“Physical” vs. “spiritual” resurrection?

Liberal Christian icon Marcus Borg recently joined the blogosphere, and one of his first posts was an attempt to clarify his views on the resurrection of Jesus. Borg has been accused of denying the independent reality of the resurrection, reducing it to a subjective experience the disciples had after the crucifixion. But Borg maintains that he believes in a real resurrection, just not a physical one. Jesus is really alive and manifested himself to his followers following his death, but his body was not raised physically from the tomb.

I’m not sure I find the “physical”/”spiritual” distinction particularly helpful or important. First, it presumes that we have a clear idea of what “matter” is and how it contrasts with “spirit.” Modern physics, if nothing else, has called that kind of Cartesian dichotomy into question. But more fundamentally, the New Testament stories themselves don’t seem particularly interested in answering that question. Even if we take the resurrection stories at face value, we have a Jesus who is both “physical” in the sense of being a tangible presence, who eats with his disciples and shows them the still-present wounds in his body, but who also can appear and disappear at will and whom the disciples don’t immediately recognize as being the same person. The only thing that comes through clearly here is that, for the NT writers, Jesus’ post-resurrection state involved both continuity (he was the same person, the crucified one) and discontinuity (he had been radically transformed and raised to a different state of existence).

Keith Ward has suggested that Jesus’ resurrection involved a transformation of his body (i.e., the tomb was empty) to a “spiritual” state. But “spiritual” here doesn’t mean the opposite of “physical”; rather it means something more like a state of being fully infused with God’s Spirit. Jesus lives in the power and presence of God, but in a form that radically transcends his earthly, pre-resurrection existence. It’s not clear that asking whether this constitutes a “physical” or “spiritual” resurrection is a particularly meaningful question. The point is that the resurrection signifies God’s victory over the forces of sin, alienation, and death and promises a consummation of God’s purposes for creation.

Friday links

–On Christianity, the Holocaust, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

–Recent posts on what’s apparently now being referred to as the “new universalism” from James K.A. Smith, Halden Doerge, and David Congdon.

–Does having a monarchy lead to greater equality?

–Redeeming the “L word.”

–Appreciating both N.T. Wright’s and Marcus Borg’s views of the Resurrection.

–Why liberals should embrace classical (small-r) republicanism.

–Love and service are more fundamental than “rigorous theology.”

–Was the Civil War a “tragedy“? (More here and here.)

–Hiding the truth about factory farms.

–Kate Middleton for the win.

ADDED LATER: What’s going on with the Canadian election?

A better hope

In continuing to circle around the question of eschatology and look at it from different angles, I went back to Clark Williamson’s Way of Blessing, Way of Life. I wrote a short post on his eschatology here, but I thought it might be worth looking at it more in-depth. This is partly because I think Williamson avoids some of the pitfalls that Borg (et al.) fall into.

Williamson begins his chapter by noting that, according to Jewish theology, there are two topics for eschatology:

1. “The Day of the Messiah” – This refers to “that future state of this world when God’s intent with God’s creatures shall have been realized, when redemption shall have been accomplished” (p. 297). In short, a this-worldly utopia characterized by perfect justice in which the needs of all are met.

2. “The world to come” – This refers to “our ultimate resurrected life in God beyond history” (p. 297).

For Williamson, the key to an adequate eschatology is to hold on to both of these poles.

In his teaching and ministry, Williamson says, Jesus exhibited a tension between the soon-to-come and the already-present basileia (kingdom or rule) of God. God’s rule entails blessings (for the poor, etc.) and has as its ethical corollary “an inclusive, egalitarian movement that featured free healing, free hospitality, free and open eating, and free welcome to the stranger” (p. 301).

The trouble that Christian theology ran into is that with the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, this promise of the kingdom remained largely a future promise. The early Christians (some of them, at least) expected Jesus to return soon to usher in the Day of the Messiah. However, as the second coming continued to be delayed, the tendency of the church was to downplay or deny any this-worldly element to eschatology and push it off the historical stage entirely (to a heavenly realm after death and/or a “last judgment” at the end of history).

Williamson contends that Christianity needs to recover the this-worldly element of its eschatology, which is intimately connected to Christology. “We may never properly separate claims about Jesus Christ from talk of that future redemption that remains to be accomplished” (p. 304). Christ is a foretaste of God’s reign, but there is more of it to be realized in this world; it’s not something simply postponed until after death.

Nevertheless, a number of contemporary theologians have fallen into the opposite error of confining salvation to liberation from this-worldly oppression. Williamson suggests that this may be in part because modern people find it more difficult to make sense of ultimate salvation than our forbears. But he offers three reasons why this isn’t a viable path:

– If salvation is for this world only, then we have to say that all those who died before the promised utopia is created are not saved. “All those who die without being liberated are not saved, but damned” (p. 311).

– Salvation thought of in strictly this-worldly terms is likely never to be realized because “on any realistic assessment of human history, we will never arrive at a utopian state of total liberation” (p. 311).

– When salvation is detached from an ultimate hope beyond history, our efforts at pursuing justice are likely to meet with burnout and frustration.

Thus any adequate eschatology can be characterized in this “two-poled” fashion:

Political eschatology – This means trying “to make incremental gains in justice, reconciliation, equality, liberty, and sustainability” (p. 312). Part of the mission of the church is to be a model community that can demonstrate the possibilities for greater justice and liberation in its corporate life.

Ultimate salvation – This refers to our ultimate destiny with and in God. Williamson warns against over-literalizing symbolic language (heaven, hell, judgment, etc.) Instead, we should recognize that statements about our ultimate destiny are, in the final analysis, “statements about God and God’s love for us” (p. 311). They are existential-theological affirmations based on “radical trust” that God’s loving grace will have the last word.

Eternal life is the gift of the God who is eternal, and hence the only One who can bestow such a gift on mortal creatures. (p. 316)

Williamson concludes with a suggestion that salvation will be universal in scope. The alternatives, he says, deny the freely given grace of God because they are either based on a works-reward scheme of some sort or because they make God’s grace capricious and arbitrary, as in some schemes of double predestination.

What I like about Williamson’s position is that it includes much of what I find valuable in, say, Borg and Crossan’s thinking. For them, Jesus’ mission and message was about creating an inclusive, egalitarian community under God that posed an alternative to Caesar’s imperial rule by violence and coercion. Thus, Jesus shouldn’t be seen as a strictly other-worldly figure who wasn’t interested in justice in this world. Williamson affirms all this. But he goes further and points out that this-worldly liberation isn’t enough and that ultimate salvation is something that can be given only by God.

 

Jesus and the end: what if he was “wrong”?

In my post on Marcus Borg’s view of Jesus and eschatology, I asserted that if Jesus did expect an imminent supernatural in-breaking of some sort, then he was wrong, a conclusion that would disconcert many Christians.

This might have been too categorical of a statement. In his book The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, historian Dale Allison offers one way of addressing the issue.

Allison’s book is an attempt to draw out some of the theological implications of his study of the historical Jesus. Unlike Borg, et al., Allison thinks that Jesus was a “milleniarian prophet” who expected some kind of eschatological event in the near future. (See pp. 92-95 of The Historical Christ for a summary of the evidence that leads Allison to affirm this conclusion.) Allison pointedly summarizes the issue:

It is not just that, as Matt. 24:36 = Mark 13:32 says, the Son had no knowledge of precisely when the end would come. It is rather that the Son expected and encouraged others to expect that all would wrap up soon, and yet run-of-the-mill history remains with us: Satan still goes to and fro upon the earth. (p. 96)

So it would seem that, if Allison is right, Jesus was wrong about the coming of the Kingdom. What does this mean for us?

Allison suggests that our

widespread dismay arises in part…from a failure to comprehend fully that eschatological language does not give us a preview of coming events but is rather, as the study of comparative religion teaches us, religious hope in mythological dress. Narratives about the unborn future are fictions, in the same way that narratives about the creation of the world are fictions. (p. 97)

Just as we don’t have to suppose that the creation narratives of Genesis happened “once upon a time” for them to have existential and theological meaning, we don’t have to see the eschatological language of the Bible as referring to historical events that will happen in the future (whether near or distant).

Rather, the language and symbols of eschatology point to God’s trans-historical consummation of all things beyond the reach of suffering, death, and decay and can act as a critique of the unjust and inequitable status quo as it falls short of God’s will.

Allison is quick to point out that this doesn’t mean that Jesus or his followers saw eschatological language in this way. It may well be they meant it “literally.” However, he also notes that there is a process of “de-mythologization” (even if not necessarily fully explicit) within the New Testament itself. For example, the eschatology of John’s gospel has often been described as a “realized” eschatology that downplays the apocalypticism of the synoptics.

The point here is that, even if Jesus was wrong about not only the date of the eschaton but also the nature of the language he used to refer to it, we needn’t see that language as lacking a referent. It refers to the intersection–equally possible at every historical moment, but more palpably felt in some–of the transcendent and the mundane and the promise that God will redeem the evils and sufferings of this world.

Whose Jesus? Which eschatology?

(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.

Faith and factuality revisited

When I was reading Marcus Borg’s Heart of Christianity, I expressed some dissatisfaction with his treatment of the Bible. I felt like he wasn’t clear enough about the relationship between the meaning of the text and the question of its historical truth.

Recently I picked up Borg’s newer book on Jesus, and I’m happier with his treatment of the issue there. Maybe this is because he’s focusing on the gospels rather than talking about the Bible in general, which allows him to be more specific and concrete.

Borg makes it clear that the gospels contain memory–that is, remembered events, words, etc. in the career of Jesus–but that these are typically overlaid or interpreted with a particular meaning. For example, Mark’s account of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem isn’t just about Jesus going to Jerusalem; it’s also about the path of following Jesus.

Moreover, Borg says, there are other stories in the gospels that are probably sheer metaphorical narrative (Borg uses “metaphor” broadly to mean the more-than-factual meaning of a text) whose purpose is to comment on the significance of Jesus. Examples include, in Borg’s judgment, the wedding at Cana and the story of Jesus walking on the water. They also include the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, which Borg shows (convincingly, to me) provide a kind of “counter-imperial” theology that contrasts the claims made on behalf of Jesus with those made on behalf of the Roman emperor. (This is also a major theme in Borg and Crossan’s book on Paul.)

Borg’s point is this: whatever we say about the factuality of some of these stories, we can always (and should always) go on to ask about their meaning. The meaning is the testimony or witness of the early Christians to the significance of who Jesus was (and is).

I take it that the upshot of this view is that there is a historical “core” to the gospels, and this matters: if Jesus never lived, or wasn’t, broadly, the kind of person portrayed in the gospels, then Christianity would be based on a mistake. However, the meaning of historical events isn’t something that can simply be “read off” them. The New Testament is primarily about the meaning or significance of what theologians sometimes call the “Christ-event” (i.e., the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus). If we insist that the most important question about any particular story is “Did this really happen?” we often lose sight of the meaning the story is meant to convey.

The thorn in the flesh and the “weakness gospel”

I’m reading Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s book The First Paul, and it’s really good so far. I may have more to blog about the overall themes later, but for now I just wanted to note one interesting tidbit.

There has been a lot of speculation about the “thorn in the flesh” that Paul said afflicted him and from which he prayed to God to be delivered (unsuccessfully). (See 2 Corinthians, 12:7-10.) I’ve seen theories as to what exactly this was ranging from epilepsy to homosexuality.

Borg and Crossan speculate–and they’re clear that this is conjecture–that Paul may have been afflicted by bouts of malaria. First, they point out that Tarsus, Paul’s hometown, had an environment conducive to malaria:

Think for a moment…about that Cilician plain locked between the mountains and the sea. Think of its rich fertility and agricultural prosperity fed by three rivers that annually drained the melting snows of the Taurus range. Despite the best Roman drainage engineering, that environment also meant marshes, mosquitoes, and malaria. (The First Paul, p. 62)

Second, they suggest that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” refers to the same “physical infirmity” Paul mentions in his letter to the Galatians when he writes that “You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 4:13-15)

They propose that a chronic malaria fever, which would be associated with, in the words of Pauline scholar William Mitchell Ramsay, “very distressing and prostrating paroxysms” wherein “the suffering can only lie and feel himself a shaking and helpless weakling” (quoted on p. 64). If this is what Paul was experiencing when he was among the Galatians, we can see how it might’ve “put [them] to the test.”

Krister Stendahl, in Paul among Jews and Gentiles, has some interesting things to say about Paul’s “infirmity” and his theology of weakness. This humbling weakness, Stendahl argues, would have, in the ancient world, looked like evidence against the truth of Paul’s gospel, since salvation was closely associated with supernatural healing and immortality. However, for Paul, this “weakness” reflected the truth that God’s power is revealed in weakness:

[Paul] finds his weakness one of those things which makes him one with the Lord, and which makes his ministry a true ministry of Jesus Christ who was crucified in weakness…. In this weakness, the power of Christ’s resurrection spreads through the missionary message to the church and manifests itself. Paul’s sickness is a little–and perhaps not so little–Golgotha, a Calvary of his own. (Paul among Jews and Gentiles, p. 44)

Stendahl goes on to argue that, for Paul, this gospel of weakness resonates with what Luther called the theology of the cross–an anti-triumphalist message. “The theology of the cross,” Stendahl writes, “the theology of weakness, is really part and parcel of Paul’s deepest religious experience in a ministry related to his own weakness” (p. 47).

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)

Heart of Christianity 4 – God

In chapter 4, “God: The Heart of Reality,” Borg continues his now tried-and-true approach of contrasting aspects of the earlier paradigm and the emerging paradigm. Here he discusses the nature and character of God.

Borg calls the earlier paradigm’s concept of God supernatural theism. This concept identifies God as a transcendent, personal being who created the universe and may occassionally intervene within it to engineer certain outcomes.

By contrast, the emergent paradigm embraces panentheism, a notion that has received a fair bit of attention in contemporary theology, from such diverse quarters as Jurgen Moltmann, thinkers associated with the science-and-religion dialogue, and process theology. In supposed contrast to supernatural theism, panentheism emphasizes the “closeness” of God to the created world (pan + en + theos = “all things in God”).

According to Borg, supernatural theism sees God as “out there,” as fundamentally separate from the world, which largely operates according to its own laws and nature. For God to have any influence on the world, God must “intervene” by “breaking” those laws. It also, he says, has contributed to an ecologically desctructive view of the natural world by minimizing the presence of God in the world.

Panentheism, on the other hand, emphasizes the immanence of God. God is the “encompassing Spirit… the one in whom ‘we live and move and have our being'” (p. 70). God is thus not absent from creation, but includes it, even while transcending it. Borrowing a phrase from Lutheran theology, God is “in, with, and under” creation, or a “presence beneath and within our everyday lives” (p. 67). Borg says that instead of using the language of “intervention,” panentheism uses terms like “divine intentionality” or “divine interactivity” to describe God’s relation with the world (see p. 67).

A critic of Borg might well say that his description of supernatural theism is a straw man. For instance, what proponent of traditional theism has actually denied the immanence (or omnipresence) of God? Relatedly, it’s not clear to me that panentheism solves all the alleged problems of classical theism, at least not without a great deal more fleshing out than Borg gives it here–and it may introduce new ones of its own. Nevertheless, with the popularity of the slot-machine God of “prosperity” preaching and the all-determining deity of neo-Calvinism, fresh thinking about God and God’s relationship to creation is definitely needed.

Fact, metaphor, and the Bible: the case of the Resurrection

“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” – St. Paul

I’m trying to get clear on the extent to which I disagree with Marcus Borg’s take on the “metaphorical” nature of the Bible, so I thought it might be useful to look at his treatment of the Resurrection of Jesus.

Borg writes that he sees the “truth of the Easter stories” as twofold:

Jesus is a figure of the present and not simply of the past. He continued to be experienced by his first followers after his death and continues to be experienced to this day. It’s not just that his memory lived on or that his spirit lived on, as we sometimes speak of the spirit of Lincoln living on. Rather, he was and is experienced as a figure of the present. In short, Jesus lives.

Not only does Jesus live, but “Jesus is Lord.” In the New Testament, this is the foundational affirmation about Jesus, and it is grounded in the Easter experience. To say that Jesus is Lord is to say more than simply that Jesus lives. It means that he has been raised to God’s right hand, where he is one with God. And to affirm that he is Lord is to deny all other lords. (Heart of Christianity, p. 54)

Borg continues:

Because I see the meaning of the Easter stories this way, I can be indifferent to the factual questions surrounding the stories. For example, was the tomb really empty? Was his corpse transformed? Did the risen Jesus really eat a fish? Did he appear to his disciples in such a visible, physical way that we could have videotaped him if we had been there?

For me, the truth of the Easter stories is not at stake in these questions. For example, the story of the empty tomb may be a metaphor of the resurrection rather than a historical report. As metaphor, it means: you won’t find Jesus in the land of the dead. As the angel in the story puts it, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The truth of the Easter stories is grounded in the ongoing experience of Jesus as a figure of the present who is one with God and therefore “Lord.”

Obviously, a lot of Christians would disagree with Borg about the relative (un)importance of the details surrounding the Resurrection. But I think his is a reasonable position for someone to take. What requires a bit more clarification, I think, is the status of the Resurrection itself. And this is where I think the opposition between “fact” and “metaphor” muddies the waters a bit.

This is because, for Christian faith, the Resurrection is a fact in the sense that it is something that happened–an event that makes a difference to the way things go for the world. But it isn’t something that can be straightforwardly described using the language and concepts drawn from our run-of-the-mill experience. The Resurrection–like the other great hinges of the Christian faith (e.g., creation and final consummation)–is rooted in a Reality that goes beyond the mundane world of space and time.

Consequently, the language we use to describe it is, of necessity, metaphorical, symbolic, even “mythical.” We see this in the NT accounts of the appearances of the risen Jesus. He is “physical” in some sense, but his body also behaves in ways that are quite atypical for a physical object (changing its appearance, appearing inside locked rooms, etc.). Whatever judgments we might want to make about the factuality of these accounts, the paradoxical language points to the fact that the disciples and those to whom they handed their tradition took themselves to be dealing with a reality beyond the bounds of the ordinary. We could say the same about the other details Borg mentions (the empty tomb, the angels): they may not themselves be “factual,” but they point to a fact.

This is why talking about the Resurrection as “metaphor” could obscure some fundamental distinctions. Sometimes when people talk like this what they mean is that the stories of the Resurrection are just illustrations of some general “spiritual” truth, such as that new life comes through suffering or some such. But Christian faith stands or falls on something much more concrete and specific than that: that the man Jesus who was crucified lives on in the power of God and that this makes all the differences for our lives and for the world. As C.S. Lewis would say, it’s a myth (or metaphor) become fact.

Again, I don’t know whether or not Borg would disagree with this. But I think his discussion could’ve brought these distinctions out more clearly.