December 2, 2020

Marcus Borg: Attempting Faith Between “Either” and “Or”

mar06_trends.jpgA previous post on surveying some Marcus Borg resources is here. My previous post on Wright’s views of Borg are at this post.

On my bookshelves, I have nearly all of the books of Marcus Borg. That won’t surprise those of you who are already concerned about my theology. I enjoy reading people in their own words rather than having their positions explained to me by their critics. I think it’s fair, and it’s often rewarding.

I don’t read Borg because I agree with him about the resurrection. I don’t agree with him at all. In fact, I think Borg’s naivete’ about the significance of the resurrection is stunning. (Read the fine dialog between Borg and N.T. Wright in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions to gain a fascinating contrast.)

I like Borg’s writing. Of the new radical Jesus Seminar scholars, he is the most accessible, and in many ways the most helpful. Borg’s work on Holiness and Politics is very good, and I find many of his insights into the ministry of Jesus to be useful.

Primarily, however, I am fascinated by Borg’s journey from orthodox Lutheran Christian to one who rejects the standard orthodox meanings of much of the Christian story, yet remains in the church. Borg is never a ranting, carping scholar looking down his nose at fundamentalists. He calmly recites his loss of one kind of faith as the birth of another kind. In the process, he seldom does more than say “I simply could no longer believe the orthodox version of the story.”

Borg believes that he represents millions of people who will never be able to believe what orthodox Christians routinely believe. For him, everything in the New Testament is a metaphor of the New Age, scholarly heralded message of a God who does not discriminate on versions of truth, is immediately available to all, and who is mostly concerned with a social and political renewal familiar to anyone who listens to NPR.

Borg’s version of Christianity is, in its way, rather compelling and attractive in this contentious day and age of postmodern Christianity. He is a Don Quixote to a world of evangelical Apologists and outspoken defenders of the faith. He can still say the Apostle’s Creed, sing the great hymns, worship in the ancient Christian liturgy…all without pangs of conscience, and all the time meaning almost nothing that traditional Christian believers mean when they say or sing these same things.

Borg, and many other scholars and writers like him, believe they are saving the Christian faith from a kind of fundamentalism that will most certainly doom it to irrelevance in coming generations. They perceive, I believe correctly, that fundamentalism’s popularity is a house of cards, ready to collapse. Evangelical sociologists have been telling us this for years in surveys about the particular and general beliefs of the people who call themselves “Christians.”

I am thinking about this because Borg has famously said the discovery of the bones of Jesus wouldn’t disturb his faith at all. He reads, as J.D. Crossan says, “hope, not history” in the pages of the New Testament resurrection appearances, and whatever Christians call the resurrection is a continuing encounter with Jesus that does not require a physical resurrection.

This is a very convenient and appealing way to deal with the attacks of historians, DVC advocates and skeptics of every kind. It is not argumentative, and it retains as much of the Christian faith as one wants to retain. Its cost? Historical reality, at least as common sense realism understands it.

Borg usually asks how much of the Biblical story could be videotaped? For instance, could the resurrection appearances to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus have been recorded on video by one of those disciples? Or, as Borg says, was it simply “not that kind of story?”

In a day of scientific skepticism and an abundance of junk-based, cable tv inspired, pseudo-science journalism, it doesn’t surprise me to hear someone like Borg say they are tired of what they have to go through to substantiate that an event is “believable.” For Borg, the belief factor isn’t about events in history, but about “the Christ who comes to us again and again.”

Will challenges like the current assault of aggressive atheism or the “Jesus Tomb” make options like Borg’s “existential leap” into a faith disconnected from history more popular? Possibly, but I tend to believe there are far more common sense realists among Christians than Borg suspects. These are people who read the Discovery Channel’s website saying that the Christian belief in the resurrection or ascension isn’t challenged by the bones of Jesus in a box and shake their heads in amazement. These are people who hear Borg say that his belief in the resurrection wouldn’t be affected by the discovery of the still occupied tomb of Jesus, and they laugh.

Christianity isn’t mysticism or gnosticism. It is forever tied to real world events, real occurrences and an “either/or” epistemology. Dropping the resurrection into the category of “personal encounters disconnected from real world events” may solve some problems for some people, but it makes a mockery of Biblical texts that go out of the way, over and over, to tell us that these events are true, real and very much “either/or.” A person who says they had dinner with Jesus when they only had a personal sense of his presence is a liar.

When John says in 1John 1:1 “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—,” he is claiming a post-resurrection knowledge of Jesus that is continuous with the pre-resurrection experience of knowing Jesus. Seeing and touching the post-resurrection Jesus is critical. The exact nature of that encounter is largely beyond our categories. (Borg often points out the tensions in I Corinthians 15 between the physical body and the resurrected, spiritual body.) But there is no question what Paul means when he says if the resurrection did not happen, we are fools to believe in Jesus as Lord: the bones of Jesus in a box would zero out the resurrection as described in the New Testament. There may be much we don’t understand about the resurrection body or experience, but that it occurred in the shared “real” world of the senses is not one of them.

Borg’s “third way” approach is saying that a dead man can be the “raised on the third day” Jesus described in I Corinthians 15 and throughout the gospels. I say that one must need a Ph.d and the wisdom of the Jesus Seminar to make such a extra-historical leap, because most ordinary people couldn’t sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” if they knew the bones of Jesus are in a box.

[Many of my readers will remember the flap regarding N.T. Wright’s admission in an Australian interview that he considered Borg to be a brother in Christ. There is no doubt that Borg has a faith that strives to be faith in Christ, but the plain truth is that Borg- nicely- reinterprets the central tenet of the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds in such a way that most Christian communions would say he rejects the resurrection. If Borg believes Jesus is “alive” and is the “son of God” who “died for our sins,” but gives metaphorical meanings to all these terms, is he a Christian? In my opinion, Borg has rejected much of what is essential for a “good faith” belief in the Christian gospel. What remains is real faith, but is it true faith in the true Christ?]


  1. I would also say that I disagree with Borg that Christianity wouldn’t be a fundamentally different religion without the bodily resurrection.

    When I read Borg, I do find it imminently useful (as he points out) to keep in mind that the experience of the “post-Easter” Jesus is not a body-tapping-on-the-door-of-the-morgue moment. The Gospels note that Jesus was unrecognizable at first glance – the Gospel of John has a resurrected Jesus walking through doors, simply appearing at the side of a lake, etc. (in comparison to the way the resurrected Lazarus interacts with the world) – then in Acts Jesus appears before Saul of Tarsus in a way that only he could comprehend.

    It seems that when you get to the bare bones, the fundamental things about the resurrection are that:

    1) Christ could not be held by the bands of death.
    2) Christ is not dead – he is alive, and still with us.

    The resurrection simply defies what we might know of as ‘scientific’ knowledge. I think there is a difference between pondering the points above and pondering what a crime scene detective might suspect about the whole thing.

    One other comment. I note this:

    Primarily, however, I am fascinated by Borg’s journey from orthodox Lutheran Christian to one who rejects the standard orthodox meanings of much of the Christian story, yet remains in the church. Borg is never a ranting, carping scholar looking down his nose at fundamentalists. He calmly recites his loss of one kind of faith as the birth of another kind. In the process, he seldom does more than say “I simply could no longer believe the orthodox version of the story.”

    and need to add that there is one other thing I truly admire about Borg: when he presents an argument, he presents an argument and doesn’t try to hide his own personal viewpoints behind rhetorical trickery and/or the attempt to couch that argument in the “infallibility” of The Bible. A lot of modern Christian authors do that as an attempt at ‘evangelism’, which drives me crazy. (Hence, I appreciate writers like Borg and Luke Timothy Johnson, who simply argue their own points instead of trying to make their personal argument “God’s argument”.

  2. Michael:

    Your questions regarding Borg’s faith – i.e., the content of his faith – and his eternal destiny are very good ones. Those of us who are fall under the rubric of fundamentalist evangelical orthodox? conservative? Christianity emphasize the importance of faith in God for salvation. But are the mechanics or means to the end essential for salvation? Do we have to know how Jesus Christ accomplished our salvation in order to believe that he did, in fact, do just that? Can one believe in the resurrection and then later deny its physicality, as perhaps Borg has done?

    I don’t know, quite honestly. Did Abraham believe in a physical resurrection? Well, probably, if Heb 11.19 is to be taken literally and not written off as ancient, knuckle-dragging ignorance on his part (from our own position of cultural snobbery and elitism). Did the thief on the cross believe in physical resurrection? I don’t know. The Ethiopian eunuch? Again, I plead agnosticism.

    The questions you raise are not so much “What must I do to be saved?” as “How much must I know and accept to be saved?” Again, my answer is: I don’t know.

    Dr Mike

  3. Michael:

    From the desk of the Secretary of Theological Correctness over at TR World HQ, this post is an example of what gets you in trouble with the hard side of the theological blogosphere.

    The problem is not your general assessment of Borg — which I think is charitable but clear. It is that final sentence in which you call his faith “real”. “Real” in what sense, bub? It’s real in the sense that Borg thinks Jesus can be real in the way Santa and Aslan are real and the Christian faith still be more than the raw material for greeting cards.

    Borg’s faith is “real” in that he believes it, just like any suicide bomber believes in Allah or the Dalai Lama believes in, well, the sound of one hand clapping (who is available at, btw, so so much for “want not”). But it’s not the faith which saves — because it’s not a faith in, as you astutely point out, the Jesus John the Apostle was very “saw-him-after-the-tomb-was-empty” about. In that, it’s not “real”.

    So as a memo — not an edict — could you manage epistemological categories inside the Generally-Accepted Theological Accounting Principles? (GATAP) You can download a copy of these someplace — I have lost the link.

  4. Dr. Mike —

    One of the striking aspects of Borg’s theology that gets overlooked it is essential works-righteousness. After all is said and done, this Jesus which Borg advocates doesn’t really do anything “for” us: He exemplifies something which we have to do. All that hokum about Jesus coming to us over and over is platitudinal smoke and mirrors to cover the fact that Borg is about earning the merit the Jesus in the story earns.

    So if we want to give him not only charity but extensive benefit of the doubt, the real problem turns out to be that Borg thinks men can be like Jesus on naturalistic terms, which is to say, through a naturalistic cause to a naturalistic effect.

    I hope you would agree that this is bad stuff, and not a matter of “how much” but of “what kind”.

  5. Real doesn’t mean right. It means real. There are people who really believe Edward DeVere wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Their faith is real. And false. And wrong.

    The TR side of the blogosphere can stop reading INTO and start reading.

    Borg believes we are all justified. Automatically. No works or even faith needed.

  6. I suspect that more and more people will believe like Borg does as time goes on. Just this week I’ve seen a report that 20% of a certain young age group (18-25? I can’t recall) considers themselves to be atheists, and that reflects (I think) shifts by everybody else, too.

    I’ve got family in Canada, where the shift away from Christianity is far more pronounced, and it is amazing to me how much we take for granted as Christians here in the United States.

    Anyway, I’ve been intrigued recently by people who don’t seem capable of listening to arguments for an idea. Perhaps it’s very post-modern, or perhaps it’s just that I can sometimes be verbally intimidating, even when I try not to be. I wish I had Borg’s skill of presenting compelling arguments, even though he uses his power for ill and not for good.

    BTW, it’s funny how much I wanted to start my comment with, “Borg is wrong, …” and then say whatever else. Like somehow it was important to me to pronounce judgment so that everybody would know I’m on the right side of things. But in fact, the more I think of it, it makes me *sad* that Borg is so wrong, and I wish it weren’t so, because there seems to be a lot to admire about the man and maybe much to learn, too. I pray that God will reach out to Borg and restore his faith in a real, once-dead, living Christ.

  7. I read Borg because he is a very good scholar. One does not have to prescribe to my faith convictions to help me in my understanding of Scripture. In fact, Borg and Crossan’s book “The Last Week” is one I would reference extensively if I had a pulpit because there is a lot of knowledge there.

    I believe that you can accept someone’s scholarship without accepting that person’s conclusions. I really don’t stay up nights wrestling with whether Borg is a “true Christian” or not. That’s between him and God. I happen to think God is a lot more merciful than many of his followers, but that’s just me.

  8. Thank you for this thoughtful review of Borg. I appreciate your remark, “I enjoy reading people in their own words rather than having their positions explained to me by their critics. I think it’s fair, and it’s often rewarding.” Whether I agree with your conclusions or not, your own similarities to the qualities you admire in Borg are why I keep coming back to your blog.

    Five years ago I was distraught over the pummeling my lifelong faith in fundamentalism had taken. Agnosticism was an alluring respite from the endless wrangling. I didn’t so much doubt God’s existence as I doubted his goodness–that perhaps he was the great fundie cult leader in the sky. At the same time, I couldn’t bear admitting my doubts to my family. Neither could I let go of my morbid fascination with theology.

    One night I saw Marcus Borg on BookTV. Near the end of his talk, I heard him say that he remains in the Christian tradition because it’s where he feels the most at home. “Oh, well, I can do that,” I thought. It was one more step out of my black and white fundie cocoon. He gave me a way to continue identifying with the Christian tradition without committing what felt like intellectual suicide.

    I’m not sure if I have any better grasp on faith today than I did back then, but I will always be grateful for that ray of hope during my dark night.