Reviewed by Mike Christianson, Annapolis Monthly Meeting
Marcus Borg (PhD Oxford, spokesman for the Jesus Project, etc.) is Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University. Although he is not a Quaker, Borg's own experience of the "Light," together with his research into who Jesus actually was and said (as opposed to the gloss added by the early Christian church), seems to have brought him to a perspective toward Christ and the Christian life which is very close to the core of Quaker tradition.
In speaking of his experience, Professor Borg declares that:
...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 believing 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 spoke of as God, the risen living Christ, or the spirit.
Professor Borg challenges as "inadequate" typical images of the historical Jesus and their resulting images of what it mean to lead a "Christian Life". Among Catholic and mainstream (i.e., early- Reformation) Christians, the author's most controversial thesis may be his challenge to the most widespread image of Jesus - seeing Jesus as the divine savior.
The fideistic image of Christian life to which this most popular image of Jesus leads is almost totally grounded in the concept of faith - believing that Jesus was who he said he was and that he died for our sins. Many persons who are not sure what to make of the doctrinal claims about Jesus made by the Christian tradition nevertheless hold an image of Jesus as the great teacher. This image of Jesus leads to a moralistic image of the Christian life -"being good", seeking to live as Jesus said we should.
Professor Borg asserts that both of these images of the historical Jesus and the resulting Christian life are inadequate. He asserts that, primarily and ultimately, the Christian life is not about believing or about being good. Rather, drawing upon contemporary biblical and historical scholarship, Professor Borg develops an alternative image of Jesus, an image of Jesus which, in turn, supports an image of the Christian life grounded in our search for an experiential relationship with God: an image of the Christian life which necessarily involve us in a journey of personal transformation.
Although Professor Borg supports his assertions about Jesus with biblical scholarship, it is not scholarship which is the source of Professor Borg's point of view. The author notes how, in his mid- thirties and after years of biblical study, he had a number of experiences of "radical amazement", "moments of transformed perception in which the earth is seen as `filled with the glory of God', shining with a radiant presence." These experiences of God as the "awe-inspiring and wonder-evoking holy," "the tremendous, overwhelming mystery that elicits trembling even as it also attracts us in a compelling way," led Professor Borg to view God, Jesus and the Christian life in a fundamentally different way.
In the author's words:
....I realized that God does not refer to a supernatural being "out there".... Rather, I began to see, the word God refers to the sacred at the center of existence, the holy mystery that is all around us and within us....I learned that even though these [holy] 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. God was no longer a concept or an article of faith, but had become an element of experience. This transformation of my understanding of God began to affect my understanding of Jesus. I now was able to see the centrality of God (or "the Spirit," to say the same thing) in Jesus' own life. I began to see Jesus as one whose spirituality - his experiential awareness of Spirit - was foundational for his life. This perception became the vantage point for what I have since come to understand as the key truth about Jesus: that in addition to being deeply involved in the social world of the everyday, he was also grounded in the world of the Spirit. Indeed, ...Jesus' relationship to the Spirit was the source of everything that he was.
Professor Borg's portrait of the pre-Easter Jesus of history as a spiritual man (i.e., what we might term a "holy man", a person filled and almost totally connected with the Light after which Quakers seek) may be a very helpful resource when coping with the kinds of conceptual tensions intrinsic to Quaker meetings.
To the extent that we can view Quakerism and related late-Reformation, Spirit-focused movements as the third branch of Christianity, it is this spiritual aspect of the pre-Easter Jesus which may provide a perspective toward Christianity which can be shared by all Friends, including those Friends who do not qualify as "Christian" under the "faith" test of the Catholic and Protestant branches of Christianity.
By placing the idea of faith squarely within the realm of spiritual experience, Professor Borg provides important insight into the reality of that of God within each of us.
In this latest work, Borg skillfully integrates the biblical scholarship, personal testimony and analytical insight gained from seeking after the Light for many years. Friends will benefit from time spent with this small work.
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