- Published: 20 April 2018
I am a cradle to grave United Church of Canada member. Or at least, cradle to 49, and it looks good from here. I was baptized on Mother’s Day in 1969 when I was about 10 weeks old, we said grace at dinner every night, and we went to church every Sunday. My parents were at various times, the Sunday School Superintendent, Chair of Worship Committee, Treasurer and Chair of the Board. When I was 13, I was confirmed, and the church gave me a Bible. I decided I should read it, and having no guidance on how to do this, I started at the beginning. I did this most nights before bed until I was about 20, and I have read the Bible through several times.
Now when you start at the beginning of Genesis, it doesn’t take long before you encounter stories that make you go WTF?! It was the sexism that my 13 year old self most strongly felt. I did not understand why Lot’s response to people wanting to rape his guests was to offer them his daughters to rape instead. Nor did I understand how a reasonable response in the law to raping a woman was to pay her father money and to marry her.
I thought a lot about these things. There was no way that this represented the God I knew. So I decided that God had told people the Bible stories, and that they had failed to understand them and had written them down wrong. For those who know me well, I want you to note two things about this story. First, while I am often seen as someone who approaches things first through the lens of intellectualism, my first engagement with Biblical literalism was profoundly one of faith. I didn’t read about different approaches to Biblical interpretation and decide one was superior, I simply realized a literal interpretation was impossible to reconcile with my God. The second thing about this story, which will be more familiar to those who know me, is my complete arrogance. At 13, I had no problem whatsoever in saying that my own experience of God and justice was superior to the Bible. I had to figure out how it worked, but never once did I doubt that my loving and just God was real and that the Bible was wrong, or at least, not to be read as fact.
I’m grateful that I was raised in the United Church, because I know many who encounter a serious conflict between their intellect and reading the Bible literally. Either they continue to believe that the Bible is true and decide therefore that God and religion are horrible (and atheists are often the most literal readers of the Bible), or they decide that the Bible is worthless and while they retain some faith in God, they leave organized religion entirely.
Fast forward over 20 years from this time, and I encountered Marcus Borg for the first time. While Borg sometimes opens my mind and heart to new ideas, mostly his contributions to my faith have been: first, to give me the ability to articulate what I believe and second, to help me to go deeper.
As a lawyer and then a negotiator, I have sometimes joked that I talk for a living. I admire hugely Borg’s ability to communicate. He writes with clarity. He is both intellectual and accessible. He explains concepts clearly, and provides many metaphors to express his views. In fact, if I have a “take home” message for today, it wouldn’t be about any particular idea, it would be my strong recommendation to read Borg.
The first book of his which I read is The Heart of Christianity. In the preface, Borg writes “For some time now, I have been convinced that there are no intellectual impediments to being Christian.” Both Jesus and Hebrew scholars agree that the most important commandment is to Love God with all our hearts, minds, soul and strength. We are not expected to jettison our brains in order to love God. I knew this to be true at 13, and Borg has helped me have the language I need to express my faith seriously, to atheists, to agnostics, to questioners, to fundamentalists and all others.
Borg was, as Brian mentioned, a leading figure in the Jesus Seminar with John Dominic Crossan. The Jesus Seminar was a group of academics focussed on the study of the Jesus of history versus the Christ of faith. One of his best known books is Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, subtitled, Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally. I think his entire bibliography could be called Taking Christianity Seriously but not Literally. There are many people who feel that Progressive Christianity is a not serious form of Christianity, but Borg is not one of them. In fact, by looking at Christian faith through the progressive lenses of grace, metaphor, sacrament and justice, Christian faith is freed to become truly serious.
I have nowhere near the time I would need to delve well into even one of Borg’s substantive topics, but I’m going to introduce two. The first is the meaning of faith, and the second is the meaning of saying Jesus is Lord.
I love Borg’s definitions of Faith. In our modern times, literalist Christians have insisted that Christianity, and Faith, are about Believing. Believing a certain set of things which is the modern definition of orthodoxy. Believing, in contrast to knowing, and to some extent, believing in contrast to fact, like literal readings of the creation story. While this element of Faith was always part of Christianity, before modern scientific knowledge, it took no effort to believe the Bible was factual. The emphasis on Belief as fundamental to faith is actually modern.
Borg reminds us of three other definitions of Faith, all of which are relational. First, Faith is trust in God, like floating in a deep ocean. God is our safe place, our rock, our support. This faith invites us to let go of anxiety.
Second, Faith is faithfulness, fidelity, and committing oneself to God alone and to God completely. It is not about committing oneself to statements about God, but to God. And in our times, it is about being faithful to God over the idolatry of money, power and privilege.
Third, Faith is about a vision. Whether we see the world as terrible followed by certain death, or whether we have a vision of Life and the World as being Good, as being Sacred. God is generous, nourishing, grace. This way of seeing the world leads to radical trust, and frees us from worry.
Christianity is therefore not mostly a question of creeds or beliefs. It is more, much more, than that. Faith is a verb.
Jesus is Lord! Jesus is my Lord! That’s not something you hear on a typical Sunday at First United Church. But, according to Borg, it is a far more political statement than one might think, and it is a truly radical statement. The key to understanding the statement is to know that the Emperor was called Lord. So saying Jesus is Lord is saying Caesar is not. Caesar was also called the Son of God, Lord of Lords, Saviour, and King of Kings. He was said to have brought Peace on Earth. And so to the early Christians, saying Jesus is Lord was a direct challenge to the empire.
And that empire killed Jesus. But the Easter message is that God said no to the Empire. God said no to that domination system. And God said yes to Jesus and his vision. Borg speaks of a personal transformational aspect to Easter, which I do not have time to review, but he also speaks to Easter as having a political meaning. It indicts the way domination systems built on power and wealth oppress the world.
Borg continues: “If we ask why the God of the Bible cares about politics, about systemic justice, the answer is disarmingly simple. God cares about justice because the God of the Bible cares about suffering. And the single biggest cause of unnecessary human suffering throughout history has been and is unjust social systems.”
What would it mean for us, the Christian Church as a whole, to take this seriously? What if Jesus were Lord today, and President today, and Prime Minister, and pop star, and great athlete? What if Jesus, and the message of Jesus received the attention and energy of Beyonce and Messi and Donald Trump? What if loving what God loves was the foundational principle of our social and political systems?
I wish I had time to talk about so much more than this. I would address Borg’s views on:
- the nature of God, explaining panentheism versus supernatural theism,
- the profound meaning which arises from an historical-metaphorical reading of the Bible,
- a meaning of Born Again which was invigorating to me as a Progressive Christian,
- the place of Christianity in a plural world for Christians who do not think Christianity represents the only truth,
- a clear articulation of the distinctions between traditional and emerging forms of Christianity, including our emphasis on bringing God’s justice into reality today instead of a focus on preparing for life after death, and
- a reclaiming of the concept of sin as useful for our journey.
Some of these ideas have been sprinkled throughout this service, but much remains.
I will close by reiterating this: Borg has given me the language to articulate to others why there are no intellectual impediments to Christianity for me. There are no impediments of any kind. And a life of loving God, and loving what God loves, seems like the best possible life. Thanks be to God.
Please note: as the text of a reflection offered orally during a church service, the text does not meet any standards for scholarly citation. There is no intention to fail to attribute however, and many of the ideas come directly from Marcus Borg “The Heart of Christianity”.