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Marcus Borg, Favorite Scholar of Liberal UM Leaders (e.g. Bishop Sprague), Explains his Heresy to Reporter


Scholar's take on the Bible brings a shocking crosscurrent to the Christian mainstream

By Sandi Dolbee
of the San Diego Union-Tribune

February 1, 2002

Jesus didn't walk on water, wasn't born of a virgin and didn't intend to start a new religion.

This is just some of the gospel according to Marcus Borg, one of the leading scholars in a movement to redefine the Bible for those Christians looking for an alternative to literal interpretations.

The demand for this alternative, he says, is "enormous."

Borg, who teaches religion and culture at Oregon State University, logs 100,000 miles a year on the lecture circuit. He's scheduled through 2004 and has accepted his first invitation for 2005. His books are among the most popular of their kind; "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time," which came out in 1994, was a best seller.

He's also a member of the infamous Jesus Seminar, a controversial group of scholars that votes on the authenticity of the Jesus' words and deeds as portrayed in the New Testament.

Rebel? Heretic?

The 59-year-old Borg, who grew up Lutheran and now is an Episcopalian (he's married to an Episcopal priest), would prefer to think of himself as an evangelist.

An evangelist?

We recently caught up with Borg, when he was in town for a talk at UCSD and an all-day class at a local church. What follows are excerpts of what he had to say.

Fasten your theological seat belts.

QUESTION: Who was Jesus?

ANSWER: My shorthand answer to that is that Jesus was a Jewish mystic and is the Christian Lord.

When you say he was the Christian Lord, what do you mean?

First of all, I mean he's Lord for that religious community. Lord, on one hand, is one of the names of God. So to say Jesus is Christian Lord is what I refer to as the post-Easter Jesus. The pre-Easter Jesus is the Jewish mystic. The post-Easter Jesus is one with God, is experienced as God.

Was Jesus God incarnate?

Yes and no. No and yes.

He didn't have a divine mind. He had a human mind like all the rest of us. He didn't have divine powers. Whatever powers he did have were the spirit working through him. He probably thought the world was flat, because most people did. That's just a way of saying he didn't have omniscience or any of those things. Sometimes, when people say Jesus is God or Jesus is God incarnate, they mean something like that. So the "no" part is that he's not different, in kind, from us.

The "yes" part is that I see him as so deeply open to the spirit of God that he could be filled with the spirit in a remarkable way. So he shows us what the spirit embodied in a human life looked like. He shows us what a life full of God looked like.

In that sense, yeah, he's the embodiment of the wisdom of God, of the word of God, of the spirit of God.

You're stopping short of saying what traditional Christianity has said: that Jesus is God come down on earth.

Yeah. I think that language is almost always misunderstood. And I think the effect of that language is Jesus ceases to be human. And if we lose track of the humanity of Jesus, we lose track of how utterly remarkable he was.

I think, for many people, "God come down to earth" means he looks like us and talks like us, but deep down he really is God and knows everything that's going to happen, could use his powers to get out of whatever predicament he finds himself in, can do stupendous things like multiplying loaves and walking on water.

I see all of those stories as what I would call metaphorical narratives. As stories whose meaning is more than literal.

The miracles didn't happen, literally?

I think Jesus performed paranormal healings and exorcisms. The other miracle stories, which I prefer to call stories of the spectacular, I think are metaphorical narratives about the significance of Jesus.

One of my favorite ones is the wedding at Cana. It's the opening scene of Jesus' public activity in John's Gospel. It's the author's way of saying, "Do you want to know what this story's all about? Well, it's about a wedding. And it's about a wedding banquet. And it's about a wedding banquet at which the wine never runs out. And it's about a wedding banquet at which the wine never runs out and the best is saved for last." . . .

John uses that opening scene to say that this is what the Gospel is about. It's about the marriage of heaven and earth. It's about a wedding banquet in which the wine never runs out.

A literal factual reading of that story is kind of flat. It would tend to emphasize that Jesus was able to turn a huge amount of water into wine and that proves that he was full of divine power or that he was the Son of God. Suddenly, it becomes a statement about the spectacular powers of Jesus, rather than this marvelously resonant narrative.

What do you think Jesus would think of this religion founded in his name?


I think Christianity underwent a real fall when it became the dominant religion of Western culture. . . . Once Christianity became allied with power, it tended to legitimate power. It became politically domesticated. It also tended to become a religion of the afterlife.

I think Jesus believed in an afterlife. I think Paul did. But I don't think it was essential to them. I think their vision was transformation within this life and transformation of this life.

If I had to make up a list of Christianity's 10 worst contributions to world religions, on that list would be its emphasis on an afterlife. I think it profoundly distorts what Christianity is about. I think Jesus would be critical of that. It's not about going to heaven; it's about transformation in the here and now.

I think he would be as critical of the alliance with dominant culture as he was of the domination in his day, the domination of Roman imperial power, temple establishment and so forth.

You say it's not about the afterlife, but do you believe there is an afterlife?

I'm inclined to think there's something rather than nothing at all, in part because of the research on near-death experiences. I have no idea of any of the details. Are families reunited - and if so, is that bad news or good news? Is it reincarnation rather than instant heaven or hell? I don't know. Does personal identity survive? . . .

I'm not looking forward to death. I like it here. My life has been good. I will miss it. But I also am very happy to leave the afterlife up to God and just die with the confidence that I'm dying into God, and what else that means, I have no idea.

You grew up Lutheran, became an Episcopalian and are married to an Episcopal priest. Are you a Christian?



The simplest answer is it feels like home to me. The fuller answer is I find religious community . . . (specifically worship) to be enormously nourishing. I even find contemplative prayer more powerful when done within a group than if I just do it by myself. So there is something about religious community that seems to me essential to a spiritual life.

For me, because of my familiarity of the Christian tradition, as well as deep admiration for its riches - its richness of theology, music, practice, all of that - this is the tradition for me.

But I don't for a moment think that it is the only legitimate religion or even that it is the most superior. I'm quite happy to have Christianity be one of a constellation of first-magnitude stars.

But you are part of a religious tradition you have taken radical umbrage to. You stand up, with others in the Jesus Seminar, and say these things really aren't true.

I don't think I would ever put it that way myself. I would distinguish between factual and true. I don't think the story of the virgin birth is factual. I don't think the story of Jesus walking on the water is factual. And yet, I see these as true stories. I see these as poetry-plus, not fact-minus.

You write and you talk about forming a new relationship with God that goes beyond belief. What should this relationship look like?

Faith is about paying attention to our relationship with God. And we pay attention to that relationship just like we pay attention to a human relationship. We spend time with it, we cultivate it, we remember it.

I think the purpose of Christian practices is to really nourish that relationship. I sometimes, in shorthand, speak of the Christian life as being about open hearts and thin places. Open hearts, the opening of yourself at the deepest level to God. Thin places is from Celtic spirituality. Thin places are places where the border or the boundary separating the world of the spirit from our ordinary life becomes very soft, very porous, very malleable. . .

To many people, nature can become a thin place, music can become a thin place. But to relate it back to Christian practice, I think the purpose of prayer is to become a thin place. The purpose of worship is to become a thin place. And so by spending time in thin places, we nourish our relationship with God.

What you're saying is that Christians should concentrate less on belief and more on building a relationship with God?

Yep, yep.

Less on belief and more on spirituality. And I define spirituality as the experiential side of religion - practice and experience.

Why have you devoted your life to this, to pushing people beyond the bounds, to being, sometimes, a controversial voice?

Let me try to give you two things. One is that my whole life has shaped me to do this. Born into a devout Christian family, given certain intellectual gifts, and an opportunity.

The other reason I want to mention, though, is there are so many people for whom a literal understanding of the Bible has become an impossible obstacle. A lot of my passion is evangelistic. I'm saying to people, "There is a way of seeing the Bible in the Christian tradition as really true even though it's not all literally true."

So I think the issue of presenting people with a historical, metaphorical way of looking at Scripture is an issue of evangelism.

What do you say to the critics who call your work heresy or suggest you are undermining the Christian faith?

One of the things I say to them is, "What do you say to the millions of people who can't be literalists?" Do we say, "Sorry, only literalists can be Christians." Or, "Sorry, God accepts only literalists."

And I also try to build bridges to them. And one of the bridges is this relational vision of the Christian life.

The one-liner I will use most often when I'm being confronted personally by somebody who's upset by the very reason you've just suggested, is I will say to them, "Would you agree with me that at the center of the Christian life is a relationship with God as known in Jesus?" And I've never had one of them say no to that. Then I will say, "If we agree about that, that might give us some room to talk about our disagreements."

Where do you go from here? What lies ahead?

I will keep doing what I'm doing because I love it.

I think I know what my next book is going to be. It's going to be called "The Heart of Christianity." It might be called "With New Eyes: The Heart of Christianity." It's a working title; the publisher hasn't signed off on it yet.

In that book, I'm going to talk about what I think is most central to being a Christian. . . . Even though I'm perhaps best known as a Jesus scholar and that's really how I became visible, my passion has always been larger than that. It's really about seeing Christianity again. Seeing the tradition again. And I emphasize it's not about replacing the tradition with something else, but it's about seeing the tradition itself with new eyes.

I sometimes regret doing comparisons like this, but there are conservative and fundamentalist Christians who take it for granted that they are the ones who take the tradition seriously. And, in fact, their way of seeing the tradition is simply one way of seeing the tradition.

So when I speak of seeing Christianity again, I'm talking about seeing the Christian tradition in light of who we have become at the start of the 21st century.

Copyright 2002 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.


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