Reassessing Marcus Borg

Fellow Patheos blogger Frederick Schmidt has penned an article for the Journal of Preaching about the strengths and weaknesses of Marcus Borg:

Marcus Borg

One: Marc relies heavily on stereotyping of a Christian perspective that, where it exists, is historically representative of a small minority.

I’ve known some of the Christians that Marc uses as a foil for his apologetic, but it is hardly fair to suggest that the kind of thinking he outlines dominated the church until Progressive Christianity came along. The Christian tradition is a global, wide- ranging, and complex phenomenon covering more than two millennia. Protestant fundamentalism is both a relatively recent and relatively small part of that story, even if it looms large in some parts of the United States.20

As such, the polemic Marc uses paints the whole of the Christian tradition from a narrowly eccentric point of view that might be Marc’s experience and might be the experience of a number of Americans, but it hardly represents the history of the Christian tradition, and it doesn’t accurately represent the Christian faith. So, while the rhetorical ploy that Marc uses resonates with many of his readers, it also rein- forces and projects a picture of the Christian tradition that distorts the tradition and reduces it to an eccentric interpretation that makes an apology for the Christian faith that much harder to offer.

Two: The logic of Marc’s argument also overplays the originality of Progressive Christianity.

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  • Andrew Dowling

    1) “I’ve
    known some of the Christians
    that Marc uses as a foil for his
    apologetic, but it is hardly
    fair to suggest that the kind of
    thinking he outlines dominated
    the church until Progressive
    Christianity came along.”

    Borg never claims this outlines all of Christian thinking pre-19th century; he repeatedly cites his own experiences growing up in a fundamentalist church and his foil is more or less mainstream (conservative) evangelical Protestants . . which have been the dominant and most influential strand of Christianity in America for a long long time. His arguments are very America-centric . .which makes sense because he’s American.

    “Far
    from being opposed to critical
    and scientific thought (as Marc
    and other Progressives seem to
    imply), Christianity made the
    Enlightenment possible.22
    So
    while
    the church’s record is far from
    pristine, it can hardly be
    argued that it has been
    uniformly resistant to the
    intellectual values that have
    shaped western history. Nor can
    it be argued that Christianity
    has, at long last, only recently
    embraced critical thought in its
    Progressive incarnation”

    Again, I don’t recall when Borg ever makes such a claim. And while the Enlightenment was the product of what could be called a bunch of liberal Christians . . let’s not pretend they were ever supported by any Church holding any sort of power whatsoever . . .Christendom vastly disliked and fought against the Enlightenment although its adherents were Christians. Does Marcus probably use this juxtaposition of “old and new” too much and not cite the influence of older “liberal” strands? Probably, but his books are also for very general audiences. Discussing the merits of Abelard or the Christianity of Jean Jacques Rousseau isn’t really on his radar . . .

    “it becomes clear that the weight of Marc’s apologetic defends modernity, not the Gospel”

    It’s clear the author doesn’t really understand Borg’s main thesis . . .I’d be curious to know what of Borg’s ideas to him represent “modernity” (whatever that means) and the “Gospel.”

    “The best of Christian critiques of any culture have always come when
    the church did its best to stand outside of and alongside of the
    culture in question”

    This is the myth that conservatives and the “neo-orthodox” can’t seem to shake . .liberals simply acknowledge that we CANNOT “stand outside our culture” . . that of in itself is an oxymoron. We are all products of our culture and time whether we like it or not. I mean my God, when Christianity fully dominated Europe things like slavery of non-whites and public torture and execution of criminals was accepted with little fuss.

    “But at no point on that journey did the church live in the same relationship to the body politic that we live in today. The church could not and did not vote or exercise political influence”

    ?? For most of Christian history the “Church” was fully intertwined with the political forces of the today and exercised an enormous amount of political influence, to the point of being a literal “kingmaker.” Also, the social dynamics of ancient Rome (elite classes using wealth and power to disenfranchise/take advantage of the lower classes) certainly exists today as it has in any age. To the contrary, religion 2000 years ago was not in a separate category from “politics” like it is today. Borg and others correctly note that to proclaim the arrival of the “Kingdom of God” was as much as a political statement as a religious one.

    “But, contrary to Marc’s blithe acceptance that the tomb was
    probably not empty, the writers of the New Testament clearly
    believe that it was. They plainly anticipate a bodily resurrection. They look forward to a new heaven and new earth that shares some measure of
    continuity with current versions of both.”

    Wow, I don’t think a blanket statement that “the writers of the NT believed XYZ” can even be taken seriously. To say there is considerable debate on all of these topics in great detail is an understatement; the author seems to be ignoring decades of scholarly conversation.

    “An approach to the Christian faith that lionizes modernity’s
    conceits and reduces the Christian faith to a series of
    metaphors describing a largely political undertaking is finally
    without a good reason for religion, never mind God”

    Again, if the author has read all of the Borg he claims he seems to have really mis-read a good chunk of his work.

  • Josh Magda

    Tony: you’re acting like a bully. There’s no reason I should be getting this post of yours on a google search return for Marcus’s blog. Let it go! Not everyone shares your assumptions and they never will. This is not the way to treat other bloggers on the Progressive channel. Or do you want there to be a Progressive channel? Spaces like this can’t last if people start picking on each other as you do Marcus. None of us are interested in being perpetually drawn into your insecurities. – J

    • Andrew Dowling

      Josh, respectfully Tony simply linked to another post . .he didn’t write this. Secondly, as someone who disagrees with Tony’s take on Borg, I applaud him striving for discussion and debate on these topics. For the liberal Christian vision to grow beyond the stereotyped “over-educated white guys” critique (which I’ve found to be valid to a degree . . I probably fit that caricature) these discussions are going to have to occur. Too many simply see theologians/scholars like Borg as “going too far” from their comfort zone to ever take the next step and really examine what is being proposed (as well as dealing honestly with the scholarly evidence . . I think liberal Christian theology has to start from there)

      Dr. Borg has been facing criticisms for years much harsher than this, I think he can handle it.

      • Josh Magda

        My concern is especially the Google search return. “Please reconsider the Resurrection” already appears directly under Marcus’ blog, now this is underneath that. People searching for Tony’s blog on the internet don’t have to be peppered with egoic narrative on Tony from another Progressive blogger within immediate eyeshot of Theoblogy. Imagine what would happen if all the bloggers here started up this tactic… the channel would turn into a veritable hencoop of irrelevancy.

        My point is… no other progressive here singles out another Patheos Progressive blogger to the extent that they have created a tag to search for critical commentary on him or her. Tony has a tag for Marcus, Andrew. Taking everything together, I stand by my comment that this amounts to bullying, intentional or not.

        • Andrew Dowling

          But how many people maybe had not even heard of Marcus Borg and learned about him through Tony’s blog? Didn’t the career of Madonna tell you that there is no such thing as bad publicity! :)

          • Josh Magda

            I’m not sure that Madonna’s career told us anything, by design.

  • Josh Magda

    While we’re here, it’s clear that Frederick Schmidt had an ecclesial axe to grind… which is fine… but the caricature of Marcus Borg as Mr. Modernism he used to grind it on was intellectually dishonest. I’m tired of people using Marcus as a hollow shell to project their own frustrations about the eclipse of supernatural theism onto. Marcus’ mystical panentheism is FAR more anti-modern than Schmidt’s implicit supernatural theism. Supernatural theism generated modernism, which in turn generated fundamentalism, and back again.

    It’s an unappealing ouroboros all the way around, watching the conjugal worldviews of supernatural theism and modernist materialism regenerate each other. Marcus’ scholarship and personal witness to the experiential basis of Christianity cuts through these twisted sisters like a hot knife through butter. I can understand the frustration of people who are committed to the maintenance of the DoomGod/DoomWorld parody. After all, there’s a lot of egoic energy still to be derived from setting up dominoes on either side and then knocking them over into the other.

    Mysticism is now and has always been a threat to true believers on either side of this ongoing side show. What we have to offer, and what we testify to is just too big and too Good for the little voice inside us all that says “it’s too good to be true.” The whole Earth can’t possibly be filled with the glory of the Holy One… no… God had to squirrel it all away into a single individual 2,000 years ago. THAT’S where the action is, folks. The Christian story simply gets too big, too relevant, too transformative, too fast, when we let Big Momma take her Magic Eraser to us.

    Which is fine too, because we heretics aren’t going anywhere. 😉 With Captain Hook, we will continue to insist that the Truth is far too much fun. Nor will we keep our Hearts to ourselves. As Aquinas said, Beauty always seeks to become conspicuous. God will not stop until She has devoured us Whole. Crunch, crunch, everybody; Spirit’s hungry.

    Behold, I stand at the door and snack.

    • Josh Magda

      PS. Put this song on Dr. Schmidt next time you decide to write an article in the Journal for Preachers. It may help you to get past the meaningless din of the three extra-long paragraphs describing your accomplishments, and remind you of the fate in store for every little piece of you. :)

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lV8i-pSVMaQ

  • Josh Magda

    “Additionally, what Marc suggests is psychologically and spiritually impossible if one is going to talk at all about a relationship with God. No one in their right mind would assent to an intimate relationship with someone who said, “I love you, but I don’t know who you are and it doesn’t matter.”

    Yes… But not all of us are in our right mind, now are we? “Our right mind” is more problem than solution. After a while, it gets REALLY old trying to delimit the Unlimited… and at that point you start praying to rose bushes and shit. The problem that supernatural theists and fundamentalists both suffer from is that you are worried about God disappearing! You are terrified of being separated from God. As a result, you are afraid of death, you are afraid of Life, you are afraid of change, and you are afraid of the immensity of your own Soul. God is something that CAN disappear to you. People who think subconsciously or otherwise that God can disappear are the ones that write profoundly egoic articles like the present one.

    What mystics say instead is…. we don’t claim to understand God, but what little we have experienced of God is enough to warrant our ultimate trust. And this ability to Love, without the ability to understand, makes all the difference in the World.

    Marcus, a mystic, is able to say, “when we die, we do not die into nothingness, but we die into God… What more do we need to know?” Can you say this with him? If your afterlife were to consist of being transformed into an immortal sloth, and hanging upside down on Yggdrasil, the World tree from Norse mythology, would this be OK with you- so long as God were there? Do you Know God well enough, REALLY KNOW God well enough to know that come what may the ONLY thing that matters is that God would be there, and whatever you were, you would be there too? Why isn’t this enough for YOU? Why do YOU have a carefully laid map with demands that YOUR expectations must be met before you would shove off into the Heartland with the Beloved? Whatever this “you” is that is making demands like this, I think it is Wisdom to let that go, eventually. AGAIN AND AGAIN, let it go, and you will KNOW that your Redeemer Liveth.

    So. Whatever adventure God’s down for, I’m down for. That’s what it means to Know God, I think. Love without understanding. Love without rhyme or reason. Love as the most automatic, gratuitous, original, and primary thing about us and our World. Love that involves not being in our right mind. Love that comes from Knowing that God is, through experience, and hence being able, forever after, to joyously watch this conversation and all others like it be revealed as the peanut gallery they are, just before we enter the event horizon and are sucked back into the Black Hole of the Love that moves the stars and suns.

    • WilmRoget

      “What mystics say instead is…. we don’t claim to understand God, but
      what little we have experienced of God is enough to warrant our ultimate
      trust. And this ability to Love, without the ability to understand,
      makes all the difference in the World.”

      A couple million bravo’s for that.

    • Mark

      When I was a little boy, I totally loved my mom and dad; although it could certainly be said that I didn’t know who they were, and it didn’t matter. Maybe that’s part of what Jesus meant when he said to come as a little child.

      Really enjoyed reading your comment, Josh. Thanks.

  • Lausten North

    Completely do not get this. Christians were pro-slavery and pro-King for most of Christian history. They burned books in the 4th and 5th century and told people they would go to heaven if they went to war in the Crusades. Christians and Protestants fought bloody wars until people finally said STOP! These are not isolated anomalies, this is “God’s Kingdom here on earth” that has been the doctrine since Theodosius. What Borg says we lost is the respect for the variety of communities that were attempting to work out how to live like Christ. This respect for different ideas was enshrined in a Bible with 4 versions of the Christ story. But people almost immediately missed that point and have been missing it ever since.

    • WilmRoget

      No. Some Christians, mostly those with authority over others, were pro-slavery and pro-king. But then, being pro-slavery and pro-king has been found around the world, particularly in those with authority over others, regardless of religion, or lack thereof.

      “These are not isolated anomalies, this is “God’s Kingdom here on earth” ”

      No, these are manifestations of humanity on earth. They do not reflect “God’s Kingdom”, or Christian thought, because the same phenomena occur in every society.

      • Lausten North

        I’m sure those things did occur in many societies, and Christians supported them. They didn’t create slavery any more than they created the “golden rule” or the idea of caring for one another. There isn’t much that is unique to Christianity. But look at what Christians have done throughout history and tell me in what ways they are different than fundamentalists and be specific about when and who. I’m not talking about dispensationalism or being pro-capitalism. I’m talking about believing the kingdom was coming to earth, salvation, resurrection, following the laws of the OT, that there is just one God, basic Christian stuff. That you think there is something that can be called “Christian thought” makes you just as dangerous as anyone you call “fundamentalist”.

        • WilmRoget

          “I’m sure those things did occur in many societies, and Christians supported them.”

          Some Christians did, and some did not. Those things happened in societies without Christians. The reality, Lausten, is that ‘those things’ do not correlate specifically, entirely, predominantly, or solely, with Christians or Christianity.

          “But look at what Christians have done throughout history and tell me in what ways they are different than fundamentalists and be specific about when and who.”

          So, I’m supposed to refute your fantasy to spare you the effort of actually substantiating it. You have no real case.

          “That you think there is something that can be called “Christian thought” makes you just as dangerous as anyone you call “fundamentalist”.”

          Your abusiveness has the net effect of discrediting your entire line of reasoning. It means that at the heart of it, you are simply reviling all Christians.

          • Lausten North

            I’m not reviling Christians. I’m defending Borg’s thesis
            that Christians are unaware of their own history. Very few know how the Nicean Creed was written or what it means. They think the Sermon on the Mount was a
            unique ideology in history, a breakthrough so inspired it implies divinity. I don’t expect we can debate history here, but I’m just asking you to think about it. What do you mean by “Christian thought”? I’m sure most of what you would say is quite nice, humanistic values that I’d agree with. The difference is, you think that comes from Christ and that I need to accept something without reason in order to understand your point of view. Borg is saying we can be open to the multiple views of the Jesus story contained in the New Testament, as well as non-canonical gospels, and discover compassion and truth through that study. I would take it a step further and expand that to other prophets and philosophers.

            • WilmRoget

              “I’m not reviling Christians.”

              Yes, you are.

              “I’m defending Borg’s thesis that Christians are unaware of their own history.”

              And that blanket statement is not accurate. Further, you’ve provided nothing to even substantiate your claim that ‘Christians are unaware of their own history’ is Borg’s thesis.

              “They think . . .”

              And how, exactly, do you know what hundreds of millions of very diverse people think?

              ” I don’t expect we can debate history here, but I’m just asking you to think about it.”

              That is a rather presumptuous question on your part, especially since you feel you cannot debate, or actually, defend your assertions here.

              ” you think that comes from Christ and that I need to accept something without reason in order to understand your point of view.”

              When you make up derogatory fantasies about something you do not know – i.e., the thoughts in my head – that demonstrates your bias against Christians.

              • Lausten North

                You’re obviously not interested in any real discussion. I’m only referring to what is commonly referred to as Christian”. You threw out the term “Christian thought”, never defined it, never said what you mean by it. You don’t like fundamentalists or Borg, so I guess you have some idea of what “Christianity” is, but I have no idea what you think because you aren’t telling me. You just want to say others don’t get you. I revile dogmatism of any kind. To avoid dogmatism, we have to listen to each other and find common ground. You’re doing the opposite of that.

                • WilmRoget

                  “You’re obviously not interested in any real discussion.”

                  Your ad hominem fantasy about me only reflects poorly on you. By resorting to personal attack like that, instead of any substantive rebuttal to my prior post, you indicate that your assertion about me is most likely comprised entirely of projection.

                  “You threw out the term “Christian thought”, never defined it, never said what you mean by it.”

                  Nice hypocrisy there. You threw out terms ” pro-slavery and pro-King” without defining them, and make accusations without a shred of evidence. Now you try to hold me to a standard you have not met yourself? That indicates a lack of interest in real discussion on your part.

                  “You don’t like fundamentalists or Borg,”

                  How arrogant of you to tell me what I do not like, without a shred of evidence to back it up. The truth on that particular matter, Lausten, is far more nuanced that you can imagine. There are components of fundamentalism that are beautiful and powerful, and components that are hurtful and destructive. Marcus Borg makes arguments that I find compelling, and others that I do not agree with with at this time.

                  ” but I have no idea what you think because you aren’t telling me.”

                  And yet you claim to know what I like and think, and if you paid attention, I have told you what I think on the actual issue I’ve addressed. But you choose not to address that issue.

                  “You just want to say others don’t get you.”

                  Again, your abusive and derogatory fantasy has no basis in anything I’ve written, and it is just another nasty ad hominem.

                  ” I revile dogmatism of any kind.”

                  That was truly funny. Your posts communicate quite the opposite, though perhaps you don’t see your ” tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others”, which is readily apparent in your posts, as dogmatism.

                  “To avoid dogmatism, we have to listen to each other and find common ground. You’re doing the opposite of that.”

                  Actually, you’ve got that backwards. I have definitely read and paid attention to what you’ve written, I just have not been swayed by any of it in your favor. Having read and paid attention, I have raised challenges – which you have ignored.

                  • Lausten North

                    You use a lot of words to say “I know you are but what am I” and “says you”.

                    • WilmRoget

                      You are projecting again.

          • Mark

            No, I think he did a pretty fair job of substantiating his claims, if you look at his previous post (“Christians were pro-slavery and pro-King for most of Christian history. They burned books in the 4th and 5th century and told people they would go to heaven if they went to war in the Crusades. Christians (perhaps he meant Catholics) and Protestants fought bloody wars…” Those are facts. And talking about “Christian thought,” like it is somehow higher and better than another culture’s thought, IS part of the problem. Many Christians truly believe that they are better than those of the “unchurched,” whether they be Muslims, Jews, atheists…

  • Lausten North

    Throughout his critique, Schmidt alludes to some better form
    of Christianity, but never provides a name or a half-sentence on a philosophy
    that leads to peace and justice and caring community. In the conclusion he
    mentions the Eastern Orthodox church as an example of a “far richer alternative”,
    but says little about it. I agree with him that Borg’s themes are not bringing
    people to church, that he “reduces the faith to a series of metaphors”, but
    when Schmidt offers, “as long as we refuse to see the material
    dimension of our lives as the creation of the Triune God, we will never win
    through to a distinctively Christian understanding of the world around us”, he
    offers an alternative with archaic language that has driven away believers for
    centuries.

    • R Vogel

      His bio says he is an Episcopal priest, so I would assume he would direct you to his denomination for his ‘far richer alternative.’ These denominational guys always want to drive you back to their institutions. Their institutions are dying and they have absolutely no answer to it. The appeal to ecclesial authority is their swan song.

    • R Vogel

      Borg’s themes are not bringing people to church

      And that’s the key thing, right? Church guys want to save the church. So he is evaluating Borg based on an outcome that may not be Borg’s aim or purpose. But if your a denomination guy you have to sweat the future of your denomination like the rest of them. Borg appeals to me. But I am never going to go back to church. So based on the aim of getting me back to church, Borg’s message fails. Based on the aim of getting me to stay engaged with christianity and Jesus’ message, it does a fine job.

      • Lausten North

        Well, when I’m being completely cynical, yes, church is only about getting members to come and drop money in the basket. Based on conversations I used to have about increasing membership, it seems to be true. We didn’t talk about the quality of Jesus’ message relative to other prophets, we talked about music, activities, how we greeted people, civic engagement, etc. Someone would “give the glory to God” now and then, we’d all nod, then get back to our marketing strategy.

        • R Vogel

          Cynical is kind of my resting state. I’m working on that…

      • Andrew Dowling

        It’s a good question, and one I constantly struggle with. The few churches that one could claim truly follow a liberal theology still essentially function as repositories for people reacting to conservatism.

        Liberal Christianity needs to find a way to be viable in lieu of simply saying “we’re more tolerant/care more about social justice than those folks.” Conservatives say they have lost their prophetic spirit but not pushing back against liberalizing sexual morals . .I don’t think that’s true; I see the defining moral questions of our time as pertaining to economic justice and the environment, but I fail to see those churches really getting fired up over those . . they try to be too nice; they need to get angry.