Responding to a Critic: Misunderstanding or Misrepresentation?

PC_MarcusBorg_1To write about religion is to court controversy, conflict, and criticism. It confirms the counsel of conventional etiquette that it is best in polite conversation to avoid two subjects: religion and politics.

So I know that conflict and criticism are part of writing blogs for Patheos. Indeed, that’s what makes it worthwhile doing. If my blogs got no responses, generated no conversation, why would I want to spend time writing them? Life is too short.

But it is not as clear what I should do when perhaps the most frequent responder to my blogs at least seriously misunderstands and certainly misrepresents things I have said.

Graciousness might suggest that I simply let him have his say and not respond. Rhetorical wisdom might suggest that I not give more air time to his comments by responding to them. But either or both of those might also be condescending.

Moreover, not responding might convey the impression for other readers that he is accurately reporting things I have said. And so I have decided to respond, even as doing so risks descending into a tedious dispute of “He said I said” but “That’s not what I said.”

In one of his most recent responses to my previous blog, he wrote:

Here, on this blog, you have Mr. Borg saying that not only is Jesus not God and the Resurrection not a physical historical (and ongoing) reality…that, also, to hold to that is to be “uncritical” and “pre-critical”. So, in effect…in a Progressive administration of Christianity, those historic core faith positions are held just point blank to be not an option. One would hope, for the sake of peace, that there should at least be the position that they are valid options for a faithful Christian.

More than one thing to say. First, my position on Jesus and God and on the resurrection is more nuanced than he suggests, and he should know that from previous blogs of mine that he has read. I have said very clearly that the post-Easter Jesus is one with God, and thus part of the Trinity; and that the pre-Easter Jesus is the decisive revelation of God – the Word become flesh, embodied in a human life. But to think of the pre-Easter Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, as if he were God (what does it mean to say that?) diminishes his grandeur as a human being. Second, I have said that though I do not think the resurrection of Jesus was physical and bodily, I strongly affirm that Jesus continued to be experienced by many of his followers after his death and that such experiences continue to this day. The risen Jesus, the post-Easter Jesus, is an ongoing reality.

Third – and perhaps the most important misunderstanding or misrepresentation of my position and where it leads – he says: So, in effect…in a Progressive administration of Christianity, those historic core faith positions are held just point blank to be not an option.

I have never said that believing that Jesus was/is God is and that believing in a physical-bodily resurrection are not Christian options. Indeed, about such issues as the stories of the virgin birth, the spectacular miracles, the empty tomb, appearances of the risen Jesus in bodily form, I have said again and again, in blogs and books, I have said again and again, “Believe whatever you want about whether the stories happened this way – now let’s talk about what they mean.” That’s what matters most – what do these stories mean?

His response continued with a suggestion that I agree with:

Let Mr. Borg explain why, at the very least, he would not allow the divinity of Jesus and the Resurrection as bodily (and spiritually) to go forward in the Reformation’s tradition of allowing “adiaphora”…that is, those things which should not be counted as weighty enough to fight over.

I would be happy to view these issues as “adiaphora” in the sense in which he uses the word: “those things which should not be counted as weighty enough to fight over.” But in my experience, it is not progressive Christians who refuse to see them as adiaphora. It is, to use shorthand, the majority of conservative Christians, at least half of American Christians. For them, the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus even as a human being, and the physical-bodily resurrection are not adiaphora. They are non-negotiable. And often accompanied by non-negotiable teachings about an inerrant Bible, Genesis versus modern science, a future literal second coming of Jesus, “traditional” marriage, and so forth. Progressive Christians generally do not define being Christian as believing a correct list of teachings.

My critic’s response concluded with advocacy of a Christian middle:

Many more things could be said about what a “middle” is about. But, here, I can think of no other central icon of the matter than the chief Christian historic faith positions of Jesus as God and the Resurrection. There ought to be a way for a dude with a PhD to not call people of basic faith in the pew stupid.

Now it sounds as if “Jesus as God” and “the Resurrection” (presumably meaning physical and bodily) are not adiaphora but essential. And even more importantly, I have never called folks who affirm both “stupid.” I have written about “pre-critical” or “uncritical” ways of seeing the Bible. But that is not the same as being “stupid.” My own parents I am quite sure lived in a state of a pre-critical understanding of the Bible all of their lives – by which I mean a taken-for-granted acceptance that whatever the Bible says is true. But they were not stupid people. They simply had not been exposed to constructive critical thinking about the Bible, Christianity, and religion. And they were good Christian people.

Critical thinking about the Bible is not a prerequisite for being Christian, even though I think it is helpful and important for understanding the Bible and what it means to be Christian. Especially in our time, when many Christian understandings that were commonly taken for granted a half century and more ago have become unpersuasive to a growing percentage of the Western world.

And not just among the “nones” but also among many who remain within churches. To these people, I seek to be an evangelist: there is a way of being Christian other than the form that you have rejected as less than compelling, perhaps even as reprehensible and repulsive. And I seek to be an evangelist to those in the Christian middle – people who are still in churches but who are troubled by some and perhaps many of conventional Christian beliefs that were taken for granted not so long ago.

I conclude on an irenic note. My most frequent critic and I may yearn for the same thing: for the day when the theological and cultural wars of our time are over with, when pastors can be pastors again without being involved in conflict and taking theological sides, when the church can be the church again, united in a common understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Indeed, I hope that what I have emphasized in much of my writing – today’s conflict between two very different visions of what it means to be Christian – will soon be irrelevant. But that time is not yet.

A few years ago, I spoke at an event sponsored by a group called “The Foundation for Contemporary Theology.” They placed an ad in the local newspaper that contained an error, probably a typo. Instead of the word “contemporary,” the ad printed “temporary.” And so the ad read, “The Foundation for Temporary Theology.” I thought the mistake was perfect. All theology, if it is related to cultural context – which means time and place – is temporary. Yet it has a foundation.

Ending the conflict between progressive and conservative Christianity – again to use inadequate but generally understood shorthand – would require some agreement about what is adiaphora and what is foundational, what is essential. I do not imagine that can happen through any “official” gathering or resolution. If a consensus about what is foundational and what is adiaphora ever happens, it will happen over time, perhaps and probably a century or more.

But in the meantime: is it possible to talk about different understandings of Christianity without misrepresenting what we disagree with?

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