Review: The Heart of Christianity
by Fr. Ian Dalgleish


In The Heart of Christianity Marcus J. Borg, a member of the Episcopal (Anglican) Church in the United States and Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, has written a stimulating and in many places challenging book. Borg, whose academic work to date has concentrated on studies of the historical Jesus, is repelled by the distortions and narrowness of fundamentalist religion in his own country. In this book he advances what he calls a new “paradigm” of Christian faith - one which is subtler and broader-minded, less exclusive and chauvinistic.
Naturally enough the immediate context of Borg's reflections is North American Protestantism and its current debates and divisions. This is indicated by chapter headings such as "Faith", "The Bible", "Born Again". Standard Catholic themes like Tradition, Church, the Mass, Our Lady do not feature in the book even although many of Borg's fellow Anglicans would consider these subjects closer to the "heart of Christianity" than he evidently does.
An example of the basically Protestant character of Borg's thought is the way he applies a loose concept of sacramentality - he defines a sacrament as "a finite, physical, visible mediator of the sacred" and "a means of grace" - to Jesus and the Bible, while the individual sacraments as traditionally understood play no part in his vision of a renewed Christian faith. All that said, there are plenty of valuable insights here for Catholics, especially those attracted to a more "evangelical" or Bible-based faith.
The emerging paradigm
According to Borg we live in a time of major conflict in the church (p. 2). Many Christians would regard the main dividing line in Church circles as that between conservatives and liberals. But these terms are inadequate and misleading, Borg maintains. He suggests that we speak instead of an "earlier" and an "emerging" paradigm.
A paradigm is a comprehensive way of seeing things, a large interpretive framework that shapes how everything is seen, and the present conflict among church members concerns "how the Christian tradition and the Christian life are viewed as a whole". (p.5)
The earlier paradigm (at the risk of over-simplifying) interprets the Bible literally, reading the events recorded there as straightforward historical fact. The Bible contains the revealed will of God and is therefore an absolute source of authority for the life of the Church. The individual act of belief itself is central, and faith is orientated largely to our life after death. Faith in Christ as "Lord and Saviour" is essential to salvation.
The emerging paradigm, by contrast, is the result of the Christian religion's encounter with modern science, historical scholarship, and with the contemporary awareness of cultural and religious diversity.
In this view the Bible is seen as a human rather than a divine product, the response of the ancient Israelites (Old Testament) and the first Christians (New Testament) to God. The books of the Bible have to be understood in their original historical and cultural context and interpreted metaphorically rather than literally. Nevertheless they form the Church's indispensable "foundation document", its "identity document", and its "wisdom tradition" (p.47ff).
From this way of approaching Sacred Scripture a concept of Christian life emerges which is more concerned with relationship and transformation than merely believing the necessary propositions.
God - Jesus - Kingdom
In subsequent chapters Borg argues that this emerging paradigm is the only appropriate stance for Christians living in the modern world. His chapter on God, for example, affirms the principle of Revelation and the biblical picture of God as a person with definite characteristics, principally love and justice. But his discussion of God's being opens onto the experiences of mystics through the ages, in which God is encountered as a mysterious, intangible "More", an extra dimension of reality transcending the specific information relayed in the traditions of revealed religion.
Describing his preferred "panentheistic" idea of God, Borg explains: "Rather than imagining God as a personlike being "out there", this concept imagines God as the encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is. The universe is not separate from God, but in God" (p.66). As he notes, there are grounds in the Bible itself for this approach. Emphasising mystical experience of God also creates a bridge between Christianity and the other world faiths (not, to be sure, a novel or original discovery).
From this concept of God Borg then draws some thought-provoking conclusions about erroneous notions of divine intervention and the proper role of petitionary prayer.
The chapter on Christ reflects Borg's expertise as an historical Jesus scholar. He describes Jesus under five headings: (1) Jewish mystic; (2) healer; (3) wisdom teacher; (4) social prophet; (5) initiator of a movement. Then he goes on:
"And if we ask the historical question, "Why was he killed?", the historical answer is because he was a social prophet and movement initiator, a passionate advocate of God's justice and radical critic of the domination system who had attracted a following. If Jesus had only been a mystic, healer, and wisdom teacher, he almost certainly would not have been executed. Rather he was killed for his politics - because of his passion for God's justice" (pp. 91-92).
These pointed observations place the exposure of injustice at the centre of any theology of the Cross and counter the false mystification of suffering often preached by right-wing demagogues, Catholic and Protestant alike.
On the other hand Borg appears to reject many of the miraculous happenings in the gospels along with what he regards as "literal" interpretations of the Incarnation and Resurrection. He argues that the only credible way to read the gospel record today is "metaphorically" and in historical perspective. To me, his assertion that most of those who reject Christianity at the present time do so on account of intellectual reservations about received doctrine (the virgin birth, Jesus’ Resurrection, etc., p.81f.) seems naive. Another factor, undoubtedly, is the aversion many modern people feel towards the gospel's call to repentance and self-denial.
One of the most informative sections of the book is the chapter on God's Kingdom, "the heart of God's justice" and the main purpose of Jesus' mission.
The Bible is political, Borg says, and the God of the Bible is passionate about justice. In the Old Testament era the prophets were "God-intoxicated voices of protest against the human suffering created by the unjust systems imposed by the powerful and wealthy" (p.130). The prophets articulated God's displeasure in the face of political oppression, economic exploitation and the legitimations offered by official religion.
Jesus followed in the prophets' footsteps. Rejecting an over-spiritualised concept of God's Kingdom that pushes it forward completely into the afterlife Borg highlights the present political and economic ramifications of belief in Christ. To state that Jesus is Lord is to declare the Caesar is not: a political statement which applies equally to present-day idols of worldly power, in all their guises.
Borg also proposes that Christians engage in the activity of consciousness-raising to expose, among other things, the harmful effects of today's polarisation of wealth, nationally and globally. "[P]owerful and wealthy elites in our time, as in the ancient world use their power and their wealth to structure the economic system in their own narrow self-interest" (p.140).
But in a footnote he winds back from these radical statements, adding, lest anyone misunderstand, that "the issue is not capitalism versus socialism, but the particular way that our (sic) system of capitalism is structured" (p.148). Such timidity is disappointing and unnecessary.
One of the simplistic illusions entertained by today’s Christian activists is that the principal root of economic injustice is subjective greed, and that sufficient doses of goodwill, honesty and fellow-feeling would somehow result in a just and benign version of the market economy. They content themselves with moral appeals and (almost universally unsuccessful) campaigns led by well-meaning charities and pressure groups.
Few Christian commentators frankly acknowledge that capitalism is inherently exploitative and creates distinct social classes whose interests are mutually antagonistic. Nor do they draw appropriate conclusions from the history of the last thirty years: the deliberate destruction of the post-war social market model, the triumph of neoliberalism, the falling standard of living and growing political powerlessness of ordinary citizens. Borg's final note suggests that despite his praiseworthy leanings he still fully shares the reformist illusions common in (well-off) church circles.
Conclusion
At several points I found myself wondering whether Borg's "emerging" paradigm is really something new or rather a revival of the "secular theology" of forty years ago - Bishop Robinson's Honest to God, for instance, or Paul Van Buren's The Secular Meaning of the Gospel. These works, extravagantly lauded at the time by agnostic and non-Christian commentators, were thoroughly and wittily debunked by fellow-Anglican theologians like E.L. Mascall (The Secularisation of Christianity) and are now no more than curiosities of recent academic fashion.
It also occurred to me that while it would certainly be true to say that the great church fathers like Ambrose, Augustine, and John Chrysostom excelled in symbolic interpretations of the doctrinal content of Scripture - the Incarnation, Mary's virginity, miracles, Christ's death and resurrection - they advanced such readings alongside a "literal" understanding of these beliefs, not as a substitute for them.
Moreover, distinctions have to be made between passages describing secondary episodes - the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, for instance, or the encounter with Christ on the road to Emmaus - and the more fundamental events such as Jesus' Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
If these latter, foundational, events are understood as having no roots at all in historical fact why should Jesus be considered more significant than any of the characters of myth and fable, or even modern fiction, whose stories could likewise be interpreted metaphorically to yield deep spiritual meanings? To say that the metaphorical interpretation of Scripture affords a "more-than literal" and therefore profoundly "true" meaning is somewhat evasive when applied to a religion that bases its truth-claims precisely on the conviction that God has communicated himself to humanity through real historical events.
Near the end of his book Borg writes of the value of church discussion groups and study circles. In my view The Heart of Christianity itself would make interesting and challenging subject matter for just such gatherings - although if this were to take place in a Catholic parish I hope someone would be on hand to propose the necessary additions and corrections. Ultimately, despite Borg's concise, easy style and progressive commitments I found myself recalling the whimsical lines of Belloc:
The moral is (it is indeed!)
You mustn't monkey with the Creed.
The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith by Marcus J. Borg, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003 ISBN 0-06-073068-4 (paperback 2004).