Marcus Borg: A Collection of Tributes

Learn more about Marcus BorgDear Westar Community,

It is with sadness that we received the news of Marcus Borg’s death on January 21. Marcus Borg was a major contributor to the work of the Jesus Seminar in its seminal period.  In his career, he modeled the ideal of a Westar Fellow. Marcus ably bridged the gap between the academic guild and the general public. His books are cherished by Westar associates for their clarity and honesty. We at Westar will miss him terribly. Our sympathies go out to his family.

From Marcus

"Me and Jesus, the Journey Home"
Marcus Borg, The Fourth R

A few years ago I received an invitation from an Episcopal group in the San Francisco Bay area. “We want you to talk to us about Jesus,” they said, “and we want you to make it personal.” Nobody had ever asked me to “make it personal” before. Trying to figure out what to say, I wrote the words “Me and Jesus” on a page. I reflected on those words. What emerged was the story of “me and Jesus”—of what I could remember about Jesus from my childhood, adolescence, early adulthood all the way to the present. I see now that my “personal and academic pilgrimage” has been tied to the figure of Jesus from the very beginning...

Tributes to Marcus 

We have been overwhelmed by the number of tributes poured out to Marcus across social media, news sites, and blogs, a selection of which appears below.

"Much will be said, and deservedly so, of Marcus Borg’s career and contributions," wrote Westar Fellow Arthur Dewey. "No one can forget that his writings and lectures spoke to people far beyond the scholarly pale. But I cannot forget that notebook he forever carried to catch something unexpected, nor that shuttle ride to Atlanta’s airport, when he gently detailed his personal quest for his Christian roots. As he finished, I looked into that gentle face and found compassion again, as if for the first time."

Looking for a place to share your own response? We invite you to contribute here or on the Westar Institute/Jesus Seminar Facebook page, where there is already a growing collection of anecdotes, favorite quotes, and expressions of gratitude for his work.

Memorial to a Beloved Advisor, and Friend - Marcus Borg
Fred Plumer, ProgressiveChristianity.org

It will be impossible to ascertain just how big of an influence Marcus has had on the Progressive Christian movement, but I believe his biggest gift was the fact that he was a consummate teacher. It did not matter if it was one of his books, one of his lectures or if you were lucky enough to experience it, one of his quiet conversations, he always wanted to communicate in such a way you would get it...

My Friend, Marcus Borg
Rev. Barkley Thompson, God in the Midst of the City (blog)

Unlike so many other writers in the field of religion (on both ends of the spectrum), Marcus was humble. Once one of my parishioners asked him during Q&A, “But how do you know that you’re right?” He paused, looked at her thoughtfully, and said, "I don’t know. I don’t know that I’m right." ...

Marcus Borg, leading liberal theologian and historical Jesus scholar, dies at 72
David Gibson, Religion News Service, The Washington Post

Borg emerged in the 1980s just as academics and theologians were bringing new energy to the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus,” the centuries-old effort to disentangle fact from myth in the Gospels. Alongside scholars such as John Dominic Crossan, Borg was a leader in the Jesus Seminar, which brought a skeptical eye to the Scriptures and in particular to supernatural claims about Jesus’ miracles and his resurrection from the dead...

In Honor of Marcus Borg
Brian D. McLaren (blog)

Hardly the hard-bitten “liberal theologian” out to eviscerate Christianity of any actual faith, Marcus Borg impressed me as a fellow Christian seeking an honest, thoughtful, and vital faith, ready to dialogue respectfully with people who see things differently. ... Some friends of mine wrote about Marcus somewhat uncharitably on a few occasions. I remember a dinner where he asked me many questions about them, utterly non-defensive, sincerely trying to understand where they were coming from and how he could still seek common ground with them, something I wish his critics had done more earnestly with him...

Beloved Bestselling Author Marcus Borg
HarperOne, on Patheos

Marcus Borg was an internationally revered speaker and scholar who authored or co‐authored 21 books, some which were New York Times and national bestsellers. His books have won multiple awards and been translated into twelve languages. The New York Times called him, "a leading figure in his generation of Jesus scholars." ...

Marcus Borg Reintroduced Me to Jesus
Katherine Willis Pershey, Christian Century

Marcus Borg modeled how to doubt faithfully, how to believe rationally, and—most importantly—how to move “beyond belief (and beyond doubt and disbelief) to an understanding of the Christian life as a relationship with the Spirit of God.” Though his progressive take on scripture was anathema to many, to others it was a revelation...

Local Renowned OSU Jesus Scholar Marcus Borg Dies at 72
Anthony Rimel, Corvallis Gazette-Times

Borg’s scholarship was aimed to make Jesus a figure of the present that people can have a relationship with, rather than focusing on literalist interpretations of the Bible...

Marcus Borg didn't just study Scripture; he lived its message
Maureen Fiedler, National Catholic Reporter

I interview a lot of people -- wonderful people -- for "Interfaith Voices." Many are outstanding scholars and people of deep faith. But sometimes, someone really stands out. That was the way it was with Marcus Borg. Memories of my interviews with him came rushing back when I got the news that he had passed away on Wednesday...

4 Commandments for a New Christian History (Gnosticism series)

This is the final post in the blog series on Karen King's What Is Gnosticism? Up until this point I've followed along with King's critique of existing methods of doing Christian history. But of course no one wants to stop at criticism. The whole point of King's book is to encourage us to try out new strategies while mindful of past mistakes. In her final chapters King presents a range of experiments recent scholars have attempted, and gives specific advice for doing Christian history in a new way.

Credit: Pixgood.com

For today's blog, then, I have set her advice into guidelines, updated somewhat by the recent conclusions of the Christianity Seminar. Let's call them commandments, because we need to take them seriously for a while. It's too easy to sink back into what's familiar.

Guidelines for a New History of Christianity

  • Thou shalt not assume books of the New Testament are more historically important than other early Christian texts.

We actually don't know which texts came first, and in most cases there is healthy scholarly debate even around the exact dating of books within the Bible, ranging from within a couple decades of the death of Jesus to the late second century. Nag Hammadi and other texts have an equally wide range of possible dates of composition. Let's not confuse the theological importance of a text with its historical importance.

  • Thou shalt pick an audience.

Knowing your audience will help you decide how to choose what problems you tackle and what terms you use to define them. If you are a pastor speaking to a conservative-leaning mainline congregation, or a guest speaker at a Unitarian Universalist gathering, words like "gnostic" and even "Christian" might hold different meanings. Likewise, an academic writing a paper for New Testament scholars in one context maybe needs to take a different approach to the topic of early Christian history when engaging with classicists or patristics scholars. King quotes Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza on this point: "Scholarship, current and past, is always produced by and for people with certain experiences, values, and goals. Hence one must investigate the implicit interests and articulated goals of scholarship, its degree of conscious responsibility, and its accountability" (245, quoting Rhetoric and Ethic).

  • Thou shalt not seek the "origin" of "faulty" teachings.

First, what makes a teaching faulty? By whose standard? Second, all religions are derivative in the sense that they are all a mixture of traits of the religions that came before them. For example, Christianity inherited traits of Judaism, Greek mystery cults, and the philosophy and sciences of the times. If Christianity, even at its most traditional, is built upon the religious beliefs and practices of its predecessors, we shouldn't be concerned that non-traditional varieties of Christianity or related movements are somehow inferior simply because they also borrowed from other systems. Syncretism, writes King, "is 'an aspect of religious interaction over time'; it is about change, about the dynamics of religious beliefs and practices through time and across geographical and cultural space" (223, quoting Peter Van der Veer, "Syncretism, Multiculturalism, and the Discourse of Tolerance"). We must not assume truth always comes before error (228), or that truth is pure and unified while mixing is contamination (229).

  • Thou shalt become curious about ancient Christian literary production and social formation.

If you're not trying to find the "origin" of a religious movement, then what are you doing? You have a lot of options here. King (p. 190) suggests literary production and social formation. Let's become curious about how people invented and reworked the stories of their communities. Rather than saying we only care about the most original and earliest version of a text, let's become interested in what sort of community or person wrote a given text. For instance, who would want to take Paul's understanding of baptism as a ritual for Gentiles to be adopted into the people of God, and change it into a ritual for awakening the hidden, divine self? Both the adoption community and the divine-self community are surely interesting groups of people.

May we all go forth and re-tell the story.

This is the final post in a blog series on Karen L. King's book, What Is Gnosticism? This book formed the basis of the Fall 2014 Christianity Seminar in San Diego concurrent with the Society of Biblical Literature conference. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

Radicalism and Christianity

roots racine

As many people know, the word radical comes from the Latin word radix, which in French became racine, which means root. In French, Rue Racine can be translated to English as Main Street.

So, in effect, “radical” in its definition is not really radical. It just means the root or main meaning of something.

However, getting down to the root or core of something can be a radical act. If, for example, we want to get down to social equality, we have to enact justice. If the pathway to justice is blocked by cultural or institutional prejudice, then the activity of equality can involve social protest or other acts of civil disobedience. It is the history of trying to get down to the basics against those powers that block the way that has added “revolutionary” to the meaning of the word radical.

Faces of Radicalism in Christianity

The history of Christian radicalism is the history of theologians or theological movements attempting to get back to the root of the gospel despite and often against the institutional tradition of the church. There are many radical thinkers and movements in Christian history. Some we might consider conservative and some we might consider liberal.

Francis of Assisi was radical in his time (1182–1226). He understood the gospel to be about equality, identification with the poor, humility, and compassion. These were his root directives, we could say, and by them he practiced a type of Christianity virtually unheard of among his contemporaries: non-violent, inter-religious, and universalistic.

Martin Luther (1483–1546) was radical in his day because he stood against the institutional church and its corruption. His root directive was a proper understanding of and adherence to faith, scripture, and Christ. He translated the Bible into the language of common people and he denounced the autocratic powers of the Pope. Politically, Luther stood against the 1525 Peasant Revolt in Germany and was in this sense conservative. Yet, because of his scholarly approach to the Bible and his stance against the institutional church, he is commonly thought of as liberal.

A theologian who stood against Luther and with the peasants was Thomas Muntzer (1488–1525). He identified the gospel with the cause of social revolution. He accused Luther of believing in a honey sweet Jesus. Eventually, he was captured, tortured, and executed. Muntzer was politically radical in his time, yet his radicalism was rooted in apocalyptic vision. Today, due to his biblical literalism, we would likely call Muntzer conservative.

The Social Gospel

Though born in the 19th century the Social Gospel was the first radical movement in Christianity in the 20th century. It dealt comprehensively with the question of a revolutionary change in society. It was rooted in the Christian vision of the Kingdom of God on earth.

The Social Gospel was radical because it rejected traditional Christian moral teaching and traditional Christian beliefs. In the eyes of social gospellers, traditional Christianity was both otherworldly and irrelevant to the social crises of the day. According to Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), the doctrinal history of the church (concern for beliefs such as the incarnation and justification by faith) had hidden from the church the gospel of Jesus, which concerns the kingdom of God. The true point or aim of the Christian message is to reconcile heaven and earth, that is, to re-create earth as the dwelling place of God.

The Death of God

The Death of God movement, like the Social Gospel movement, emphasized this world and rejected the supernatural traditional of Christianity. It’s reasoning, however, was not directly related to the question of justice in society. Rather, it was a crisis in the credibility of Christianity in light of modern science and philosophy that ignited the Death of God movement.

The Death of God is an expression taken directly from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) who, in turn, drew the expression from G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831). In Nietzsche’s understanding the idea of God represents the long, transcendental or supernatural tradition of western thought. Simply put, unchanging and eternal truth rests up in the sky with God and is not to be found on earth. Nietzsche claimed that this notion of truth as otherworldly has died in our time. That is the death of God.

Theologians who took Nietzsche and modern science seriously also claimed that God had died in our time, but they linked this to a different image. Taking the key from Colossians, theologians like Thomas Altizer (1927–) emphasized the idea of kenosis or emptying. God in effect had left heaven or died to reside completely on earth. Indeed, there is no distinction between the earth and its history and God. This is a theology of radical incarnation: Altizer states, “It is [the otherworldly] God himself who is the transcendent enemy of the fullness and the passion of [hu]man[ity]’s life in the world, and only through God’s death can humanity be liberated.”

Concluding Remarks

Radical movements in Christianity usually come about in response to a perceived crisis, whether social or individual. Radicalism is significant to everyone, for human beings do not normally change their lifestyles except in response to a crisis. A medical doctor may tell us that unless we stop smoking or drinking, our life is in danger. The knowledge of that crisis can change us.

Radical is also an ambiguous word because it often means extremism. Sometimes what is perceived as extreme is right and just. Martin Luther King, Jr., was frequently judged extreme yet today his non-violent movement for racial equality is accepted internationally as a remarkable achievement. But other forms of extremism are dangerous and unjust. The racism that defined Nazi Germany and that continues to emerge in society today is an obviously harmful form of radical extremism.

In relation to Christianity and radicalism two points can be made. The first is that a radical person or movement often re-defines Christianity according to a basic insight. The second point is that the person or the movement is often responding to a crisis.

Today, the future of Christianity and, indeed, the future of God is a radical question with extreme responses. The extreme on the negative side involves religion with violence because such forms of extremism are based on the desire to control coupled with the fear of change. The negative and radical response to change is the use of violence to control. It is a type of religious psychosis or even sociopathology.

But a second extreme response can be judged positively. This is the response that sees a crisis and that knows change is inevitable. In the face of change, the response is to address root directives that can enable change for the good. Christianity, in its history, has examples of “good” radicalism when the inevitable of a new situation is faced with hope and courage.

The Modern situation for Christian theology includes vastly improved understandings of history—especially the history of the Bible, vastly advanced understandings of the universe, and vastly deeper understandings of human psychology. Add to this, a fourth: a vastly realistic understanding of religion as a human cultural creation. None of these major elements existed when the Bible was written. None were present when Francis of Assisi imagined his universalist form of Christian practice, and only an inclining of what was ahead was available to 19th Century thinkers still comfortably set in societies of male privilege. What all this means to contemporary, positive Christian radicals is the new challenge of re-imagining religion and, in this, asking a very difficult question: does religion have a future with humanity? Is it still possible to have religion or religiosity in a manner that makes a genuine contribution to the human future? Or is it the case that with the death of God must also come the death of religion for human’s sake?[divider style="hr-dotted-double"]

David Galston

David Galston, Ph.D., McGill University, is a University Chaplain, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Academic Director at Westar Institute, and academic adviser to the SnowStar Institute in Canada. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (2012).