Borg’s Heart of Christianity – 1

Taking a break from the denizens of the deep, I started reading Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. This is a kind of Mere Christianity for liberal Christians, and something that people at my church have found helpful, so I thought I’d give it a read. (I’ve been critical of Borg in the past, but also appreciative of his work.)

The agenda of this book is set by what Borg calls two “paradigms” for viewing the Christian tradition–the “earlier” paradigm and the “emergent” paradigm. Now, paradigm has been an overused concept ever since Thomas Kuhn mainstreamed it, but Borg makes a good case for there being multiple comprehensive ways of seeing the same “data”–Jesus, the Bible, and the Christian tradition. No one paradigm can claim to be the Christian tradition; they are all different expressions of it.

So what distinguishes these two interpretations of the tradition? According the Borg, the earlier paradgim, which has been the dominant one for “the last few hundred years,” emphasizes belief, understood as assent to certain truths. The key beliefs are that God exists, that the Bible is a “divine product”–God’s revealed word–and is to be interpreted “literally,” and that Jesus is God’s Son whose atoning death makes possible the forgiveness of sins.

According to this paradigm, the main point of Christianity is to get “saved” (understood as ensuring one’s blessedness in the afterlife) by meeting certain requirements, including having the correct beliefs about God and/or Jesus.

So, what’s the “emergent” paradigm, then? Borg says that this is a more recent view–dating back about one hundred years–that arose in response to the challenges of modernity, especially modern science, historical criticism of the Bible, and religious and cultural pluralism. (Actually, Borg sees both paradigms as responses to modernity; he thinks the earlier paradigm adopts many of modernity’s epistemological assumptions, particularly its emphasis on “literal-factual” truth-claims.)

The characteristic features of the emergent paradigm, according to Borg, are that it 1. interprets the Bible in its historical context, as a set of writings originally addressed to a diverse set of ancient communities; 2. focuses on the metaphorical or “more-than-factual” meaning of the texts; and 3. sees the Bible and tradition as sacramental mediators of the Spirit–that is, the Bible is sacred in status and function, not origin (inerrancy).

The emergent paradigm, in contrast to the earlier paradigm’s focus on belief, puts a stronger emphasis on personal response and the relational nature of faith. What’s important is not so much having the “correct” beliefs (which, Borg notes, would make faith a “work” by which we are saved), but being transformed at the level of the “heart”–i.e., the deepest, most fundamental orientation of our selves.

Given the differences between the two paradigms, does it make sense to even see them as expressions of the same religion? Borg thinks so, for two reasons. First, Christianity has always had multiple interpretations–cultural and theological diversity have been part of the Christian tradition from the beginning. Second, and more importantly, the two paradigms affirm the same central commitments:

– the reality of God,
– the centrality of the Bible,
– the centrality of Jesus,
– the importance of a relationship with God as known in Jesus, and
– our need (and the world’s need) for transformation (see p. 17)

Hinting at a somewhat pragmatic understanding of religious (or at least doctrinal) truth, Borg says that

the issue isn’t that one of these visions of Christianity is right and the other wrong. Rather, the issue is functionality, whether a paradigm “works” or “gets in the way.” (p. 18)

By “functionality,” what Borg seems to have in mind is that the tradition of which we’re a part leads to “a sense of the reality and grace of God, to following Jesus, and to lives filled with compassion and a passion for justice” (p. 18). The problem with the earlier paradigm, he says, is that for many people living today it causes unnecessary “static,” preventing them from hearing the message of the gospel.

I already have a few questions about Borg’s approach, but I want to hold off until I see how he fleshes it out. In a future post (or posts), I’ll take a look at Borg’s exploration of the meaning of faith, the importance of the Bible, the nature of God, and other topics that he thinks require a fresh understanding.

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3 thoughts on “Borg’s Heart of Christianity – 1

  1. Borg’s effort to brand fundamentalists and their less radical cousins, conservatives, as adherents of a recent paradigm in reaction to modernity is a deceptive, not to say mendacious, propaganda move to de-legitimate their claims to represent “the old time religion,” the main line and substantive content of their religious traditions.

    The truth is that both are far more in continuity with history than Bork’s “emergent” – that is to say, liberal – paradigm.

    On the other hand, it is not unusual for critics of religious conservatism and fundamentalism to insist on having it both ways, is it?

    Damning them at once as relatively recent reaction to modernity and thus different from the historic traditions to which they aim to be rigidly loyal and as medieval in their beliefs, norms, and political/social aspirations, I mean.

    In a sense, of course, the critics are right both times.

    But in that sense it is not true that being in reaction against modernity undermines genuine continuity with the historic content of tradition.

    On the contrary, it exemplifies a determination to stick to it, in defiance of the unique challenges of the modern world.

    In contrast, with respect to those same traditions, theological liberalism has always represented desertion.

  2. Jonathan – I think you’re right. So far, I’m finding Borg’s treatment of the Bible to be pretty weak. Might be a post on that later this week.

    Gaius – I think there is a case to be made for fundamentalism being shaped in distinctive ways by the modernity against which it is reacting. Many of the church fathers, e.g., whatever else we might say about them, weren’t fundamentalist in the modern sense. Not that Borg would say that he agrees with everything in the tradition, I think.

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