Through Stained Glass: Debate and discussion among theologians

This semester, I am teaching a fourth-year seminar course for Religious Studies that explores the quest for the historical Jesus. Little can be known about the actual historical figure of Jesus. Much more can be known about the scholarship of the so-called quests, moving from the first quest of the nineteenth century to the third quest of the last generation, which has recently exhausted itself with various competing and different images of the person of Jesus.

One scholar who entered into this quest over the last thirty years was Marcus Borg, who passed during the third week of class at 72 years old. While Borg is not exactly a household name – how many theologians are except for the wrong reasons? – he was a liberal’s liberal, thinking and writing out of a modernist tradition, wanting to enter into a solid academic and scholarly quest to find and identify the Jesus of history, without dismantling the Christ of the church tradition.

A graduate of Oxford University, Borg taught for many years at Oregon State University. He served as Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. Borg was chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature and a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. As a member of the Jesus Seminar, Borg was one of those scholars who, in the 1980s, attempted to bring the historical Jesus quest to the realm of popular culture and to get people beyond the liberal Protestant church thinking about the figure of Jesus from both historical and faith perspectives. The Jesus Seminar generated much criticism for attempts to separate out the mythology of Jesus developed by the early church tradition from historical fact. Further criticism came forth because of this group’s methodology of determining the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings by voting and for its attempts to disseminate to a larger audience its findings and conclusions. Borg cannot be faulted for his very real, authentic and passionate attempts to reconcile the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith to make both relevant and meaningful to the modern world.

Author of more than twenty books on faith, the Bible and Jesus, Borg never faltered in his passion and love for the mysteries of faith, the life of faith, church and his own faith in God. While he demanded that faith and especially scripture be approached with the critical perspective born of the modern age, he refused to abandon his faith. Instead, in his writings, he sought to bring the latest critical findings to bear on the faith, in the assurance that it would grow, be changed, but still survive. Following the scholarly evidence where he thought it led, he painted a picture of Jesus as a man of the Spirit, entering into a unique relationship with God and inviting others to do the same. His contributions to theological and biblical issues have shaped church discussions on a wide range of issues and have prompted many ministers, lay people and congregations to start to re-think the way in which Jesus is understood.

Borg’s image of Jesus was rooted in Jesus’ Jewishness, but stripped of messianic claims. He argued that as a prophet, Jesus wanted to replace Jewish holiness codes with an ethic of compassion and love. Jesus was the quintessential man of the spirit, for whom the Spirit of God was an experiential reality. As a result, Jesus was “a mediator of the sacred,” offering an alternative vision of God and reality. Non-dogmatic in his assertions, Borg was open to debate and discussion with those of different perspectives. As the evangelical journal Christianity Today noted of Borg at his passing: “He patiently listened to all sides of the debates and knew the strengths of evangelicalism and historic orthodoxy, even if he pointed more often to weaknesses. Borg was the kind of progressive/liberal theologian who welcomed evangelicals to the table–as long as they would listen, as well.”  During one notable question-and-answer period following a presentation of his perspective of Jesus, someone asked Borg, “But how do you know that you’re right?” Borg famously paused and responded: “I don’t know. I don’t know that I’m right.”

I suspect we could do with more scholars like Borg, who are open and thoughtful, and who can both challenge our minds and nurture our souls. May he now rest in peace from his labours, knowing the words of the Bible he loved so well: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

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