Friday, February 9, 2007

Religious pluralism

How can Christians accept Christianity as the way to God, and still give credence to the truth and reality of other religions?

By Marcus Borg

Religious pluralism is a fact of life in North America, and in the world. To absolutize one's own religion as the only way means that one sees all of the other religious traditions of the world as wrong, and dialogue, genuine dialogue, becomes impossible. Conversion can be the only goal.

I affirm, along with many others, that the major enduring religions of the world are all valid and legitimate. I see them as the responses to the experience of God in the various cultures in which each originated. To be Christian means to find the decisive revelation of God in Jesus. To be Muslim means to find the decisive revelation of God in the Koran. To be Jewish means to find the decisive revelation of God in the Torah, and so forth. I don't think that one of these is better than the other. You could even say they are all divinely given paths to the sacred. To be Christian in this kind of context means to be deeply committed to one's own tradition, even as one recognizes the validity of other traditions.

To use an analogy based on being a citizen of a nation, I can deeply love my own homeland, cherish it, feel that it's the best place in the world for me to live, and not want to live anywhere else. I can do all of that without needing to say, “Our country is the best one,” or “Our country has the only way of life that's worth following.” I sometimes think it would be good for us Americans if we could have a sense of what it's like to be Dutch. You can be Dutch and love the Netherlands and be so grateful to be living there without being preoccupied about being number one, being the best, and so forth. It would be very good for Christians to be able to love their own tradition deeply without feeling that they're being disloyal in saying that God is known in other traditions as well.

The cross and the crucifixion

What is the significance of the cross and the crucifixion of Jesus?

By Marcus Borg

First of all, I see the cross of Jesus as having a political meaning. Jesus was executed by the authorities, and if we ask why, the most persuasive historical explanation is because of Jesus' passion for the Kingdom of God, which involved him in radical criticism of the domination system of his day. The domination system killed him. On the one hand, the cross tells us what domination systems oftentimes do to those who oppose them. It tells us about the typical behavior of empires.

The cross in the New Testament also has a more personal and individual meaning as a symbol or an image for the path of transformation, for what it means to follow Jesus. It means to die and rise with Christ. We find this in Paul. "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." The cross there is an image for that path of spiritual and psychological transformation that leads to a new identity and way of being.

Then there's the cross as the once and for all sacrifice for sin. If we literalize that language, as … much of conventional Christianity has done, the only way God can forgive sins is if adequate sacrifice is offered: Somebody has got to be punished, and that person is Jesus. Also only those people who know and believe in that story can be saved. Thus, literalizing that language is a slur on the character of God. If you see Jesus' death as part of the divine plan, as part of the will of God, that suggests that God required the suffering of this immeasurably great man. It is never the will of God that an innocent person be crucified, and to suggest that is to suggest something horrible about God.

If, on the other hand, we understand the language of Jesus’s being the sacrifice for sin as a post-Easter interpretation of his death that emerges within the early Christian community, we can then see that, metaphorically, it's a proclamation of radical grace. The connection is this: If Jesus is the once and for all sacrifice for sin, understood metaphorically now, it means that God has already taken care of whatever it is that we think separates us from God. It means that God accepts us just as we are and that the Christian life is not about getting right with God. God's already taken care of that. The Christian life becomes about something else, namely, living within this framework of radical trust in God and relationship to God that makes possible our transformation, and, ideally and ultimately, the transformation of the world.

Believing in the creeds

I am uncomfortable with some of the doctrines professed in organized religion. Is believing certain creeds really what Christianity is all about?

By Marcus Borg

As I see it, being Christian is not primarily about believing a set of statements to be true. I think that's one of the distortions introduced into the Christian tradition over the last 300 years or so because of the conflict between traditional Christianity and the enlightenment of the 17th Century. [That conflict] called many traditional Christian teachings into question and had an unfortunate transforming effect on the meaning of faith. Faith began to mean believing difficult things to be true, which puts the emphasis in the wrong place.

I don't think God is concerned primarily about the beliefs in our heads, but about something much deeper within us. If one understands the beliefs of the tradition and the scriptures of the tradition not as what is to be believed, but as pointers beyond themselves that use the language of metaphor and poetry and symbol and so forth, then one can begin to see that the Christian life is about a relationship to the sacred. Christianity, like all the religions of the world, is a human construction. It uses human language, culturally conditioned relative language, and to absolutize that language is a profound mistake.

To be Christian, I would say, is to live within the Christian tradition as a metaphor of the sacred, and also as a sacrament of the sacred. The tradition as a whole has as one of its main purposes mediating the reality of the spirit or the reality of the sacred—that is, entering into a relationship with the sacred. It's about entering into a relationship with suchness, with is-ness. I think of God, to use very abstract language, as is-ness without limits. Our relationship to is-ness matters profoundly. It will shape our whole way of being in the world. If we see is-ness as indifferent, we will be concerned with our own self-protection. If we see is-ness as threatening, we'll be even more paranoid about life. But if we see is-ness as giving us life, it creates the possibility of relating to life in a non-threatened kind of way. That makes possible the lives of the saints.

Bible literalism

How can I know the truth about Christianity if I question the Bible's status as the literal Word of God?

By Marcus Borg

For people who are literalists and see the Bible as a divine product, having a divine guarantee to be true, if that set of beliefs isn't getting in their way, if it's not causing them intellectual problems, and if they're not using those beliefs to judge other people and beat up on other people, then I have no need to try to change them. The spirit can work through Biblical literalism. Most often, of course, it does lead to a division of the world into the “saved” and the “unsaved .” But basically, if a literalistic way of seeing the Bible is leading to a life that is more and more filled with the spirit and filled with compassion, I have no problem with people staying in that place.

But for people who can't be literalists and for people who are literalists and are fearful if they let go of [their literalism] then the whole thing falls into ruin, I would say that in one sense of the word know, we can't know that Christianity, or any of the religions, is true in the sense of being able to demonstrate it. One use of the word "know" in the modern period is something you can verify. In that sense, we can't know.

But we can take seriously a different kind of knowing. It's a very ancient kind of knowing. The ancients called it intuition. And, unfortunately, in our world, intuition is seen as kind of a weak thing. It's associated with women's intuition, a vague hunching or something like that. But the ancient meaning of the word "intuition" or “intuitive knowing” is direct knowing, a knowing that's not dependent upon verification. A synonym for intuitive knowing would be mystical knowing. There are people in every culture who have had what they regard as direct knowing experiences of God or the sacred. That kind of knowing is possible, and for me personally, it's that direct knowing, that intuitive knowing, that is the most persuasive soft data for affirming that God or the sacred is real.

Taking jesus seriously

By Marcus Borg

Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
March 15, 2001

So what does it mean to stand up for Jesus? What does it mean to jump up and down for Jesus? What does it mean to take him seriously? What does it mean to follow him?

Drawing upon my study of the historical Jesus, of the Pre-Easter Jesus, it seems to me that a life that takes Jesus seriously would have two primary focal points, and that is what I want to talk about today.

The first of these focal points of the Christian life is a life deeply centered in God, deeply centered in the Spirit. God or the Spirit was at the very center of Jesus' own life.

In my historical work, I speak of Jesus as a Jewish mystic, and I see this as foundational to everything else that he was. Now, what I mean by the word "mystic" is actually quite simple. Mystics are people, and they are known in every culture that we know anything about; mystics are people who have vivid and typically frequent experiences of God or the sacred or the Spirit--terms, which I use synonymously and interchangeably.

The Jewish tradition before Jesus is full of such people. According to the stories told about them, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, the prophets of Ancient Israel, all of these were people for whom God or the sacred was an experiential reality. These people did not simply believe strongly in God, they knew God. And once one takes seriously that there really are people like this, then it seems clear to me that whatever else we say about Jesus, we need to say that he was one of these--one who knew God in his own experience.

If we take Jesus seriously as a Jewish mystic, it also affects how we think about God or the sacred. It means that we need to think about God not as a person-like being out there separate from the universe, a long ways away, not here. But, it means we need to think of God or the sacred as the encompassing Spirit that is all around us, and that is separated from us only by the membranes of our own consciousness. A mystic like Jesus is one in whom those membranes of consciousness become very thin, and one experiences God or the sacred. Jesus invited his followers to a relationship to the same Spirit, the same God that he knew in his own experience.

How do we become centered in the Spirit of God? How do we actually experience what Jesus experienced? Well, the Gospels of the New Testament have many ways of talking about that, about The Way or The Path. One of the central images for The Way or The Path is what the journey of Lent itself is about.

The journey of Lent is about journeying with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem-- which is the place of endings as well as beginnings, the place of death and resurrection. It is the place where, to use an old word play, the tomb becomes a womb.

That journey of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem is at the very center of the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. We see it, perhaps, with greatest clarity in the great central section of Mark's Gospel. Three times in that great central section, which runs from Mark 8:27 through the end of Chapter 10, Jesus speaks of his own impending death and resurrection in Jerusalem. He says, "The Son of Man must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things. The authorities will seize him and mock him and scourge him and put him to death, and on the third day he will rise again." After each of those three predictions of the Passion, as they are called, Jesus speaks of following after him, of following him on that path of death and resurrection.

Lent is about precisely that journey. Lent is about mortality and transformation. We begin the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday with the sign of the cross smeared on our foreheads with ashes as the words are spoken over us, "Dust thou art, and to dust thou wilt return."

We begin this season of Lent not only reminded of our death, but also marked for death. The Lenten journey, with its climax in Holy Week and Good Friday and Easter, is about participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Put somewhat abstractly, this means dying to an old identity--the identity conferred by culture, by tradition, by parents, perhaps--and being born into a new identity--an identity centered in the Spirit of God. It means dying to an old way of being, and being born into a new way of being, a way of being centered once again in God.

Put slightly more concretely, this path of death and resurrection, of radical centering in God, may mean for some of us that we need to die to specific things in our lives--perhaps to a behavior or a pattern of behavior that has become destructive or dysfunctional; perhaps to a relationship that has ended or gone bad; perhaps to an unresolved grief that needs to be let go of; perhaps to a career or job that has either been taken from us or that no longer nourishes us; or perhaps even we need to die to a deadness in our lives.

You can even die to deadness, and this dying is also oftentimes a daily rhythm in our lives--that daily occurrence that happens to some of us as we remind ourselves of the reality of God in our relationship to God; that reminder that can take us out of ourselves, lift us out of our confinement, take away our feeling of being burdened and weighed down.

So, that's the first focal point of a life that takes Jesus seriously: that radical centering in the Spirit of God that is at the very center of the Christian life. Now, this radical centering in God does not leave us unchanged. It transforms us, and this leads us to the second focal point of what it means to follow Jesus, what it means to take Jesus seriously.

In a single sentence, it means compassion in the world of the every day. Slightly more fully, it means a life of compassion and a passion for justice. I need both of these words, compassion and justice, for compassion without justice easily gets individualized or sentimentalized, and justice without compassion easily sounds like politics.

Compassion is utterly central to the teaching of Jesus. As those of you who have read one or more of my books on Jesus know, I see it as the core value, the ethical paradigm of the life of faithfulness to God, as we see it in Jesus. Jesus sums up theology and ethics in a very short saying (six words in English). It is found in Luke 6:36 with a parallel in Matthew 5:48. "Therefore [very early Q material for those of you who like to know things like that], be compassionate as God is compassionate." The word for compassionate in both Hebrew and Aramaic is related to the word for womb. Thus, to be compassionate is to be womb-like, to be like a womb. God is womb-like, Jesus says, therefore, you be womb-like.

What does it mean to be womb-like? Well, it means to be life-giving, nourishing. It means to feel what a mother feels for the children of her womb: tenderness, willing their well-being, finding her children precious and beautiful. It can also mean a fierceness, for a mother can be fierce when she sees the children of her womb being threatened or treated destructively. Compassion is not just a soft, woosy virtue. It can have passion and fierceness to it as well.

To speak of compassion as the core value of the Christian life may seem like old hat to us, like ho-hum. But, contrasted for a moment to what some Christians have thought the Christian life is most centrally about, that it is really about righteousness--keeping your moral shirt-tails clean, avoiding being stained by the world--in that sense, the Christian life is profoundly different from compassion. In many ways, compassion is virtually the opposite of righteousness in that sense. Jesus, as a person, was filled with compassion, and he calls us to compassion.

Jesus was also filled with a passion for justice. This is probably the least understood part of the teaching of Jesus in the modern American church, and maybe throughout most of the church's history. It's because we often misunderstand what the word justice means or we understand it poorly. We sometimes think that justice has to do with punishment, with people getting what is coming to them for what they have done wrong. When we think that way, then we think that the opposite of justice is mercy. But in the Bible, the opposite of justice is not mercy; the opposite of justice is injustice.

Justice and injustice have to do with the way societies are structured, with the way political and economic systems are put together. Like the Hebrew social prophets before him, Jesus' passion for justice set him against the domination system of his world and his time. It set him against a politically oppressive and economically exploitative system that had been designed by wealthy and powerful elites, legitimated by religion, and designed by them in their own narrow self-interests. And the domination system of his time, like the domination systems of all time, had devastating effects on the lives of peasants.

Also, like the Hebrew social prophets, Jesus was a God-intoxicated voice of peasant-religious-social protests, not just protests against the domination system, but an advocate of God's justice. God's justice is about social justice. God's justice is about the equitable distribution of God's earth, and a passion for God's justice sets you against all of those systems designed by people in their own narrow self-interests to benefit the few at the expense of the many.

Indeed, it was Jesus' passion for justice that got him killed. That is why the authorities, the powers that be, executed him. The journey of Lent reminds us of that, too: that Jesus was killed; he didn't simply die.

In the 13th chapter of Luke, some Pharisees come to Jesus to warn him that Herod is planning to kill him. Jesus replies, "Go and tell that fox Herod [fox in the world of the Jewish homeland in the first century did not mean a sly, cunning, wily creature; it had more the connotation of skunk, go and tell that skunk Herod], that it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem." Then he speaks of Jerusalem. "Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets, and stones those who are sent to you." It is Jerusalem, of course, not as the center of Judaism, but Jerusalem as the center of the native domination system, of that economically exploitative and politically oppressive system that radically impoverished peasants and drove them to an existence of destitution and even desperation. Jesus is killed because of his passionate criticism of that system and his advocacy of the Kingdom of God. Which is what life would be like on Earth if God were King and the domination systems of this world were not. This is the political meaning of Good Friday.

To connect this back to compassion, justice is the social form of compassion. Justice and compassion are not opposites or different things, but justice is the social and political form of caring for the least of these. If we take Jesus seriously, we are called to both compassion and justice.

To move to my conclusion, following Jesus--the journey of Lent--means a radical centering in God in which our own well-being resides, re-connecting to a center of meaning and purpose and energy in our lives. It means a passion for compassion and justice in the world of the every day. The Gospel of Jesus is ultimately very simple. There is nothing complicated about this at all. It's taking seriously your relationship to God and taking seriously caring what God cares about in the world.

The Gospel invites us to stand up for Jesus, to take Jesus seriously, even to jump up and down for Jesus. If we are not there yet, if the moving of the Spirit in our hearts is but yet a faint stirring, then we are invited to sing along in silence. Even the songs that we sing in silence shape our lives.


God and the just society

Is the Bible a political playbook? Should religion be used to legitimate domination systems?

By Marcus Borg


Most of us don't think of the Bible as a political playbook. But running through the history of Israel, and then again through the story of Jesus and earliest Christianity, are two different political visions, both claiming divine authority.

Both stories, it turns out, have at their root a protest against unjust domination systems--and God's desire for justice for his people. This passion for justice is perhaps the single most important biblical theme. It is also the driving force for those who derive their political philosophy from the Bible.

The intertwining of religion and politics, after all, is not just about prayer in public schools, but about a larger relationship. Should religion be used to legitimate domination systems? Or does it leave domination systems uncriticized, by making religious life individual and private?

Or, maybe, God's passion for justice is the basis for standing against domination systems, and for the vision of the Kingdom of God.

This conflict goes back to Israel's origin. The story of the exodus from Egypt is her "primal" narrative in two senses of the word: her story of origins, and her most important story.

The Egypt of Moses' time was a classic example of a "domination system," the most common form of ancient society. In these societies, religion and politics were intertwined. They were oppressive, ruled by elites. Ordinary people had no voice. Economically, they were exploitative. The elites (1% to 2% of the population) managed to acquire half to two-thirds of their society's annual production of wealth, most of it produced by peasants. The consequences for peasant life were devastating.

Religion's role in the ancient domination system was legitimation. According to the theology of the elites, the king was God's representative on earth. He was often spoken of as "Son of God," "Lord," and even as divine. Thus, for royal theology, the social order reflected the will of God.

This is the world of Pharaoh and Egypt. The story of the exodus is the story of protest against and liberation from the domination system of Egypt. In the name of God, Moses confronted Pharaoh: "Let my people go." The exodus is an event of political, economic, and religious liberation. Its central affirmation: God is Lord, and Pharaoh is not. Religion, then, is the basis for criticizing domination systems.

Exodus is also the story of an alternative social vision grounded in God's compassion. For about two centuries after the exodus, Israel was, by ancient standards, a remarkably egalitarian society: universal land ownership, no monarchy, and no established ruling class. But soon we see the conflict between the lordship of Pharaoh and the lordship of God within Israel itself. Around the year 1000 B.C.E., a monarchy emerged in Israel. By the time of Solomon, Israel's third king, the domination system had been re-established.

The Israelite king was essentially a new Pharaoh presiding over a native domination system. Royal theology declared the king to be "God's son," whose throne God had established forever (see, for example, II Samuel 7:12-16). The great social prophets of ancient Israel--figures such as Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah--protested against this in the name of God's passion for justice. They were voices of religious and political protest.

The conflict surfaces again at the time of Jesus and early Christianity. Now the ancient domination system comes from Rome. Now it is Caesar whose power and control are legitimated by Roman theology. Caesar is Son of God, Lord, the Savior who has brought peace on earth.

Jesus proclaimed instead the Kingdom of God--what the world would be like if God were king, and the Herods and Caesars of this world were not. Early Christianity continued the proclamation by affirming "Jesus is Lord"--Caesar is not. Even the Christmas stories make this affirmation: Jesus is the Lord and Savior who brings peace on earth, not Caesar.

The root of this conflict between religion as legitimator of domination systems and religion as protest against domination systems is God's justice. Because the word justice has several meanings in American society, it is important to be precise. For some people, the word suggests the criminal justice system. The "Justice Department" is charged with law enforcement. But Moses, the prophets, and Jesus were not talking about criminal justice.

A second common meaning of justice is "procedural justice"--the concern that rules are fairly enforced and that they are the same for everybody. Procedural justice is important in the criminal justice system and in human rights--but it is still not the passion of Moses, the prophets, and Jesus.

Their passion--and God's passion--was for "systemic justice": a justice judged not primarily by fair procedures (though they are important), but by results.

Its opposite is systemic injustice. A results-oriented justice asks about the effects of a system. Does it produce an impoverished class? Whose interests does it serve? Are the structures of society funnels of affluence for the few, or channels of nourishment for the many?

You may ask: Why is the God of the Bible passionate about systemic justice? The answer is disarmingly simple. The God of the Bible cares about people--and the single greatest cause of human misery throughout history is systemic injustice.

Jesus: 'the way, the truth, the life'

If the only people who can be saved are those who know the word 'Jesus,' salvation is dependent on syllables.

By Marcus Borg


Is Jesus the only way to salvation, and is Christianity therefore the only true religion? Or is God truthfully and adequately known in other religions as well, so that Christianity is one of the great religions, but not the only way? It's a controversial issue that divides fundamentalist and conservative Christians from moderate and liberal Christians.

The verse most frequently quoted in this debate is one attributed to Jesus in John 14:6: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me." For many centuries, it has been the classic "proof text" for Christian exclusivism--the notion that salvation is possible only through Jesus, and thus only through Christianity. But is that what it means? Is that how it should be read? Most mainline biblical scholars don't think so.

As is generally the case with words attributed to Jesus in John, the verse does not go back to Jesus himself. Written near the end of the first century, John's gospel is the product of a relatively late stage in the developing tradition of the early Christian movement. Though all four gospels combine historical memory with metaphorical narrative, John is the most metaphorical and furthest removed from the deeds and words of Jesus. Put positively, John is the most symbolic of the gospels.

The first key to reading this text again is setting it in John's historical context. According to most scholars, the gospel was written late in the first century, in a setting of intense conflict between Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews. The setting is reflected especially in the ninth chapter of John, which refers to people being "put out of the synagogue" as the consequence of following Jesus.

In that world, to be "put out" from the synagogue was far more serious than being expelled from a Christian congregation or denomination is in our world. To be expelled from the synagogue meant no longer to be considered a Jew (or at least not an acceptable Jew). In a traditional society where most people lived their entire lives in the same village or town, it was a powerful social sanction. Those expelled faced social ostracism. Among other things, it disrupted relationships within families and with neighbors, and made marriage to "proper" Jews difficult or impossible.

Followers of Jesus were not threatened with such expulsion during his lifetime. At the earliest, it happened a decade or two after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. Thus, John 9 not only suggests an approximate date for the gospel, but also points to the historical situation facing John and his community. They were experiencing painful social ostracism by non-Christian Jews. As a result, some of John's community may have been tempted to return to their community of origin.

This is the setting for the words, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me." John was not thinking of all the religions of the world, but of the synagogue across the street. In effect he was saying, "Stay within the community of Jesus--don't go back to the way you left behind."

It is important not to see this reading of the verse as a rejection of Judaism, as if other religions are all right, but not Judaism. The verse is not an absolute pronouncement about all other religions or about all other forms of Judaism for all time, but a pastoral exhortation in a particular historical setting. In short, reading the verse in historical context relativizes it.

Yet the text may have a universal meaning as well. We see this by using a second key to reading the text again, namely paying attention to the text's central metaphor: Jesus is the way. A "way" is a path or a road to be followed. A "way" is not a set of beliefs.

So, Jesus is "the way." What does this metaphor, applied to a person, mean? We need to ask, "What is Jesus' 'way' in John's gospel?" Or, "What is 'the way' which Jesus is?" The answer is found in the movement or dynamic of the gospel as a whole as well as in a single verse.

If we look at the gospel as a whole, we see that from the beginning, Jesus' way leads to his death. This death is also, for John, his glorification. The way is the path of death and resurrection. If we look at a single verse, we read, "Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24). In short, for John, the way or path of Jesus is the path of death and resurrection understood as a metaphor for the religious life. That way--the path of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being--is the only way to God.

The same point is made in a story I heard about a sermon preached by a Hindu professor in a Christian seminary several decades ago. The text for the day included the "one way" passage, and about it he said, "This verse is absolutely true--Jesus is the only way." Then, he continued, "And that way--of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being--is known in all of the religions of the world." The "way" of Jesus is a universal way, known even to millions who have never heard of Jesus.

The way of Jesus is thus not a set of beliefs about Jesus. That people ever thought it was is strange, when we think about it--as if one entered new life by believing certain things to be true, or as if the only people who can be saved are those who know the word "Jesus." Thinking that way virtually amounts to salvation by syllables.

Rather, the way of Jesus is the way of death and resurrection--the path of transition and transformation from an old way of being to a new way of being. To use the language of incarnation that is so central to John, Jesus incarnates the way. Incarnation means embodiment. Jesus is what the way embodied in a human life looks like.