(With apologies to Alasdair MacIntyre.)
I’m still reading Marcus Borg’s Jesus. In the scholarly arena, Borg is probably best known as a proponent of the “non-eschatological” or “non-apocalyptic” Jesus, and he addresses this controversy in chapter 9 of this book.
In Jesus, Borg offers a refinement of terminology. Instead of “non-eschatological” or “non-apocalyptic,” he now prefers to talk about “imminent eschatology” versus “participatory eschatology.”
Imminent eschatology refers to the perspective–pioneered by Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer in the 20th century and long considered orthodoxy in Jesus studies–that Jesus’ central message was one of apocalyptic expectation. That is, he believed that God was about to act decisively to usher in the Kingdom in its fullness by means of a supernatural intervention (with Jesus himself as, in some sense, God’s instrument). The unavoidable implication of this view is that Jesus was wrong, since the Kingdom manifestly didn’t appear in 33 A.D.
Borg, in contrast, argues for participatory eschatology. That is, the Kingdom is what the world would look like if God’s will really had its way–the poor would be fed, the naked would be clothed, nation would no longer war against nation, and people’s hearts would be centered on God.
[The Kingdom] is God’s dream, God’s passion, God’s will, God’s promise, God’s intention for the earth. God’s utopia–the blessed place, the ideal state of affairs. (p. 252)
In Borg’s view, for Jesus the Kingdom was something that people were to participate in here and now by turning to God and being converted to the ways of compassion and resistance to injustice–ways that are at odds with much of the conventional wisdom of the world. “Participatory eschatology…means that Jesus called people to respond and participate in the coming of the kingdom” (p. 259). Applying the categories of Calvinist-Arminian debate, we might say that Borg’s view is a synergistic one, as opposed to the monergistic one of the apocalyptic school. Borg sees the Kingdom as a reality that is, in some sense, already present and which we are invited to participate in.
Borg’s main argument for this position has both a negative and a positive aspect:
– First, he doubts that the more apocalyptic statements attributed to Jesus actually go back to him; instead he thinks it more likely that they refer to the early church’s expectation of Jesus’ second coming–expectations that were stoked by the Resurrection.
– Second, he argues that a participatory eschatology makes better sense of a larger swath of the gospel material; specifically, much of what Borg characterizes as Jesus’ “wisdom teaching” seems irrelevant if he thought the end was imminent.
Obviously I’m in no position to judge the details of the historical argument–which Borg only summarizes in any event. However, I do wonder if there is a religious reason for preferring one view over the other.
On the one hand, many Christians would be uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus was mistaken about the coming of the Kingdom–particularly if it was as central to his vision and mission as the proponents of imminent eschatology would have it. Orthodoxy can live with a fallible Jesus (he is fully human, after all), but can it live with a Jesus who fundamentally missed the boat with regard to the central theme of his ministry?
On the other hand, a view like Borg’s implies–at least to the extent that the early church entertained apocalyptic expectations–that the early Christian community was mistaken about what Jesus meant. This implication can maybe be softened a bit by arguing (as Borg does) that it was the Resurrection experiences that created, or at least intensified, this expectation (not unreasonably if the general resurrection was associated with “end-times” thinking in Judaism). Nevertheless, there is a potentially embarassing Jesus-versus-the-church conclusion looming at the end of this train of thought.
I guess to the extent that we think the “historical Jesus” is important for the life of faith–and not all Christians are agreed about this–Borg’s Jesus and his participatory eschatology seems to have the greater relevance. However, I’m also left less than fully satisfied by his sketch of eschatology. While he insists that it is God’s dream for the earth that human beings participate in or collaborate with, he doesn’t seem to leave much room for God’s action outside of human effort. In particular, the Kingdom of God has usually been taken to entail not just a perfectly just society, but a transformed created order where not only injustice, but suffering, sickness, and death are no more. Can Borg’s participatory model make sense of this?
UPDATE: This post seems relevant.