Sunday, January 25, 2015

2015.01.25 Tribute to Marcus Borg—and Mom

Happy 102nd birthday, Mom. Thank you for having always encouraged me to try new things, to speak out for what I believed, even if they were all your ideas. To let you know, though, I have found my own convictions, many of them in favor of women having pride of place in all ways and in all places. That one was your idea, and I agreed. I bet heaven is full of women who now enjoy full inclusion in the wide embrace of Godde—you too!

So about Marcus Borg......  I think my mother would have liked his almost casual approach to big fat unmanageable theological concepts and his humble stance about his considerable scholarship and the mystery of God and Christ he wrote and spoke about— and admitted he didn't "know." Once he was asked by a listener, “How do you know that what you say is true?” After a pause, he said, “I don’t.”

When I first read Borg’s, Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time, I was thrilled that the Jesus I’d come to know through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, was acknowledged by a Jesus scholar of history and culture. I’d fallen in love with this feisty Jew of Nazareth, with dirt under his fingernails and dust on his feet, who spoke pithy, provocative wisdom in one-liners. Thanks to Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and John Shelby Spong, I knew Christ wasn’t just a figment of my own fertile,  idiosyncratic, prayerful imagination. And I fell in love again.

Borg was a Distinguished  Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University and the Canon Theologian of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. He was not ordained, except maybe by the Holy Spirit of Godde. Ordination is not a requirement for a canon. According to Borg’s wife, an Episcopal priest, to be a canon you only have to be a “big shot.” Boom, boom!

He died on January 21, 2015, at the age of 72, two days after the day we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. Both men were prophets of transformation, King for racism’s evils, and Borg, I would say, for the liberation of the Christian religion from “barbaric” ideas that denigrate the very heart of what Christian’s call God’s Love. What is loving about a God some call Father, who demands payment for sin through the death of a beloved son as a condition for reconciliation and forgiveness?  At a talk in March, 2013 at All Saints, Pasadena, Borg called this understanding of Jesus’ death “a destructive corrosive notion.” I call it devastating theology—unjust to God and humanity, just like racism, et. al.

Even as a child I thought this notion was “really dumb” and bet my own father would never even think of such a thing. I’d also had a very different foundational experience of a God I knew wasn't like this. This helped me discount just about everything I heard in church. But as a kid I was too busy memorizing and reciting all those elaborate Presbyterian definitions, for which I earned awards—little pins I still have. This I did for myself, not for God, although maybe God appreciated my earnest efforts, as any loving God would.

The payment-for-sin idea came in through Anselm of Canterbury in 1098, whose theology prevailed as doctrine, against the objections of his opponent Abelard. Abelard thought better of God and humanity. No wonder the late Madeleine L’Engle, author and faithful Christian, named her dog Abelard! Animals and people are God's gifts for us to love and be loved by— not to kill for God's sake.

The earliest Christians realized that animal sacrifice in the Temple was an offering, a gift, not a payment or ransom. Today, if we're generous, we sacrifice (the word means to make holy) money.  We carry it forward to the altar on plates at the Offertory, and it gets blessed, just like the bread and wine. Money serves grace, not the reverse.

When I celebrate Eucharist and say the words of atonement, I no longer wince, as I first did. (There are revised prayers now, but entrenched doctrine dies hard.) In my mind I change “for our sins” to “because of our sins.”  According to Borg, the word can translate “for” or “because.” And by God, Jesus surely died because of human sin. How often do we crucify Love? Daily I suspect.

I first read Borg in seminary, a little article on Jesus. This man has something, I thought, and watched for more Borg. His work enlivened my Christianity and refined my understanding of the God of grace I first trusted. Well, once I cheated and betrayed my own theology. I answered a canonical examination question about atonement theology, defending the traditional doctrine. I’d had enough trouble with the Church and wanted to get ordained. I wrote something icky I knew the examiners would love: Wouldn’t it make sense for a guest to wear the proper attire for admission to God’s banquet? (The proper attire would be Jesus Christ, lamb of God, sacrificed to save us— the ticket to get in.) I don’t know if any end justifies specious means, but I was so happy and proud to get ordained that I presumed on divine forgiveness. 

Experientially, and according to personality and circumstances, there are Christians of the First Person of the Trinity who directly experience the sacred in the Creator, and Christians of the second (Christ/Son) and third (Holy Spirit) persons. This capacious articulation protects me from being judgmental, or spiritually competitive. Borg identifies himself as a First Person Christian, having never had a direct experience of Jesus.

So, dear Mom, do you remember that once I asked you if you believed in Jesus Christ? It was at the peak of my Jesus zeal, and worried you might not even be a Christian, because all you ever spoke of was God. “Of course, darling,” you said, and that was that. Well, now you’re in the heavenly rest place of all our yearnings, and you might meet a man named Marcus Borg. If so, he is a First Person Christian, just like you.

Thank you, Marcus Borg.

P.S. I've read most all of Borg's work, also what he and Dom Crossan created together to illuminate for us the path of Christ lived by Jesus, the remarkable man of God. I plan to read Borg's latest and last book, Convictions.  Borg recently said that he gets suspicious if he meets someone of 40 who has several firm convictions, but if, by 60, one has no convictions, it might be time to worry. When I was 4, I had a conviction or two, connected with what mattered to me. By the time I was 40, I had no clear convictions, except one: to find a conviction, or two, and go for it.