What do you do when you can no longer give yourself to the Jesus of your childhood? That’s the question Marcus Borg, Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State Univerity poses in this short book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. Borg was raised in an evangelical Lutheran church where he learned that Jesus was the divine Son of God who took human form to die on a cross and so save us from our sins and secure our entry to eternal life. As Borg grew through adolescence found this image had decreasing relevance to him, that it didn’t fit with the materialist worldview of his culture. He became a closet agnostic. Seminary turned him into a closet atheist. At Seminary Borg discovered the distinction between the Jesus of history, ie what Jesus actually said and did, and the Christ of faith, ie what the Christian movement came to believe about Jesus. Conservative bible scholars see continuity between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, ie what the Christian movement came to believe about Jesus is consistent with what Jesus in fact said and did. Critical bible scholars see discontinuity, arguing that the New Testament documents and the creeds of the church paint a portrait of Christ that the historical Jesus would not have recognised and that stand in contradiction to what he actually said and did. Taught the critical approach Borg found that, while still fascinated by Jesus he had completely lost faith in the God and Jesus of his childhood. But in his early thirties Borg had some mystical experiences that caused him to look again. He recovered faith in God and Jesus, but he did not return to the Jesus of his childhood. Rather he came to a fresh vision that he explores in this book.
I found Borg’s Jesus inspiring. Unlike Borg I find myself on the conservative side of the Jesus discussion. Nonetheless the insights that Borg offers have profoundly informed my understanding and experience of Jesus. In Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time Borg speaks of Jesus as a Spirit person focussed on the politics of compassion. Jesus taught a wisdom that subverted the accepted wisdom of his culture and gave birth to a new renewal movement within Israel.
First, Borg sees Jesus as a Spirit person.
For Borg Jesus is not God incarnate. Rather Jesus is one of a long line of religious figures from many cultures and faiths who lived with a heightened experience of a non-material reality charged with energy and power. We are invited not so much to believe a set of propositions about God and Jesus as to experience the same Spirit Jesus experienced. I found it a little frustrating that Borg leaves his understanding of this non-material realm undefined. Nonetheless, even for those with more orthodox views of Jesus, Borg has something important to say when he reminds us to not merely believe things about God but to encounter God.
Second, Borg sees Jesus as a social prophet calling us to a politics of compassion.
There are three particularly helpful insights offered. First, Jesus deliberately espoused compassion as the way of God, over against the purity system that dominated life in Judea. Jesus’ contemporaries interpreted the command to “Be holy as I am holy” as “Be ritually pure as I an pure”. Jesus interpreted it as “Be compassionate as I am compassionate”. The purity systems categorised people and things as either pure or impure. Space was made for the pure, but the impure was to be excluded. The way of compassion contrasts strongly with this. It doesn’t approach people through the lens of purity but of compassion. And so it nourishes, nurtures, welcomes and embraces all, whatever their situation.
Second, Borg highlights that compassion was not merely a personal virtue. For Jesus it was a social virtue. Our political, economic and social systems are supposed to reflect this.
Third, Borg reminds us that we tend to create our own purity systems, drawing sharp boundaries between the righteous and unrighteous. But we must capture instead the way of compassion.
My critique of Borg is that while he is correct to call us to a politics of compassion this does not exclude boundary setting itself but exclusion on the basis of those boundaries. If the essence of purity systems is that they denote what is appropriate and inappropriate we need them to live. There is some behaviour that is appropriate to being human (eg love, grace, goodness) and some that is not (eg violence, deceit). We need to be able to make those distinctions without using them as the basis for welcoming others.
Third, Borg sees Jesus as a teacher of subversive wisdom
Borg contrasts conventional wisdom and subversive wisdom. Wisdom teachers speak of two ways to live. Conventional wisdom expresses the dominant values, attitudes and expectations of the culture, implores people to conform to them and holds out the consequence of blessing if they are embraced and divine punishment if they are rejected. Subversive wisdom questions the dominant values, attitudes and expectations of the culture and points to an alternate way to live. As a teacher of subversive wisdom Jesus calls us to be critical of the dominant values, attitudes and expectations of our culture and to embrace instead the way of the Spirit – the radical politics of compassion. Moreover he taught that God functions not as Lawgiver and Judge/Punisher but as gracious, generous and compassionate to all. To articulate this, Borg dismisses Jesus sayings on a future judgement as either falsely placed on the lips of Jesus by the early church or simply a foil to call the judgement paradigm into question.
Seeing Jesus as a subversive wisdom teacher is particularly helpful. Not only does it remind us that Jesus’ way can never sit comfortably with the values, attitudes and expectations of our time, it also helps us read the Gospels. Borg reminds us that while the Gospels gather Jesus sayings together into collections such as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus would have delivered them in much smaller chunks – a proverb or a story at a time and inviting sustained reflection. Perhaps we need to read Jesus’ teaching in this way.
I think however that Borg’s distinction between God as Lawgiver/Judge and Generous/Compassionate One overstated. It would seem to me possible for God to be both – generous to all, yet foreshadowing a time when God will call us to account for the ways we have treated him, each other and the planet. Indeed, I think Borg’s rejection of the teachings of Jesus about a future judgement are problematic on both critical and ethical grounds. Scholars such as Richard Baulkham have argued convincingly that the Gospel writers were seeking to write lives of Jesus and that they give us an accurate picture of what Jesus said and did. Moreover, a future accounting and judgement seem to me essential if we see God as just. If suffering is the last word to the children who die from preventable diseases, the victims of war and genocide, the enslaved and exploited, then our universe is Orwellian, marked by the triumph of power and violence rather than compassion and justice.
The book closes by identifying three grand stories told in the Old Testament and shaped the message of Jesus: the liberation of the Israelites from slavery, expressed in the ministry of Jesus as liberation from those things that oppress; the exile of Israel and Israel’s return, expressed in the ministry of Jesus as a welcome and home-coming for the alienated and marginalised; temple, priesthood and sacrifice, expressed in the message of Jesus as forgiveness and acceptance. Borg argues that the church has tended to appropriate only the third story and so interprets the message of Jesus through the lens of sacrifice for sinners and makes literal what was a metaphor. He suggests we come closer to the way of Jesus when we hold all three stories together as important metaphors of how God is toward us.
All in all this is a wonderful piece of writing. For those who are questioning the Christ of faith Borg shows there is another way to approach Jesus. For those who embrace the Christ of faith Borg provides some brilliant insights into who that Christ is. In my view his portrait is incomplete, but the parts of the portrait that he paints are inspiring.