Review of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg, Parts II & III

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.

[Part I of this review can be found in Volume XV, 2, Summer, 2000. Ed.]

Part II

Unsure what to make of the notion of God, Borg concentrated his study on the historical Jesus and, in particular, upon Jesus’ critique of the then existing social structure:

I focused on his involvement with the social and political issues of the day, especially his challenges to the purity system of the first-century Jewish social world. I argued that he was an advocate of the politics of compassion in a social world dominated by the politics of purity…But even as I did this, I remained aware Jesus was much more than a sociopolitical figure, although I didn’t know what to make of what he said about God. (p. 13)

Tom Condon

In his mid-thirties, Borg had a number of aha! experiences he refers to variously as "nature mysticism," "radical amazement," and "numinous."

I realized that God does not refer to a supernatural being "out there." Rather, I began to see, the word God refers to the sacred at the center of existence, the holy mystery that is all around us and within us…. This transformation in my understanding of God began to affect my understanding of Jesus…I began to see Jesus as one whose spirituality—his experiential awareness of Spirit—was foundational to his life…that in addition to being deeply involved in the social world of the everyday, he was also grounded in the world of the Spirit. (pp. 14, 15)

The realization in this stage completes the circular spiral suggested in the title. As a result of his personal growth and scholarly studies, Borg revisions the central core of a Christian life. Rather than being about belief in a fabricated, crystallized image of a historical founder, it is a relational process, an ongoing journey of discovery in and with the Spirit of creation, where the aim or destination is the compassionate alignment of the everyday world to the holy mystery. In his final chapter, Borg hones and polishes his revised, metaphoric image of Christian life as a journey.

As a journeying with Jesus, discipleship means being on the road with him. It means to be an itinerant, a sojourner; to have nowhere to lay one’s head, no permanent resting place. It means undertaking the journey from the life of conventional wisdom (the "lordship of culture")…to the alternative wisdom of life in the Spirit. To journey with Jesus means listening to his teaching—sometimes understanding it, sometimes not quite getting it. It can involve denying him, even betraying him. (p. 135)
Journeying with Jesus also means to be in a community, to become part of the alternative community of Jesus. Discipleship is not an individual path. [It] involves becoming compassionate. "Be compassionate as God is compassionate" is the defining mark of the [community]. Compassion is the fruit of life in the Spirit and the ethos of the community…. Thus we have what I would call a transformist understanding of the Christian life…. [It] is a journey of transformation…. It leads from life under the lordship of culture [bondage, alienation] to the life of companionship with God [the Spirit of creation]. (p. 136)
Believe did not originally mean believing a set of doctrines or teachings; in both Greek and Latin its roots mean "to give one’s heart to." Believing in Jesus in the sense of giving one’s heart to (the journey’s spirit) is the movement from secondhand religion to firsthand religion.... For ultimately, Jesus is not simply a figure of the past, but a figure of the present. Meeting that Jesus will be like meeting Jesus again for the first time. (p. 137)

As a Piagetian, what I saw in Borg’s stages are different qualities of synthesis. In the earliest, "pre-critical naivete" stage, the images, scattered and fragmentary, were received from external authority with unquestioned awe. This stage reminds me of simple Pavlovian conditioning: an externally controlled bond built between dogfood, a ringing bell, and anticipatory salivation which requires no self-conscious mediation.

The second, late-childhood stage, where doubts began to appear, is akin to a psychology of "associationism." Working on images and insights, the mind aims to synthesize a viable whole and, in the process, may discover anomaly or contradiction. Self-instigated criticality appears, but is yet limited to the scatter of images offered or controlled by adult authority.

In the adolescent stage, Borg’s earlier puzzlements had turned into "foundational doubts." Piaget calls this stage technical or concrete-operational. Though able to logically manipulate facts or things, reasoning is still limited to the observable or material. Two key components are missing in this equation: 1) recognition of "form," the symbolic "field" connecting "things," and 2) a conscious and reflective awareness that it is an immaterial "I" (dare we call it "soul?") doing the thinking and connecting. Here, Borg’s marvelous insight—"collision" with materialistic culture—is highly germane. Our machine-age culture, or fellowship, limits consciousness, trapping it inside the merely technical and literal. Thus, to embark on the fuller, spiritual journey requires a cultural movement, a fellowship working to lift our taken-for-granted culture to a new, liberating level.

In his later stages, after much study and thought, Borg began to integrate his path: reason and faith, individual and community, material and spirit worlds. Piaget calls this synthetic stage formal-operational reasoning. Thought incorporates "things" into patterns, then discovers the principles providing their systemic coherence, real or imaginable. Most important, this new consciousness views the patterns/principles as human, purposive inventions and coordinations. Interesting, then, that Borg revisions the Christian way as a compassionate, collaborative journey which, attuned to the spirit within, seeks to transcend our slave-to-materialism culture.

As Piaget shows, in this adolescent, peer-oriented stage "morality" is generally recognized as the "observance of rule by mutual consent." Each of us, early on, has the intrinsic competence to reach this synthetic, formal-operational stage. Thus, if we don’t actually realize it, the problem must lie in the collective realm with the "lordship of concrete, technical culture." The problem, in short, is to collaboratively transform our technical culture into a mutually respectful one. I think it is clear how and why Borg’s arguments lead to a call for social transformation. In a sense, the historical Jesus’ invitation to journey in the spirit will only make real sense to those who have, through personal experience and reflection, reached the fourth stage of development. Meanwhile, culture, as context of personal experience, seems to be stuck in stages of Pavlovian programming or associationism or, at best, in technical mastery. In other words, the majority live in a world that does not encourage full individual development. Person and society, then, form a dilemma, one whose resolution requires inspired, spiraling thought. It’s going to take some pretty courageous, bridge-building marginal-types to move culture to the next stage!

Part III. Some Socio-Political Implications of Borg’s Revisionary Thesis.

Borg’s sketches some of characteristics of the historical Jesus. I’ve created a collage of quotes which cover these aspects. Our main concern is to see how this newly discovered depiction of Jesus’ life and mission lead us to a critical assessment of modern institutions, religious and secular. I’m assuming that religious beliefs—"field of virtues"—is the cosmic keystone, underlying and shaping the secular, everyday patterns of social life.

Jesus as "Spirit Person. "Noting that precious little is known of his early, private life, Borg begins with a few impressions drawn from Jesus’ unusually brief (1 to 4 years) public life. They suggest a "marginal-man:" two worlds, two visions, and a teacher’s rhetorical bridge.

Jesus verbal gifts were remarkable. His language was most often metaphorical, poetic, and imaginative, filled with memorable short sayings and compelling short stories... [He] was very clever in debate, often turning a question back on his interrogators…. [He] had a clever tongue, which could playfully or sarcastically indict the powerful and proper (or "politically correct?")…. [In modern] terms he was gifted as both a right-brain and left-brain thinker….
He used dramatic public actions (eating with untouchables). Like the classical prophets…he performed symbolic actions (overturning tables of money changers in the temple)…. He was a remarkable healer…. [He] attracted a following, including people who left their previous lives behind…. He also attracted enemies, especially among the rich and powerful.... He must have been remarkably courageous…. (pp. 30, 31)

Though it took a long while to see it, Borg says the "most crucial fact about Jesus was that he was a ‘spirit person.’" And, this realization came, not from Bible study, but from studying cultural anthropology and non-Western religions (many having a special place for seers and elders). So, Borg proceeds to indicate what a spirit-person is, what makes them (their experience) special, and then touches on a few socio-political implications.

Spirit persons are known cross-culturally. They are people who have vivid and frequent subjective experiences of another…dimension of reality…. They share a compelling sense of having experienced something "real"…. Their experiences are noetic, involving not simply a feeling of ecstasy but a knowing. What such persons know is the sacred. (pp. 32, 33)

"Spirit persons share a second feature: they become mediators of the sacred. They mediate the sacred in various ways" (p. 33). They do so as teachers, healers or exorcists, game finders or rainmakers, charismatic warriors, wise ones, etc.

It is important to note that the experience of spirit persons presupposes (a) reality very different from the dominant image of reality in the modern Western world. [Which], derived from the Enlightenment, sees reality in material terms.... The experience of spirit persons suggests that there is more to reality than this—that there is...a non-material level of reality, actual even though non-material, and charged with energy and power. The modern world view is one dimensional; the world view of spirit persons is multidimensional. (p. 34)

"Imagining Jesus as a particular instance of a type of religious personality known cross-culturally undermines a widespread Christian belief. (That) Christianity is exclusively true and that Jesus is ‘the only way’" (p. 37). This pretentious "chosen people" chauvinism, ethnic and national as well as religious, operates in many current conflicts.

I recommend Borg’s stories to all readers, especially those who see that the stories are not only a path to good faith but also a way to "Meet Democracy Again For The First Time."