Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg

Part I.

reviewed by Tom Condon

Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus & the Heart of Contemporary Faith by Marcus Borg. San Francisco: Harper Reprint Ed., 1995. 160 pages—paper.

Marcus Borg, from my viewpoint, neatly diagnoses the central issue of our times: a deep misconception in our view of the world (in this case, its religious core) and of the sociopolitical structures arising from it. Then, constructively, he shows how, by a labor of critical rethinking, we might revise our view, or paradigm, of Creation, our place and purpose in it, and, so, our earthly aims, relations, and actions. In short, Borg describes the two moments of a paradigm revolution: 1) recognition of a deep anomaly or crisis, and 2) an appealing alternative that resolves the crisis.

Borg’s thesis pivots on the vast difference between the "historical Jesus," uncovered in recent scholarship, and the Christian church which was putatively founded on Jesus’ message. Studies show Jesus’ message, a "politics of compassion," was an invitation to follow a spiritual path. Notice, "invitation" implies the Creator’s Spirit is already present in our lives, so the path is one of free-choice. In contrast, the later gospel message, a "politics of purity," reflected the play of social interests.

Borg refers to this as the "lordship of culture." Jesus’ message was changed. It was adapted to buttress a worldly church marked by law-and-order dogmatism, power-hierarchy, and apocalyptic angst. The Creator was imaged as distant, dispassionate, with all creatures as "His" dependent puppets.

To sharpen the contrast, Borg sketches the pre-Christian Jesus, indicating he was: 1) a "spirit person" offering an alternative vision, not founder of a worldly church; 2) a "Wisdom teacher" whose lessons were actually subversive of establishment power and knowledge; 3) a "social prophet" who, identifying with the powerless, was critical of hierarchies derived from Purity laws; and 4) a proponent of a new political paradigm based on an inclusive "spirit of compassion." Drawing on this newly discovered "character" of Jesus, Borg proposes a new vision of Christian life: from a believer subordinate to some distant law-and-order Lord, to "participating in an ongoing, creative labor which expresses the Creator’s ‘cosmic generosity.’ "

Before proceeding further with the review, I’ve a small admission (or confession) to make. The title of Borg’s book left me with a queasy feeling. It’s been maybe fifty years since I used proper nouns like "Jesus," or "Christ," with their assigned degree of humility and respect. Perhaps my problem was that I could never quite reconcile, deep in my heart, the seemingly total separation of God, law, heaven, eternity, etc., from life, rules, earth, and temporal existence. But, Borg’s work, and the scholarly lineage he represents, helped change my mind and heart. In this new approach, the issues are no longer about true faith and literal observance, or else! The new questions, given some wise aphorisms or sage metaphors, are about our social praxis—what we together choose to make of the lessons, how we adapt and elaborate them to changing circumstances, and how we self-critically and creatively labor to join the letter of a lesson to its enduring and elusive spirit. As Borg and others show, the Bible is an admixture of spirit-wisdom and pragmatic interpretation. So, we have, from the start, an active role in the church play as rule-makers and script-writers!

Though some may recoil from this viewpoint, seeing it as violating the Almighty’s Word, I believe it enhances the value of the Bible, or any wisdom tract. To recoil, to remain a literalist, as I see it, seems the easy, lazy, maybe hypocritical, path. To think it all through, to lay it on one’s own hands and heart, especially in collaboration with others, is the challenging, and intrinsically meaningful path. This difference calls for a paradigm revolution: from sheepish subservience to an eternal "Word" to the active, creative healing of the flesh/spirit dualism. As Borg insightfully notes, the whole point (referred to as "eschatology") of this revision is to realize heaven right here on earth in our time instead of hoping for personal "salvation" in some fanciful, eternal hereafter.

With these thoughts as scene-setters, let’s turn to Borg’s work. You may have noticed his rather curious title implies a circular—meeting again—and spiraling—for the first time—conception of our subjective time/space continuum. To structure this rather novel viewpoint, let’s begin with two key dimensions of Borg’s book, then see how these lead to and organize some revolutionary implications for our modern sociopolitical (e.g. globalization, economic agenda) practices.

Two Dimensions: Marginal-Synthesis and Developmental-Method

In his Preface, Borg introduces himself and his thesis. He lives in two worlds: a secular professor at Oregon State University teaching and researching within a community of "Jesus- scholars" and a Christian (his wife is an Episcopal priest) increasingly involved with his church.

He is what I’d call a "marginal" man—someone who resides at the border between two separate communities who attempts to build, then cross, a bridge between them. As he says, it is usually deemed "inappropriate" for scholars to speak in a personal voice or draw connections between abstract (secular) findings and personal (religious) practice. Conversely, as a Christian, it is normally not only inappropriate but also potentially heretical for individuals to question the doctrines of one’s religious community. Bridge building, then, is a colossal undertaking.

Undaunted by convention, Borg weaves a synthesis of the disparate factors—personal and abstract, critical reasoning and faith, heart and mind—separating his worlds.

Thus I am both a secular Jesus scholar and a Christian. [This book] flowed out of bringing these two worlds together. [It] is the product of thinking and talking about Jesus in the secular contexts of a state university and the professional academy, and of thinking and talking about Jesus in the Christian context of the church and my own life journey. (p. viii)

Again, I have an admission. I naturally gravitate towards marginal persons such as bilinguals, multiculturals, polytheists, world travellers, and the like. Experienced in different communities, such people are typically less dogmatic, more open-ended, and more perceptive of the interplay of person and setting. In short, they are "field-sensitive" and this attitude sets the tone and context for what Borg calls "thinking and talking about Jesus."

Let’s take a quick look at his two worlds. Evolving scholarship shows that the original Jesus as teacher, alternative visionary, social critic, and spirit-person is very unlike the later Christ as shepherd-savior, church-founder, and Son of the Father Almighty. This later, Christian image, scholarship reveals, bears the heavy imprint of human interests mainly in the service of legitimating an unequal social order. Reconciling and bridging these two viewpoints calls Christians to a creative critique of their foundations and mission, not just of the church, but also all the secular superstructures deriving from and abiding with it.

Relatedly, as social role-model, the original Jesus hosted common meals or celebratory banquets where all, especially outcasts, were welcome. His theme of compassion, in other words, shifts our attention from an entrenched atomistic, win/lose individualism, to the total field of communal, win/win fellowship.

Let’s turn to Borg’s second dimension, his "developmental method." Invited to lecture on "Meeting Jesus Again," Borg was asked to "make it personal." Taken aback by this unusual—scholarly and personal—mix, he invented a bridging method. He wrote himself a little memo with the words "Me and Jesus" on it. He invites us to do the same. Cogitating on life-cycle memories, Borg saw how his images of Jesus had changed over the different stages of his life. What is most striking about his life-cycle changes is how familiar they are which left me wondering: Do others experience them? If not, why not? If so, don’t the changes demonstrate how we actively fabricate (surely ‘He’ doesn’t change) our Creator? Here’s a brief sketch of Borg’s stages.

Childhood. Childhood consisted of a scatter of "pictures," all received in reverent awe, such as Jesus with sheep or children, holy infant birth, (and, for me, the Sacred Heart). Borg says:

By the end of childhood, the ingredients of the popular image of Jesus were in place: Jesus was the divinely begotten Son of God who died for the sins of the world and whose message was about himself and his saving purpose and the importance of believing in him…. I believed in that Jesus without difficulty and without effort. (p. 6)

Why so easily? Borg refers to this stage as "precritical naivete." Piaget would likely agree. As kids, we eagerly assimilated the sacred images authority figures before us as real and true.

Adolescence. Fortunately, naivete didn’t last. For Borg, what began as puzzlements in late childhood turned, in his early teens, into foundational doubts, doubts about the "existence of God." This experience was filled with anxiety and guilt and some mighty, but futile, efforts (hard prayer) to resolve the doubt and guilt. He concluded that doubt cannot be willed away. Reflecting back on this anxious and trying period, he says:

I now understand what was happening: I was experiencing a collision between the modern world view and my childhood beliefs. The modern world view, with its image of what is real as the world of matter and energy and its vision of the universe as a closed system of cause and effect made belief in God—a non material reality—highly problematic. I had entered the stage of critical thinking, and there was no way back. (p. 7)

Here are several binary collisions: critical-thinking vs. faith, culture vs. spirituality. Are these incompatible? Do the majority of believers ever reach a stage of critical thinking? Notice, Borg provides a means for finding answers. The key problematic is the "collision" between our two worlds: material, secular culture and big, spiritual questions like: "Why are we?"

College. Borg entered college with a "conventional but no longer deeply held" faith. Then, in his third year he was introduced to a scholarly approach to theology. This exciting and liberating course "covered all the big questions" and exposed him to the "diversity of answers provided by the diversity of intellectual giants."

Its affect on me was that the sacred cows of inherited belief began to fall in a way that legitimated their loss. But it didn’t help me believe. Rather, it provided a framework within which I could take my perplexity seriously. (p. 8)

By the end of college, Borg had become a "closet agnostic." Childhood images of Jesus were no longer compelling. He’d realized the Bible was not to be taken literally, but had not yet found a satisfyingly positive, non-literal alternative.

Seminary. Taking New Testament courses, Borg came to a "Mind-boggling" realization: the gospels are "neither divine documents nor straightforward historical records." Written decades after Jesus, they reflected both the unreliability of essentially oral accounts, and the diverging traditions of early Christian communities as they met new situations. Two factors were at work: the earliest Galilean communities began to spread out into the Mediterranean world; the beliefs (or myths) changed by adaptations and elaborations. As Borg indicates, one main effect was the increasing dissimilarity between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith:

The movement increasingly spoke of Jesus as divine…indeed, coequal with God, of one substance with God, begotten before all worlds, the second person of the Trinity. I learned that Jesus as a human being was different from all of that. (Reviewer’s note: "that" includes both the threat of a "second coming," and, since he had "died for our sins," our dependency on a heroic-savior.) For one thing, he would not have known any of those things about himself. (p. 10)

Throughout these intellectually stimulating years, Borg’s "unbelief was deepening." The closet agnostic was turning into a closet-atheist (lasting for ten years). Reflecting back, he says:

The reasons are clear enough to me now. The central problem was still the collision between God and the modern problem was still the collision between God and the modern world view. The latter had hardened into a taken-for-granted "map" of reality. Indeed, I didn’t even think of it as a map, but simply as the way things are. (Reviewer’s note: This difference—map vs. reality—raises a key question: How do we know?)
Moreover, the longer I studied the Christian tradition, the more transparent its human origins became. Religions in general, it seemed to me, were manifestly cultural products…their readily identifiable psychological and social functions served human needs and cultural ends. The notion that we made it all up was somewhat alarming, but also increasingly compelling. (p. 13)

I see this conclusion as very positive, inviting our full, critical participation.

[Part II of this review, to be printed next issue, will cover Borg’s reflections on his post-graduate experience and Condon’s comments on Borg’s developmental stages in light of Piaget along with Tom’s reflections on socio-political implications. — Ed.]