Guest Blogger Jonathan Hogarth and I first met when training at St Andrew’s Hall before Jonathan and his family left for service through the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in Africa. I always found his theological reflection thorough, challenging and pastoral. I share his recent writing on Borg for your stimulation and as a fine example of critical review.
Borg’s “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith” [Harper and Collins, 2004]
by Jonathan Hogarth,[Th.Schol, M.A.]
In his book Marcus Borg attempts to explain the doctrinal and ethical bases of a quite recent movement in the churches that in the text is politely referred to as “the emerging paradigm”. However in his dedication it is referred to as “progressive Christianity.” This is a term I have already encountered in various churches and is meant in contrast to conservative evangelical, Bible believing, Christianity. As you read you are left in no doubt he thinks the latter is regressive, though that inference is mine.
My review covers the main topics discussed by Borg, namely, the authority of the Bible, God, Jesus, the death of Christ and the shape of the Christian life today. It is good to have the chance to critique a presentation of one of the latest faces of liberalism, that is already promoted in the Australian church, though Borg eschews that description of his work.
I also take up the important issue of how religious language is used. This is a very important underlying aspect of Borg’s work though he does not dwell on it in the book. I argue that his reliance on metaphor as an overarching description of much of the Bible’s language, and indeed of Jesus as a metaphor of “a life lived for God” involves a fundamental error that I try to elucidate at some length.
Full Review: pdf
Marcus Borg’s chief aim in this book is to so present the Christian faith that his conception of “the modern rational man” will be able to understand it. He believes a lot of what currently passes for Christianity is unintelligible to rational people.
Borg primarily uses the tool of metaphor to accomplish this task. Much of what he terms metaphorical is so called to give him the latitude he needs to reinterpret its message. In doing this he makes the fundamental error of divorcing much of his metaphorical reinterpretation from their referents in the narratives of the biblical text. Narrative is the genre of personal identity. God’s narrative tells us about his character. When we come to faith in Christ God’s narrative becomes ours by His grace and His Spirit. Borg thinks metaphor assists him to overcome the intellectual process of believing “facts” in the Bible, a characteristic he associates with “the earlier paradigm” of Christianity that he wishes to supercede. However to have identifiable meaning metaphor has referents. These occur in the associated narratives, primarily the Penteteuch [Genesis to Deuteronomy and the gospels, and Acts]. Loose the metaphors from this context and you can do with them what you like. Borg also uses the concepts “historical” and “sacramental” in other than usual ways to help him relativise the content of Christianity for his rationalising aims.
When discussing traditional views of God he believes traditional doctrines of a transcendent God make Him distant. Following many recent liberals, and New Age spiritualists, he adopts panentheism. This is an advance on many gods [pantheism] to God in everything, the world being the fabric of divinity. This for him brings God nearer. But a God who is in everything rather than an holy ‘other’ does not come personally in love and grace to create, sustain, judge, redeeem and save the world he made. Rather the panentheists god who is thereby present in every phenomenon of every religion in the same way, leads him to believe we are all climbing up the same mountain by different paths.
As Borg removed the divine aspect from the Bible so with Jesus whose divinity in His consciousness and His actions is removed. He becomes almost entirely a figure of his time politically and socially. Borg thinks this makes Him a real person to us again. He also reconfigures the death of Christ away from its traditional redeeeming function, describing such belief as a creation of the faith of the post Easter church. For Borg Jesus presence is not closely related to the Holy Spirit. He is just one of the many metaphors and sacraments of the presence of God, though the best one! The Holy Spirit is not the risen, living presence of Jesus in the church’s life, the second person of the Holy Trinity, that we see in the Acts of the Apostles.
Understandably Borg is at his best when discussing the shape of the Christian life. This is because it is practical. Its not so much about believing as reflecting and acting [conscientisation]. His notion of praxis is closely related to his understandimg of the Kingdom of God, which is the theatre of the political relevance of God’s passion for justice. It tackles injustice in every form. This is for Borg the inspiration and path of growing toward the God with whom he thinks we have always been in relationship since birth.
However as he consistently does, Borg criticises Christians of the earlier paradigm for having ignored praxis for a concentration on bringing people to “believe.” It is only when he gets to discuss worship as an elememt of praxis [a total response to God] that a problem with his approach rears up. For Borg worship is not an “intellectual exercise” not about “thinking of the meaning of words”, and “not propositional but sacramental.” I suggest he needs a both/and approach here. No worship nor sacrament of the Christian church should be entered unthinkingly. Sacramental is not usually used over and against propositional but it has to so be for Borg’s rationale. Borg wants to be freed from the bondage of traditional propositions. In wide applications of his three key words metaphorical, historical (dated), and sacramental he has cut himself so far free that what he ends up with cannot be called or even seen to be based on historic Christianity. I think it closely resembles a description of some liberal approaches in the words of the great theologian Karl Barth, namely, that it represents “flat tyre Christianity.”