UMAction Briefing HomepageMark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy


Mark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy
March 10, 1999

Marcus Borg, an author and fellow with the radically revisionist Jesus Seminar, has become increasingly popular in United Methodist circles. A professor at Oregon State University, Borg professes to be an Episcopalian. But he denies most of the traditional beliefs of his church and of the Christian faith.

In January he lectured at United Methodism’s Iliff Seminary in Denver, where he was warmly introduced by Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of the Rocky Mountain Conference. The conference Board of Ordained Ministry was a co-sponsor for the "Week of Lectures" at which Borg was the keynote speaker.

In February he was the featured speaker in Chicago at the National Conference of the Christian Educators Fellowship, an association for United Methodist deacons and diaconal ministers involved in local church education.

The Chicago event was part of a larger Ecumenical Church Educators Event, attended by over 2000 Christian educators, and endorsed by not only the United Methodist Church, but most other mainline denominations plus the National Council of Churches. Six hundred United Methodists participated.

United Methodist Bishop Joe Sprague of Chicago has warmly endorsed Borg’s work, even attempting to arrange for a copy of Borg’s latest book to be sent to every clergy member of the Northern Illinois Conference. (The publisher failed to supply the needed copies.)

Currently Borg is on a national book tour, inspiring numerous newspaper articles, speaking on National Public Radio, and receiving acclamation as a distinguished Christian scholar.

Borg is frank about what he does not believe.

According to his lectures in Denver and Chicago, Borg does not believe Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, multiplied loaves of bread, performed any miracle other than "healing," ever claimed any divinity for himself or sonship with God, ever claimed his death would be a sacrifice for the world’s sins, or ever physically rose from the dead.

Similarly, Borg does not believe in the miracles recorded in the Old Testament, such as the parting of the Red Sea, because he rejects notions of an "interventionist" God.

Borg does not believe God answers prayer, but does think prayer can be therapeutic for its own sake.

Borg does not believe the Bible was in any way divinely inspired and is completely a human creation. Its system of personal morality, such as its prohibition on homosexual conduct, was inspired by the needs and prejudices of ancient cultures, and much of it is not relevant for today.

Borg does not believe in an afterlife and thinks Christians are wrong to focus on it.

Borg does not believe Christianity is in any way more true or preferable to any other religion, and expects the Christian faith eventually to fade away either into an obscure sect or complete oblivion.

Borg professes not to believe in any firm or unchanging standard of truth, as all perceptions of truth are culturally relative.

Borg does not believe in a creator God or even a personal God, both concepts being more suitable for children who lack "critical thinking" than for sophisticated adults.

What does Borg believe?

Borg believes Jesus was a Jewish mystic, spirit person, and social prophet, who, like the Buddha, experienced altered states of consciousness and "shamanic journeys." Jesus was killed for politically opposing the "domination system" of his day.

Borg believes the early church elevated the "post-Easter" Jesus to the exalted titles of Lord, King, Savior and divine Son merely to express their own faith and sense of spiritual community, not intending for these concepts to be literally believed.

Borg believes everything is a part of God, and God is part of everything. For this reason, Borg calls himself a "panentheist" who rejects the "supernatural theism" of traditional Christianity.

Borg believes mainline churches have declined because most people cannot any longer believe in "literal" versions of Christianity.

Although Borg cannot believe in divine miracles, he does believe in "paranormal healings," visions, and altered states of consciousness.

Borg believes the church, instead of focusing on its concepts of personal "sin," should combat the political and economic systems he believes are at fault for the world’s misery.

Borg believes that Christianity’s symbols and language are a useful "lens" through which to view life, so long as we do not take Christianity’s teachings too literally.

In both Denver and Chicago, Borg called for a "revisioning" of Christian theology. He would like to discard the "older understanding" of the faith reflected in the Nicene Creed. He would drop the "moralistic" warnings about sin, the call for persons to seek forgiveness, the proclamation of Christ as the only author of redemption, and the promise of eternal life for Christian believers.

Borg urged moving beyond "fact fundamentalism" and accepting that Bible stories can be 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 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 sees 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 "lens" through which to view the sacred. "If we stop using the Christian lens, 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.

In his Chicago lectures, Borg further refuted the biblical tradition’s notion of a personal deity as a "childlike literalization of the personifications of God." Seeing God as a "person-like being out there" makes it impossible to appreciate God’s presence "in everything" and makes the deity seem "unreal or remote."

He also complained that notions of a supernatural God who intervenes in the universe make it impossible to understand illness, car accidents, airplane crashes, or the Holocaust. We cannot believe that God literally raised Jesus from the dead. The "pre-Easter Jesus is a figure of the past, dead and gone. He isn’t anywhere." Talk about his corpse or an empty tomb are "irrelevant distractions."

But the "post-Easter Jesus" as a spiritual creation of the early church is alive in the hearts of believers, Borg claimed. It would have been an incredibly arrogant Jesus who claimed equality with God and predicted His own resurrection. "We have categories of psychology for people who talk that way about themselves," Borg said.

Borg said modern people rightly are "suspicious that any particular collection of teachings or doctrines can be absolute truth." Every notion of truth is actually "conditioned and relative to the time and place in which it originated."

There are countless inconsistencies in Borg’s theology. He insists that there is no absolute standard of truth, but is very emphatic in rejecting traditional Christianity as false. But by his own measure, who is he to say?

He complains that concepts of an interventionist deity preclude an explanation of evil in the world. But his notion of panentheism, in which God exists inside everything, also presents problems. Were the genocidal instruments of the Holocaust literally part of God?

Borg rejects the possibility of divine miracles but accepts episodes of the paranormal. He claims the early Christians did not believe the Gospels literally, but he does not offer substantive evidence.

He complains that a personal God who is outside the universe is by definition distant and remote, but he ignores the traditional Christian understanding of God’s omnipresence through the Holy Spirit.

Borg admits his concept of God is human-made but still insists he is a Christian. But Christians (and Jews) of all times and places would recognize his notion of divinity as idolatrous. He never adequately explains why he wishes to identify with a tradition that he so fully repudiates.

Borg offers no compelling reason to be a Christian: his God does not hear prayer, forgive sin, exude grace, inspire love, or offer heaven. For Borg, divine comfort can be found in self-generated visions or altered states of consciousness.

In short, Borg’s vision of Christianity is dishonest and nonsensical. He predicts Christianity’s ultimate demise, and if I were he, so would I. The sooner the better.

But the question remains, why on earth would any United Methodist bishop, seminary, or agency promote or endorse Borg’s brew of doubt and despair?

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