Heart of Christianity 5 – Jesus

Marcus Borg made his name as a scholar (and popularizer) of the “historical Jesus,” so it’s not surprising that his chapter on Jesus has some rich material. (His book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time is well worth reading, though hardly the last word on the topic.)

One common way to talk about the relationship between Jesus as a historical figure and as the object of the church’s confession has been to talk about the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” Borg prefers to talk about the “pre-Easter” and “post-Easter” Jesus.

The pre-Easter Jesus is the man of Nazareth who lived, preached, healed, and taught in 1st-century Palestine; the post-Easter Jesus is Jesus as he has been experienced by Christians for the last 2,000 years–as the one who mediates the presence and Spirit of God.

Borg says–and here I have a hard time disagreeing with him–that the church’s Christology has tended to obscure the humanity of Jesus. This is despite the fact that in its creedal confessions the church affirms his true humanity along with his true divinity.

The problem, Borg argues, is that our picture of Jesus has been over-formed by a particular theological narrative: Jesus is the Son of God who came down from heaven, chiefly to die for our sins so that we could “go to heaven” after we die. When this is taken to be the sum, or at least the essence, of the gospel, the man Jesus and the life he actually lived tend to recede from view.

Part of the reason this happens, he says, is that we have over-literalized our Christological metaphors, particularly “Son of God.”

But “Son of God” is a metaphor like the rest [e.g., lamb, door, light, word, wisdom]. It affirms that Jesus’ relationship to God is intimate, like that of child to parent. To echo language from John’s gospel: the son knows the father, and the father knows the son, and son is the father’s beloved. This relational understanding of “son of God” is found in the Jewish world of Jesus. In the Hebrew Bible, Israel is called son of God, as are the kings of Israel and Judah. Closer to the time of Jesus, Jewish mystics who were healers were sometimes referred to as God’s son. And “son” resonates with agency as well; in his world, a son could represent a father and speak with the authority of the father. To call Jesus “Son of God” means all of this. (pp. 87-88)

In essence, says Borg,

Jesus is, for us as Christians, the decisive revelation of what a life full of God looks like. Radically centered in God and filled with the Spirit, he is the decisive disclosure and epiphany of what can be seen of God embodied in a human life. As the Word and Wisdom and Spirit of God become flesh, his life incarnates the character of God, indeed, the passion of God. (p. 88)

So, what kind of life was that? What kind of man was Jesus? Borg sketches a portrait based on his work, which naturally will be at least somewhat contentious. In brief outline, Jesus was

– a Jewish mystic,
– a healer,
– a teacher of wisdom,
– a social prophet, and
– an initiator of a movement.

Most contentious in Borg’s portrait of Jesus is that he denies that Jesus thought of himself in any conscious way as “the Messiah.” I also wonder how essential the “Jewish” part of “Jewish mystic” is for Borg–is it an accidental feature, or does it condition Jesus’ mysticism in an essential way?

The larger point Borg wants to make, though, is that in over-emphasizing Jesus’ divinity–seeing him as a kind of Clark Kent figure who is really Superman underneath his disguise–we lose sight of what a remarkable man he actually was. In traditional language, his experience of God, his acts of healing, his teaching, and his passion for social justice–those things that captivated (or alarmed) his contemporaries–are properties of his humanity.

It has to be said that Borg has a “lower” Christology than a lot of us are comfortable with. But–this chapter helped clarify for me the value of his work. I see him as providing an entry point into the Christian tradition for people who can’t currently (and may never) accept all the metaphysical baggage associated with the creeds and confessions of the church (at least as articulated by a lot of theology). And, speaking personally, that includes me, at least part of the time.

After all, what more do we really want to require to be a Christian than to confess that Jesus is the revelation of God and to commit (in the same stumbling and halting way that we all do) to following him? I’ll give Borg the last word:

I do not think the church’s extravagant devotion to Jesus is a mistake, for the purpose of the church, of Christology, of the creed is to point us to Jesus. And then Jesus says, “It’s not about me.” He points beyond himself to God–to God’s character and passion. This is the meaning of our christological language and our creedal affirmations about Jesus: in this person we see the revelation of God, the heart of God. He is both metaphor and sacrament of God. (pp. 98-99)

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