UMAction Briefing HomepageMark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy


Mark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy
February 20, 1999

Marcus Borg, a Fellow of the controversial Jesus Seminar, was the keynote speaker at Iliff School of Theology's Week of Lectures in January. In his numerous books, Borg dismisses New Testament stories of Jesus' miracles and divinity as myth and metaphor developed by the early church.

He repeated these themes to his seminary audience while calling for a "revisioning" of Christian theology that rejects "supernatural theism" in favor of "panentheism." He predicted that although Christian belief is now useful to its adherents, it will "eventually fall into disuse" in favor of other spiritualities.

Iliff, located in Denver, is one of United Methodism's 13 official seminaries and receives about $1 million a year from the denomination. The Week of Lectures was sponsored by both Iliff and the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Rocky Mountain Conference.

Bishop Mary Ann Swenson warmly introduced Borg to the Iliff audience as a "man who has risked all in order to bridge the gap between academy and church pew." "He feeds us," the bishop said. "His presence with us is blessing to us. His personal way of being is blessing to us. He helped me to recall my first memory of Jesus."

In his address, Borg dismissed an "older understanding" of Jesus and the Bible that believed that the "central events" of Christianity, the parting of the Red Sea, the Virgin Birth, or Jesus' walking on water, literally happened. This old understanding included the Nicene Creed as a regular part of worship, was "moralistic," focused on Jesus as the only way of salvation, and was concerned about the afterlife.

"This understanding has become undone for millions of people in our culture," Borg said, as he recalled that these old beliefs were part of his own simple faith as a child. Noting the ongoing membership decline of mainline churches, he called "revisioning" the "most important theological task of our time." Borg urged moving beyond "fact fundamentalism" and accepting that "stories can be factually true without being literally true."

"We need to be clear and candid," Borg said. "The Bible is a human product." Ascribing it to divine inspiration leads to "massive confusion." He cited prohibitions against homosexual conduct as clearly "not God's law" but human inventions.

Borg recalled that he once believed in the Christmas story as literally involving a Virgin Birth, a "magic star," and Wise Men with gifts. He did so because lacked the "mental equipment" at that age to think otherwise. Most people develop the ability for critical thinking in late adolescence, he noted. "Fundamentalists" reject this route and instead uncritically cling to stories of Noah and the Garden of Eden.

But maturity involves moving into "post-critical" thinking so as to accept Bible stories as not factual but still spiritually true in some mystical way, Borg affirmed. He related that his own spiritual development has rejected "supernatural theism" altogether in favor of panentheism. The former hails God as creator of the universe, while the latter acknowledges the universe as literally part of God.

Borg said the old supernatural theism, which described God as separate from the universe and occasionally intervening in it, made God "remote and irrelevant." But panentheism recognizes that "we and everything that is are in God. God is not something else. God is right here and all around us. We are within God." Panentheism, Borg claimed, is very "ancient" and was a "foundational element in the Christian tradition."

This panenthiesm allows us to pray to a "reality that is all around us," Borg affirmed. "The best way to refer to God is You, the You who is right here." He called himself a "happy agnostic" regarding life after death. "Salvation is something that happens in this life." He said, "I don't think God cares if we're Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or something not yet born. We're not talking about a divine requirement that we be Christian."

Borg distinguished between the pre-Easter and the post-Easter Jesus. The pre-Easter man was simply a great historical figure who fought for social justice. But the post-Easter figure, which the early church developed in its traditions, became a divine miracle-worker who was raised from the dead. Borg said Jesus could be viewed as the "decisive disclosure of God" without having to say He's the "only one or without even saying he's the best one."

He described the Bible and Jesus as simply a helpful "lense" through which to view the sacred. "If we stop using the Christian lense then we cease to be Christian and that's not the end of the world. If humanity lasts 10,000 years then I expect that if Christianity lasts at all then it will be a tiny sect like Zoroastrianism. We're not going to last forever in the Christian tradition. The Christian lense will eventually fall into disuse."

According to Borg, "fundamentalism" has "reached its high water mark." He forecast a "very bright" future for mainline churches if they understand their traditions "metaphorically" and not literally. To be successful, churches will have to recognize that Christianity is not the only way of salvation, he concluded.

Borg, the author of several books, has become increasingly popular in United Methodist circles. Although himself Episcopalian, he addressed a convention of United Methodist educators in February, and he has been warmly endorsed by Bishop Joe Sprague of Chicago. Borg teaches at Oregon State University. His speech at Iliff was part of the endowed Warren Church Lectureship. Previous Warren lecturers at Iliff have included Senator George McGovern, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, Congresswoman Patricia Shroeder, and Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong.

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