The Marcus J. Borg Foundation

Marcus J. Borg
We are delighted to celebrate Marcus’ life with the establishment of the Marcus J. Borg Foundation. This Foundation is in remembrance of Marcus’ life and teaching, and is dedicated to the promotion of his progressive Christian thought, education and discipleship. In support of the Foundation, the Marcus J. Borg Foundation, built by your donations, will help to continue the impact that Marcus’ life had on so many people. Our hearts are heavy with the loss of Marcus, but we are joyful and strong in the knowledge that Marcus’ work will live on. Celebrate his life and help us continue touching lives through Marcus.

Please click here to learn more about
The Marcus J. Borg Foundation
and make a donation to the Foundation’s fund

Marcus Borg | March 11, 1942 – January 21, 2015

marcusMarcus J. Borg, beloved husband and father, renowned teacher, author and leading scholar of the historical Jesus, New Testament and contemporary Christianity, died on January 21, 2015, following a battle with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. He was 72 years of age.

Marcus Borg was an internationally revered speaker and scholar who authored or co‐authored 21 books, some which were New York Times and national bestsellers. His books have won multiple awards and been translated into twelve languages. The New York Times called him, “a leading figure in his generation of Jesus scholars.”

Marcus Borg earned his doctorate degree from Oxford University. He was a professor at Oregon State University for 28 years where he held the Hundere Chair of Religion and Culture at the time of his retirement in 2007. His long career has included appointment as Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon, chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature and co‐chair of its International New Testament Program Committee, president of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars, and a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. He was a greatly sought‐after speaker and lecturer domestically and internationally at universities, colleges, churches, retreat centers and museums, including both The Chautauqua and The Smithsonian institutions.

Mark Tauber, SVP and Publisher of HarperOne, says, “I am deeply saddened by the passing of our author and our friend Marcus Borg. His life and his work have been a challenge, a comfort and an inspiration to literally millions of readers and students over the years. Marcus was unafraid to follow the scholarly evidence where it led him while both communicating complexity fluently and remaining a man of faith. In these times when writing and speaking (and illustrating) messages and stories that seek truth are dangerous, Marcus Borg was a hero and a beacon.”

Marcus Borg was known for teaching that a deep understanding of the historical Jesus and the New Testament can lead to a more authentic life—one not rooted in dogma, but spiritual challenge, compassion, community and justice. He was often quoted and re‐taught, among many things, for his work on the meaning of Easter and resurrection. He wrote, “Easter is not primarily about Jesus’ triumph over death and future for us beyond death. Rather Easter stories in the gospels and the affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection in the rest of the New Testament are much more significant. Moreover, their meanings are not dependent upon whether a spectacular miracle happened to the physical body of Jesus.”

Marcus is survived by his wife Marianne, son Dane, son‐in‐law Benjamin, daughter Julie, grandson Carter, and terriers Henry and Abbey. A public memorial of celebration and remembrance will be held at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Portland OR on Sunday, March 22, at 2 pm.

Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most

Convictions, my newest book, is a bit of a memoir, even as it is not an autobiography.

Rather, it combines the triad of memories, conversions, and convictions. Memories – of growing up Christian and American more than half a century ago and what I absorbed then. Conversions – major changes in those understandings that have happened in my adult life. Convictions –foundational ways of seeing and living that are more or less settled and not easily shaken (but are neither dogmatic nor closed to change).

The book was birthed in my experience of turning 70.

What was then my home congregation, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon, where my wife Marianne had been a priest and canon for eighteen years and I a member for the same period of time, invited me to preach on the Sunday of my 70th birthday.

I had taught there frequently and had been bestowed with the title “canon theologian.” The title does not mean that I am a priest. I am not. Ordination is not a requirement for becoming a “canon.” Rather, Marianne tells me, “canon” means “big shot.”

Preaching on the occasion of my 70th birthday to a congregation in which I was known emboldened me. Though for many years, I have not been especially timid, that occasion led me to think, “What are the convictions that my life has led me to that I most want to speak as I turn 70?” If we don’t share those at 70, when will we?

My convictions are about the past and the present. Beginning fifty or more years ago, my intellectual passion became the study of the Bible, Jesus, Christian origins, Christian history, and to a lesser but substantial extent, other religions.

From that study – convictions about the past – has emerged a set of convictions about what it should mean to be Christian today. And to be Christian and American today, the cultural context that has shaped me and that I know best.

My working title for this book was “what I wish every American Christian knew.” I am convinced – convicted – that if American Christians knew and embraced what is in this book that it would change American Christianity – and American society, culture, and politics.

Read more about “Convictions”

Has Christmas Been Swallowed by the Miraculous?

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

Like a preacher who has pastored a congregation for more than a year, I am faced with the task of saying something about Advent again without simply saying what I said last year in my Advent blogs. And I commend those to you.

Of course, some repetition is unavoidable. Hard to talk about Advent and Christmas without seeking to emphasize what matters most. What is Advent with its climax in Christmas about?

To say the obvious, Christmas has rich cultural meanings. It is the most widely-celebrated holiday in the world, even by many who are not Christian. At its best, its cultural meanings are about generosity, gift-giving, good will, and gatherings with family and friends. These are good things, even as the cultural commemoration of Christmas has virtually been swallowed up by commercialism. It is the spending season of the year. That has been lamented by many, so I will say no more about it.

The religious meaning of this season can include all of the above even as it adds a quite different emphasis. For Christians, Advent (as its Latin etymology affirms) is about the coming of Jesus, in the past and the future. His first more than 2000 years ago when he was born into a historical life of humility and vulnerability; and his second in the future when he will return as judge of the living and the dead and establish God’s kingdom on earth. The first is more emphasized. How many Christmas cards have you seen that highlight the second coming? Or Christmas hymns have you sung about his future return? There are some but not many.

The problem with the Christian meaning of Advent and Christmas is not primarily commercialism, though that affects many. Rather, Advent and Christmas have virtually been swallowed up by the miraculous. The angel Gabriel comes to the virgin Mary and tells her she will conceive without the involvement of a human father. Prophets foretell such a birth, and even its location in Bethlehem, despite Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth. A special star moves with the precision of a global-positioning device to lead wisemen from the east to the place of Jesus’s birth. Angels sing in the night sky to shepherds. These are the themes of Christmas cards, hymns, manger scenes, concerts, and pageants.

To be candid, I do not think that any of this happened. Of course, there is some historical memory in the stories. Jesus was born. He really lived. He was Jewish. His parents’ names were Mary and Joseph. They lived in Nazareth, a very small peasant village, perhaps as small as a few hundred. But I do not think that there was an annunciation by an angel to Mary, or a virginal conception, or a special star, or wisemen from the East visiting the infant Jesus, or angels filling the night with glory as they sang to shepherds.

Yet I am not a “debunker” of these stories. I do not dismiss them as “fables” or “fabrications” or “falsehoods.” Many in the modern world do see the two options as “it happened this way” or “it didn’t” – and if it didn’t, then we are dealing with delusions and deceptions. A few years ago, a television special on these stories posed the question that way: are they “fact or fable”?

There is a third option. Namely, the Christmas stories with their miraculous elements were not intended to be “factual” in the sense of reporting what actually happened. Rather, they are early Christian testimony, written roughly a hundred years after Jesus’s birth. They testify to the significance that Jesus had come to have in their lives and experience and thought. The stories are parabolic, metaphorical narratives that can be true without being factual.

He was for them, in imagery from the birth stories themselves, the light in the darkness, the new Moses who confronts a new Pharaoh, the fulfillment of ancient Israel’s and humanity’s hopes and yearnings, the way of return from exile, the Spirit and Word of God revealed and embodied in a human life.

That is the testimony of the stories of Advent and Christmas. To make their truth dependent upon the factuality of the miraculous as some Christians and some rejecters do is mistaken. It distorts what they are about. Advent and Christmas are about the biblical hope and way, the path, to a new kind of world.   They are about our rebirth and the world’s rebirth.

To those Christians who insist that the miraculous parts of the Christmas stories really happened, I gently and respectfully ask, “What is lost by letting go of that?” And, “Is anything gained by thinking of these elements in the stories as affirmations of the significance of Jesus?” That he and what happened through him is “of God”?

Does the truth of Christmas depend upon the “happenedness” of the miraculous? Or is its truth more-than-factual?  For me, the answer is clear. For me as a Christian, Jesus is light in the darkness, the path of liberation, the way of return, the Word of God and Spirit of God embodied in a human life. In him we see God’s passion for a different kind of world. That’s what his coming and Christmas are about.

Remembering Our Death: What May Be at Stake

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

A great change has occurred in the rituals, formal and informal, surrounding dying and death in North America. Here and in other contemporary western cultures, our customary practices around dying and death, have changed dramatically. For millennia, both were part of the familiar fabric of human experience. But no longer.

There is more than one reason. Life expectancy was much lower. As recently as 1900 in the United States, it was 45 years. Infant and children mortality rates were high. Of my paternal grandparents’ ten children, three died before adulthood.   Mortality rates in childbirth were also high.

Most people died at home, not in a hospital. Thus almost everybody would have experienced a death before they were adults. Depending upon their age, children would have been involved in the care of a dying person and likely present at their death.

After death, the body was not removed to a funeral home. Rather, the family was responsible for preparing the corpse for washing and dressing it for burial. The wake would also be in the home, commonly in the parlor. Hence the names “funeral home” and “funeral parlor” for the enterprises that now perform that role in our customs around death.

These developments are not simply regrettable. Though modern medicine has mostly removed the place of death to hospitals, it is welcomed by most of us. So are the services of funeral directors, funeral homes, cemeteries and crematoria. Most of us have no idea what to do with a corpse. But the removal of dying and death from home and family to institutions has created a huge change in our intimacy with death.

Consider the good death in pre-modern Europe, the ideal death, the beautiful death, as described by cultural historian Philippe Aries in The Hour of Our Death. Because Europe was then Christian, it is also a pre-modern Christian way of death. Its central features included dying at home, surrounded by family and friends, with final lamentations, good-byes and blessings. Presided over by the church, it also included confession of sins, absolution, a final eucharist and extreme unction. And then a silent wait for the gradual but ideally quick descent into death. The dying person experienced it. Family and friends experienced it.

How often death happened in this idealized way and how this ideal was shaped by social class remains debated. Did most die this way? Or was this an ideal and not convention? But it is sharply different from how we experience dying and death. Our ancestors of whatever social class were familiar with death in ways that we are not.

The change has led some cultural commentators to argue that America and other modern societies have become death-denying cultures. The claim needs some explanation.

It does not mean that we are intellectually ignorant that we will die. Few of us would get that wrong on a true-false test. Moreover, we are visually (if not viscerally) more aware of death than any generation prior to us. The news is full of it. Headlines highlight death and the threat of death: natural catastrophes, wars, terrorism, plane crashes, Ebola, the perils of artificial turf, to mention a few recent ones. Video games (though I do not know them firsthand) are filled with killing and death. So are many movies. I have heard that the average American child sees over 20,000 video deaths by adulthood.

On the other hand, most of us, as described early in this blog, have very little firsthand experience of death.  The psychological and spiritual effects of that unfamiliarity are unclear.

Over a hundred years ago, the Danish philosopher-theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) in his powerful, dense, and lengthy essay “The Decisiveness of Death: At the Side of the Grave” argued that there is an enormous difference between knowing the syllogism “All people are mortal” and “Therefore I am mortal” and the vivid and earnest awareness of one’s own death – that it will happen to me. The latter involves radical certainty (there will come a time when the coffin is closed on me) and uncertainty (we know neither its timing nor location – perhaps yet today).

Knowing only the syllogism commonly leads to a life of what Kierkegaard calls “procrastination” – living as if we have an indefinite amount of time and therefore can put off really living until some future time. But the vivid awareness of one’s own death, its certainty and uncertainty, can end procrastination and impel us into the present: to live each day as if it were the last and yet also the first in a life that may have many years left.

Death is also the great equalizer. Kings and beggars, rich and poor, the mighty and the weak, are all equal in death. And yet we spend much of our lives seeking to differentiate ourselves from others and in all too many cases seek to lord it over one another. We commonly spend our energy on that which is nullified by death.

For Kierkegaard, the earnest awareness of our own death is the master teacher who can teach us how to live. Without it, we risk frittering our lives away.

This wisdom is grounded in the world’s ancient religious traditions. The theme of Psalm 90 is our mortality and concludes, “So teach us to number our days as to give us a heart of wisdom.” One of the most powerful Buddhist practices involves meditating on a cremation ground. An alternative translation of Ecclesiastes 12.1 urges us to remember our grave in the days of our youth. In many cultures, memento mori –reminders of death – function as talismans.

If this wisdom is true, than the diminishment of a visceral awareness of death and our own deaths may impede our ability to live as fully and vitally as we might. Modern western societies encourage us to live as if our futures will be indefinitely long.

So the question arises: is remembering the dead not just about remembering the dead, but about remembering our own deaths? Are our rituals around dying and death much more important for life than we may have thought?   Is death the master teacher of how to live?

What Would It Have Been Like to Be A Companion of Jesus?

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

I began keeping a journal in my early 30s, now forty years ago. I wish I had begun earlier. I would value having a written record of thoughts and experiences from my 20s and even earlier.

I mention my journal because browsing in a volume from twenty years ago is the trigger for this blog. Namely, I was reminded of preparing a short summary of what Jesus was like for a live appearance on a major network television morning news show on Good Friday.

The producer told me that I would be asked two questions, and that my response to the first question would be my opportunity for a “long” statement: up to 75 seconds. The producer also told me what my first question would be. The host would ask, “Well, what was Jesus like? What would it have been like to be a companion of Jesus?”

I was also told that the viewing audience would be around five million. Given the demographics of the U.S., the majority would be Christians, but of varying kinds: Catholics, Protestants, Pentecostals, non-denominational, conservative and progressive Christians. And a significant percent would be non-Christians, whether “nones” or members of a different religion. It was a daunting and also stimulating question. What does one say in just over a minute to an audience that large and diverse about what Jesus was like?

Twenty years later, the question strikes me as pedagogically useful for all Christians, as well as those who have heard of Jesus but are not very interested in him. What is your 75 second (about 150 words) summary of the Jesus you believe in and love? Or your 75 second summary of the Jesus you are uncertain about or indifferent to or reject?

I share my summary from twenty years ago. Recall the question: it’s about the historical Jesus, the pre-Easter Jesus. What was he like? What would it have been like to be a companion of Jesus?

Jesus was a peasant, which tells us about his social class. Clearly, he was brilliant. His use of language was remarkable and poetic, filled with images and stories. He had a metaphoric mind. He was not an ascetic, but world-affirming, with a zest for life. There was a sociopolitical passion to him – like a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King, he challenged the domination system of his day. He was a religious ecstatic, a Jewish mystic, for whom God was an experiential reality. As such, Jesus was also a healer. And there seems to have been a spiritual presence around him, like that reported of St. Francis or the Dalai Lama.

And I suggest that, as a figure of history, Jesus was an ambiguous figure – you could experience him and conclude that he was insane, as some of his family did; or that he was simply eccentric or that he was a dangerous threat; or that he was filled with the Spirit of God.

My summary of what the pre-Easter was like was and is not meant to be complete. How could any 150 word summary be? Nor did or do I imagine it to definitive or normative in the sense that any authentic summary must include these elements.

Nor is the purpose of this blog to highlight my summary. Rather, its purpose is to suggest the usefulness of thinking about what you think Jesus was like. What would you say about Jesus to the proverbial “man from Mars” in a minute or two?

Responding to a Critic: Misunderstanding or Misrepresentation?

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

To write about religion is to court controversy, conflict, and criticism. It confirms the counsel of conventional etiquette that it is best in polite conversation to avoid two subjects: religion and politics.

So I know that conflict and criticism are part of writing blogs for Patheos. Indeed, that’s what makes it worthwhile doing. If my blogs got no responses, generated no conversation, why would I want to spend time writing them? Life is too short.

But it is not as clear what I should do when perhaps the most frequent responder to my blogs at least seriously misunderstands and certainly misrepresents things I have said.

Graciousness might suggest that I simply let him have his say and not respond. Rhetorical wisdom might suggest that I not give more air time to his comments by responding to them. But either or both of those might also be condescending.

Moreover, not responding might convey the impression for other readers that he is accurately reporting things I have said. And so I have decided to respond, even as doing so risks descending into a tedious dispute of “He said I said” but “That’s not what I said.”

In one of his most recent responses to my previous blog, he wrote:

Here, on this blog, you have Mr. Borg saying that not only is Jesus not God and the Resurrection not a physical historical (and ongoing) reality…that, also, to hold to that is to be “uncritical” and “pre-critical”. So, in effect…in a Progressive administration of Christianity, those historic core faith positions are held just point blank to be not an option. One would hope, for the sake of peace, that there should at least be the position that they are valid options for a faithful Christian.

More than one thing to say. First, my position on Jesus and God and on the resurrection is more nuanced than he suggests, and he should know that from previous blogs of mine that he has read. I have said very clearly that the post-Easter Jesus is one with God, and thus part of the Trinity; and that the pre-Easter Jesus is the decisive revelation of God – the Word become flesh, embodied in a human life. But to think of the pre-Easter Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, as if he were God (what does it mean to say that?) diminishes his grandeur as a human being. Second, I have said that though I do not think the resurrection of Jesus was physical and bodily, I strongly affirm that Jesus continued to be experienced by many of his followers after his death and that such experiences continue to this day. The risen Jesus, the post-Easter Jesus, is an ongoing reality.

Third – and perhaps the most important misunderstanding or misrepresentation of my position and where it leads – he says: So, in effect…in a Progressive administration of Christianity, those historic core faith positions are held just point blank to be not an option.

I have never said that believing that Jesus was/is God is and that believing in a physical-bodily resurrection are not Christian options. Indeed, about such issues as the stories of the virgin birth, the spectacular miracles, the empty tomb, appearances of the risen Jesus in bodily form, I have said again and again, in blogs and books, I have said again and again, “Believe whatever you want about whether the stories happened this way – now let’s talk about what they mean.” That’s what matters most – what do these stories mean?

His response continued with a suggestion that I agree with:

Let Mr. Borg explain why, at the very least, he would not allow the divinity of Jesus and the Resurrection as bodily (and spiritually) to go forward in the Reformation’s tradition of allowing “adiaphora”…that is, those things which should not be counted as weighty enough to fight over.

I would be happy to view these issues as “adiaphora” in the sense in which he uses the word: “those things which should not be counted as weighty enough to fight over.” But in my experience, it is not progressive Christians who refuse to see them as adiaphora. It is, to use shorthand, the majority of conservative Christians, at least half of American Christians. For them, the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus even as a human being, and the physical-bodily resurrection are not adiaphora. They are non-negotiable. And often accompanied by non-negotiable teachings about an inerrant Bible, Genesis versus modern science, a future literal second coming of Jesus, “traditional” marriage, and so forth. Progressive Christians generally do not define being Christian as believing a correct list of teachings.

My critic’s response concluded with advocacy of a Christian middle:

Many more things could be said about what a “middle” is about. But, here, I can think of no other central icon of the matter than the chief Christian historic faith positions of Jesus as God and the Resurrection. There ought to be a way for a dude with a PhD to not call people of basic faith in the pew stupid.

Now it sounds as if “Jesus as God” and “the Resurrection” (presumably meaning physical and bodily) are not adiaphora but essential. And even more importantly, I have never called folks who affirm both “stupid.” I have written about “pre-critical” or “uncritical” ways of seeing the Bible. But that is not the same as being “stupid.” My own parents I am quite sure lived in a state of a pre-critical understanding of the Bible all of their lives – by which I mean a taken-for-granted acceptance that whatever the Bible says is true. But they were not stupid people. They simply had not been exposed to constructive critical thinking about the Bible, Christianity, and religion. And they were good Christian people.

Critical thinking about the Bible is not a prerequisite for being Christian, even though I think it is helpful and important for understanding the Bible and what it means to be Christian. Especially in our time, when many Christian understandings that were commonly taken for granted a half century and more ago have become unpersuasive to a growing percentage of the Western world.

And not just among the “nones” but also among many who remain within churches. To these people, I seek to be an evangelist: there is a way of being Christian other than the form that you have rejected as less than compelling, perhaps even as reprehensible and repulsive. And I seek to be an evangelist to those in the Christian middle – people who are still in churches but who are troubled by some and perhaps many of conventional Christian beliefs that were taken for granted not so long ago.

I conclude on an irenic note. My most frequent critic and I may yearn for the same thing: for the day when the theological and cultural wars of our time are over with, when pastors can be pastors again without being involved in conflict and taking theological sides, when the church can be the church again, united in a common understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Indeed, I hope that what I have emphasized in much of my writing – today’s conflict between two very different visions of what it means to be Christian – will soon be irrelevant. But that time is not yet.

A few years ago, I spoke at an event sponsored by a group called “The Foundation for Contemporary Theology.” They placed an ad in the local newspaper that contained an error, probably a typo. Instead of the word “contemporary,” the ad printed “temporary.” And so the ad read, “The Foundation for Temporary Theology.” I thought the mistake was perfect. All theology, if it is related to cultural context – which means time and place – is temporary. Yet it has a foundation.

Ending the conflict between progressive and conservative Christianity – again to use inadequate but generally understood shorthand – would require some agreement about what is adiaphora and what is foundational, what is essential. I do not imagine that can happen through any “official” gathering or resolution. If a consensus about what is foundational and what is adiaphora ever happens, it will happen over time, perhaps and probably a century or more.

But in the meantime: is it possible to talk about different understandings of Christianity without misrepresenting what we disagree with?

A Christianity Co-Opted by Individualistic, Exclusivist Faith

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

Patheos has invited a number of us to write an end-of-summer post about what we find “most critical within our tradition” today (italics added), “the issue of greatest import.”

My tradition is Christianity – especially in its American form. I have been both all of my life. The most critical issue within American Christianity today as I see it? The co-optation of its most publicly visible face by an individualistic, self-oriented, exclusivist and entrepreneurial form of Christianity.

Individualistic: the Christian life is primarily about where we as individuals will spend eternity – heaven or hell. Or, in the prosperity gospel, how our lives as individuals will turn out in this life. In either case, what matters most are what we believe and how we behave as individuals.

Self-oriented: this is a direct and intrinsic corollary of the previous point. Christianity is about the eternal preservation of the self. Or the well-being of the self in this life. Or both.

Exclusivist: Christianity is the only way. That’s why people need to be Christian. Salvation – whether in the next world or this world – comes only through Jesus. That’s our product.

Entrepreneurial: the best-known American clergy today are those with mega-churches and/or television ministries. Most started their ministries themselves or inherited them from a charismatic founder. Many of them (most?) have not had a serious and sustained theological education. Many (most?) have not been ordained by a “brand-name” denomination. Entrepreneurial clergy succeed because they read the market well. And the market is seldom the way of Jesus.

This form of Christianity dominates Christian television and radio in America today. It is highly visible politically in the issues of “the Christian Right.” They are mostly about individual behavior, especially sexual behavior: abstinence teaching in sex education classes, no abortion, sometimes opposition to contraception, and of course defense of “traditional marriage.”

Beyond sexuality, the emphasis on individualism often leads these Christians to disregard and disparage “the common good” – as if “the common good” – what’s good for all of us and not just for a few of us – were a socialist or communist notion and not a biblical emphasis.

Also beyond sexuality: these Christians are most likely to support the use of overwhelming military power to counter any perceived threat to the United States. They were the demographic group with the highest approval (84%) of launching – starting – the war in Iraq in 2003. Most of them also unconditionally support the use of Israeli military power in Gaza and more broadly to control Palestinians living on what was once their land.

If the most public form of American Christianity were Christianity, I could not be Christian. I have a friend who frequently asks me, “How can you be Christian?!?!” I tell him: “I know that I live in the belly of the beast – and I still want to try to change the beast.”

What is at stake is what might be called “the soul” or “heart of Christianity.”   Is it about my doing well in this life and/or the next? Or about so much more? For me, it is about so much more. For it to be less than that would be a betrayal.

Postscript to A Letter About Jesus

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:
This is my third installment about a letter about Jesus and the issue, “Was Jesus God?” If you have not read the first two installments, this may not make much sense to you.

To emphasize: as a Christian, I affirm that Jesus is “the Word of God” and “the Word become flesh,” that is, the Word incarnate, the Word embodied in a human life. In Jesus, we see what can be seen of God in a human life. This affirmation goes back to the first Christian century and is orthodox Christianity.

For those who want to say more than “Jesus is the Word embodied in a human being,” namely that “Jesus was God,” a challenge. What do you mean? Do you mean that Jesus as a historical person had the mind and power of God – that he was omniscient as God is commonly thought to be?   And that he had divine powers – that like God he was omnipotent and could do anything? And if you don’t mean that, what do you mean?

If what you mean is that Jesus as the Word of God embodied in a human life is the decisive revelation of what can be seen of God in a human life (namely, God’s character and what God is passionate about), then our disagreement may be about words rather than substance. But if you mean more than that, what do you mean?

Finally, I recognize that for some Christians, Jesus has become one of the names of God. People praise and pray to Jesus. I have no problem with that – unless that is projected back on the historical Jesus so that he becomes a super-human and thus not one of us.   The Word become flesh – the incarnation – means that he was one of us.

Further Thoughts on a Letter about Jesus

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

My previous blog – “A Letter about Jesus” – drew a much larger response than I expected. In this blog, I continue that conversation with a clarification and some additional comments.

Clarification – even as I think this was pretty clear in my previous blog. One of my major claims was that the New Testament does not simply identify and equate Jesus and God. It never says, “Jesus is God” or “God is Jesus.”

Of course, it does affirm, in phrases from John’s gospel, that Jesus is “the Word of God” and “one with God.” But that does not mean that Jesus was God. Rather, in John’s language, he was “the Word become flesh.” He revealed what can be seen of God in a human life – and that means within the limitations of human life.

To affirm that Jesus is the Word become flesh, the Word incarnate, means what another New Testament verse does: he is “the image (ikon) of the invisible God” (Col. 1.15). He shows us what God is like – reveals God’s character and passion.

But none of this means that the New Testament teaches that Jesus was God – as if all of God was in Jesus during his historical life. To use the language of the Trinity, God the father did not cease to be while Jesus was alive. Jesus was “God’s son,” not God the father. Was the son like the father? Yes. Was the son the father during the life of Jesus? No. Are they in an important and complex sense one? Yes. But to equate God and Jesus during his historical lifetime is bad history and bad theology. It is the product of pre-critical conventional and uncritical dogmatic Christian thinking. Sounds harsh. But think about it.

An additional comment. The conflict among Christians about whether or not Jesus was God is grounded in two different understandings of the gospels – and the New Testament and the Bible as a whole.

One view – generally embraced by “conservative” Christians – sees the Bible and the gospels as “divine information.” That is shorthand for the view that the Bible and the gospels are the direct revelation of God and thus have a divine guarantee to be true. For them, divine inspiration means divine inerrancy.

A second view sees the gospels as the product of a historical process, written in a particular time and setting. Time: the earliest was probably written around 70, the last perhaps as late as the early second century. Setting: they are the product of early Christian communities, written from within and to those communities. As such, they combine early Christian memory of Jesus and testimony about Jesus. Their memories of what he was like – of what he taught and did. And their testimony to what he had become in their experience and lives – his significance for them.

To illustrate the difference generated by these two ways of seeing the gospels, reflect upon the series of “I am” statements attributed to Jesus in John (and only John). In them, Jesus refers to himself as “the Light of the World,” “the Bread of Life,” “the Door,” “the Good Shepherd,” “the Resurrection and the Life,” “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and “the Vine.” For the first view, this is “divine information” – the direct revelation of God about who Jesus is. And because John says Jesus said this about himself, that means that he did.

The second way of seeing the gospels understands this language as early Christian testimony to Jesus and not as memory of what Jesus said about himself. A major reason for this verdict is that the first three gospels (the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) do not report that Jesus said anything like this about himself. Within this way of seeing the gospels, the “I am” statements in John are best understood if we turn them into third-person statements about Jesus: Jesus is “the Light of the World,” “the Bread of Life,” “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” and so forth. This is the testimony of the Christian community within which and for which John was written.

As a concluding illustration of the difference made by the interconnected issues of whether we think Jesus was God and how we see the gospels, I suggest the miracles stories of Jesus and the sea. They share in common that the disciples are in mortal peril in a boat on a stormy sea. Jesus rescues them by stilling the tempest. He comes to them walking on the sea.

Those who think of Jesus as God and the gospels as divine information hear these stories literally and evidentially. Anybody who can still a storm at sea and walk on the water must have divine power, indeed be divine, for no mere human could do that. This hearing of the stories sees them as reports of spectacular events that happened in the distant past, long ago and far away. They matter because of what they demonstrate, prove: that Jesus had divine powers, was more than human.

Just as the first way of hearing these stories combines a way of seeing Jesus with a way of seeing the gospels, so does the second. It takes seriously that as a human being, as an incarnate being, Jesus did not have supernatural powers during his historical lifetime. Was he “filled with the Spirit”? Yes. Was he a healer? Yes. But could he change water into wine? Multiply food so that he could feed a multitude of 5000 (or more) with a few loaves and fishes? For this way of seeing Jesus, he was a vulnerable human being living within the conditions of finitude, incarnation. He was born and could be (and was) killed. He was not God, but the revelation of what can be seen of God in a human life.

Within this framework, the miracles on the sea are not historical data proving that Jesus was God. They are about what trust in Jesus and God produce. Jesus stills the storms that threaten us. He makes it possible to walk on the water, the void, the abyss, without sinking.

Within the gospels, this metaphorical – more-than-literal – meaning is clearly intended. As Matthew takes over the story from Mark of Jesus walking on the water, he adds an episode: Peter also walks on the water. Successfully. But then he becomes afraid and begins to sink (Matt. 14.22-33). The story identifies Peter’s fear with “little faith.” With faith, we can walk on water. Literally? No. The story is about the importance of trusting in Jesus. It is about faith as trust, the opposite of fear. It is about the significance of Jesus, not about something he once did.

A final reflection question: what is added to the story of Jesus by thinking that he was God – and therefore could do spectacular deeds that no one else could or can? Does his story gain meaning? Or is something lost? Was Jesus extraordinary because he was God? Or was he extraordinary because he was an utterly remarkable human being, one of us?