One of the most helpful books I’ve read in recent years is a short popular work by the Jesus scholar Marcus Borg. Titled Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Borg describes his shift away from the conservative faith of his childhood to a fresh engagement with Jesus. I found myself excited by the Jesus he described: a spirit person with profound knowledge of the spiritual realm who calls me to be engaged with this oft neglected dimension of reality; a prophet who calls me to a politics of compassion; a teacher of wisdom who called into question dominant paradigms of his time and subversively calls me to another way of seeing the world.
But is Marcus a Christian?
As I read Borg it becomes clear that he doesn’t believe in a bodily resurrection of Jesus, nor that Jesus was the unique figure orthodox Christianity proclaims. For Borg Jesus’s bones are still rattling around in a grave in Palestine.
Being nurtured in the Western tradition of Christianity, I have tended to define my faith in terms of a belief system. The Christian to me has always been somebody who believes that Jesus is the crucified and risen Lord and gives their allegiance to him.
My experience with Marcus Borg leaves me wondering whether I have got it right. It is clear that Jesus shapes Marcus Borg’s life, even if he doesn’t hold orthodox views. Is a Christian somebody who believes a particular set of things about Jesus or someone who follows the ways of Jesus, and if both of these things are important, which is more important than the other?
I think back to those first followers of Jesus. According to the Gospels it took them some time to recognise that Jesus was the Messiah, and when they did their notion of what it meant for Jesus to be Messiah was as far removed from the reality as it could be. All indications are they didn’t understand him to be the incarnate Son of God until after the resurrection. And I doubt any of them could have articulated the doctrine of the Trinity as we know it today. So when did they become Christians?
It seems that in the Gospels the key issue was recognising that God was with Jesus and that the appropriate response was to give one’s allegiance to the God Jesus made known and to the values Jesus embodied. So perhaps this should be our starting point for defining Christians, that we are people who sense God was present with and in Jesus, seek to know God in terms mapped by Jesus, and seek to live in the ways taught by Jesus.
I find myself attracted to this broader understanding of what it means to be Christian. It seems to resonate much more with what I hear and read of Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus seemed much more concerned with the direction in which people were headed rather than whether they crossed some imaginary boundary line between “Christian” and “non-Christian”. Which leaves me wondering whether it’s even a question worth asking.
I certainly hold different beliefs in some key areas to Marcus Borg. For me the resurrection of Jesus is an absolutely pivotal point for my faith. But in Marcus Borg, and many friends I have who hold similar views to him, I find fellow travellers on a journey led by Christ. And I suspect that is the most important thing, that at the end of the day trying to place boundaries around who is a Christian and who is not is simply not a helpful task.
So is Marcus Borg a “Christian”? I don’t know and I don’t care. What I do know is he is a companion with me on the road, that we each sense the presence of God in Jesus and are seeking to follow the way he laid out before us. I have never met the man other than through his writing, but he has enriched me immeasurably, and I am glad that he has become part of my journey.