THE WORD ACCORDING TO BORG
Scholar's take on the Bible brings a shocking
crosscurrent to the Christian mainstream
By Sandi Dolbee
RELIGION & ETHICS EDITOR
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
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.
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.
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
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
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,
You write and you talk about forming a new
relationship with God that goes beyond belief. What should this relationship
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?
Less on belief and more on spirituality. And I
define spirituality as the experiential side of religion - practice and
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
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
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
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
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.