misappropriate religion to justify dishonorable ends.
* * * *
I am saddened by the loss of Marcus Borg, a long-time professor of religion at Oregon State University and the author of many truly outstanding books that have profoundly affected my views of religion, Christianity, and the Bible. I first discovered Borg about 15 years ago, when my Dad handed me a copy of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (Harper Collins, 1994). In this slim volume, Borg explained in clear and concise language what mainline seminaries have taught for decades, but which seemed to be a deep, dark secret in the average church pew – that the Jesus of history is distinct from the Christ of faith.
In many of his writings, Borg described his own personal faith journey, including his Lutheran upbringing and periods of growing doubt and agnosticism, followed by a more mature faith built on study, history, and understanding. He helped me see that it was acceptable to acknowledge that my childhood image of Jesus no longer made much sense and was a product, not of the prophet and teacher who lived and preached in Nazareth and Galilee, but of biblical authors who wrote decades after Jesus had died, and of an institutional church founded centuries later that incorporated a divine savior and the doctrine of the Trinity into traditional Church teachings.
I learned through Borg’s writings what has been understood and developed over the last two hundred years of biblical scholarship – that the gospels are “neither divine documents nor straightforward historical records” but instead “represent the developing traditions of the early Christian movement.” Through careful comparative study of the gospels, it is easy to see that the authors of these books were “at work, modifying and adding to the traditions they received.” For example, the portrayal of Jesus in the gospel of John (“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”), is distinctly different from the Jesus depicted in the earlier gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And yet, Jesus as divine savior, as portrayed in John and supplemented by the birth stories in Matthew and Luke, has become the dominant view of conventional Christianity.
I was always troubled by the conviction, expressed in many evangelical and traditional Christian circles, that only by believing in Jesus as divine savior – born of a virgin, God incarnate and physically resurrected from the dead – could one achieve eternal salvation. This belief was stated by none other than the great theologian, NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip, at the national prayer breakfast: “[I]f you don’t know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior” and “you’re just a pretty good guy or a pretty good gal, you’re going to Hell.” Funny how a statement from the president that we are all imperfect, Christians included, leads to apoplectic exclamations of dreadful offense, but a statement from Bubba that four-fifths of the world is destined for hell achieves not a peep of protest.
So, Darrell, are my Jewish daughters condemned to hell because they were raised in the Jewish tradition and not taught to believe what I was taught to believe as a young child? Does it matter not that they are more ethical, more concerned about justice, and more compassionate than many so-called Christians I know? Am I destined for the eternal flames simply because I have questions about the meaning of scripture, or because I dare question the foundation of things taught to me as a child based on educated notions of science and observation? What kind of God is that? What kind of religion is that? I simply cannot accept as valid such a view.
And Marcus Borg made it easier for me to accept that I need not worry.
Borg helped me to understand that “[t]here simply is a major difference between what Jesus was like as a figure of history and how he is spoken of in the gospels and later Christian tradition.” Borg distinguished the pre-Easter Jesus, or the Jesus of history, from the post-Easter Jesus, or the Christ of faith. Both concepts are part of the Christian tradition, but when you understand how the latter concepts developed, it becomes much plainer that the Christian life does not depend on one’s ability to believe impossible things, and that one can maintain doubts and set aside the irrational without compromising one’s relationship to God.
Borg also helped me to see that, for the early Christians, “the post-Easter Jesus was the light that led them out of darkness, the spiritual food that nourished them in the midst of their journey, the way that led them from death to life.” John’s gospel describes “the living Christ of Christian experience.” Even though much of John, including its account of Jesus’ life and many of his sayings are not historically factual, for Christians, John’s gospel is nevertheless “true” in a spiritual and experiential way.
Borg’s writings were thoughtful and nuanced. He helped me become comfortable with the historical and theological accuracy of what I always secretly believed – that “the Bible is a human product: it tells us how our religious ancestors saw things, not how God sees things.” If all persons of faith understood the Bible in this manner, there would, I am convinced, be far less religious strife, religious extremism, religious-inspired violence, and religious division. Part of the problem, Borg noted correctly, is Christian illiteracy. According to Borg,
…even for those who think they speak “Christian” fluently, the faith itself is often misunderstood and distorted by many to whom it is seemingly very familiar. They think they are speaking the language as it has always been understood, but what they mean by the words and concepts is so different from what these things have meant historically, that they would have trouble communicating with the very authors of the past they honor.
When we finally reject the notion that there is one “right” way of reading the Bible, or that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible, and factual word of God, humanity will advance to a higher level of understanding and reconciliation. Too many Christians are afraid of critical thinking, of questioning the professed truths put forth by institutional authorities. I would never expect a fundamentalist Christian to enthusiastically endorse Borg’s writings or perspectives, but I wish they would read Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and The Heart of Christianity (Harper Collins, 2004). Regardless of how we approach biblical scholarship, faith and belief, Christianity should turn us towards compassion and love for all.
And I wish non-Christians would read Borg to understand that fundamentalist Christians, while often portrayed by a media ignorant of religion as the public face of American Christianity, do not represent all or even a majority of Christians, and that fundamentalism does not approach the fullness, depth, and breadth of the more open and non-judgmental strands of Christianity.
The historical Jesus described by Borg was a Jewish teacher and prophet who embodied a vision of justice, peace, and hope that was not based on irrational and supernatural beliefs. He espoused the “kingdom of God” on earth, not in heaven, a vision of justice and equality in conjunction with a spiritual connection to a real and present God.
I will continue to struggle with faith and doubt. I will remain humble in my expressions of faith, non-judgmental and open to the many different ways in which faith and a belief in God are expressed and realized. I will not close my eyes to the many transgressions of faith that occur in the name of religion, and I will continue to oppose the many self-proclaimed Christians who distort and misapply the life and teachings of Jesus. But I will proceed with an understanding that I am often wrong, and do not know, and probably never will, the answers to all of life’s most meaningful questions. I only wish my conservative brothers and sisters would do the same.
Borg frequently lectured and spoke to church groups and others around the country, finding people hungry for spiritual nourishment, and yet thoughtfully skeptical and unsure of their faith as it had been taught to them as youth. During a question-and-answer session at one of these events, someone asked Borg, “But how do you know that you’re right?” Borg paused and responded, “I don’t know. I don’t know that I’m right.” And for this, I will remain forever grateful and indebted to Marcus Borg. Rest in peace, my friend.