Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most

Convictions, my newest book, has just come out. Its subtitle tells you a bit more: How I Learned What Matters Most. The 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, now two years ago.

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”

Reflections on Easter

Today I read a poll of American Christians about the resurrection of Jesus. It reported that more than 90% of American Christians say that the resurrection of Jesus matters greatly to them. I agree – without the affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection, Christianity makes no important sense.

But I was disappointed because the poll reported that these Christians responded with “Yes” to the question whether Jesus’ resurrection was “physical” and “bodily.” I think that way of understanding Easter is a distraction.

To think that Easter intrinsically involves the transformation of Jesus’ corpse turns it into an utterly spectacular event that happened once upon a time long ago. This emphasis most often goes with the message that death is not the end for us, at least for those of us who believe in Jesus. As commonly understood, Easter it is about the promise of an afterlife.

But Easter is not primarily about Jesus’ triumph over death and a future for us beyond death. Rather, the meanings of the 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.

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Back From Pilgrimage: Paul in Asia Minor

I have just returned from Turkey, where my wife and I and Dom and Sarah Crossan led a two-week long pilgrimage. Our focus: Paul and early Christianity in the historical context of the Roman Empire and Roman imperial theology. Rome ruled the world of early Christianity: from Spain in the west, Britain in the north, the Euphrates in the east, into North Africa in the south.

Roman rule was legitimated by imperial theology.  According to it,

Caesar Augustus, the greatest of the emperors, was divine. Born Octavian around 63 BCE, he ruled as emperor from 31 BCE to 14 CE. His titles included “God,” “Son of God,” “Lord,” “savior of the world” who had brought “peace on earth.” He was the product of a divine conception, conceived in his mother by the god Apollo, god of light, reason and order.

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The Resurrection of Jesus: “Physical/Bodily” or “Spiritual/Mystical”?

I was recently invited to write an essay on whether the resurrection of Jesus was “physical and bodily” or “spiritual and mystical.”  The distinction is helpful: it makes clear that Christians have understood the meanings of Easter in different ways. But for more than one reason, including the common meanings of these words in modern English, I don’t like either option.

I begin with the positive – with what we can say with certainty about the meaning of Easter in the gospels and the New Testament. It is twofold: Jesus lives and is Lord.

Both convictions are grounded in experience. Some of Jesus’ followers experienced him after his death as a figure of the present, not just of the past. And they experienced him as a divine reality, now “one with God” and “at the right hand of God.”

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Holy Week: Two Different Meanings

jesus-stained-glassHoly Week with its climax in Easter is for Christians what Passover is for Jews: the most important week of the year – a sacred time during which its primordial and primal narrative is remembered and ultimately celebrated.

What is this week about? Within Christianity today, two very different frameworks shape how this week is seen – its meanings and significance. These two frameworks to a considerable degree divide American Christianity both theologically and politically.

One framework is “the common Christianity” of the recent past and present – what most Christians took for granted and what many still share in common.  For it, the central message of Christianity, the gospel, the good news, is that Jesus died for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven. Within this framework, Good Friday is about Jesus as the sacrifice for our sins and Easter is about the promise of life beyond death.

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God’s Non-Violent Revolutionary

Was Jesus a social revolutionary? In the ordinary sense in which we use the phrase “social revolutionary,” yes. Like the Jewish prophets before him, he was passionate about economic justice and peace, and advocated active non-violent resistance to the domination system of his time. He was a voice of peasant social protest against the economic inequity and violence of the imperial domination system, mediated in the Jewish homeland by client rulers of the Roman Empire – in Galilee, Herod Antipas, and in Judea and Jerusalem, the temple authorities. He spoke of God’s kingdom on earth, as the Lord’s Prayer puts it: Your kingdom come on earth, as it already is in heaven. Heaven is not the problem – earth is.

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Interview with Marcus Borg on his Novel

Marcus Borg was interviewed by editor David Crumm on ReadTheSpirit. They discussed Dr. Borg’s novel, “Putting Away Childish Things.”

David: Why did you suddenly write a novel after so many years of writing nonfiction?

Marcus: I could give a number of answers. But, the main one is that I’ve presented my ideas in nonfiction and, now—by creating characters with various points of view in this novel—I can give readers more of a sense of how people struggle with these ideas in everyday life. Now, rather than just me presenting my ideas to readers, characters are in dialogue about the ideas.

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American Christians Are Deeply Divided

The United States has more Christians than any country in the world, both in numbers and as a per cent of our population. Roughly 80% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. Only about half are actively involved in the life of a church, but this is still a large number. But are we a Christian nation?

I leave unaddressed whether a nation can (or should) be Christian. Instead, I point to a deep division among American Christians about what it means to be Christian.

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Religion’s Egalitarianism Impulse

Most cultures have been patriarchal, and the world’s religions have for the most part sanctified patriarchy, legitimating it in their teaching and practice. I illustrate with Christianity, the religion I know best.

In most Christian cultures, women:
* Have been taught to be subordinate to their husbands.
* Have been blamed for the presence of sin in the world.
* As late as the 19th century,  could not inherit or own property, or initiate divorce.
* Until very recently, could not be ordained as clergy.
* Were sometimes persecuted with the blessing of the church (estimates of the number of women executed as “witches” vary widely, though clearly it happened a lot).

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Mystical Experiences of God

My most formative religious experiences were a series of mystical experiences. They began to occur in my early thirties. They changed my understanding of the meaning of the word “God”-of what that word points to-and gave me an unshakable conviction that God (or “the sacred”) is real and can be experienced.

These experiences also convinced me that mystical forms of Christianity are true, and that the mystical forms of all the enduring religions of the world are true.

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