Archive for September, 2012

A Philosopher Examines Marcus Borg

September 27, 2012

 Review of

Borg, Marcus J.  The Heart of Christianity:  Rediscovering a Life of Faith

HarperSanFrancisco, 2003

 Why write a review of The Heart of Christianity when this book is already over a decade old?  I read this book because I wanted to come to a better understanding of Borg and the Jesus Seminar, a prominent group of scholars who have been searching for the historical Jesus (cf. xiii).  This book provides a good introduction to the theoretical and practical expression of this scholarship.  Further, the thinking of some of my good friends has been shaped significantly by this scholarship, and so again I felt I owed it to them to try to understand where they are coming from.  Friendship does have obligations!

The title of this book sounds promising.  It is always good to try to define the essence of something.  So I commend Marcus Borg for trying to define the heart of Christianity.  Borg also writes with clarity and passion – not something usually associated with scholars.  And who can object to an attempt to rediscover a life of faith?  Indeed, I found Part Two of the book, in which Borg is re-imagining the Christian life, to be inspiring and challenging in many places. But, nagging questions remain.  What is the foundation of these more practical exhortations?  Is the story of Borg’s historical Jesus – much abbreviated from that found in the gospel accounts – sufficient to support his account of the life of faith?

Early on in the book, Borg confidently asserts that we are undergoing a paradigm shift with regard to Christianity.  There is an earlier vision of Christianity, which “views the Bible as the unique revelation of God, emphasizes its literal meaning, and sees the Christian life as centered in believing now for the sake of salvation later… Typically, it has also seen Christianity as the only true religion” (xii).  Then Borg introduces us to an “emerging paradigm” that has been developing for over a hundred years and is “the product of Christianity’s encounter with the modern and postmodern world, including science, historical scholarship, religious pluralism and cultural diversity” (xii).

Here it is important to note that when Borg talks about an earlier paradigm of Christianity, he is really talking about post-Enlightenment Christianity.  He informs us that the earlier paradigm likes to think of itself as “traditional” Christianity, but its central characteristics have developed since the Enlightenment (2,11).  However, I don’t think Borg is entirely consistent in making this distinction between traditional Christianity and post-Enlightenment Christianity.  Many of the things he finds objectionable in post-Enlightenment Christianity apply equally to pre-modern Christianity.  For example, Borg maintains that it is only in the last few centuries that the “literal factuality” of the biblical texts has been emphasized (56).  Not so, as I will illustrate later. So Borg is really critiquing both traditional Christianity and what he sees as a distorted form of Christianity that emerged after the Enlightenment.  Borg’s own emergent paradigm is in some ways in line with current postmodern critiques of the Enlightenment. But, as we will see, he also draws on Enlightenment critiques of traditional Christianity, when it suits his purposes.  So Borg’s emergent paradigm of Christianity is being offered as even more enlightened than post-Enlightenment Christianity.

Borg admits that the earlier paradigm still remains a major voice within North American Christianity, and is affirmed by fundamentalist, most conservative-evangelical, and many Pentecostal Christians (6).  On the other hand, the emerging paradigm has only quite recently become “a major grass-roots movement within mainline denominations” (xii).  It is “widely shared among theological and biblical scholars and increasingly among laity and clergy within mainline denominations” (13). But again and again in this book, there is a confident assertion that it is this expression of Christianity which is emerging out of the darkness, as it were, and which will in the end win the day.

Borg’s book is in line with many other books whose titles are revealing:  A New Kind of Christian, by Brian McLaren (2001); A New Christianity for a New World, by Bishop John Shelby Spong (2001); The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, by Phyllis Tickle (2008); A New Kind of Christianity, by Brian McLaren (2010); and finally another recent book by Phyllis Tickle, Emergence Christianity (2012).  These many confident calls for newness and change deserve our attention. What is this emerging paradigm of Christianity?  Why the need for a radical rediscovery of the Christian faith?  And are the confident assertions of the need for, and the inevitably of, change and newness justified?  This review will focus on Borg as one representative of this movement.  I am a philosopher, and so my focus will be on the philosophical assumptions underlying Borg’s revisioning of the Christian faith.

What then, according to Borg, are some of the fundamental problems with the earlier paradigm and its links with traditional Christianity?  For one, the earlier form of Christianity has a distorted view of God (Ch. 4).  God is viewed as transcendent, a God “out there,” a supernatural “personlike being,” who occasionally intervenes in this world (65).  Borg prefers a God who is more intimately related to the world, and so he imagines God “as an encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is” (66).  Instead of “supernatural theism” he prefers “panentheism,” a term coined by Karen Armstrong to highlight the all-encompassing presence of the Spirit of God.  Now Borg is forced to admit that traditional Christianity has emphasized both the transcendence and the immanence of God, and also that Paul describes God as one in whom “we live and move and have our being” (66).  However, a little later Borg suggests that “supernatural theism in its modern form emphasizes only the transcendence of God” (69).  But this contradicts his earlier claim.  Traditional and orthodox Christianity has always emphasized both the transcendence and the personal presence of God.  So why this call for a new conception of God?  Borg informs us that “for many people supernatural theism is no longer compelling and persuasive” (69).  But is this a good reason for change?  Is truth determined by a majority vote?  There is a deeper issue underlying Borg’s objection to supernatural theism. Supernatural theism leads to an interventionist God.  Panentheism, by contrast rejects the language of “divine intervention” (67).  The real issue here has to do with the possibility of miracles.

Already in Chapter 1, the topic of miracles is introduced and “the miraculous” is identified as “central to the truth of Christianity” (9).  The earlier paradigm of Christianity interprets the Bible literally, we are told, and to a large extent this is “a literalism of the spectacular” (9).  By contrast, the emerging paradigm interprets the Bible as metaphorical (13).  “It is not bothered by the possibility that the stories of Jesus’ birth and resurrection are metaphorical rather than literally factual accounts (12-13).  I want to suggest that it is this rejection of the possibility of miracles in the name of science that is at the heart of the objections that Borg and his fellow scholars have with regard to traditional and the earlier version of Christianity. It is because of their rejection of miracles that they are led to discount the literal truth of much of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life.  The miracle stories for them are only add-ons, invented by subsequent followers of Jesus to explain their devotion to him.

But what is so impossible about miracles?  Of course one expects scientific materialists to reject the possibility of miracles. And one can understand why skeptics like to appeal to David Hume’s classic 18th. century argument against the possibility of miracles. But unfortunately, David Hume’s argument begs the question.  It assumes that miracles are impossible because scientific laws are unbreakable.  But you can only know if scientific laws are unbreakable if you know that miracles are impossible.   Hume is arguing in a circle.  Here I would recommend C.S. Lewis’s little book, Miracles, for a readable refutation of Hume’s objections to miracles.

Scientific materialists too beg the question.  They assume that the material world is all there is, and thus God cannot exist, let alone break into this material world in order to do a miracle.  Now what is interesting here is that Borg is not a materialist.  His emerging paradigm clearly affirms the reality of God.  But as we have already seen, Borg’s God is very different from that of traditional Christianity.  Instead of “supernatural theism” which allows for a God who can do miracles, Borg adopts “panentheism” which imagines God as an all-encompassing Spirit who does not intervene in this world.  But the description of this all-encompassing Spirit is left rather vague.  Indeed, Borg’s panentheism looks suspiciously like pantheism, which in turn is very much like scientific materialism.  Clearly on this account miracles are impossible.  But this again begs the question.  Why accept Borg’s arbitrarily defined God who cannot do miracles?

Borg goes on to say that he rejects the language of ‘divine intervention’, because of the “insurmountable difficulties” surrounding interventionism (67).  But what are these insurmountable difficulties?   Borg talks about not being able to provide “the explanatory mechanism for God’s relation to the world” (67).  Fair enough!  But is this a definitive objection to miracles?  Is reality determined by what we as human beings with our finite minds can comprehend?  Enough to believe that there is a God who created all things, including the laws of nature, and who therefore can choose to suspend these laws on occasion in order to do the miraculous.  Borg’s God is too small. In orthodox Christianity, God is both transcendent and immanent, and if so then God can intervene in this world, miracles are possible, and Jesus birth and resurrection can be taken literally, as was affirmed again and again in the early church.

Another area of conflict between early and emerging Christianity has to do with Christian exclusivism.  “The earlier way of being Christian was (and is) confident that Christianity is the ‘only way’ (3).  This position is undergoing change according to Borg, and the emerging form of Christianity typically rejects the idea that “[m]y religion is the only true religion” (3).  Indeed, emergent Christianity finds exclusivism and the rejection of other religions as “inadequate” or “unacceptable” (16).  Borg expands on this theme in the final chapter of The Heart of Christianity (Ch. 11).  Borg confesses that he can no longer believe the Christianity of his childhood that maintained that Christ is the only way to salvation (207).  “Indeed, if I thought I had to believe that Christianity was the only way, I could not be a Christian” (221).

A central reason for rejecting such exclusivism is the phenemonon of religious pluralism.  Borg, reflecting the thinking of many Westerners today, considers religious pluralism a new phenomenon – “We have never been here before” (209).  Absolutism too is seen as a product of modernism, a response of the Christian West to the threat of the emergence of secularism in the seventeenth century (212).  While there might be some truth to the claim that Western Christians are a little more aware of the world’s religious diversity, to suggest that we are facing a unique situation that calls for a radical rethinking of Christian faith is problematic for a number of reasons.  As Alvin Plantinga, a distinguished philosopher of religion of our time, has noted, Western Christians and Jews have known all along that there are other religions and that not nearly everyone shares their religion.  The ancient Israelites were clearly aware of the Canaanite religion, and Moses and other prophets warned against being misled by a foreign faith (cf. Deut. 18:14).  Jesus in the New Testament was very much aware of competing religions, and it is in this context that he made his claims to being the only way, the truth and the life (John 14:6; cf. Borg, 221).  Paul’s missionary journeys took him to very cosmopolitan cities within the Roman empire which were in fact religiously pluralistic.  The early Christians and the Christian martyrs were well aware of the fact that not everyone believed as they did.  So religious pluralism is not a new problem that Christians are facing.  And what needs to be emphasized is that it is within a context of religious pluralism that the Jewish prophets, Jesus, Paul and the church fathers affirmed the doctrine of exclusive truth.  Absolutism is simply not a product of modernity as Borg maintains (212).  And Borg is also wrong in suggesting that there are “relatively few” passages in the bible that uphold the notion of exclusive truth (221).  This notion runs throughout the Bible.

But how can Christians make exclusive claims to truth in the face of religious pluralism?  It is this question that is seen as the burning issue of Borg and many theologians, religious studies scholars, and philosophers of religion today. Indeed, Borg maintains that knowing about other religions and the people of other religions “have made it impossible” to believe in Christian exclusivism (220).  But, what is the problem?  Why should the fact of pluralism call into question the idea that there might be such a thing as Truth with a capital “T”?  All of us in our everyday lives encounter differences of opinion and yet we see no problem in claiming that some opinions that differ from our own are simply false. And if we are honest, we would admit that just because we think that opinions that differ from our own are false does not automatically make us irrational, intolerant or arrogant.  I would suggest that human beings are by nature epistemic absolutizers.  And there is nothing inherently wrong with this.  We need to assume that we have the truth in order to get on with the practical business of living.  I fail to see why claims in the area of religion should be any different.

I would further suggest that those who object to absolute truth claims invariably contradict themselves.  Borg himself objects to early versions of Christianity.  Yes, there are times where he tries to be careful not to say that one way is right and the other is wrong (18).  But the overall thrust of the book is that early Christianity is “anti-intellectual,” outdated, and wrong (15).  Emergent Christianity is where it is at.  Any truly enlightened Christian will climb on board. So one way is right, and the other way is wrong.  Indeed, any objections to exclusivism end up being exclusive in their own right.  Hear again what Alvin Plantinga says of the charge of arrogance often made against exclusivists: “The charges of arrogance are a philosophical tar baby:  Get close enough to them to use them against the exclusivists and you are likely to find them stuck fast to yourself” (“A Defense of Religious Exclusivism”).

Borg goes on to provide an account of the similarities and differences between religions, and to a large extent I agree with his analysis (215-19).  He then gives his own “testimony” as to why he adheres to a religious tradition and more specifically why he is a Christian (222-5).  “We need a path.  We are lost without one.  Community and tradition articulate, embody, and nurture a path…. Religious community and tradition put us in touch with the wisdom and beauty of the past.  They are communities of memory.”  And why specifically a Christian community and tradition?  Because for Borg, this is familiar.  It is his home.  “Its worship nourishes me; its hymns move me; its scripture and theology engage my imagination and thought; its practices shape me.” This is an inspiring account of why Borg is a Christian!  And then he once again addresses the issue of pluralism and exclusivism, arguing that “we do not need to feel that our home is superior to every other home in order to love it” (224).  The problem here is that most people, most of the time, do feel that their home is superior to every other home, that is if they are honest. Borg gives us a moving account of why he is a Christian.  What he fails to realize is that it there is nothing in his account which is incompatible with a humble exclusivism.  Indeed, some honest introspection would reveal that deep down inside Borg is a humble exclusivist. We all only see through a glass darkly (I Cor. 13:12).

I move on to another issue addressed in Chapter 3, where Borg boldly states that “the Bible is at the heart of Christianity” (47).  “To be a Christian means to be in a primary continuing conversation with the Bible as a foundation for our identity and vision.  If this conversation ceases or becomes haphazard, then we cease to be Christian” (47).  These are bold claims.  Indeed, I can’t quarrel with these assertions. But, we must be careful not to be fooled by traditional sounding language.  In fact Borg’s understanding of the Bible is very different from that of traditional Christianity.  Borg is worried about the biblical literalism and the emphasis on biblical infallibility, historical factuality and moral and doctrinal absolutes that characterize traditional Christianity (43). He offers us instead an understanding of the Bible that is “historical,” “metaphorical,” and “sacramental” (44). Here again we must pay careful attention to the way in which Borg uses certain words.  When he talks about the Bible as historical he does not mean that the Bible is giving us factual history.  Instead, he sees the Bible as “the product of two historical communities, ancient Israel and the early Christian movement” (45).  The Bible simply tells us how our spiritual ancestors understood and experienced God. The Bible is not “absolute truth” or “God’s revealed truth,” but “relative and culturally conditioned” (45).  And then this blunt statement: “As such, it is a human product, not a divine product” (45).

Strangely, Borg goes on to say that he is not denying that the Bible is “inspired by God” (46).  I find it very difficult to reconcile this statement with his earlier claim that the Bible is not a divine product.  This sounds contradictory.  Borg is also guilty of caricaturing the traditional Christian position as to the status of the Bible.  While he occasionally admits that some traditional Christians hold to a soft kind of literalism (8-9), in the main he characterizes them as adopting a hard kind of literalism where every word of the bible is to be taken literally. I don’t believe this is a fair characterization of most Christians, as it is rather obvious that the language of the Bible is multifaceted, sometimes literal, and sometimes metaphorical.  Again, Borg at times admits this (49), but then goes right on to maintain that “much” of the language of the Bible is metaphorical.  How much?  He also goes on to dismiss the accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection as not literal, but metaphorical.  Why?  At bottom, his reason for such dismissal rests on his rejection of the possibility of miracles, a point I have already dealt with.

There are in fact very good reasons to believe that the accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection should be taken literally.  Luke’s gospel is the result of careful investigation of reports that were handed down to him by the first eye-witnesses of Jesus (Lk. 1:1-4).  John stresses that the gospel being proclaimed was based on that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched” (I John 1:1).  Paul highlights the factual nature of the tradition he is passing on, and specifically underscores the Jesus’ physical appearance to many after his resurrection (I Cor. 15:1-8).  And Peter reminds his readers that the good news didn’t involve “cleverly invented stories” but was instead based on eye-witness accounts of Jesus (II Peter 1:16).

Borg maintains that an emphasis on the literal-factual interpretation of the Bible is a modern phenomenon, a reaction to the Enlightenment (12, 56).  This is plainly false.  The early church clearly interpreted the accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection as literal and factual.  Of course, they also understood that are parts of the Bible that are metaphorical.  Some of the language of the Bible is poetic in nature, and for that reason should not be taken literally. So we need to take great care in distinguishing between poetic and literal language in the Bible.  We need clear criteria to make this distinction.  And we need to avoid Borg-like generalizations to the effect that “much” of the language of the Bible is “obviously metaphorical” (49).  Indeed, exactly the opposite is true.  Much of the language of the Bible is historical in nature, and the gospels accounts and Acts are clearly meant to be taken literally.  Unfortunately, Borg does not, in this book, spell out the criteria he uses to discredit the literal-factual nature of much of the Bible. But he does identify himself as “a historical Jesus scholar” (xiii).   This is not the place to evaluate the criteria used by scholars of the Jesus Seminar to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic sayings of Jesus.  Various scholars have identified significant problems in the criteria used by the Jesus Seminar, and their work is today rejected by many prominent theologians.

There is one more problem with Borg’s treatment of the Bible.  Borg maintains not only that much of the language is metaphorical, but that metaphorical language can be true (49-50).  Again, there is something to be said for the claim that truth can be conveyed by metaphor.  Poetry can convey profound truth.  A novel can give us a truthful depiction of reality. Indeed, I find Borg’s analysis of some of the deeper meanings conveyed by the stories of creation, and Jesus’ virgin birth and resurrection to be quite illuminating.  But, and this is a big BUT, there is nothing incompatible with claiming that these stories are factually true and that they also convey deeper meanings. Indeed, Borg is simply mistaken when he suggests that an emphasis on the historical factuality of the stories distracts from their meaning (53).  An Easter sermon that proclaims the historical veracity of Jesus’ resurrection can be, and in evangelical circles, most often is combined with an affirmation that Jesus lives and wants to be Lord even today – Borg’s own interpretation of the meaning of the Easter stories (54).  Indeed, the Christian hope of resurrection after death is dependant on taking literally Jesus own resurrection from the dead, as Paul argues so eloquently in I Cor. 15:12.  Paul goes on: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (v. 14).  Metaphors simply cannot provide the comfort and hope that Christians need at funerals.

One final evaluative point.  Again and again I find the language Borg uses to be very misleading.  For example, early in the book Borg maintains that in his emerging paradigm he “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” (17).  But, Borg has radically altered the traditional understanding of each of these themes (17).  Let me focus here on one of these – the centrality of Jesus (Ch. 5).  Borg argues that Christianity finds the primary revelation of God in a person, namely Jesus, the Word made flesh (80).  He declares the following as the central meaning of the incarnation: “Jesus is what can be seen of God embodied in a human life” (80).  He even declares Jesus as more important than the Bible in disclosing who God is (81). This sounds so orthodox! I can agree with all of this.

But in the next section we discover that Borg is using orthodox language in a very unorthodox way.  We are informed that the traditional way of interpreting all of this “no longer works for millions of people, both within and outside of the church” (82).  To interpret Jesus as literally performing miracles, being born of a virgin, and rising from the dead, and claiming to be the only way of salvation is “not only unpersuasive, but a barrier to being Christian” (81-2).  Here again, we discover that truth is to be determined by popular vote, including the vote of those outside the church! And again Borg gives us a metaphorical interpretation of the life Jesus.  We need to distinguish between a “pre-Easter Jesus,”  an itinerant and wise teacher, and a “post-Easter Jesus,” a Jesus still in the grave, but who is reinvented by the disciples and given supernatural powers.  We are told that to emphasize the divinity of Jesus in fact undermines the utterly remarkable human being that he was” (83).  This needs some argument!  And again we are told that a literal reading of Jesus is a distraction and a stumbling block to understanding the true metaphorical meaning of his life, works, and words (86).  I have already argued that this is a false claim.  And once again we are reminded that “a strong majority of mainline scholars” do not believe that Jesus speaks of himself as the Messiah, the Son of God or the Light of the world (86, cf. 92).  But note, not everyone, even among mainline scholars, agrees with Borg and company. Indeed, there are eminent scholars who disagree with Borg and the Jesus seminar, and who find the distinction between the pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus to be based on arbitrary criteria.  But what is perhaps more disturbing is way in which Borg and company use conventional language and then rob it of its conventional meaning.  This is at best misleading, and at worst outright deception.

Running throughout the book is a contrast between two paradigms of Christianity, an early and an emerging vision of the Christian tradition and the Christian life.  Early in the book, Borg informs us that the emerging paradigm “is widely shared among theological and biblical scholars and increasingly among laity and clergy within mainline denominations” (13).  Borg and other scholars advocating the emerging paradigm at times are very confident that the emerging paradigm is correct one and that it will eventually win out (see esp. Phyllis Tickle).  This is presumptuous.  Yes, at times Borg tries to bridge the differences between the two paradigms (16-18).  In good postmodern fashion, he informs us that “there is no single right way of understanding Christianity and no single right way of being Christian” (17).  Sadly, this is contradicted in the very next sentence when Borg informs us that “there are some wrong ways of being Christian,” one obvious example being a group like the Ku Klux Klan (17).  I quite agree!  But, you can’t have it both ways!  And the overall thrust of Borg’s book is that his emerging paradigm is the right way to understand Christianity and the Christian life. I believe that he has got it wrong.

What we have here is not the gospel of the New Testament, or the gospel of the early apostles, but a gospel according to Marcus Borg.  While his book attempts to define “the heart of Christianity” he has in fact ripped the heart of out of Christianity, and there is nothing left but a story of a good man, part fictional, and part historical.  While such stories can be inspirational, they are hardly the stuff one would live for or die for.  And Borg’s gospel simply will not sustain the practical challenges of living the Christian life which he so passionately tries to articulate in Part Two of his book.  But to argue this point would require another essay!