Borg on Belief

Week of Monday, April 2, 2001

In his best-seller Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994), Marcus Borg, professor of religion at Oregon State University and an outspoken leader of the Jesus Seminar, recounts how he was raised in a small town in North Dakota near the Canadian border. For his Scandinavian family their Lutheran church was the literal and figurative center of their world—religious, cultural, and social. Young Marcus grew up steeped in missionary conferences, Bible memory verses, youth groups, the creeds, hymns, and, as we might say, the whole nine yards of orthodox Christian faith of the 1940s.

Later teenage doubts begot anxiety, guilt and fear of divine wrath. By college, nightly prayers that God would save him from his unbelief had ended. Guilt and fear gave way to intellectual perplexity. Seminary illuminated his perplexities and led to a scholarly fascination with Jesus, but did little to nourish his faith. The “consensus opinions” of mainline scholars, Borg learned, are that we really can't know much about Jesus that is historically reliable, that much of the Gospel narratives were later, fictional creations of the early church that we know are not literally true, and what we can know is that Jesus was wrong about his central convictions.

All this, says Borg, had a “staggering” impact on his childhood image of Jesus. His unbelief deepened so much that he realized he had passed from mere agnosticism to actual atheism. He continued as a prominent NT scholar but with little or no belief in God.

But then Borg met Jesus again, for the first time, as it were. How so? According to Borg,

“Until my late thirties, I saw the Christian life as being primarily about believing...But...I struggled with doubt and disbelief. All through this period I continued to think that believing was what the Christian life was all about....Now I no longer see the Christian life as being primarily about believing. The experiences of my mid-thirties led me to realize that God is and that the central issue of the Christian life is not believing in God or in the Bible or believing in the Christian tradition. Rather, the Christian life is about entering into a relationship with that to which the Christian tradition points, which may be spoken of as God, the risen living Christ, or the Spirit.”
Invoking a distinction made by William James, what became central for Borg was a “first hand experience” with God through Jesus, not a mere “second hand belief” or bunch of arcane doctrines about God.

Borg is hardly the first person to despair amidst critical doubts. I dare say that if a Christian has not experienced some degree of doubt about the Gospel narratives, they have either not read them very carefully or thought about them very critically. But the “consensus” among NT scholars that Borg appeals to is not monolithic. I am reminded of Proverbs 18:17, “The first to present his case seems right until another comes forward and questions him.” For a robust but irenic exchange on the historical reliability of the Gospels, read The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (1999), by the liberal Borg and evangelical Tom Wright (canon theologian of Westminster Cathedral and visiting professor at Harvard).

What interests me about Borg is not his critical doubts but his rejuvenated faith. His book is appealing precisely because he moves beyond critical inquiry about the Gospels' historicity to discuss his own personal piety. But what about his central conviction that what really matters is first hand experience and not secondhand belief?

I think Borg is correct that what we seek, primarily, is a personal and transforming experience of the living God, and that, sadly, sometimes evangelicals espouse a salvation by correct doctrine, nitpick about arcane matters, major on minor theological points, and promote a bibliolatry of sorts. This is why at one of our Stanford faculty fellowships we encourage the discussion leader to share not merely ideas, however Biblical or orthodox, but to share the living experience of their Christian journey.

But that is very different than saying that doctrines or beliefs do not matter or that they are at best secondary. My question for Borg would be, how do you avoid agnosticism if you do not affirm at least some central tenets of faith—be they liberal or conservative tenets? In fact, Borg has not de-dogmatized Christianity of secondhand beliefs at all; his book is full of dogmas. They are just liberal beliefs instead of evangelical ones, and, believe me, he thinks they are not only important but utterly true in a sense that he judges evangelical beliefs are not.

In other words, I find it difficult if not impossible to separate the faith which believes (fides qua creditur)—faith as a verb, from the faith which one believes (fides quae creditur)—faith as a noun, the object or content of my belief. Borg seems to affirm the former but denigrate the latter. I want to enjoy the Borgian experiential cake but also the evangelical confession of knowing just what it is I am eating.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.