The Heart of Progressive Christianity: A Q&A with Marcus Borg

The Heart of Progressive Christianity: A Q&A with Marcus Borg October 19, 2012

Marcus Borg is the reason I fell back in love with Jesus.

Actually, I had never really fallen out of love with Jesus, because I had never really fallen in love with him in the first place. Yes, I grew up Christian, loved my Church, was confirmed, attended youth group, and had a deep appreciation for God and God’s desire for us to love and care for others, but truth be told, I had never really had much of a tingly affair with the person of Jesus. Especially as a “Savior who died for our sins,” as I had mostly understood Jesus to be up to that point.

So when at the age of 30, I picked up a copy of Borg’s best-selling Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, I was surprised to find my heart strangely warmed. Here, coming to life before my eyes was a three-dimensional man who lived in a particular time and community, worked, prayed, loved, got angry, retreated, celebrated, ate and drank with his friends and strangers. He was so… human. And yet he also healed, and listened deeply, and named, and served, and ultimately gave his life up out of deep commitment to his God and his friends. So… divine. I finally got this guy, Jesus! He was one of us, but so much more: an embodied expression of God’s divine wisdom and compassion. A sage; a “way.” Now this was someone whom I could follow and believe in. And so, I fell in love with Jesus, and Christianity, perhaps for real, for the first time.

I am not the only one who’s been so revived. Indeed Borg, one of the leading Jesus scholars of our time, has influenced and re-engaged countless Christians in the mainline church with his work on the historical Jesus and the Bible. He’s the author of 20 books, including The God We Never Knew, Speaking Christian, and the best-selling Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, and The Heart of Christianity. His newest book is Evolution of the Word, in which the books of the New Testament are printed in the chronological order in where they were written (did you know that the book of Revelation wasn’t actually the last written?). He has appeared on NBC’s “Today Show and “Dateline,” ABC’s “Evening News” and “Prime Time,” and PBS’s “Newshour” and “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. Borg’s historical and metaphorical approach to biblical and Christian language has made him arguably the leading voice of contemporary Christianity, earning him both legions of fans, as well as his critics.

So it was with great excitement that, several weeks ago, I found myself meeting Borg, for the first time. He was in town at the invitation of the Progressive Christian Alliance of Colorado, a relatively new organization of Protestant churches in and around Denver who share a passion for a progressive expression of faith in their communities, the state, and the world. Borg’s topic was simply (or not so simply): “What is Progressive Christianity?” and after listening to him speak for several hours, I understood why he has been the leading voice for progressive Christians for so many years. He presents a compelling vision of Christianity solidly grounded in historical context, and as such, a vision much more luminous and powerful than the “common Christianity” of a generation or two ago that remains the dominant understanding today. Borg’s faith is contagious, and he is clearly passionate about re-educating others so they can fall in love with their faith all over again, too.

I had the opportunity to spend some time with Borg at the end of his event, during which he graciously answered some questions on the meaning of progressive Christianity, a Christian’s role in politics, the future of the Church, and what spiritual practices draw him closer to God. Our conversation follows.

What, for you, is the heart of progressive Christianity? 

To some extent, progressive Christians have been defined negatively. And we have done that ourselves, it’s not just that others have said nasty things about us. We commonly have said we’re “non-literalistic” and we’re “non-exclusivistic.” Those are the two biggest negations. But to put it positively now, progressive Christianity takes very seriously that Christianity is about a two-fold transformation of ourselves as individuals, and of the humanly-created world which has most often been a world of domination, injustice and violence – not meaning primarily criminal violence – but the violence of warfare and so forth. So, progressive Christianity is passionate about transformation in the here and now, even as we recognize that that transformation is also long term, and not something that a generation can accomplish.

And it’s not very much about what happens after death. It’s not that all progressive Christians are skeptical about an afterlife, but for me, anyway, I’m very happy to leave what happens after death up to God. And then beyond that, I have no idea how anybody can know what happens after death, and you can’t make something true by believing it. So if somebody says, “I believe in Heaven,” fair enough, you believe in Heaven, but that has nothing to do with whether or not there is one. And so the energy of progressive Christianity is not about believing something now for the sake of a reward later, or not even about being virtuous now for the sake of a reward later, but for being as completely present as possible to this life, and being open to the moving of the Spirit both within ourselves and our societies, and seeking to participate in that movement of the Spirit.

I sometimes speak of Christianity as being about participating in God’s passion … and I don’t mean God’s suffering, which is one possible meaning of passion … but participating in what God is passionate about, which is the whole of Creation. In one sense we don’t have to be terribly concerned about nature. Now here are the qualifications: nature will do just fine on it’s own if we don’t mess with it, and right now, of course we are messing with it, but the strongest passion of the God of the Bible is the transformation of the humanly-created world into a more just, compassionate, peaceful kind of world.

So here we are in the middle of a contentious election cycle, with a lot at stake. Given what you’ve just said, what is our responsibility as progressive Christians in the political system? And how would you encourage us to be “in the world, but not of the world”? 

I like that language a lot from John’s Gospel, to be “in the world, but not of the world.” And what I understand that to mean is, to be centered in God means to have a center that goes deeper than the humanly-created world at any given time, and yet to be passionately involved in that world. Minimally, in this election, and in any election season – but especially one in which a lot is at stake – minimally in a democracy, the Christian responsibility includes voting. To withdraw from voting because “religion and politics don’t mix,” is basically to leave the running of the world up to those who would like to manipulate the system in their own interest.

In this election, it’s very hard for me to accept that anybody who knows quite a bit about the Bible, and who takes the Bible and Jesus seriously, could vote for a set of policies that basically privilege the wealthy, and that either maintain or even increase the U.S. military budget. We are already as a country as powerful as the rest of the world put together, and to suggest that we should increase our military spending … what are people thinking of when they think that? Is it that we have we become such a fear-based society that appeals to fears about our security, as seen by some political strategists as an effective campaigning technique?

There’s so much about the central economic direction and the central military policy of our country that I find as a Christian unacceptable. And I probably don’t need to say, “And that means you should vote Democratic.”

So you’ve been at this a while, writing and speaking  for some 40 years now. What shifts have you noticed during this time? And why are progressive Christians still largely invisible as a movement, as a voice, in the Christian landscape? 

Over the last 20 years I have seen the appetite within the Church for – whether you call it progressive Christianity or not – I’ve seen the appetite for this orientation grow. The reason I say that is partly a reflection of the number of invitations I get, and people I know well such as Diana Butler Bass, John Crossan, Joan Chittister and Karen Armstrong, get. We all get more invitations to speak than we can possibly fit into our schedule. And book sales reflect that too. There’s a large book market for progressive Christian authors. Probably still not as large as for conservative Christian authors. So I think there is this growing appetite. Diana Butler Bass even speaks in one of her  books about this new form of Christianity being publicly visible in the early ’90s.

And so why are we still largely invisible? One of the reasons is that most mainline congregations, without even thinking about this language, have sought to be “big-tent” congregations. Another less positive way of putting it, they’ve been conflict-avoidant. They’ve been, many of them, unwilling to risk offending any members. So they’ve continued to articulate a kind of lowest-common-denominator, fairly conventional form of Christianity … not wanting to be like the Christian Right. So let’s not have any sharp edges … and fear of loss of membership if they do. And all of this has happened during a time of declining mainline membership. If mainline membership had been growing during the last 40 years, there might have been a lot more willingness to take public positions that might cost you a few members.

And then, an obvious reason: we don’t have any radio stations, we don’t have any television stations. And somebody might ask, well why don’t you? Well, I don’t know if that would be a smart use of resources. But in terms of public visibility,we are way behind the Christian Right.

So what would it take for us to claim our space in the public square? 

Some existing congregations may be strong enough to start naming themselves as a progressive Christian community as part of their identity without worrying about losing a number of members upon whom their financial viability depends. I don’t know how many would be willing to do that. But that’s one way to begin to attain some visibility. Secondly,  I think the future – and I’m speaking of from now to 10 to 30 years out – there’s going to be an increasing number of small Christian communities that will come into existence that do not want to own a building, but want to use unused space; that probably will not have a full-time stipendiary professional clergy person. And those communities will find it very easy to claim a particular identity becuase there are no financial impediments to them claiming that identity. And that will be somewhat of a return to what the very early forms of  Christianity were like. Small, very intentional, intimate communities of commitment.

The other things I think of are anecdotal. I’m very grateful that there was a Christian presence during the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, especially in Manhattan, and other communities too, where liberal and progressive clergy or divinity school students were there dressed in their clerics, holding bible studies, eucharist, whatever. It’s a good example of what we were talking about earlier today, about joining with the social justice movements of our culture in visible ways.

A number of books have been written about the future of Christanity.  If you were to write your own “future of faith” book, what would you title it?

Well, Elaine Pagels has already used it. It was going to be the title of my memoir – but I’m not going to write a memoir – it was going to be Beyond Belief. Beyond Belief, into relationship, transformation…

What about From Believing to Beloving, which you spoke about in your talk earlier? 

Yeah, beloving God … when you think of the biblical roots of that … the Great Commandment is not “you should believe your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,” but “you shall love the God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” So to speak of Christianity as “beloving” God … how biblical can you get?

Believing has very little transformative power. You can believe and still be angry, mad, and so forth. Before 1600, the English word “believe” did not mean believing statements or teachings or doctrines to be true. Rather it’s direct object was always personal; and “believe” meant what we mean by “belove.” To “belove” is to commit yourself to, pledge yourself to. We are changed by what we “belove.”

A lot of people are saying the mainline church will have to die in order for a new thing to be born. What do you think about that?  

What I hear on the grapevine are projections that 25 years from now, 40% of mainline congregations will no longer exist because they’ve just gotten too small to support a clergy person, maintain a building, or all the members have died. I think part of the transformation will be an increasing number of  small, intentional, committed communities that may have no professional clergy or physical plant. But rather than thinking, oh my God, the Church is disappearing, it’s worth thinking about the fact that a relatively small intentional community of deep commitment can sometimes have a much greater effect than a large, conventional community. A committed community of 100 can have a bigger effect that a conventional community of 1,000.

Or to use another example, and I hope this isn’t self-serving, but my wife and I contribute about $10,000 a year to our local church. And we probably know 20 couples that contribute around that much. Now imagine if none of that went for building maintenance or salaries? Now I don’t imagine these small communities of the future are all going to be that wealthy, so they can have that level of contributing, but my hunch is that about 90-95% of most church budgets these days go for institutional maintenance, which includes contributions to the national church as well as buildings and staff and so forth. So these smaller communities of the future may have hardly any overhead. And therefore the possibility of doing some significant things in a community, or by supporting groups that are doing significant things, really increases.

I put out on Facebook that I’d be talking with you this weekend, and invited questions. One that several people wanted me to ask was, What is your spiritual practice? How do you pray?

I’m very fortunate that my life work includes spending hours a day reading and thinking and writing about God and Jesus and Christianity, and I don’t know if I want to dignify that by saying it’s a very intentional spiritual practice, but I think it has some of the effects of a spiritual practice. Just being, if you will, “mindful” of that, much of the day.

Secondly, I try to remember, and mostly do, to – for want of a better verb – talk to God several times in the course of the day. And I can do that silently, but I can also do that out loud if I’m alone, and for me that has the effect of reminding me of the presence of the sacred … and of my own desire to center ever more deeply in God, the sacred. I think our relationship with God in some ways is like a human relationship. And how does a human relationship deepen and grow? It does that by paying attention to it, spending time in it, being present to it.

I also have some “attention” exercises that I use when I’m outside, particularly. I pay attention to the feel of the the air – is it dry, is it moist, is it raining cats and dogs? The temperature of the air … all of this is a way of trying to bring myself into the immediacy of the present. Looking at the sky – if it’s clear, there might not be a lot to look at, but to notice that. And if it’s cloudy or overcast, to pay attention to the texture of the clouds. All of this is part of what I would call an “attention” exercise and I try to do that every morning.

Do you read the Bible devotionally, as well as scholarly?

Seldom. I’m more likely to read The Book of Common Prayer. And of course that has a lot of biblical passages, especially from the psalms, and biblical language. I’m not against devotional reading of the Bible, it’s just that it doesn’t occur to me.

Your newest book is called Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written.  Would you tell us a little bit about it? 

So far as I and my publisher know, this has never been done before. And it’s just such an obvious thing in a way!  I mean, scholars have written for a long time about what the earliest documents are, but as far as a New Testament that actually does that, I think that’s new. Some of the interesting things about it are: the earliest books are the seven genuine letters of Paul; Mark is the first Gospel; Luke is probably the last gospel. The book of Revelation is about mid-way through (#14 of 27). And it’s not only that that’s a little bit surprising to people, but it also has some interesting effects on what we make of the documents. The familiar New Testament ends of course with the Book of Revelation and it suggests that we’re still looking for what Revelation talks about. It’s almost like an open ending to the bible: “Yes, and he will come again!”  But when you put the Book of Revelation at number 14, it’s like, oh ok, so this tells us what the author wrote to some Christian communities near the end of the first century and he expected this to happen soon, and obviously it didn’t happen. Versus how it feels when it’s at the very ending of the Bible, with “Amen, Come Lord Jesus!” I’ll be very interested to see what happens to it. Harper tells me it was very fast out of the gate, so we’ll see.

Sounds like we could have a whole separate interview about that book!  Thank you, Dr. Borg, for your time today. 


Deborah Arca is the Managing Editor of the Progressive Christian Channel at Patheos.

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