Marcus Borg. Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power — And How They Can Be Restored. HarperOne, 2011. (248 pages)
— REVIEW —
This is most definitely an important contribution to the conversation around language and meaning. Borg rightly challenges contemporary connotations and usages, and brings biblical insight to the words that are commonly used by Christians. While I disagree with Anne Sutherland Howard that, “This book could start a revolution,” I do believe this is an extremely important work that Christians and non-Christians should read for the purpose of better understanding. At the very least, it engages you with questions that shed light on our presuppositions and the meanings that we so often just take for granted.
The strength of this book is the engagement with Biblical contexts and denotations. There is language and vocabulary in this book that is extremely helpful in moving our theology forward and maturing our faith journey. However, there are some conclusions and philosophical leaps that Borg makes that are unwarranted. A few times there are conclusions that he draws which deviate from his normal hermeneutic.
To help with the notes, then, I have included “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” icons to summarize (and admittedly over-simplify) the chapter. To clarify, “thumbs up” means that Borg describes the language and circumstance well, and provides good biblical context for his explanations. “Thumbs down” means that Borg dives into philosophical conclusions that are unwarranted, and at times non sequitur. I’ll do my best to include further explanations where warranted.
Christian language has become a stumbling block in our time. Much of its basic vocabulary is seriously misunderstood by Christians and non-Christians alike. (1)
The misunderstandings flow from two major causes shaping the way Christian language is heard. The first is the literalization of language in the modern period, affecting Christians and non-Christians alike. The second is the interpretation of Christian language within a common framework that I call “heaven and hell” Christianity… When this is the primary framework for understanding Christianity, as it often is, it diminishes and distorts the meaning of Christian language. (1)
This book’s purpose is to exposit an alternative understanding, one that draws on the Bible and premodern Christian tradition. It has a drumbeat. Again and again, it compares and contrasts the contemporary meanings of Christian language with their often very different biblical and traditional meanings. Again and again, it names the effects that literalization and the heaven-and-hell framework have had upon the meanings of Christian language. Again and again, it reveals the more ancient and authentic meanings of “speaking Christian” and tries to connect these reinvigorated meanings to the realities we face in the twenty-first century. | The book’s purpose is to redeem or reclaim Christian language. (2)
This book might also be seen as “a Christian primer.” A primer teaches us how to read. Reading is not just about learning to recognize and pronounce words, but also about how to hear and understand them. (3)
1. Speaking Christian
…language is the medium through which people participate in their religion. To be part of a religion means being able to speak and understand its language. (5)
By “speaking” I do not mean merely knowing either the ancient languages of these religions or their modern descendants. I mean something more basic: the way practitioners use the concepts and ideas from their religion as a lens through which to see the world, the way they use them to connect their religion to their life in the world. (6)
…literacy means more than simply being able to make sounds out of written words. It also involves having some understanding of what the words mean. (6)
AN UNFAMILIAR AND MISUNDERSTOOD LANGUAGE. Christian language is becoming unfamiliar for an obvious reason. Over the last half century, the percentage of people growing up Christian has decreased significantly in North America and even more so in Europe. (7)
Thus, even for many Christians the language of the Bible and Christianity is like a foreign language. (9)
There are two major reasons why the Christian language is frequently misunderstood today. First a particular common and widely shared understanding of what Christianity is has created a framework within which biblical and Christian language is most often understood. I call it the heaven-and-hell framework. The second reason we misunderstand Christian terms is the result of the “literalization” of biblical and Christian language. This is my name for the process by which many have come to assume that the most faithful way to understand Christian terms is as literal and absolute representations of the inerrant revelation of God. (9-10)
THE HEAVEN-AND-HELL FRAMEWORK. …has four central elements: the afterlife, sin and forgiveness, Jesus’s dying for our sins, and believing. (11)
The Afterlife: Heaven is the reason for being Christian. (11)
Sin and Forgiveness: Sin is the central issue in our life with God. Forgiveness is the solution. (12)
Jesus Died for Our Sins: Within this framework, what is most important about Jesus is his death. (13)
Believing: The final element that makes up the heaven-and-hell framework is believing, understood as affirming a core set of statements to be true. (14)
The framework created by these four elements decisively shapes the meaning of many “big” Christian words, giving them meanings very different from their biblical and ancient Christian ones. To illustrate:
Salvation now refers to life after death; it is about going to heaven. But in the Bible, it is seldom about an afterlife; rather, it is about transformation this side of death.
Saved now means to be saved from our sins. But in the Bible, it is about much more than this, and often not about sin at all.
Savior now refers to Jesus as the one who saves us from our sins. But in the Bible, savior is used long before Jesus and most often has nothing to do with being saved from sin.
Sacrifice now refers to Jesus’s death on the cross as payment for our sins. But in the Bible, sacrifice is never about substitutionary payment for sin.
God now refers to a personlike being separate from the universe. God’s character is both loving and punitive. God loves us enough to send Jesus to die for us, but God will also judge and punish those who don’t believe or behave as they ought. But the Bible also contains a very different understanding of God, both of what the word refers to and of God’s character.
Mercy is now about God forgiving us, even though we are sinful and deserve to be punished. But in the Bible, the ancient words translated into English as mercy often do not mean what mercy means in modern English.
Repentance is now remorse for sin and resolving to live a better life. But in the Bible, its meanings are quite different: to return from exile and “to go beyond the mind we have.”
Redeemer, redeem, and redemption (like savior, save, and salvation) now refer to Jesus as the redeemer who redeems us from our sins and brings about our redemption. But in the Bible, these words are not about being saved from sin, but about being set free from slavery.
Righteousness is now primarily about individual virtue — about being a righteous person. But in the Bible, it is often a collective or social virtue. It is about justice and whether societies are just or unjust.
Peace is now primarily understood as an individual internal state — peace of mind and being at peace with God. But in the Bible, peace is more than internal peace. It is a major part of God’s dream for the world, a world of nonviolence and the end of war.
Faith now means believing a set of statements about God, Jesus, and the Bible to be true, often literally true. But in the Bible and premodern Christianity, faith and believing are not about affirming the truth of statements. Rather, they are about commitment, loyalty, and allegiance, and not to a set of statements, but to God as known especially in Jesus. Perhaps the best single synonym for to believe is to belove.
…the point is that the common heaven-and-hell framework is like a black hole that sucks the meaning of Christian language into it, changing and distorting it. (16)
REDEEM OR REPLACE? So serious is the problem that some have concluded that Christian language is beyond redemption and needs to be replaced by langauge that actually communicates what we want to communicate. (17)
Christianity has repeatedly shown itself throughout its history to be an effective path for goodness and transformation — a path that is affirmed by millions and still has the potential to be a powerful force for our future. That is why I think it is worth redeeming rather than replacing Christian language. We have too much to lose. (19)
Christian language needs to be set free, released, reclaimed from its captivity to its conventional modern meanings. … The language of the Bible and postbiblical Christianity is much richer and broader than commonly supposed. (19)
Thoughtfully understood, Christian language is perceptive, persuasive, and powerful. Its insights about the human condition illuminate the way we commonly experience our lives. It points to an alternative vision and way of life centered in God and God’s passion for a different kind of world. It has power. (19-20)
2. Beyond Literalism
The factual inerrancy of the Bible was first explicitly affirmed just over three centuries ago in the second half of the 1600s in a book of Protestant theology. … For many in our time, Christians and non-Christians alike, it has led to an identification of truth with factuality. … But Luther and the other Reformers did not affirm inerrancy or literalism. (25)
The impact of literalism on Christian language makes the Bible and Christianity incredible for many. It is a major reason that many young people have little or no interest in Christianity. (26)
A HISTORICAL-METAPHORICAL UNDERSTANDING. …a historical approach means setting biblical and Christian language in their ancient historical contexts. (27)
A historical approach is greatly illuminating. Language comes alive in its context. Moreover, a historical approach prevents us from projecting modern and often misleading meanings back into the past. …It recognizes that the bible was not written to us or for us, but within and for ancient communities. (28) | Thus a historical approach makes Christian language relative and not absolute. …relative …has a positive meaning — it means “related to.” In this sense, relative means, “This is how our spiritual ancestors saw things.” (28)
The question is no longer simply, “What does the Bible say?” as if that would settle everything. Rather, the question becomes, “Given what their words meant for their then, what might their meaning be for our now?” (29)
The second adjective in the historical-metaphorical approach takes seriously that language, especially religious language, often has a more-than-literal, more-than-factual, more-than-historical meaning. This is its metaphorical meaning. Metaphor is about “the surplus of meaning” that language can carry. Metaphorical meaning is not inferior to literal-factual meaning — it is not less than, but more than. (29)
For many, Christian faith becomes believing in the literal and absolute truth of statements that you otherwise wouldn’t take seriously. (33)
For Christians who affirm biblical inerrancy and literalism, letting go of it can be frightening and unsettling, for it means letting go of certainties. For many other Christians, it has been an experience of liberation. (33)
To say the obvious, salvation is a very big Christian word. It names the yearning, desire, hope, and purpose of the Christian life. (35)
Within their biblical frameworks, these words are about much more than sin and forgiveness, heaven and hell. They speak about the transformation of life this side of death — about personal transformation and political transformation. They are about the transformation of our lives as individuals and as people living together in societies. (38)
BIBLICAL MEANINGS. Salvation in the Bible is seldom about an afterlife. (39)
Salvation as Liberation from Bondage: Exodus 14:30; 15:2; Hosea 13:4; Psalm 106:21. Salvation involves liberation from economic bondage…liberation from political bondage…liberation from religious bondage. (40-41)
Salvation as Return from Exile: Isaiah 40; 45:17; 43:104. Salvation is return from exile — coming home.
Salvation as Rescue from Peril: Psalms 27:1; 51:12; 65:5; 69:29; 118:21; 6:4; 7:1; 31:2; 54:1; 59:2; 76:9; 142:6; 106:21. Salvation is also about more than deliverance and rescue: to be saved is to enter into a new kind of life — a life covenanted with God, the central theme of both the Old and new Testaments. Salvation is about deliverance and transformation. (45)
MORE IMAGES OF SALVATION. Salvation as deliverance and transformation is expressed in a number of compact images found in both the Old and New Testaments. (46)
From Blindness to Seeing Again: For John, “enlightenment” — seeing again, seeing truly — is a major image of salvation. (47)
From Death to Life: “Let the dead bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22). He [Jesus] obviously said this about living people. It is a serious indictment — we can be alive and yet dead. (47)
From Infirmity to Well-Being: …this is the etymology of the English word salvation. Its Latin roots are the same as those for the word salve, a healing ointment. Salvation is the healing of our wounds and becoming whole.
From Fear to Trust:
THE MORE-THAN-PERSONAL MEANINGS. Salvation concerns individuals; it is personal. But it also consistently corporate in the Bible. It includes how we live together in communities, societies, and nations. In other words, salvation is about the kind of world we live in. (48)
The broad meaning of politics is ancient, reflected in its Greek root polis, which means “city.” Politics concerns the shape and shaping of the city — by which is meant humans living together in large populations. Politics is thus about the shape and shaping of societies, nations, and the world itself. (48-49)
The political meaning of salvation in the Bible has two focal points: justice and peace.
From Injustice to Justice: …land and food, the material basis of existence. (49) The Bible knows that powerful and wealthy elites commonly structure the world in their own self-interest. Pharaoh and Herod and Caesar are still with us. From them we need to be saved. (50)
From Violence to Peace:
So salvation is personal transformation. And it is also the transformation of the world, the humanly created world in which we live, into a better world. Salvation is a twofold transformation — of ourselves and the world. (53)
Salvation concerns these two transformations [ourselves and the world]. It responds to our two deepest yearnings. Who does not want this? This is what Christianity at its best is about. And this is what the religions of the world at their best are about. (54)
4. The Bible
…conflict about the meaning of the Bible — its origin, authority, and interpretation — is the single most divisive issue in American Christianity today. (55)
The Old Testament is almost four times as long as the New Testament. The Apocrypha is about four-fifths as long as the New Testament (56)
In our world, books are generally written for people whom the author doesn’t know. But the writings included in the Bible were written for people whom the authors did know. (57)
A HUMAN PRODUCT. The alternative understanding of the Bible’s origin is grounded in the historical and theological scholarship of the last few centuries. That scholarship has made it clear that the Bible is a human product, not a divine one. (58)
[VIA: It is that statement, and consecutive others that make this a “thumbs down” chapter. Borg conflates a religious belief with a scholarly evaluation, and these two categories ought not speak to or inform the other. Especially since his chapter on “God” (ch.5) and God’s Character (ch.6) calls for reticence on defining God thus freeing the definitions and connotations of the word “God” from the entrapments of dogma. His extremely brief survey of the formation of the canon helps illuminate the journey the Bible has taken through the years, however, I simply had wished his emphatic statements on the nature of the Bible was more tempered and and philosophically nuanced.]
…the Bible tells Christians how our spiritual ancestors (the people of ancient Israel and early Christianity saw things — and not how God sees things. (58)
[VIA: Again, Borg is conflating the disciplines. In addition, his more emphatic statement is contrary to the “mystery” that he will discuss in later chapters.]
FORMATION OF THE CANON. …when Paul wrote letters to early Christian communities in the 50s of the first century, neither he nor his recipients considered them “sacred scripture” or imagined that they would someday become part of the Bible. (59)
…the canon of the New Testament is the result of a process that took centuries. (61)
The first list of the twenty-seven books that we know as the New Testament comes from 367 CE in a letter from Bishop Athanasius. (61)
The important point is that the Bible is sacred scripture not because of its origin, but because our ancestors in the faith declared these particular books to be sacred, that is, authoritative. (61)
THE BIBLE AS THE “WORD OF GOD”. …word … It is a means of communication, of disclosure, of bridging the gap between two parties. To speak of the Bible as the “Word of God” means that it is a vehicle, a means, of communicating with God.
Two very different understandings of the referent of the word God are found in the Christian tradition, beginning in the Bible and coexisting in Christianity ever since. For the first, God refers to a being beyond the universe, another being in addition to the universe. … the second, the word God does not refer to a being separate from the universe, but to a sacred presence all around us — a reality that is more than the space-time world of matter and energy, even as it also present [sic] everywhere and permeates everything in the space-time world. (65)
This referent of the word radically changes the question of God’s existence. It is no longer about whether there is another being separate from the universe. Rather, the question is about the nature of reality, of “what is,” of “is-ness.” “What is,” “reality,” or “is-ness” is — does anybody want to debate that? The question is not whether “is-ness” is, but what “is-ness” is. (70)
God is not simply poetic language for the universe as we have come to know it. Rather, the space-time universe of matter and energy is “in God.” (71)
Intervention disappears, because the notion of intervention presupposes that God is a being separate from the universe and thus normally “not here,” so God acts within the world only through occasional interventions. But if God refers to a reality that is “right here” and “all around us,” then the language of intervention is not necessary. Indeed, it doesn’t work. (71-72)
God’s involvement in the world does not disappear. Rather than speaking about divine intervention, this way of thinking about Go speaks about divine presence, intention, and interaction. Divine presence: God is not absent but everywhere present. Divine intention: according to the Bible, God, the sacred, has a purpose. Divine interaction: our relationship to the sacred, makes possible things that otherwise might not be possible. There can be cooperation — interaction — between divine purpose and human action. All of the above are affirmed, even as the notion of intervention is set aside. (72)
PERSONIFYING GOD. Personal language affirms that this reality is more than person, not less than persona. (73)
BEYOND ALL WORDS. The reality to which the word God points is beyond all words, beyond all language, beyond all concepts. … Once we name it, we are no longer talking about it, for this reality cannot be expressed in words. (74)
Thus humility and reticence in our language about God is called for. No concept of God, no way of stating the referent of the word — neither supernatural theism nor panentheism — is inadequate. Yet the latter is better. More expansive and less constricting, it avoids the limitations that have made supernatural theism problematic or impossible for many. (74)
6. God’s Character
..there are three primary ways of thinking about the “character” of God — in nonreligious language, the “character of reality. The first sees God as indifferent, the second as threatening and dangerous, the third as gracious and life-giving. (75-76)
Attempts to combine the gracious God with the punitive God invariably lead to conditional grace. There is an if, a condition. God loves us and will save us if…The content of the condition varies: if we believe in Jesus, if we believe that the Bible is the inerrant revelation of God, if we earnestly repent, if we behave in accord with God’s will, if we are reasonably decent people. But whenever God’s grace and love are made conditional, the punitive God triumphs. (82)
So what is the character and passion of your God? The answer, for Christians, is what we see in Jesus. he is, as we emphasize in the next chapter, the decisive revelation of God’s character and passion. (83)
The central claim of Christianity is that Jesus is the decisive revelation of God. He reveals, discloses, what can e seen of God in a human life. (85)
PRE-EASTER AND POST-EASTER. The first — also called the “historical Jesus” — refers to what he was like before his death. The second – -sometimes called the “Christ of faith,” though I do not use that expression myself — refers to what he became after his death. (86)
In these developing traditions, Jesus is given titles, the word given to the exalted language his followers used for him, words and phrases like “Messiah,” “Son of God,” “Lord,” “Savior of the world,” “Word of God,” “Light of the World,” “Bread of Life,” “Great High Priest,” and so forth. There is a near unanimous consensus among mainstream biblical scholars that these titles are post-Easter and do not go back to Jesus himself. He didn’t talk about himself this way. (89)
The distinction between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus matters greatly. Not because God requires us to get our beliefs right — correct beliefs have often been overvalued by Christians. Rather, it matters for us. To put it negatively, failing to see the distinction creates confusion. To put it positively, seeing the distinction is greatly illuminating. (89)
Divinity belongs to the post-Easter Jesus, not to the pre-Easter Jesus. …the classic Christian affirmation about the pre-Easter Jesus is not that he was God, but that he was the decisive revelation of God. This is the cumulative meaning of the exalted language that Christians use for Jesus: in him, we see what can be seen of God in a human life. (90)
If Jesus is the decisive revelation of the character and passion of God, as his followers have affirmed from the beginning, what does his life say about God? (93)
8. The Death of Jesus
AS PAYMENT FOR SIN. …it is not ancient, it is not in the Bible, and was not present during the first thousand years of Christianity. …That this understanding of Jesus’s death is not ancient does not in itself condemn it. (98)
But this understanding has very serious problems, often unnoticed by Christians. First, by implying that Jesus had to die because of our sins and that this was part of God’s plan to “save” us, it completely obscures and obliterates the historical meaning of his death. Historically, Jesus didn’t just die — he was killed. And killed not by a criminal or assassin, but executed by established authority — a combination of imperial and collaborationist religious authority. Moreover, he was not just executed, but crucified — a form of Roman execution used for a specific class of offenders, those who systematically defied Roman authority, whether chronically rebellious slaves or leaders (and sometimes members) of resistance movements, violent or nonviolent. (99)
Second, substitutionary sacrifice impugns the character of God. It portrays God as primarily punitive. Think of what this says about God. God is a lawgiver whose laws we have violated, and God must enforce the law by punishing us unless an adequate sacrifice is made. Thus also the death of Jesus was part of God’s plan; it was God’s will that this immeasurably great and good person be executed. (99-100)
Third, it distorts what Christianity is all about. The substitutionary understanding of Jesus’s death reinforces the widespread notion that Christianity is mostly about sin, forgiveness, believing that Jesus died for us, and a blessed afterlife.
But what if this isn’t what Christianity is most importantly about? What if Christianity and salvation are really about transformation — the transformation of ourselves and of the world? Substitutionary understandings of Jesus’s death obscure this. They make Christianity all about being forgiven by believing in Jesus so that we can go to heaven. (100)
THE MEANINGS OF JESUS’S DEATH. We have no reason to think that Jesus or his followers sought to find meaning in his death before it happened. (100)
He was crucified. To emphasize in the world the first century that Jesus was crucified signaled at once that this gospel was an anti-imperial gospel. (101)
Death and resurrection are dying and rising with Christ. (101)
Jesus’s death is the revelation of the love of God. Thus, in Jesus’s passion for the kingdom of God and his challenge to the powers at the risk of his own life, we see the depth of God’s love for us. (102)
SACRIFICE. Substitution seriously misunderstands the purpose and meaning of sacrifices in the Bible. They were never about substitution — as if those offering the sacrifice deserved to die, but God was willing to accept an animal as a substitute. | Most basically, sacrifice means to make something sacred by offering it up to God, as the Latin roots of the English word indicate: sacrum (“sacred”) and facere (“to make”). An animal is offered up to God and becomes sacred in the process. Often within Judaism, the animal was cooked and then eaten by those offering the sacrifice, symbolically creating a meal with God, communion with God. God and the people consumed the same food. Gift and meal often go together in sacrifice. (102-103)
Sacrifice in biblical times had many meanings, none of them about substitution. …daily sacrifices offered by priests in the Temple …sacrifices of thanksgiving…about gratitude …sacrifices of petition; here something was asked for …sacrifices of purification; these removed what was thought to be impurity …sacrifices that dealt with the issue of sin or wrongdoing; one offered a sacrifice, a gift to God, to make amends, to heal the broken relationship. (103)
Jesus sacrificed his life. He offered it up as a gift to God — not because God required it, but because he was filled with God’s passion for the kingdom of God — a different kind of world. (105)
Can you be a Christian without believing that the tomb really was empty. (109) Would Christianity be invalidated if we found his bones? (110) Believe whatever you want about whether the tomb was really empty, whether you are convinced it was or uncertain or skeptical — what did Easter mean to his early followers? The answer to the qustion of meaning is clear. In the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus has two primary meanings: “Jesus lives” and “Jesus is Lord.”
[VIA: The implication in this chapter is that the physical bodily resurrection doesn’t matter. I’m not sure if there is any other critique I can put to this other than this is simply wrong. Borg is trying to unscramble an egg here, and it just doesn’t make sense. His reasoning is self-defeating, non-sequitur
First, from a historical perspective, if Jesus had not been physically and bodily resurrected, there would be no basis upon which to believe the very things Borg asserts his followers believed. In other words, how would one believe that “Jesus lives” if Jesus did not actually “live?” The entire testimony is based in historical claims.
Second, a “stayed-dead” Jesus does not allow his followers to believe that “Jesus is Lord.” Lord over what? Death! Sin! Oppression! Imperialism! etc., all the things Borg mentions in his other chapters. If you strip this explanation — the whole agenda of Jesus — from any historical facts, the theological claim of “lordship” evaporates with it. It simply could not make sense. ” ‘Jesus is Lord” means the lords of this world, including the ruler of the empire that executed him, are not supreme. To affirm “Jesus is Lord systematically subverts all other lords, including the lords of culture.” (111-112) Not if Jesus is still dead.
Third, the main thrust of Pauline theology is founded upon the Resurrection, from a Jewish theological expectational perspective, and from an historical perspective. If you’re going to make irrelevant the physical and bodily resurrection of Jesus, you have a bigger problem than just the theology of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. You have quarried out the foundation of the entire Christian enterprise.]
10. Believing and Faith
PREMODERN MEANINGS. The modern meaning of believe is very different from its meaning from Christian antiquity until the seventeenth century. In English, prior to about 1600, the verb believe always had a person as its direct object, not a statement. … “I believe in you.” …having confidence in a person, trusting that person. In a Christian context, it meant having confidence in God and Jesus, trusting God and Jesus. (118)
The meaning of believe prior to about 1600 includes more. It comes from the Old English be loef, which means “to hold dear.” The similarity to the modern English word belove is obvious. … Believing and beloving were synonyms. (118-119)
Thus until the 1600s, to believe in God and Jesus meant to belove God and Jesus. Think of the difference this makes. To believe in God does not mean believing that a set of statements about God are true, but to belove God. To believe in Jesus does not mean to believe that a set of statements about him are true, but to belove Jesus. (119)
For Christianity and its Jewish roots, believing is beloving, loving, God. (119)
The modern meaning of believe is thus a major distortion of ancient Christian and biblical meanings. To put the contrast very concisely, it is the difference between:
Believing that a set of statements about God, Jesus, and the Bible are true.
Beloving God — and for Christians, this means beloving God as known especially in Jesus.
Believing that a set of statements are true has little transforming power. But beloving God as known in Jesus has great transforming power. (120)
FAITH. Fidelitas means “fidelity” — “faithfulness.” …commitment, loyalty, allegiance, and attentiveness to our relationship with God — in a Christian context, to God as known especially in Jesus.
Fiducia means “trust.” (121)
“Little faith” and worry, anxiety, go together. Deep faith — as trust, fiducia — liberates us from anxiety. (122)
Think of how different faith as fidelity and trust, as fidelitas and fiducia, is from faith as believing a set of statements to be true. The latter can even increase anxiety. For example, if we believe that there is a final judgment in which we are sent to either heaven or hell, how could we not be anxious? Have I believed strongly enough or behaved rightly enough? But faith as faithfulness and trust eliminates that anxiety and frees us fro transformation in this life. (122)
CHRISTIAN FAITH AND BELIEFS. …faith is more a matter of the heart than the head. (123)
…understanding mercy as the opposite of punishment is a severe narrowing and reduction of meaning of the biblical and ancient Christian word. | Granted, sometimes mercy and merciful do appear in biblical contexts where the issue is sin and forgiveness. In such contexts, they are good translations. But because of the common meaning of mercy and merciful today, they are many times not good translations. Instead, the fuller meaning of the ancient words is better conveyed in English by compassion and compassionate. (126)
COMPASSION. …”to feel with” — to feel the feelings of another. (127)
רחם To be compassionate is to be womblike: life-giving, nourishing, perhaps embracing and encompassing. (127)
Given the modern meaning of mercy and merciful, compassion and compassionate are much better words in many biblical contexts for speaking of the character of God and how we should be and act. (127)
…the prophets felt the pathos of God — God’s feeling for the suffering of the many and God’s passion for a different kind of world. (128)
Think how the meanings of these sayings changes if we substitute, as we should, the words compassion and compassionate for mercy and merciful:
Blessed are the compassionate, for they will receive compassion. (Matthew 5:7)
Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. (Luke 6:36)
Mercy is a reactive virtue; we are called to be merciful on those occasions when we have been wronged. Compassion covers a much larger area of life, indeed, all of life; we are to be compassionate. | Note the importance of the second saying in particular. It crystallizes theology (what God is like) and ethics (how we are to live) into a few words: God’s character is compassion, and we are to be compassionate. (130)
[VIA: The “thumbs up/down” is for the one-sided approach Borg takes to this chapter. Granted, the chapter is short, and so are many of his explanations. However, he mentions that there are multiple meanings that would properly be translated merciful, but yet doesn’t give them “real estate” in this chapter. What he does share is fantastic, it is simply that he leaves out other passages that also mean “pity,” and “mercy” as in Psalm 40:11 and Jeremiah 42:12.]
…in the Bible, righteousness and righteous are positive words. They are associated with “doing what is right.” (133)
RIGHTEOUSNESS AS JUSTICE This meaning is social and political, not just individual. It refers to the way a society is put together — its political and economic structure, its distribution of power and wealth and their effects on society, from the microcosm of the family to the macrocosm of nations and empires. | In these contexts, righteousness would be better translated justice. Righteousness and justice are so closely related in the Bible that they are often synonyms. (134)
(Amos 5:21-24) synonymous parallelism. “Let justice roll down like waters” and “righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” are synonymous phrases. (135)
When the Bible speaks of God’s passion for righteousness and justice, it does not mean that God’s primary passion is the punishment of wrongdoers. True, some passages do threaten wrongdoers with judgment and condemnation. But often justice and righteousness refer to the way “the world,” the social order that humans create, should be. It can be — and most often is — unjust, shaped by the wealthy and powerful in their own self-interest. God’s dream, God’s passion, is for a different kind of world. This kind of justice is not punitive justice, but distributive justice — the fair distribution of the material necessities of life. (137)
…everybody should have enough of the basic necessities of life. In the ancient world, these included food, shelter, and safety. | Moreover, and importantly, distributive justice is not charity. Charity is helping people in need. Charity is always good and will always be necessary Distributive justice does not ask kings and emperors to increase their charitable giving. Rather, it asks about the way the system is structured. How is it shaped and whom does it benefit? Does it benefit some inordinately? (138)
Jesus and Paul and other figures important in early Christianity stood against the Roman Empire because of its injustice and violence. Many of them were killed by the authorities — not because they advocated charity and taught individual righteousness and the way to heaven. People do not get martyred for that. Why would the authorities care? Rather, they were killed because those in power perceived their message and passion to be a threat to “the way things were” — that is, to the way the wealthy and powerful had structured the world to garner most of society’s resources for themselves.
DEMOTING SIN. Sin needs to be demoted from its status as the dominant Christian metaphor for what’s wrong among us. As noted above, it is not the only biblical image for the human condition, but one of several.
[e.g., exile.] Is sin the primary metaphor in this story? No. If our problem is exile, we need a path of return — we need “the way of the LORD,” as Isaiah 40:3 puts it. (144-145)
(Luke 15:11-32) Though the son prepares a confession of sin, the father doesn’t need to hear it — indeed, the father sees the son a long way off and, filled with compassion, rushes out to meet him. (145)
Rather than being a story about sin and forgiveness, it is about exile, return, welcome, and celebration. (145)
[e.g., infirmity.] There are other issues such as bondage, exile, blindness, infirmity, hard-heartedness, and so forth. (146)
SIN AND SINS. There is collective corporate sin. (146)
Sin in the singular is also used in the Bible to refer to a power that holds us in bondage. … When sin is bondage, a it is here (Romans 7:7-24), the remedy is not forgiveness, but liberation from bondage. (147)
[e.g., hubris.] hubris means much more than [pride]. It means puffing oneself up to inordinate size — attempting to be godlike. … Hubris infects not only indviduals, but also groups, countries, and humanity itself. (148)
Hubris is also a characteristic of humanity as a whole. [VIA: A nuance is that concern for others is rarely seen as concern for self. The two cannot be bifurcated. To save others is to save oneself in the process.]
A second image of the root of sin initially seems like its opposite — sin not as hubris, but as sloth. …sloth means “leaving it to the snake.” The reference is to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden letting the serpent tell them what to do. (149)
When hubris — centering on the self — is the problem, forgiveness is not the solution, or at least not an adequate remedy. … The remedy for hubris and sloth is a recentering of the self — we need to center ourselves in God, not in our own concerns or the lords or powers who rule this world. (149)
Another very important root image for sin in the Bible is idolatry. … Idolatry occurs when we make anything less than God the center of our lives. It encompasses both hubris and sloth. it is centering in something other than God and letting something other than God’s passion shape our lives. (150)
This more comprehensive understanding of sin is rich. It names what commonly ails us. At the same time, it does not become the “one size fits all” description of us. For some people — indeed the majority of people who have ever lived — the issue is not so much that they sinned, but that they were sinned against. There are victims of sin as well as sinners. Victims of sin need not forgiveness (though they may need to forgive), but liberation, reconnection, healing, wholeness, and a world of justice and peace. All of this is central to God’s passion in the Bible as revealed decisively in Jesus. | Within this broader biblical understanding of sin, forgiveness is not the primary antidote to sin. rather, the primary antidote is a deeper and deeper centering in God rather than centering int he self (hubris) or the lords of this world who tell us how to live (sloth). Both are forms of idolatry. The antidote is the opposite of idolatry: “You shall love the Lord your God.” (151)
A MODEST PROPOSAL. Christian language and liturgy need to speak not just about sins in the plural and our need for forgiveness. They also need to speak about sin as a power that hols us in bondage. (151)
14. Forgiveness and Repentance
FORGIVENESS IN RELATION TO GOD. …is being forgiven by God dependent on something we do? (154)
Or are we already forgiven — that is, accepted by God, loved by God — whether we know that or not? This has been the radical meaning of forgiveness and grace in the Bible and influential theological voices within the Christian tradition. (155)
God’s acceptance of us is unconditional. Grace means that God’s love is a given. | This is forgiveness “in spite of” — that is, a sense of being accepted by God in spite of our imperfections and worse. (155)
FORGIVENESS IN HUMAN RELATIONS. Forgiveness occurs not only in our relationship with God, but also in our relationships with one another. … Forgiveness also takes place in our relationship to our own past. How much do our memories of difficult years continue to enslave us? Forgiveness of those in our past is a way of becoming free from the bondage of those wounds. (156)
Perhaps the best-known large-scale example of this in recent years is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in the years immediately following apartheid. | In a setting like this, what does it mean to forgive? Is it simply saying, “It’s okay”? Or is it about making one’s peace with the past, so that one can move into a new way of life that involves freedom from that past. Is liberation without forgiveness possible? (157)
REPENTANCE. Its Greek roots mean “to go beyond the mind that we have.” (159)
The Bible does speak of repenting for our sins. But the emphasis is not so much on contrition and sorrow and guilt, but about turning from them and returning to God. Repentance is about change, not primarily a prerequisite for forgiveness. To repent means to turn, return to God and to go beyond the mind that we have and see things in a new way. That’s pretty exciting. (159)
15. John 3:16
…God loves the divinely created world — not just you and me, not just Christians, not just people, but the whole of creation. (163)
That he gave his only Son: John’s Gospel does not include the notion of substitutionary sacrifice; indeed, none of the Gospels do. The giving of the Son in John refers to the incarnation as a whole and not primarily to the death of Jesus. (163)
May not perish but may have eternal life: Eternal life is commonly understood to mean a blessed afterlife beyond death. But in John’s Gospel, it is a present experience. … To know God and Jesus in the present is to participate already in the life of the age to come.
Thus in John, this verse is not about believing a set of statements about Jesus now for the sake of heaven later. It is about beloving Jesus and beloving God as known in Jesus, in the incarnation, and entering into “the life of the age to come” now. It is not about people going to hell because they don’t believe. It is about the path into life with God now. (163)
16. Born Again
The metaphor of rebirth, being born of the Spirit, is an image of radical transformation. …To be born again, to be born of the Spirit, is to die to an old identity and way of being and to be born into a new identity and way of being centered in the Spirit of God — which for Christians is known normatively in Jesus. (169)
17. The Only Way
HISTORICAL MEANING. This is the language of love, devotion, delight, commitment. This is also is part [sic] of what it means to say “Jesus is the only way.” (172)
Note that this means that you you can be saved only by knowing and believing the right language, namely, Christian language. This virtually amounts to salvation by words — by believing the right words instead of other words. (173)
The claim that the creator of the universe is known in only one religious tradition has become increasingly unpersuasive to many millions, in part because many of us know people of other religions and also know that all religions, including Christianity, are particular historical responses to the experience of God, the sacred, in the cultures in which they originated. (173)
There is a way of understanding the claim of John 14:6 that does not involve Christian exclusivism. The key is the realization that John is the incarnational Gospel; in it Jesus incarnates, embodies, enfleshes what can be seen of God in a human life. To say, “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life,” is to say, “What we see in Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.” It is not about knowing the word Jesus and believing in what is said about him that is “the way.” Rather, the way is what we see in his life; we see a life of loving God and loving others, a life of challenging the powers that oppress this world, a life radically centered in the God to whom he bore witness. (173)
18. The Ascension
METAPHORICAL MEANINGS. As a parabolic story about Jesus, its foundational meaning is that Jesus is now with God. (179)
Jesus is no longer “here” … (180)
Jesus is no longer constrained by time and space. (180)
…the ascension is associated with the lordship of Jesus, that is, with his authority. (180)
To say that Jesus now sits at God’s right hand means that Jesus is Lord, vindicated by God, raised and ascended to God’s right hand. … The lordship of Jesus means the lordship of God; it’s about God’s dream for the world versus the common human dreams of wealth and power that far too often have become nightmares. (181)
[VIA: The reasons for the up/down is the complete absence of any Scriptural or historical support for his conclusions regarding a metaphorical meaning. While he provides passages in part one, they are there to simply bolster the case that the ascension is not “a particular event.” (179)]
Pentecost is the reversal of Babel. What happened at Babel confused the world by dividing it into separate languages and countries, resulting in misunderstanding, rivalries, and conflict. Pentecost is the beginning of the reunification of humanity. (186)
Thus Pentecost is about the abiding presence of Jesus as the Holy Spirit. … The spirit that was in Jesus returns to God and then is given to the community at Pentecost. (188)
[VIA: Borg doesn’t mention at all the feast of Shavuot (weeks), and the giving of Torah. I recognize that Borg’s agenda is different, but the importance of the relationship of these two events (Pentecost and Shavuot) cannot be ignored.]
20. The Rapture and the Second Coming
The word [rapture] and notion it embodies are a modern innovation, going back less than two centuries. Nobody had thought of it until the 1800s. (189)
Believing in the rapture and believing that Jesus is coming soon are not the same thing. (190)
THE RAPTURE IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE. …it is important to know that it is neither biblical nor ancient, but was first proclaimed by a British evangelist named John Nelson Darby (1800-82). He found it in his interpretation of a few passages in the Bible that speak about the second coming of Jesus and the end of the world, especially in one of Paul’s letters, 1 Thessalonians: (191)
The rapture is a modern invention. (192)
Knowing that the rapture is a modern invention matters for more than one reason. Christians who have never heard of it and wonder if they’ve overlooked something of importance need not worry. It is not biblical, not ancient or traditional Christian teaching. (192)
There will be no rapture. Christianity’s goal is not escape from this world. It loves this world and seeks to change it for the better. (193)
THE SECOND COMING. So, what did it mean when firs-century Christians affirmed that Jesus would come again? It was an expression of their conviction that what had begun in Jesus would be completed and come to fruition. Jesus was not just the past and the present, but also the future; his passion was the coming of the kingdom of God, the dream of God, for the earth. (195)
To affirm that Jesus will come again to complete what he began is to make a commitment to his vision of the future, the dream of God. | So, will there be a second coming on some day in the future? I think not. Its meaning is not literal-factual. Rather, the affirmation of the second coming has more-than-literal meanings. It is the return of Jesus already experienced as the risen Christ and the Spirit of Christ. It is Jesus coming again in the rhythms of the Christian liturgical year. Advent is preparing for the coming of Jesus — about the coming again of the Christ who is already here. Jesus also comes again in the Eucharist; in the bread and wine Christ becomes present to us. And what is meant by the second coming is also the ultimate Christian hope — for that time, to use Paul’s language, when “God [will] be all in all” (1 Cori. 15:28). (195)
Sometimes the word means the abode of God …sometimes the word simply means the sky …sometimes it is a synonym for God … (197)
In the precise sense of the word, I am an agnostic about what happens after death. An agnositic is “one who doesn’t know.” (198)
If there is a blessed afterlife, and I’m there, will I know that I am me? That is, is personal identity preserved in an afterlife? For some people, this seems like a ludicrous question. If the afterlife isn’t about you and I knowing that we are you and I, what’s it about? Yet when I think of my best experiences in this life, they have been those in which I was so completely caught up in what I was experiencing that there was no part of me left over that was aware that “I’m Marcus and I’m having this experience.” (199-200)
Finally, if there is a blessed afterlife, I cannot imagine that it is only for Christians. To imagine that the creator of the universe has chosen to be adequately known in only one religious tradition, which just happens to be our own, is, for me, beyond belief. (201)
When we die, we do not die into nothingness, but we die into God. (201)
…we can know as little about life after death as a baby traveling down the birth canal can know about the world the baby is about to enter. | So, is there an afterlife, and if so, what will it be like? I don’t have a clue. But I am confident that the one who has buoyed us up in life will also buoy us up through death. (201)
22. The Creeds and the Trinity
THE NICENE CREED. In the initial formulation of the creed in 325, it is only one sentence long. The fuller exposition of the third article about the Holy Spirit was added in 381 at the Council of Constantinople…
Article One. We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
Article Two. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
Article Three. (as mentioned, the Nicene Creed of 325 ended with a single sentence about the Holy Spirit. The fuller ending was added in 381). We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
The Council of Nicea was convened in 325 CE by Constantine, the first “Christian” ruler of the Roman Empire. In 313, he had legalized Christianity, thereby bringing imperial persecution of Christians to an end. … But in the years since his legalization of Christianity, he became aware that Christians were deeply divided theologically about the “nature” of Jesus. … He seems not to have cared what the bishops concluded — only that they came to an agreement. (206)
The first position was represented by Athanasius (293-373), the second by Arius (ca. 250-336). Athanasius won. (207)
But emphatically, the Nicene Creed made the status of Jesus as divine and Son of God higher than the status of the emperor. Within a few years of Nicea, Constantine realized this and became “Arian,” that is, an advocate of the lesser status of Jesus advocated by Arius. So did his imperial successors for much of the fourth century. | Thus a major issue at stake in the Nicene Creed is: Is Jesus above all o the lords of this world or is he one among a number of lords? (207)
The creed’s language is the language of poetry, mystical poetry, not the language of literal factuality. Does Jesus matter greatly and decisively for Christians? Yes. Is our language about him to be understood literally? No. (209)
THE CREEDS AND CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY. No particular creed, not even the Nicene Creed, is absolute. They are all historical products that use the language of their time and place. Do affirmations of faith matter? Yes. Is there only one way of making that affirmation? No. There are only historically and culturally conditioned ways of doing so. (212)
THE TRINITY. The question is why Christians add a third to this twofold affirmation about God. The answer is obvious — because of Jesus. … He was for them the decisive revelation of God — and continues to be that for Christians. This is what makes somebody Christian: seeing the decisive, normative revelation, disclosure, epiphany of God in Jesus. The Trinity is thus a testimony, witness, tribute to the centrality of Jesus for Christians. (213)
…speaking confidently about the nature of internal relationships between the three persons of the Trinity is problematic. How could we ever know? But when we focus on the external meaning of the Trinity, its claim is clear. God is one (Christians are monotheists), and God is known to us in three primary ways. (215)
23. The Lord’s Supper
BREAD AND WINE. First, bread and wine were the staple food and drink of the Mediterranean diet. …the material basis of existence. Moreover, early Christian sharing of bread and wine didn’t consist of a wafer and a sip, but occurred in the context of a real meal, a full meal. It is worth thinking about the fact that the primary Christian sacrament could have been something else. But it is based on food, the sharing of the staff and stuff of life. (219)
Second, the importance of shared meals in early Christianity was a continuation of the meal practice of Jesus. (219)
Third, there are overtly metaphorical uses of bread and wine. … Jesus is food and drink. He satisfies our hunger and quenches our thirst. (220)
Fourth, the body-and-blood language intrinsically associates bread and wine with Jesus’s death. (220) This sacrament is about becoming one with this Jesus. It is about joining our lives to his life, our passion to his passion. (221)
THE EUCHARIST. The Eucharist is about food, shared food, and inclusivity; it is about becoming one with Christ and one in Christ; it is about spiritual food for the journey; and it is about participating in Jesus’s passion for a different kind of world. (222)
[VIA: Borg never mentions Passover. Like Pentecost and Shavuot earlier, this “communion meal” cannot be divorced from the significance of it being a “passover” meal.]
24. The Lord’s Prayer
Because of the different versions, scholars are uncertain about whether the prayer goes back to Jesus or whether the versions are products of different Christian communities. (224)
[VIA: It is possible the prayer is in conjunction with the Amidah, a prayer of the same time frame.]
The image is of God as “Father” and thus as the “householder” of the world. Because first-century society was patriarchal, the head of the household was spoken of as male. So, how does one judge whether a father, a householder, is a good householder? By how the household is run. Are children well taken care of? Does everybody get enough? Are some pampered and others neglected? How are the animals taken care of? The buildings? Is this household in good shape? | To ask God to make God’s name holy is to ask God to make the world into a good household. It is parallel to and synonymous with the kingdom petition: “Your kingdom come … one earth, as it is in heaven.” (229-230)
25. Conclusion – What’s at Stake: The Heart of Christianity
How to understand Christian language is the central conflict in Christianity today. (231)
The issue is foundational: What is Christianity about? Is it, as heaven-and-hell Christianity implicitly or explicitly affirms, primarily about the afterlife and how we believe and behave now for the sake of heaven later? Is its central dynamic about sin, guilt, threat of punishment, and offer of pardon if we believe that Jesus died to pay the price for our sins? Is its relevance for this life absolute standards for personal righteousness and asking for forgiveness when we fail? (231)
This form of Christianity is commonly individualist, perhaps intrinsically so. It focuses on individuals; what matters is what we as individuals believe and do, for it is as individuals that we will one day go to heaven (or not). … But Christianity is not only about conversion and transformation of individuals. It is about “the dream of God,” God’s passion for a transformed world here and now. (232)
TWO VERSIONS OF CHRISTIANITY. How we speak and understand Christian language matters. It can change and revitalize our understanding of what Christianity is about. (234)
The Christian message reduced to its essentials is: love God (as known in Jesus) and change the world. (238)