Spirituality for the Alienated
Struggling with the Spirit in today’s world is a daunting challenge. Most fail. This is because the mainline culture holds that the life of the Spirit is actually a life of the mind, a life of the emotions somewhat distorted by older, “discredited” system of spirituality and life. Burg’s project, however, is not so much denying this rather dogmatic approach, but in reconstructing it so that the moderns can come to the life of the spirit with few doubts and problems. However, Borg speaks to me for several reasons: first, my love of the eastern tradition stresses Christ as Tao, as the path, rather than as a dogmatic set of beliefs.
It is not so much that dogma is a problem–as it merely asserts things as true–but these propositions never exist in themselves, they exist as part of a broader whole, a struggle with myself and the modern world (Damascene, 1999). This struggle is about integration: the integration of a tradition, a set of beliefs held propositionally, but also its integration within a culture that is often hostile, and that–it seems–seeks to constantly throw roadblocks in the way of one’s struggle. This paper, then, will take my own struggle through the methods Borg uses to reconnect Christianity to modern life.
The basic thesis here is integration: taking the insights from all relevant communities to construct a reasonable and useful understanding of Jesus and his mission. For Borg’s (1995) work, the real struggle is twofold: first, the struggle between the communal understanding of Christ and his historical essence, and second, the struggle with integrating “modern scholarship” with one’s life of true faith. This struggle is very real, but for Borg, his uncritical acceptance of “modern scholarship” as a set of infallible oracles who have no agenda or ulterior motives make his approach weak and compliant.
Nevertheless, the insights taken from this approach cannot be ignored. The basic historical approach Borg takes is highly problematic: Christ did not say what is attributed to him, this existed as an oral tradition prior to being written down, hence unreliable, and lastly, that these oral ideas were written down by a community that had already experienced Christ and hence, itself is largely personal and cultural (Borg, 1995). Unfortunately, he refuses to deal with the large body of work that refutes these theses, such as McDowell (2006), Strobel (1998), Siciliano (2001) and so many others.
His assumption that the modernist scholarship is true (rather than as an ideological construct) shows his criticism to be poorly developed: if the Christ of the ancient world is an ideological construct of the community (and hence unreliable), why is the modern academic, also part of a community, not guilty of the same crime? The fact that Borg is a part of this community might help in answering that problem. If I am to hold that Christ is the creation of an ideologically motivated community, then there is no reason why the “modern scholarship” on this question is not also an ideologically motivated community.
Nevertheless, it is the case that struggles against the modern idea are real, and some of their insights cannot be cast out of hand, as this community does to what they call the “fundamentalists. ” There are several issues Borg takes the reader though that are full of insight and use for the modern Christian buffeted by the modern mentality. In Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1995), he stresses that images of Jesus are important for one’s development as a Christian. There are several images that he identifies:
Jesus as Savior: likely the most common image. Christ came to earth to save man frm sin, to take his human nature and link it to the divine, hence cleansing it, and bringing it through the realm of death, hence conquering it. Second, Jesus as teacher, Jesus came to earth to primarily teach a set of doctrines about Himself, the world and the Christian’s relation to it. Third, Jesus as the “king of creation,” the stern judge and teacher of righteousness. Fourth, Jesus as moralist, that Jesus came to earth to primary teach an ethical system.
And lastly, Jesus as a liturgical figure, the Jesus whose beauty is such that normal words cannot describe it, but it can only be understood in poetry and the symbolism of liturgy (Borg, 2-5). This is an important approach. All of these, to one extent or another, are a part of each Christian’s life, but some are more significant than others. Borg seems to hold that the real problem for modern Christians is the “propositional” nature of “faith. ” That faith, for him, is the assent to a series (literally a list) of propositions: Christ is the Son of God, Christ walked on water, etc.
The problem is that the modern person lives in a society that lives by its own dogmas: that such things cannot happen because they “violate the laws of nature. ” Of course, this assumes that Christ is not their author. He does have a solution, one that I find personally satisfying: that there are two Christs (though not literally), the Christ that existed prior to the resurrection, and the Christ that came after. The latter is the Christ that should motivate the modern reader, and this is the Christ that motivated the early Christian community to write the scriptures.
The assumption is that this community made up a series of stories and held to it. The fact that the resurrection and crucifixion made no sense to the surrounding Jewish or pagan world is not considered. In other words, that no real religious interest was served by creating these stories, since the concept of a crucified God was abhorrent to both communities. Nevertheless, he holds that the motivation of writing the Gospels come from the resurrection, which Borg takes as true from the testimony of the Scriptures that he does not trust (Borg, 1995). Nevertheless, Borg, while inconsistent, is involved with a similar struggle to my own.
Being from a secular household, the concept of Christ and his miracles was strange to me. No different, really, than a cartoon superhero. It was so easy to reject them, so hard to accept them. But this was not a matter of assent and intellectual life, but rather socially. To preach Christ to anyone other than the converted is to lose a great deal of social capital. This I felt powerfully. But intellectually, I never had a problem: “science,” or rather, the scientific establishment, tells me that the infinitely complex life of DNA came into existence by chance.
If this was true, then how strange was it to believe that God came to earth to teach men about Himself? I never thought it strange that Christ was God, while my friends believed that Eric Clapton was God. What I did find strange was the mentality of belief as “propositions. ” In other words, that one could hold to the list of accepted beliefs about God and Christ, but the integration of these ideas into the world about them was the real challenge. Borg’s other famed work, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering the life of Faith, has helped me put this problem into a better perspective.
In fact, it is precisely the statement of the problem that makes the most sense, just as much as the solution itself. In other words, the context of the problem suggests its own answer. Borg writes that Christ should be seen as a way of life rather than as a set of beliefs (Borg, 2004, 25). However, the problem is that Borg seems to say this so as to relieve himself of the pressure of believing things that “modern scholarship” has decided are false. This, as I have already said, is the great weak spot of this series of books. But it helps to place it like this:
Dogma: This is an intellectual approach to God and Christ. It holds to a set of beliefs both as reflecting the historical world of facts, and at the same time, demands a consistency among the propositions believed. This is fair enough. But the real issue is that it is a matter of the head. If Christianity was to be a strictly rational, empirical religion, then why did Christ not speak in this way? Christ, rather than speaking as a metaphysician, spoke in parables, He spoke in aphorisms, He spoke in stories of only a few sentences. He seems to preach by example as much as by words.
Way: Christ preached by example, by the words and actions that he integrated within himself for a short p of three years. He struggles with non-belief, the arrogance of the Pharisees, and incomprehension of the Romans. But this is precisely our condition: our modern Pharisees, our modern secular people consistently give us trouble. Christ is a way of struggle rather than as a set of dogmatic beliefs (Damascene, 1999). Borg (2004, 28-37) does one better: he reduces the struggle this way: Christ and the Christian mission in the modern world can be reduced to four specific approaches:
(1) Assensus: this is a matter of rational assent. This is the problem, at least when such assent is separated from the community. One can hold that Borg is really trying to minimize conflicts, to minimize the “dogmatic” element of Christ so as to lower the threshold of belief: more and more can come to Christ if they do not need to “pass the belief test. ” At the same time, Borg can also be said to hold this because either he does not believe the dogmatic pronouncements about Christ, or his community (i. e. the academic community) does not, and he does not want to be left out, or attacked as a “fundamentalist.
” (2) Fidelity: this is the matter is personal relationship. This is not so much a matter of a-dogmatism, but goes beyond it: love is stronger than intellectual assent. One follows Christ not because he has given assent to a series of dogmas, but rather, because Christ is a man worthy of being followed. A man that exudes love in the strongest sense of the world. (3) Vision: the approach where faith in Christ makes sense out of the whole: the world, the community even of religion. While it is is true that Christ preached the coming of his Church, he did not speak of it all that much.
Christ spoke of a life of struggle, of virtue, of a personal relationship through faith. The apostles had this, and still could not keep Judas. The vision is to bring the whole into integration with Christ’s teachings, the real basis of this paper and the basis of my personal life. One cannot run from the world, but one can infuse it with Christ and his teachings. But this is difficult with so many teachings about Christ, one does not know which image to pick,. This is the problem, and many have rejected Him altogether because fo the disagreements. This many be the real strength of Borg and his approach.
(4) Trust: this seems to synthesize all the above. One trusts in the message of Jesus, but a message that might not be literally “true,” but is the experience of God in and by the community. If one approaches scriptures in this manner, then one can get over the “belief threshold” and see the Scriptures as a “response to God,” rather than a historical record. On a more personal note, the most satisfying part of Borg’s work is in his threefold “basis” of the Christian life in the modern era. I’d like to make this the conclusion, and the real central element of my personal response to reading Borg.
In his (2004) work, Borg holds that the modern mission of Christianity can be reduced to three elements: (1) The affirmation of the reality of God. Now this can be done two ways: first, through intellectual arguments, but also as a set of experiences. Borg prefers the latter. Nevertheless, in my own history, it was the former that led me to the latter. In my younger years of obligatory doubt, it was not the experience of God, it was the understanding of him. Once I understood him, I could feel and experience him. But my understanding came in the form of a series of negations: I could not believe that DNA ever came into existence by chance.
DNA is the great proof of the intelligence of God, the very nature of His creative power (at least that which is open to human observation). I could not believe that matter was eternal. Even in my younger years, while I could not articulate such an idea, I most certainly believed it. Materialism holds that matter is God, in the sense that all things, including life, came from it. It is also eternal and hence, all powerful. Once I realized this set of ideas that must be held by materialism, I realized that the life of the spirit was for me. Life cannot come from death, since something cannot give what it does not have.
Consciousness does not come from chance. I saw these as the affirmation of the dogmatic and ideological community of modern scholarship and science, I saw it as the worst and crudest form of obscurantism (2) The centrality of Jesus. While I have no problem with this concept, I can not imagine that Borg can say the same. Jesus? But if one holds that the Jesus of Scripture is deliberately falsified, then what is he speaking of here? He never says. Jesus seems to become an archetype rather than a person. If one holds that the New Testament is falsified (a concept I hold as fantastic) then Christ can never be central.
In other words, unless one holds to certain things as historically true (i. e. dogma), then Christ can never be the central part of one’s life. (3) Lastly, the centrality of the scriptures. There are two ways of viewing this: first, the scriptures as historically true, which Borg rejects, and the scriptures as reflecting, in words, the early community’s experience with God. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive, but the latter does more accurately reflect out situation. We do experience God in our lives. What we write about this comes out as vague and poetic.
It is not history, but at best, psychology. It does not mean that the experiences are false, but that there are only so many ways that such experiences can be expressed. The final expression cannot, however, be called “history. ” I commend Borg for trying, but he ultimately, fails. He cannot have it both ways: to reject scripture (as his community does) but still hold Jesus as central. Jesus cannot be central if his life is falsified. Borg is ultimately a sloppy writer that seems to want to pleas everyone, and make Christianity an easy religion for all to approach.
Whatever he likes about the Scriptures he uses, whatever will get him made fun of by his colleagues, he rejects. This is dishonest, and says more about the academic community than the early Christian community. Basically Borg is trying to rescue Christianity from the attacks of the modern critics, while affirming that everything that those critics say about the Bible is true. Nevertheless, we have all experienced the doubt, the pressure of the outside world. It is all the matter of context and expression: how we approach God in a materialistic world. That, Borg can do nicely. Bibliography:
Borg, Marcus (1995) Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. HarperOne. ___. (2004) The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering the Life of Faith. HarperOne Damascene, Fr. (1999) Christ the Eternal Tao. St. Herman’s Press. Fr. Damascene’s book strongly takes the approach advocated by Borg. He holds that Christ as a relational entity (so to speak) leads to believing in Christ as the Way, a method, a path to Enlightenment and truth. McDowell, Josh. (2006). Evidence for Christianity. Thomas Nelson Publishers. Strobel, Leo. (1998). The Case for Christ. Zondervan. Siciliano, Terry. (2001) Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Evidence for Christianity.
Truth Press. These are three major works that refute the thesis that Christ’s message was falsified. There are many means to do this, but the most impressive one is that the message that came out in the Scriptures is repugnant to both the Jewish and Pagan mentality: rising from the dead, execution like a common criminal, no military force, etc. were all highly disagreeable to the environment in which the Scriptures were first written and disseminated. Hence, they must be true. If one was going to invent a series of events, the last series one would invent at the time was that which was actually written.