Saturday, October 17, 2009

Marcus J. Borg - "Redeeming Christian Language"

Thursday a friend and I drove (about 3 hours) to Wartburg Seminary to hear Marcus Borg speak on the subject of a new book he's working on, "Redeeming Christian Language". If you follow theology and biblical studies at all, you will have heard of him. He's written a LOT of stuff and is member of the infamous Jesus Seminar.

Some may accuse me of understatement when I say, he's a little outside of mainstream Christian thinking. Or maybe he's not. I don't agree with everything he says but I will say this, this was one of the most intellectually challenging, interesting, well presented, thought provoking continuing ed event I've been to in a few years. Which certainly doesn't say much for our orthodox theologians does it?

The premise of Borg's lectures and his upcoming book is that much of Christian language is poorly understood by people today, both within the church and certainly by those outside the church. He's seeking to reclaim and (and sometimes I think redefine) basic Christian concepts like salvation, sin, redemption, repentance, righteousness.

I agree with his premise, and am with him in a lot of what he says. I totally agree with him that substitutionary atonement makes absolutely no sense to most people who did not grow up in the church. I did not grow up in the church and that is just not an understanding of what happened on the cross that has ever made sense to me. However, his understanding of Jesus' death makes what happened little more meaningful than Martin Luther King jr.'s death. Yes, the dream lives on. But nobody was saved by MLK jr's death. And I'm not sure Borg believes anybody was saved by Jesus' death.

He's pretty down on heaven or what he calls the "afterlife" -"Agnostic on the Afterlife" I'd wanted to say to him "tell me about this afterlife you don't believe in because I don't believe in it either." (Which I stole from his line "Tell me about this god you don't believe in because I probably don't believe in him either)

I agree that salvation, transformation begins in this life, today. I totally am on board with his impatience with a faith that is so terribly focused on going to heaven when you die because you believe Jesus died for your sins. But I really resonate with N.T Wright's understanding of heaven as another dimension of reality that exists now and that it is the vision and the hope of THAT reality that is the impetus for living out the values of God's Kingdom in this world. But the problem with it all being about what happens in this world is...well, people still live and die in slavery and oppression and war and hunger. And there's got to be more than just what we see. I need the promise that God's Kingdom will prevail and there is a place where God's Kingdom does prevail and it is present here though not totally fulfilled, whenever God's people live by the values of the Kingdom.

I tried to ask him that question and he got all caught up in this understanding of "afterlife" that I certainly don't subscribe to. And then he said Wright was a good friend but he didn't think his understanding of heaven made any sense.

And there's that whole "bodily resurrection" thing that gets some of the more orthodox twisted in knots. Let's not go there today.

But Borg is right about this. We have to get out of the church language and speak and do theology in a way that makes sense to people who aren't hearing and understanding our "church speak" And if Borg's understanding of God and Christ and salvation isn't exactly the way I understand it, or even if it's outside what the church deems "orthodox" but it brings Christ and the message of freedom and grace and transformation to people who otherwise wouldn't hear it...well then he's doing a heck of a lot more for the Kingdom of God than most of us who are arguing about stuff that makes no never mind to those on the outside.


  1. Thanks for asking that question!
    I was there and enjoyed it (and realized I may miss school more than I like to admit!) My (more conservative) colleague's response: "I liked it much more than I thought I would."

    It certainly is true that we have to find a way to speak "Christian" to the world. To "translate" the gospel so that it means something to our culture. And there, I am with Borg 110%--that the focus on the afterlife has done us a great disservice in a culture that wants change in this life, not the next.

  2. yes, this is exactly what I thlnk! It's great to know there are others who enjoy reading Borg without subscribing to everything he says.

    I think that as a paradoxical Lutheran we need to hold together the truth of change in this life and the next. We can't just wait for the next life; we have to be doing something now; but we're never going to get done all of the things we dream of and hope for, either. it's a multi-generational effort.

    Actually, I think Wright's view of heaven/the afterlife DOES make sense.

    And I really agree with his language assertions.

  3. I'm flashing back to the conversation about bodily resurrection in seminary. What a disturbing and mind-boggling hour THAT was!