Summary of Marcus Borg—‘The Heart of Christianity’ ; Part 2
This is the second talk I gave to our group, trying to summarise Marcus Borg’s view of essential parts of Christianity. (The first talk is on a previous bulletin).
One of the defining characteristics of Christianity is that we find the revelation of God primarily in a person, which is unique among the major religions. Jesus is what can be seen of the nature of God in human life, the basis for this claim coming from the life, teachings, death and Christian experiences. Phrases such as Messiah, Son of God, Light of the world, bread of life etc. are the metaphorical words used by the Christian community to describe ways in which they sensed the life of God in Jesus. In particular, ‘Son of God’ , often used of Kings, mystic healers and of Israel the nation, simply affirms the intimate relationship between Jesus and God.
However, life is not all about Jesus; one New Testament passage refuses to call Jesus ‘all good’, saying only God is all good. “God is defined by Jesus, but not confined to Jesus”. Many others have said this; e.g. William Barclay says it is not right to say ‘Jesus = God’.
The New Testament speaks two voices of Jesus.
PRE-EASTER JESUS: This is the man, a Jew born 4BCE, executed 30CE, now dead; the corpuscular Jesus is nowhere anymore.
He was a Jewish mystic, who experienced God, interpreted through Jewish prophetic teaching, spoke of God in intimate terms and taught immediate access to God.
He was a remarkable healer and a wisdom teacher, also showing this in his life.
He was a social prophet, preaching the Kingdom of God as very different from the rule of Kings of that time.
He was a movement initiator, rooted in Judaism, yet remarkably inclusive and against the social boundaries of that time.
POST-EASTER JESUS: This is the experience of the same life that was in Jesus, as known by his followers and the early Christian community. Some of the leading first Christians have given us a mixture of their combined memory and metaphorical narrative.
Christian tradition, properly interpreted, can help us all be aware of and encounter, the same spiritual life that was in Jesus.
THE DEATH OF JESUS “was the consequence of what he was doing but not his purpose”. It was mainly the result of his activities as a social prophet and movement initiator. We find 5 interpretations of the CROSS in the New Testament:
1. He was rejected and killed by the authorities, but his resurrection shows God had made him Lord and Messiah.
2. The spirit of domination, found in all human institutions, killed him; but God, through Jesus disarmed these principalities and powers.
3. The cross reveals and brings about a new way of life. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” said St. Paul.
4. The cross reveals the depth of God’s love and Jesus is the Son of God, as in John 3,v.16
5. On the cross, Jesus died for our sins. (The ingredients for this are there in the N.T.)
The last of these became fully developed about 900 yrs ago when it was declared that Jesus’ death was necessary as part of God’s plan of salvation for all who believe. In the N.T. it was used to counter the claim that forgiveness for sins could only happen through temple sacrifices and the Jewish religious institutions. Is it not odd, therefore, that many Christian institutions now claim the same for themselves ?
Marcus Borg sees the cross “as a trustworthy disclosure of the evil of domination systems, .. the exposure of their defeat, .. the revelation of the way of transformation, .. the depth of God’s love for us and ..the proclamation of radical grace.”
In John 3, “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.” Born of water refers to physical life and Born of the spirit refers to spiritual life. The famous ‘born again’ phrase (actually should be ‘born anew’) refers to being changed into a new self, often expressed in the N.T. as dying and rising. When St. Paul says “preaching nothing but Christ crucified” he is referring to the cross as symbol of the process of transformation at the heart of Christianity.
This process is found in Judaism (turning from wickedness), Islam (surrendering to God; Mohammed said “Die before you die”) and Buddhism (letting go so you are changed from within to a new kind of life).
It is not self denial for its own sake, nor dying to self, rather it is a change in oneself and it need not happen dramatically nor depend on having religious experiences. It is characterised by having compassion and not being purely selfish. Instead of a life conforming to unnecessary constraints, or being extraordinarily dull or where relationships mean nothing, or where we care for no one or full of anxiety and worry, it is a life marked by freedom, joy, peace and love.
The self implies self-consciousness, which is the birth of the separated self and “we cannot develop into mature human beings without self-consciousness”; it goes with self-centredness, estrangement and exile. It is one of the central meanings of the Garden of Eden story. We all experience this as we emerge from babyhood and again as we go from early childhood through teenage, facing questions about who we are and how we relate to others, a process commonly called socialization. In this process we are increasingly the product of culture, often living our lives from the outside in.
The biblical vision of our amazing contradiction is that we are created in the image of God, but we live our lives outside of paradise in a world of estrangement and self-preoccupation. It is the inevitable result of growing up and none of us escapes it. “Thus we need to be born again”, so that we live from the inside out. This is the work of the spirit. We cannot make it happen by strong desire and determination or by learning and believing the right beliefs. But we can be intentional about being born again. We can midwife the process. This is the purpose of spirituality, which involves becoming aware of a relationship that already exists, becoming intentional about deepening it so we pay attention to it. “Though God is mysterious, there is nothing mysterious about paying attention to our relationship with God.”
The Christian life is not much about believing a set of beliefs, but about a deepening relationship with the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Paying attention to this transforms us.
(Nigel Jones, Nov’16)