Marcus J. Borg is Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. He is a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, holds a D.Phil degree from Oxford University and held the Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture, an endowed chair, at Oregon State University, until his retirement. He is a columnist for Beliefnet and a contributor to several of the Living the Questions DVD series. He has been national chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, co-chair of its International New Testament Program Committee and president of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars. As the author of nineteen books, Dr. Borg is among the most widely-known and influential scholars within the progressive wing of American Christianity.
Summary of Contents
The author presents his text in three main parts. The first section is highly autobiographical and provides the context of the author’s struggles with faith as a youth. Borg describes the concept of God he received in his religious tradition (Lutheran) and how this initial understanding of God failed to sustain him through his adolescence and early adulthood. He then shows how this concept has dramatically changed in the second half of the author’s life, an event which he describes as “meeting God again for the first time.” This experience is the basis for the title of the work and the author’s invitation to the reader to have that same experience. In the second section, Borg unpacks the central thesis of the text: “My central claim is very direct: our concept of God matters” (11) and explains how a person’s image of God influences their concept of spirituality and the sacred encounter. Borg argues that how a person images God will influence and color their entire concept of the divine, which will directly impact their spiritual development, either promoting or retarding the growth. The author concludes the book with challenges to modern American Christians in regard to seeking an authentic relationship with God through opening one’s heart to the already present God (panentheism), in regard to allowing God to speak correction to conventional socio-political agendas, and in regard to the very narrow understanding of “salvation” held by many Christians.
Borg begins the book with an extended autobiographical insight into the concept of God he was taught growing up as a rural, Midwestern, conservative and traditional Lutheran in the 1940s. He recalls that his primary image of God (as powerful and “out there”) was fused with the person of his parish pastor, who “shaped my childhood image of God in yet another way. He was a finger shaker” (17). Borg explains that the pastor’s “chastising finger carried a message: though told we were forgiven, we knew it was a close call” (17).
The author integrates the image of a transcendent and judging God with the theological tradition of the Lutheran church (i.e. inerrancy and plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture, salvation through Jesus Christ alone, faith meaning strong and correct belief, pending judgment for heaven and hell) and concludes “God has requirements, and Christianity was about how to meet those requirements. The finger shaking God was God the lawgiver and judge. Pastor Thorson’s unadorned black robe drove the point home” (17).
Borg explains that as he moved through the educational system and was exposed to the “modern worldview” things began to come apart. In response to the claims of “reason” and “science,” the author recalls that “when I was in my teens, faith began to mean believing claims that went beyond what we knew and—as my doubt increased—that seemed highly unlikely to be true. . .faith meant believing the improbable. That was the requirement: to believe in God in spite of all the reasons not to” (21).
Continuing to chronicle his decline, Borg recalls that “by the time I was in college, I had become a ‘deist’ without knowing it” (22). His further experience of seminary “only deepened my doubt” (23) and where he “let go of the notion that the Bible is a divine product” (25). Additionally, Borg remembers how he “learned from my professors and the readings they assigned that Jesus almost certainly was not born of a virgin, did not think of himself as the Son of God, and did not see his purpose as dying for the sins of the world. . .I also found the claim that Jesus and Christianity were the only way of salvation to be troublesome” (25).
The author explains that it was at this point of having moved from “supernatural theism through doubt and disbelief” (12) that he discovered panentheism, which he credits with making “it possible for me to be a Christian again” (12). The remainder of the book fleshes out the implications of this discovery for the author and how it led to a transformation of his life and theology.
In chapter 2, Borg contrasts the transcendent God of "supernatural theism" (26) with the concept of God proposed by the idea of “panentheism,” which he claims is “deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. . .even though the notion is not widely known in popular Christianity” (33). Panentheism affirms both the transcendence and immanence of God in the formula of “everything is in God.” Borg explains, “God is more than everything (and thus transcendent), yet everything is in God (hence God is immanent). For panentheism, God is ‘right here,” even as God is also more than ‘right here’”(32).
The author then provides a number of Scriptural accounts in which the immanence and transcendence of God are brought together in a harmonious balance. These texts tend toward inviting the reader to experience a relationship of “knowing God.” “This does not mean knowing about God but a direct knowing like that experienced between lovers” (36). Borg suggests that “if God can be experienced, then God is not simply somewhere else but also right here” (37).
How is the immanence of God experienced?
“The most dramatic of these experiences involve nonordinary states of consciousness. They are ‘ecstatic,’ which means literally to be out of oneself” (37). These altered states of consciousness include dreams and visions, shamanic experiences, mystical experiences, and near death experiences (NDE). Genuine encounters have “a noetic quality to them—that is, people who have them consistently say they involve a knowing (and not simply a feeling)” (37). Borg summarizes by saying, “it seems to be that ecstatic religious experience is the primary reason for taking seriously the reality of the sacred, of God. . .the varieties of religious experience suggest that the sacred—God—is an element of experience, not simply an article of faith to be believed in” (45). The author then qualifies his endorsement, saying “yet though panentheism seems to me to be the most adequate model of God, we must also beware of all conceptualizations of God. The transcendence of God means in part that God is ineffable” (48). “And yet the ineffable, the sacred, is real and present” (49).
As a Midwesterner and a graduate of the Lutheran seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, this reviewer shares in the author’s theological and cultural background and can witness to the veracity of Borg’s description of the Lutheran theological system. While not being able to embrace all of Borg’s theological conclusions, this reviewer does find great resonance with the author’s ideas with respect to panentheism and Christianity.
The theological training which this reviewer received taught him that there is a significant difference between the eternal and uncreated God and everything else (“seen and unseen”) which is contingent and created. While there is a distinct difference, it does not follow that there is no connection or interaction between the two. The creation theology in which this reviewer was schooled holds that God is not merely creator of the universe but that God’s ongoing and active presence is necessary for creation to continue to exist from moment to moment. If God were to withdraw, creation would cease to be. While not explicitly stated in the first article of the creeds (Apostle’s and Nicene), the permanence of creation hinges on God’s love for creation, which is “good” (Genesis 1-2), and hence God will not withdraw.
Borg’s description of Lutheran doctrine placing God “out there” seems to hinge more on the specific liturgical and congregational polity context of local congregations than the official doctrine of the church. This reviewer acknowledges that the official doctrinal position of the Lutheran church in regard to the immanence of God is often obscured and downplayed by clergy in favor of the doctrine of God’s transcendence. This reviewer believes this is done to protect against people moving toward “process” theology and “open” theology, both of which are held in contempt in conservative Lutheran circles, such as that of Borg’s youth and this reviewer’s current affiliation.
Borg is quite right in pointing out the logical conclusions which come from having a distant and non-interventionist God. Lutheran theologians attempt to mitigate these by allowing the transcendent God to draw near, on occasion, with proper scheduling and preparation, through Word and Sacrament ministry. “Accordingly, we should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through his external Word and sacrament.”
This reviewer struggled to reconcile the constraints placed on God’s power and providence by the Lutheran reformers with the his personal observations of the working of God at times and places detached from Word and sacrament ministry. Many of these observations and personal experiences occurred during times of practicing many of Borg’s suggestions for opening of the self to the presence of God described in chapter five of the text. Unfortunately, most of these encounters were outside of the seminary chapel or local congregational experience, which is anecdotal support for the author’s contention that “to a large extent, Protestant churches have abandoned many of the traditional mediators of the sacred” (121).
From here, Borg moves to a discussion of the important role of metaphor in how Christians "image God.” “Our images of God matter. Just as how we conceptualize God affects what we think the Christian life is about, so do our images of God” (57). The author contrasts the "monarchical model" of God as lawgiver, judge, king and patriarch with the "relational model" of God as mother, companion, friend, and lover. Borg shows that while both models are based on biblical texts, “obviously, God cannot literally be all of these. . .language about God must be metaphorical. . .importantly, though metaphors are not literally true, the can nevertheless be true” (58). This is a conclusion which will likely disturb many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, but which Borg suggests is the only solution possible when discussing God.
The author heavily criticizes the monarchical model, suggesting it “leads to a performance model of the Christian life” (61), promotes God as “distant powerful being” (64), links male images with God, and enthrones God within a lawgiver/judge/legal framework (65) in which “the self is perpetually ‘on trial’” (67). Borg points out how this model affects attitudes toward the environment (68), society, and gender (69-71).
The author moves on to an enthusiastic promotion of the relational model, which “stresses relationship, intimacy, and belonging” (71). He points out that this model emphasizes “the nearness of God rather than distance” (75), “makes it clear, of course, that God is neither male nor female” (76), and includes nonanthropomorphic images of God, suggesting that “the relationship to God is personal, even as God is more than a person. The sacred is not simply a nonanimate mystery but a presence” (76). Borg then suggests ways in which this metaphor changes perceptions on creation, the human condition, sin, and the Christian life. “Rather than sin and guilt being the central dynamic of the Christian life, the central dynamic becomes relationship—with God, the world, and each other” (79).
Borg devotes the next chapter to a discussion of “Jesus is the image of the invisible God” (85). Here the author moves into controversial, though not new, territory in his discussion of the “pre-Easter Jesus,” the “post-Easter Christ,” and how Christian can view the stories of the “canonical Jesus” of Scripture, while “not literally true, they can be really true; though not factually true, they can be actually true” (101).
For fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, this is difficult speech to understand. As Borg unpacks the distinctions of his pre-Easter/post-Easter Jesus, the anxieties compound. In regard to the Christian doctrine of the two natures (divine and human) being subsumed in the one person of Christ, Borg contends that “Jesus did not speak of himself (and apparently did not think of himself) as divine. So was the pre-Easter Jesus God? Was he divine? Apparently not in any sense of which he and his followers were aware” (88).
In view of the celebration of the empty tomb, Borg writes that “Easter need not involve the claim that God supernaturally intervened to raise the corpse of Jesus from the tomb. Rather, the core meaning of Easter is that Jesus continued to be experienced after his death, but in a radically new way: as a spiritual and divine reality” (93). Despite the early church’s refutation of modalism as a heresy, Borg suggests that “to speak of one God and three persons is to say that God is known to us wearing three different ‘masks’—in other words, in three different roles” (98). In respect to Scripture, “the stories of Jesus’ birth are myths in this sense. . .I do not think these stories report what happened. The virginal conception, the star, the wise men, the birth in Bethlehem where there was no room in the inn, and so forth are not facts of history. But I think these stories are powerfully true” (102).
Sensing the tension, Borg tries to alleviate the uneasiness by suggesting that “in the history of scholarship, theological reflection on the distinction between the pre-Easter Jesus and the canonical Jesus has often led to an unnecessary either-or choice: that either the historical Jesus or the canonical Jesus is of primary significance. . .we need not choose between them. . .both disclose what God is like” (103-104). This is a solution which will unlikely satisfy those who hold to a verbal, plenary view of the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture. For those people, Borg is simply one more in a long line of liberal heretics.
This reviewer recognizes the uncomfortableness that many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians have when party to discussions of the “pre” and “post” Easter Jesus. Having read Borg’s other works, particularly his treatment of the birth narratives in The First Christmas and the events of Holy Week in The First Easter, this reviewer has less knee-jerk reactivity and more sympathy for Borg’s argument. That is not to say that this reviewer has abandoned a traditional, orthodox Christology which denies most of Borg’s assertions in regard to the person of Jesus.
Borg is not original in his work in this section, building on Schweitzer, Bultmann, and others who make a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. This reviewer is dramatically more open to a re-thinking of the role of the evangelists in shaping the Jesus story as contained in the canonical gospels, but is not ready to go the whole way with Borg to his conclusions.
This reviewer contends that orthodox, traditional Christology that confesses the “dual nature” of the person of Jesus is correct and does not need to be jettisoned to account for the scriptural data that Borg cites in favor of his radical distinction of the “pre” and “post” conditions. This reviewer suggests that embracing a thorough doctrine of the Incarnation, especially the “kenosis” of attributes, makes Borg’s distinctions unnecessary.
For example, when the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became man, He voluntarily accepted the limitations of natural humanity and subjected Himself to living within certain constraints. St. Paul writes that Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:7-9)
What does this mean?
Although Jesus always remained fully and essentially God, He lays aside certain attributes associated with His divine nature. At one time the Second Person of the Trinity could be everywhere at once, but in the Incarnation He is restricted to a human frame that can only be in one place at a time. He is subject to the laws of physics and is constrained by the necessities of human biology. He sets aside omniscience. Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t all knowing. As a twelve year old boy in the temple, He was unaware of His parents concern that He was not in the crowd returning from the feast of the Passover. St. Luke writes that Jesus “grew in wisdom,” implying that His wisdom has been limited. During His public ministry, when the woman with the issue of blood was healed, Jesus asked crowd who had touched Him and He kept looking around to see who it was who had done it. Jesus asks the father of the epileptic boy, “What are you arguing with them (the disciples) about?” (Mk 9:16) and then “How long has he been like this?” (Mk 9:21) When asked about His own return to establish the Kingdom on earth, Jesus replied, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mk 13:32). The pre-Easter Jesus couldn’t solve quadratic equations, speak French, or explain the infield fly rule.
Additionally, in the incarnation, God lays aside His power. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing...” (Jn. 5:19) On His own, the pre-Easter Jesus couldn’t heal the sick. He couldn’t deliver the tormented from demons or raise the dead. His early life history bears this out. There are no canonical accounts of Jesus doing anything extraordinary until He’s thirty years old. Scripture says that while living in Nazareth, no one had any idea that He was God.
Jesus chooses not to operate out of the fullness of His divinity while on earth, but to really and truly live the human life because Jesus comes to recover what Adam had lost, but He has to reclaim it in the same way it was lost–as a man. What Adam, a man without original sin, lost could only be reclaimed by Jesus, truly a man, also without original sin, and it had to be done without “cheating” in order to be valid.
This changes after Jesus’ baptism. St. Matthew writes: “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” For thirty years, Jesus has done nothing out of the ordinary, but immediately following His baptism, Jesus begins a highly controversial and very public ministry accompanied by extraordinary manifestations of power. He begins proclaiming the Kingdom of God and demonstrating its presence among the people through signs and wonders. Following His baptism, the Holy Spirit began to be manifested through Jesus with new power. Jesus does things without reaching into His own “back pocket” so to speak by dipping into His divinity. He does miracles, signs, and wonders as the man, Jesus of Nazareth, in right relationship to God, completely dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit working through Him. Keeping this in view, it is no longer necessary to posit a distinction between the “pre” and “post” Easter Jesus.
In the last section of the book, chapters five through seven, Borg explores the concrete implications of his theology in the real world. He presents a challenging critique of modern social, economic, and political life. “Some ways of thinking about God legitimate the exiting political order. . .other ways of thinking about God do not explicitly legitimate the political order, but lead it undisturbed by treating it as irrelevant to the religious life” (132).
Borg suggests his theology and “ways of thinking about God lead to a passion for a transformed social order” (133). He links this transformation to the distinction between the “two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world” (134). In these two kingdoms there are stark contracts between the rich and poor, between domination systems and freedom, elite theology and prophetic theology. Borg argues that the “dream of God has been submerged by the individualism that characterizes much of modern Western culture” (145). Whereas God is interested in “a politics of compassion and justice. . .a domination-free order—social, communal, and egalitarian” (145) the modern American is individualistic, focusing on “living well, looking good, standing out” (145).
Borg develops this individualism, saying that it “leads to an individualistic interpretation of the Bible” (147) and the development of “the political vision of the religious right is for the most part an individualistic politics of righteousness, not a communal politics of compassion” (147). The author believes that “taking seriously the dream of God would mean seeing a political dimension to the Christian life. Grounded in God’s compassion for suffering people, including those pressed down and marginalized by the structures of society, a politics of compassion leads to a very different way of seeing human life in community” (149).
This reviewer recommends Borg’s text for anyone who struggles with a distant and disconnected concept of the divine as a way to re-connect with the lesser known but wholly true and valid concept of divine intimacy in the immanence of God. While this reviewer is not completely in agreement of the author’s conclusions about scripture, the radical separation of the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, there is much to commend to the reader.
 Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article VIII. Para. 10