An Odyssey by Marcus J. Borg
From 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.
Childhood: Growing Up with Jesus
I was born into a Lutheran family of Swedish and Norwegian descent, the youngest of four children. I grew up in the 1940s, in a town of 1,600 people in northeastern North Dakota, near the Canadian border. It’s a world that now seems very far away.
My dad owned a creamery, and some of the trophies he won as a buttermaker stand in my study as I write this. He and my mom both were involved in operating the creamery, and in community life too.
Church was important. “Our Savior’s Lutheran Church” was the center of my family’s life: Sunday services and Sunday School, Ladies’ Aid meetings with my mom, frequent church suppers, mid-week services during Lent, missionary conferences, and youth groups with names like “Lutheran Children of the Reformation.” Several of my uncles were Lutheran pastors, and friends and relatives often asked me as a little boy if I planned to be one, too.
So Jesus was at the center from the beginning. My early memories of him are scattered but vivid. I remember pictures of Jesus with sheep, and with children. I knew he liked children-that was a big message when we were kids. I knew you could pray to Jesus and even ask him to be present: “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest,” was our daily table grace. As a preschooler I memorized John 3.16 for a Sunday School Christmas program. The verse seemed impossibly long at the time: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Clearly, Jesus was important. As a child, I knew that he was God’s son, and that he had been born in a miraculous way. Indeed, I knew that he was “born of the virgin Mary” before I knew what a virgin was. My father’s voice on Christmas Eve reading the birth story from the second chapter of Luke as my family sat around the tree comes back to me still: “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” I also knew that Jesus died on a cross and rose from the dead, and that this, too, was very important. Easter mornings ranked second only to Christmas as festive times of the year. “Up from the grave he arose,” we sang, the notes ascending like Jesus himself.
The hymns of my childhood carry the most emotionally charged memories. Two in particular stand out. The first we sang often in youth group as well as in church:
Jesus priceless treasure, source of purest pleasure, dearest friend to me.
Ah how long I’ve waited, and my heart hath fainted, thirsting Lord for thee.
Thine I am O spotless lamb; I will suffer naught to hide thee,
Naught I ask besides thee.
In like manner, a second hymn combined praise and devotion:
Beautiful Savior, King of Creation,
Son of God and Son of man,
Truly I’d love thee, truly I’d serve thee,
Light of my soul, my joy, my crown.
I am tempted to see the course of my life ever since as living out the messages of these hymns. My whole adult working life, now approaching three decades, has been spent in the scholarly study of Jesus. As my wife Marianne says about me, “He’s been looking for Jesus all his life.” (Marianne, by the way, is an Episcopal priest. So I am married to a priest, which I must admit was not one of my childhood fantasies.) By the end of childhood, the ingredients of what I now call “the popular image of Jesus” were in place. I saw Jesus as the divinely begotten Son of God who died for the sins of the world, whose message was about himself, his saving purpose, and the importance of believing in him. John 3.16, that verse memorized as a preschooler, expressed it perfectly. “Believe in Jesus and you’ll go to heaven” was my childhood understanding of the Christian gospel.
I believed in that image of Jesus without effort. I now understand why it was so easy. I received this image in what I have since learned to call the state of the “first naivete” or “precritical naivete.” This is the childhood state in which we take for granted that whatever the significant authority figures in our lives tell us to be true is indeed true. But this state of childhood belief was not to last. The problems began not with Jesus, but with God. Some time in elementary school, my first theological conundrum occurred. I was puzzled about how to put together two different things I had heard about God: God was “everywhere present” and God was “up in heaven.” How could this be, I wondered? My young mind resolved the puzzle in favor of “God up in heaven.” I decided that “everywhere present” must mean that God could be anywhere God decided to be. God could even appear in this room right now. But of course, most of the time God is not “here;” rather, God is “up in heaven.” Unwittingly, my resolution of the perplexity reduced God’s omnipresence to a magical potentiality to be anywhere.
And unwittingly, I had taken the first step in removing God from the world. My solution involved thinking of God as a supernatural being “out there.” God became distant and remote, far away from the world, except for special interventions, like those described in the Bible. In my young mind, I was reliving the early history of the Enlightenment, the period of western intellectual history that removed God from the world, and that, among other things, involved the “disenchantment of nature.”
Adolescence: Doubt and Anguish
But I still had no doubts God was real. These doubts began in my early teens, and they filled me with anxiety, guild and fear. I still believed enough to be afraid of going to hell because of them. I knew these doubts were wrong and repeatedly asked for forgiveness. But I couldn’t stop doubting, and so my requests for forgiveness seemed insincere. After all, I had learned that true repentance included the resolution not to continue committing the sin.
For several years I prayed nightly with considerable anguish, “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” It didn’t help—or if it did, the result came twenty years later. My inability to stop doubting confirmed for me that I had become more of an unbeliever than a believer. Looking back, I also see that, for me at least, belief is not a matter of the will. I desperately wanted to believe and to be delivered from the anguish I was experiencing. If I could have made myself believe, I would have.
Unlike my earlier perplexity about God’s “everywhere-ness,” my doubt about God’s existence was not connected to any particular element in my belief system. It concerned the foundation of the system itself. I now understand what was happening: I was experiencing a collision between the modern worldview and my childhood beliefs. The modern worldview, with its image of “what is real” as the world of matter and energy, and its vision of the universe as a closed system of cause and effect, made belief in God increasingly problematic. I had entered the stage of critical thinking, and there was no way back.
And, of course, these doubts about God affected how I thought of Jesus. What does it mean to speak of Jesus as the Son of God when one is no longer sure who God is?
In 1960 I entered Concordia College, a Lutheran school in Moorhead, Minnesota. It was the Sputnik era, and I began college as a physics/math major, planning to be an astrophysicist. I soon discovered that I hated labs, and wandered into a double major in political science and philosophy.
As for religion, I began college with a conventional but no longer deeply held understanding of the Christian faith. The nightly prayers for belief stopped. I no longer believed enough to be frightened of hell. The fear and guilt had been reduced to a perplexity which I would occasionally, but no often, think about.
Then in my junior year, in a required religion course, I was exposed to the scholarly study of religion by Paul Sponheim, a brilliant young professor with a fresh Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. It was the most exciting intellectual material I had ever encountered. The course covered all the “big questions”: God, the nature of reality, human nature, sin and evil, atonement, ethics, the relationship between Christianity and other religions. It exposed me to the diversity of answers given by the intellectual giants of the tradition, ancient and modern: Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Schleiermacher, Barth, Bultmann, Tillich, Eliade. The experience was fascinating and liberating. The sacred cows of my inherited belief began to fall in a way that legitimated their demise. But it didn’t help me to believe. Instead, it provided a framework within which to take my perplexity seriously.
As college ended, the images of Christianity and Jesus I had received as a child were no longer persuasive or compelling. I had become aware that it was difficult, and perhaps not necessary, to take the Bible and Christian teachings literally. But I didn’t know what a non-literal approach might mean. My childhood understanding of Christianity had collapsed, with nothing to replace it. I had become a “closet agnostic,” and one who didn’t know what to make of it all. I come finally to my adult study of Jesus. I can see now that there are three phases to it. The first phase of my formal and serious study of Jesus began when I went off to seminary in the fall of 1964. It involved, to use a phrase borrowed from Isaiah and Paul Tillich, a shaking of the foundations.
Adult Study, Phase One: Deconstruction
I hadn’t planned to go to seminary. I was headed for law school and, beyond that, I vaguely imagined the foreign service, other government work, or teaching. But in my senior year of college, I received a “Catch 22” Rockefeller Fellowship: a fully paid year in a seminary, provided that one didn’t want to go.
And so, funded by Rockefeller money, I went off to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. I chose Union because of its heritage of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich (though neither was still teaching there), and its reputation for social ethics and activism. The small-town boy from North Dakota, who had grown up Republican, had been caught by the social vision of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King. New York City seemed the obvious place to act out my youthful heroism. For my first year fieldwork placement, I requested, and was assigned to, a non-white inner city church. The congregation was very kind to this naïve white kid from the Midwest.
I realized that the image of Jesus from my childhood … was not historically true. Moreover, I learned that scholars had been saying this for almost two hundred years.
In seminary itself, I had planned to focus on social ethics. To my surprise, Jesus moved center stage, thanks to a New Testament course my first semester. Taught by Welsh scholar W. D. Davies (said to be one of the two favorite students of C. H. Dodd, the premier British new Testament scholar of this century), the course focused on Jesus and the synoptic gospels, and I was there exposed to the central claims of modern gospel scholarship (mostly German, despite Davies’ British connections).
The effect was, for me, dramatic. I realized that the image of Jesus from my childhood—the popular image of Jesus as the divine savior who knew himself to be the Son of God and who offered up his life for the sins of the world—was not historically true. Moreover, I learned that scholars had been saying this for almost two hundred years.
This mind-boggling realization was based on the understanding of the gospels that has developed during the last two centuries. I learned that the gospels were neither divine nor particularly historical. They were not, as I had thought, “divine products” inspired directly by God, whose contents therefore were to be “believed.” And they were not “eyewitness accounts” written by people who knew Jesus and who sought to report what they had seen and heard. I was fascinated. In spite of the heavy workload assigned to Union students in those days, I did voluminous amounts of extra reading about the quest for the historical Jesus.
From that first semester came some central awarenesses about Jesus and the gospels. These realizations were, I think, the “common property” of most of us doing graduate work in the 1960s. Several remain foundational to my work on Jesus, though some have fallen away.
The first four realizations were about the gospels:
- The gospels are not primarily history, but “proclamation” (kerygma, as we learned to call it).
- The oldest parts of the gospel tradition are Q (a collection of sayings) and Mark (the oldest narrative).
- The gospel of John is highly symbolic and essentially not historical.
- Even the material in the synoptic gospels is the product of a long process of development, shaped by Christian communities during the time of oral transmission, and further redacted by the evangelists. Using them as historical sources for Jesus is thus difficult.
The next six realizations were about Jesus himself:
- Most (perhaps all) of the “exalted titles” by which Jesus is known In the Christian tradition do not go back to Jesus himself. He did not speak of or think of himself as “the Son of God,” or as “one with the Father,” or as “the light of the world,” or as “the way, the truth, and the life,” or as “the savior of the world.” Only two “exalted titles” might possibly go back to him: “messiah” (about which “cutting edge” scholarly opinion seemed to be negative), and “Son of man” (see “9” below).
- It follows that Jesus message was not about himself or the importance of believing in him.
- Jesus was an eschatological figure. He expected “the end of the world” in his own generation. This expectation was quite literal, involving the coming of the Kingdom of God “in power,” the gathering of the elect, and judgment. This expectation was central, not peripheral, to shaping and animating Jesus’ ministry and message. This point, along with the next three, has fallen away as a foundation to my work.
- His central message was the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God, understood eschatologically.
- Jesus also spoke of “the coming of the Son of man,” whose advent would be associated with end of the world events. Scholars were divided about whether he was referring to himself (that is, to his own future role), or whether he was speaking about a figure other than himself (that is, though he expected “the coming of the Son of man,” he did not identify himself with that figure).
- Finally, we cannot know much about Jesus. Any very specific claim about him is highly problematic.
The news that “the Jesus of history” (as I learned to call him) was very different from the Jesus I had heard about growing up in the church seemed important to me. It also seemed vaguely scandalous, and something I shouldn’t tell my mother about. But I was hooked.
Through a fortunate set of circumstances, with money from the Danforth Foundation, I was able to spend my second year of graduate study at Oxford, working primarily with the British New Testament scholar George Caird. Caird was impressive. One of the most popular lecturers at Oxford, he was brilliant and dramatic. In individual tutorials, he was formidable, and from him I learned the difference between working with secondary sources (and thus commenting on what others have said), and working with primary sources (and thus needing to figure out what I make of them myself). I was also exposed to the quite different perspective of British New Testament scholarship, which sometimes seemed “quaint,” but which also resisted some of the “accepted conclusions” of German scholarship. British scholars generally thought we could know some things about Jesus. Moreover, Caird regularly challenge the eschatological understanding of Jesus which otherwise, it seemed to me, dominated the discipline.
After my year at Oxford, at the mature age of 24, I returned to Concordia, my undergraduate school, to teach in the religion department for a year. It was 1966, the Vietnam War was heating up, college enrollments were mushrooming, there was shortage of teachers, and one year stretched into three. Looking back, I am somewhat amazed at my naivete and boldness as a 24-year-old college teacher. The awarenesses I had acquired in graduate school meant that I taught what might be called “the destructive side” of biblical criticism, the deconstruction of a way of seeing.
Phase Two: Jesus and Politics
Oxford had been magic. And so, when the opportunity arose to return to Oxford for my doctor’s degree (with Caird as my supervisor), I did so with enthusiasm. My return marked the beginning of a second phase in my understanding of Jesus, a phase that was to last for about ten years. During this phase I focused on what I call “the politics of Jesus,” that is, the relationship of Jesus’ teaching and activity to the social and political dynamics of his world. The result was my 1972 thesis “Conflict as a Context for Interpreting the Teaching of Jesus,” which was the germ for my 1984 book Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus. Both focused on the conflict between Jesus and the purity system of his day, with emphasis upon table fellowship, tithing and other purity laws, and the future of the temple (the center of the purity system). Both portrayed Jesus as passionately concerned about the “shape” of his society: he was a radical critic of the cultural paradigm (or core value) shaping his social world, and an advocate of an alternative social vision for Israel. I saw him advocating a politics of compassion in a social world dominated by a politics of purity, an emphasis that still strikes me as central.
Several factors contributed to the political focus of my second phase. There was Caird himself: one of his persistent interests was the relationship between the mission and message of Jesus and the social-political environment of first-century Jewish Palestine. My thesis topic came directly from a question he asked me one day. “Let’s assume,” he asked, “that the Pharisees were neither evil nor hypocrites—what then was the conflict between them and Jesus all about?” And as a product of the 1960s (both halves of the decade), I brought a political consciousness to my study of the Jesus tradition.
Perhaps the most important factor, though, was the deepening of my closet agnosticism. Through graduate school and my early years of teaching, my unbelief grew. The “closet agnostic” was becoming the “closet atheist,” though I never acknowledged that to anybody. The central problem was still the collision that had begun in adolescence between God and the modern worldview, between my image of God and the image of reality I had hardened into a taken-for-granted map of reality. Indeed, I didn’t even think of it as a map, but simply as “the way things are.”
Moreover, the longer I studied the Christian tradition, the more transparent its human origins became. Religions in general (including Christianity) appeared to be manifestly cultural products. I could see how their readily identifiable psychological and social functions served human needs and cultural ends. The notion that “we made it all up” was somewhat alarming, but increasingly compelling.
And so, though I found the study of Jesus and the Christian tradition rich and rewarding, the bottom line was that I finally did not know what to do with the notion of God. On the whole, I thought there probably was no such reality. This uncertainty affected my research on Jesus: my focus on “the politics of Jesus” enabled me to study those parts of the tradition that made sense apart from “the God question.”
Phase Three: Jesus and the Spirit
The beginning of the third phase involved a confluence of events. The first was quite personal: in my early thirties I got divorced and at the same time left my (tenured) teaching position at Concordia, where I had again returned after finishing my degree at Oxford. In an important sense, this also meant leaving the world of the church in which I had lived since childhood. For about a decade afterward, I lived “in exile,” not much involved in the life of the church. And I was no longer teaching in a church-related institution: I moved to Carleton College in 1976 and to Oregon State University in 1979. Among other things, this secular shift meant that I had to learn to speak of Jesus in a non-Christian setting.
The second set of events was the most decisive. In my early to mid-thirties, I had a number of experiences of what I now recognize as “nature mysticism.” (Note that the ironic sequence of my leaving the church and starting to have religious experiences should not be considered a “religious recipe.”) In a sense, these experiences were nothing spectacular, at least not compared with those described by William James almost a century ago in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience. Yet the experiences fundamentally changed my understanding of God, Jesus, religion, and Christianity. They were marked by what the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel calls “radical amazement.”
They were moments of transformed perception in which I saw the earth as “filled with the glory of God,” shining with a radiant presence. They were also moments of connectedness in which I felt my linkage to what is. They seemed similar to Rudolf Otto’s description of experiences of the “numinous,” the awe-inspiring and wonder-evoking “holy,” the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (the tremendous mystery that elicits trembling even as it also attracts us in a compelling way). They involved a rediscovery of mystery—not an intellectual mystery, but an experience of holy mystery. These experiences, besides being ecstatic, were for me “ah ha” moments. They gave me a new understanding of the meaning of the word “God.” I realized that “God” does not refer to a supernatural being “out there” (which is where I had put God ever since my childhood musings about God “up in heaven”). Rather, I began to see the word “God” refers to “the sacred” at the center of existence, the “holy mystery” which is all around us and within us. God is the non-material ground and source and presence in which, to cite words attributed to Paul by the author of Acts, “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
These experiences coincided with a third factor that gave me an intellectual framework for thinking about them. In 1976 I was offered a teaching position at Carleton College which involved, among other things, teaching an introductory course in world religions. I had never even had a course in non-Christian religions, to say nothing of teaching one. I gulped, said “yes,” and began reading.
My reading (and teaching) took me into an exploration of mystical and non-mystical forms of religious experience in both western and non-western religions. I learned that, even though these experiences are extraordinary, they are also quite common, known across cultures, throughout history, and into the present time. Gradually it became obvious to me that God—”the sacred,” “the holy,” the numinous—was real. “The sacred” was no longer a problematic reality “somewhere else,” but a reality “right here” and “everywhere.”
I also learned that there are, across cultures, people who experience “the sacred” frequently and vividly. Some of them become “mediators of the sacred” in a variety of ways, often including healings. This type of religious personality was common enough to have a technical name: “holy man” (or in the gender-inclusive phrase I use, “Spirit person”). For such person, God is not a concept or a belief, but an experiential reality.
The combination of these developments produced the third phase in my study of Jesus. They provided an additional context in which to see Jesus. The second phase had been marked by seeing Jesus in the context of his social world (including the context of Judaism). To this, the third phase added seeing Jesus in the context of religious experience, as that experience is known through the disciplines of religion and psychology, the history of religions, and cultural anthropology.
The context of religious experience, studied within both an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural framework, has deeply affected my understanding of Jesus. I can now take seriously those texts that speak of the centrality of God (or “the Spirit”) in Jesus’ own life. If one grants the phenomenon of the “Spirit person,” it is obvious that Jesus was one of these figures, for whom the experiential awareness of “Spirit” was foundational for his life. Though we cannot be precise about the nature of his experience, it seems to fall somewhere on the continuum from mystic to shaman, with elements of the Enlightenment experience as well.
This perception has become central for me. Jesus’ experiential relationship to the Spirit seems to be the source of all that he was: his perspective as an “Enlightened One” who taught a subversive and alternative wisdom, his powers as a healer, and his passion and courage as a social prophet and movement founder who challenged the purity system of his day with a social vision grounded in the compassion of God.
I am still in this third phase. Whether there will be a fourth phase, I do not know. I do know that this third phase has enabled me to glimpse what a remarkable figure Jesus was. Like Socrates, he was a teacher of a subversive wisdom who taught in his own way that the unexamined life is not worth living. Like the Buddha, he had an Enlightenment experience and taught the life of not-grasping and the life of compassion. Like a shaman, he was a healer. Like Gandhi, he protested against a purity system, deliberately siding with marginals and outcasts. And thus he was also like the classical prophets of Israel, concerned with the shape of society and criticizing the elites. He was a most remarkable man.
Finally, my personal journey has led back into the church. My decade-long self-exile ended about ten years ago. Since then I have become more and more involved in the life of the church and in my own Christian journey. My exile ended because of my religious experiences, and because of my desire to be part of a tradition and community, which celebrated and mediated the reality of the Spirit.
But it is an understanding of Christianity (and Jesus) quite different from the one I acquired as a child. When I was a child, I thought that being a Christian was about “believing,” and belief was no problem. When I was an adolescent and young adult, I struggled with trying to believe, and finally was no longer able to do so. Now I see that it is not a question of belief, and there is much that I do not believe. I do not believe that Christianity is the only way of salvation, or that the Bible is the revealed will of God, or that Jesus was the unique Son of God. Rather, I now see that the Christian tradition—including its claims about Jesus—is not something to be believed, but something to be lived in. I see that Bible and the tradition as “icons,” mediators of the sacred. The point is not to believe them, but to be in relationship to that which they mediate: God, the Spirit, the sacred. My own journey has thus been “beyond belief.” It has moved from belief through doubt and disbelief to relationship. For me, to be a Christian is to be part of a community that tells these stories and sings these songs. It feels like home.
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