Monday, April 13, 2009

Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time

Review of Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time
Dennis Ingolfsland

Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time began with Borg’s personal testimony. It was a testimony about how Borg went from conservative Christian to closet agnostic to closet atheist, to liberal Christian. Borg’s transformation from closet atheist to liberal Christian occurred when, in his mid-thirties, Borg had a transformation in which he decided that God did not refer to a being out there, but rather to the holy mystery around and within us (Borg 1994, 3-9, 14).

The transformation changed how Borg saw Jesus. He began to make a distinction between the pre-Easter Jesus or historical Jesus—the Jesus devoid of all divine qualities—and the post-Easter Jesus or the spiritual reality his followers experienced. Borg began to see the Christian life as not about believing, but as about “…entering into a relationship with that to which the Christian tradition points, which may be spoken of as God, the risen Christ, or the Spirit (Borg 1994, 17). The rest of Borg’s book was devoted to describing Borg’s view of the historical Jesus.

In Chapter 2 Borg commented on the sources for the life of Jesus which included the synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas but not the Gospel of John since that was voted as unhistorical by the Jesus Seminar. After mentioning the Jewishness of Jesus and arguing against the reliability of the birth narratives, Borg presented his view of Jesus in 4 strokes. First, Jesus was a spirit person. Second, Jesus was a wisdom teacher. Third, Jesus was a social prophet. Fourth, Jesus was a movement founder. In characterizing Jesus as a spirit person, Borg compared Jesus to other holy men such as Elijah, Black Elk, Honi the Circle Drawer, and Hanina ben Dosa, who all experienced a nonmaterial level of reality (Borg 1994, 30-36).

In Chapter 3, Borg translated the words of Luke 6:36 as “Be compassionate as God is compassionate”.[1] According to Borg, Jesus thought compassion and not holiness was the dominant quality of God. Borg applied his insights to the issue of homosexuality, arguing that since the prohibition against homosexuality was found in the purity codes of Leviticus and that since Paul and Jesus shattered purity boundaries “…homosexual behavior should, therefore be evaluated by the same criteria as heterosexual behavior.” (Borg 1994, 46-59).

Next, Borg asserted that Jesus was a teacher of wisdom, and likened Jesus to Lao-tzu, Buddha and Socrates. As a wisdom teacher, Jesus taught a kind of subversive wisdom that challenged the conventional wisdom of his day. For example, according to Borg, Jesus taught his hearers not to see God as judge but as compassionate. He dismissed passages on judgment as later redactions.

In Chapter 5, Borg discussed the idea of wisdom or Sophia being personified in female form. He discussed how Sophia was with God in the beginning before the world began and how Sophia became associated with the creation of the world. Then Borg argued that the ideas about Sophia were applied by New Testament writers to Jesus, teaching that he was the incarnation of Sophia (Borg 1994, 96-108).

Borg concluded his book with a reaffirmation that Jesus was not the Son of God who came to die for the sins of the world, but rather was a “…spirit person, subversive sage, social prophet and movement founder who invited his followers and hearers into a transforming relationship with the same Sprit that he himself knew…” (Borg 1994, 119). Borg argued that to believe in Jesus did not mean believing facts about him, but rather giving ones heart to the post-Easter Jesus, the living Lord (Borg 1994, 137).

Unfortunately, Borg failed to present arguments for why his readers should give their hearts and lives to a post-Easter Jesus who, in the critical view, was simply a theological or even mythological construct of the Gospel writers.

[1] Borg simply asserted the “Be compassionate” (NEB, JB, SV) was a better translation than “Be merciful” (KJV, NRSV).