Recently I picked up this book, curious after hearing a reference to it in a recent presentation on spirituality. I had heard about Marcus Borg before, but had been “turned off” by his participation in the Jesus Seminar. I had not thought about Borg in the context of spirituality, and was intrigued.
About the Author
Marcus J. Borg retired earlier this year from a long career of teaching at Oregon State University as the Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture. He is the author of numerous books, including Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, and The God We Never Knew. Several chapters in The Heart of Christianity draw heavily on these three books.
Marcus Borg was raised Lutheran. He describes his heritage as a “nineteenth-century Scandinavian Lutheran peasant way of being Christian.” He is now a member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon where his wife, The Rev. Canon Marianne Wells Borg, serves as director of the Center for Spiritual Development. Marcus Borg frequently teaches seminars in the Center.
Borg’s approach to Christianity has been honed in a secular university setting; it is also part of his personal spiritual journey as one who for whom the teachings of the church of his youth were no longer intellectually acceptable. While he is well known (and for many of us, notorious) for his participation in the Jesus Seminar, that has been only one of many professional involvements.
Marcus Borg has an exceptionally engaging writing style. His wording, organization, and the points he makes are crystal clear, and one never has to wonder what he is really trying to say. His descriptions of his own beliefs and experience of the Christian faith give the reader a sense of relating to a warm, passionate, and deeply spiritual human being, not just reading a book with many stimulating ideas—though it is that as well. Borg’s writing style conveys one of his main points about the Christian faith: that relationships are more central than facts and propositions.
Basic to Borg’s understanding is the concept of paradigm shift. He says,
Christians in North America are living in a time of paradigm change and conflict. The conflict is not about a few items of Christian theology or behavior, but between two comprehensive ways of seeing Christianity as a whole. (p. 5)
The differences between the earlier and emerging ways of seeing Christianity and being Christian involve specific conflicts [such as ordination of women, gays and lesbians, and Christian exclusivism] as well as more foundational issues. These include how to see the Bible, God, Jesus, faith, and the Christian life. (p. 3)
Borg describes an “earlier paradigm” of Christianity and an “emerging paradigm.” He claims that “Both paradigms are products of modernity, meaning ‘Western cultural history since the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century.’” (p. 11)
For example, regarding the origin and interpretation of the Bible, Borg says:
Notions of biblical infallibility and inerrancy first appeared in the 1600s, and became insistently affirmed by some Protestants only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries… Prior to the Enlightenment it was not the literal meaning of the Bible that mattered most for Christians, but its “more-than-literal” meaning. (p. 12)
Some key concepts about the two paradigms are summarized on page 15. Each concept is developed in detail.
Earlier Paradigm Emerging Paradigm
The Bible’s origin
A divine product with A human response to God
Literal-factual Historical and metaphorical
The Bible’s function
Relation of doctrine Metaphorical and sacramental
Christian life emphasis
An afterlife and what to Transformation in this life
believe or do to be saved through relationship with God
I appreciate Borg’s care not to criticize the earlier paradigm or state it in negative terms. What he does say is that it doesn’t work for a lot of people (including himself), and that many have turned away from Christianity because they think the earlier paradigm defines it.
The issue isn’t that one of these visions of Christianity is right and the other wrong. Rather, the issue is functionality, whether a paradigm “works” or “gets in the way.” If the earlier paradigm still works—if it hasn’t become an obstacle and if it genuinely nourishes your life with God and produces growth in compassion within you—there’s no reason for you to change. But for millions of others, the earlier paradigm… has become a stumbling block… For these millions, the emerging paradigm provides a way of taking Christianity and the Christian life seriously. (p. 18)
Although I am not in the same place as Borg in my beliefs about the historical Jesus and some other issues, it is at least intriguing that one can have a transforming relationship with the living Christ without, for example, believing in the virgin birth. I think of friends and family members who have left the faith which they experienced in the “earlier paradigm” and wonder if the paradigm Borg describes would “work” for them and provide a path to a new experience of Christianity.
Borg sees important commonalities between the two paradigms:
The two paradigms share central convictions in common. The emerging paradigm, as I describe it, strongly affirms the reality of God, the centrality of the Bible, the centrality of Jesus, the importance of a relationship with God as known in Jesus, and our need (and the world’s need) for transformation. (p. 17)
In the ELCA, as well as in other mainline churches, both paradigms are well represented among both clergy and laity, though like myself, many draw elements from both. The “hot button” issues for us, as reflected in the recent Churchwide Assembly and debates on homosexuality and interpretation of Scripture, are reflections of the earlier paradigm vs. the emerging paradigm within our denomination. Will it be possible for the ELCA to find unity in the central convictions both paradigms share, and agree to disagree on other issues? I hope so. Borg’s book might at least help us understand each other and the issues with more clarity.
Christianity as Beliefs vs. a Way of Life
I was raised in a very conservative Baptist church, a perfect example of what Borg terms the “earlier paradigm.” For us and for any organization we supported, acceptance of a detailed “statement of faith” was foundational. While we also considered a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior to be central, belief and trust in the “plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture” and many other affirmations were sine qua non. Being a Christian meant believing the right things, as well as doing the right things (and staying far away from a long list of wrong things).
Borg states that intellectually “believing” as the central issue of Christian identity is a product of the Enlightenment, and not the main point of Christianity from the beginning. More important to him is Christianity as a spiritual path with practices that enhance one’s relationship to God, including active church membership, corporate worship, prayer and meditation, and practicing compassion and justice. He invites readers to be “followers of the Way” as the first Christians were called. Borg asks, “What is it about Christianity that is deeper than any particular set of Christian ideas and beliefs … that gives it power to transform people at the ‘heart’ level?” (p. 1-2)
In Part One, Seeing the Christian Tradition Again, Borg provides details of how foundations of the Christian faith may be understood in the emerging paradigm. Chapter titles give some clues:
Faith: The Way of the Heart
The Bible: The Heart of the Tradition
God: The Heart of Reality
Jesus: The Heart of God
In Part Two, Borg looks at the Christian life as understood in the emerging paradigm. Again, chapter titles:
Born Again: A New Heart
The Kingdom of God: The Heart of Justice
Thin Places: Opening the Heart
Sin and Salvation: Transforming the Heart
The Heart of the Matter: Practice
Heart and Home: Being Christian in an Age of Pluralism
I would like to focus on two ideas from Part Two that were particularly meaningful to me: that of “thin places” and a perspective on sin.
As the Apostle Paul reminded people in Athens, God is “the one in whom we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) This verse is a key one for the concept of panentheism, more fully described in the chapter, “God: The Heart of Reality.”
God is a non-material layer of reality all around us, “right here” as well as “more than right here.” This way of thinking affirms that there are minimally two layers or dimensions of reality, the visible world of our ordinary experience and God, the sacred, Spirit. … “Thin places” are places where these two [dimensions] of reality meet or intersect… where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable. (pp. 155-156)
The idea of “thin places” originates with Celtic Christianity, according to Borg. He names many life experiences that can be thin places, including Christian practices of corporate worship and congregational singing, and both individual and communal prayer. The sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist are defined as means of grace, another way of saying “thin places.” Liturgical words such as the creed are thin places, not because the worshiper necessarily affirms every statement to be literally true (in Borg’s view), but because:
“…through these clunky words that stumble in the presence of Mystery, God is mediated… As we say these words we join ourselves with a community that transcends time, all of those centuries of Christians who have heard and said these words. We become part of the communion of saints, together in a thin place.” (p. 159)
An Experience of Thin Places
Recently I participated in a three-day retreat, the first of eight such sessions that make up a two-year program named Grace Institute. It is a program of spiritual formation designed to deepen one’s own spiritual experience and enhance one’s ability to share spiritual disciplines with others in group settings. It is affiliated with Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and was featured on the back page of the September-October 2007 issue of Seeds for the Parish.
Some of the most moving and memorable elements of the Grace Institute retreat were the times of corporate worship. Borg says one of the primary purposes of worship is to become a thin place. “Worship is about creating a sense of the sacred, a thin place.” (p. 157)
That was certainly true for me. All aspects of six worship times over three days created thin places. The liturgy was well chosen and well spoken. Singing was hearty and heartfelt. We were not a collection of 50-plus individuals as we sang, but were united as a choir, singing (accurately!) hymns from Evangelical Lutheran Worship as well as wonderful songs written by the music leader and pianist, Greg Berg (Associate Professor of Music at Carthage College).
During these worship times, I felt I was being showered with God’s grace and love. As I reflected later, it seemed like the veil between me and the Holy One, that I could imagine as a heavy, lined velvet drape—a rich deep indigo blue with gold trim and big gold tassels, beautiful but opaque—had thinned out and been transformed to become a sheer, ivory-colored lace curtain, equally beautiful but translucent and permeable.
At the time, I felt rather overwhelmed but couldn’t put into words what I felt. When the worship time was over and we headed off to the next activity, I wanted to stay behind and allow myself to absorb and process what had happened. (Next time I will do just that.) At the time, it just felt like too much. And, along with joy and gratitude, there was an element of fear—as though I had come too close to the burning bush of Moses’ experience. I am reminded of how often in the Bible people react in fear to an epiphany of God’s presence, such as an angel or a miracle of Jesus.
Brennan Manning tells of a telephone conversation with a dear friend, an elderly Irish priest. It ended abruptly when the old priest said kindly, “‘Scuse me, lad, but I gotta get off th’ phone. The presence of God is over-whelmin’ me.”1 Perhaps the priest had learned how he needed to respond to a thin place when it seemed a bit too thin.
Thin places almost always feel like gifts for which I am grateful. Most of the time they enrich what might otherwise be ordinary events, perhaps like the melted butter coating and dripping off an ear of roasted corn at a recent outdoor festival—rich and satisfying, making the corn taste divine(!). However, there are a few times when thin places feel overwhelming—as though I have fallen into an enormous tub of melted butter. This image may be silly, but the experience is more complex than “too much of a good thing.” Among other things, it is an invitation to grow in my capacity to perceive and enjoy God’s presence, and to experience “thin places” more fully and more frequently.
Is Sin Mainly What Ails Us?
I deeply appreciated Borg’s discussion of sin in his chapter “Sin and Salvation: Transforming the Heart.” He questions whether sin and forgiveness is the most comprehensive way to name what is wrong with the human race and how to fix it. Borg believes that sin and forgiveness are important concepts, but we need to use other Biblical images as well—we are blind and need sight; we are lost and need to be found; we are in bondage and need liberation; we are sick and wounded and need healing.
Borg wonders how the Hebrew slaves in Egypt might have responded if Moses came to them bearing the message that that their sins were forgiven; they might have said, “Well, that’s nice, but you see, our problem is bondage.” (p. 169)
Should we use ‘sin’ as the common denominator, the root diagnosis of what ails us? Or should we use it as one designator among the many biblical images for what ails us…. The problem is not simply that we have rebelled against God (though that may be true) but that we are blind, estranged, lost, in exile, self-centered, wounded, sick, paralyzed, in bondage, grasping, and so forth. Forgiveness doesn’t speak to these issues. But the central images of the Christian life as a “way” do: it is a way of return from exile, of reconnection; it is a way of liberation from bondage; a way in which our sight is restored; a way of having our hearts opened by spending time in thin places; a way that leads from being lost to finding and being found. (pp. 169-170)
Borg also states that sin in popular Christianity is often understood individualistically, leading to introspection about what I have done wrong or failed to do. It seems to me that the liturgical confession of sin encourages such introspection. I have long thought that the weekly confession of sin often misses the mark for me. I am needy, to be sure; but is forgiveness my only, or even primary, need? Borg observes that sin “sometimes (and perhaps often) does not fit our experience very well.” (p. 170)
Borg says an individualistic understanding of sin is only part of the picture, because much of human suffering and misery is due to collective sin, or “social sin”—domination systems such as the one that killed Jesus. He states, “The common individualistic understanding of sin typically domesticates the political passion of the Bible and Jesus.” Later, he adds, “The purpose of these suggestions is not a weakening of the notion of sin, but an enriching of our understanding of the condition from which we need deliverance.” (pp. 170-171) In enhancing this understanding, we also enrich our understanding of God’s gracious provisions to respond to our needs.
I could cite many other examples of ideas in this book that I found compelling. I have rarely read a book that so inspired me to share it with others. As I was reading, I thought about people I know who have abandoned Christianity, no longer seeing themselves within the Christianity of their earlier years—a circle defined largely by beliefs and by standards of behavior and morality. The Christianity Borg talks about draws the circle larger; one’s relationship with God defines one’s faith more than whether one can honestly affirm every statement in the Apostles’ Creed as a core belief.
I heartily commend The Heart of Christianity to the readers of Let’s Talk. No doubt you will disagree with Borg on many points, but I think he is worth reading. He is a prolific writer, and there are many books to choose from if you would like to focus on a more specific topic.
From my memory of a taped presentation; exact source unknown.