A few days ago, Marcus Borg died. You might know him as a controversial biblical scholar and theologian, but I know him as someone who helped me better understand my own faith. He died last Wednesday at the age of 72.
Borg became widely known during the mid-1980s as a leader of the Jesus Seminar. In 1985, a group of biblical scholars began meeting to discuss a new search for the historical Jesus. Over the last 150 years, several attempts had been made to ask the question, “What was the real Jesus like?” and, ironically for me, the first to cause a major stir doing this was Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer is often remembered as a great medical doctor who won the Nobel Prize in 1952 for his work in equatorial Africa, but he was first and foremost a theologian. His book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), caused a great stir for claiming that the life and thinking of Jesus can only be interpreted in the light of Jesus’ own culturally-based convictions, not ours.
But by the mid-twentieth century, it was decided that the historical Jesus was lost to us forever. The New Testament, it was concluded, is so filled with the thoughts and theology of the early church that it was impossible to know what “really” happened and who Jesus really was or if he even existed at all.
Then Borg, John Dominic Crossen, and other members of the Jesus Seminar approached the question of Jesus’ historical persona with fresh eyes. They became the object of much controversy as the group would “vote” on whether a verse from the Bible was actually said by Jesus or not. You can imagine how this was received by those who believe every word of the Bible happened exactly as it is written!
Borg became widely read when he published Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time in 1995. To be completely honest, when I first read it, I thought it was interesting but not that compelling. But my interest had been awakened, so when he came to speak at the Calvary Lenten Preaching Series here in Memphis, I made it a point to go listen to him. He was not a great preacher. He was, however, an outstanding lecturer and he piqued my interest.
Around the year 2002, he published The Heart of Christianity. I found it to be profound. He articulated for me much of what I have come to believe. He described this theology as “emerging.” He laid out a path to reclaim the idea of being “born again,” and he firmly explored the idea that Jesus preached primarily about the kingdom of God, not in the sweet by-and-by but the here and the now. Jesus’ use of the word kingdom was provocative to Rome and it got him killed. He prayed for bread for the poor and for relief of their debts. The focus was on this earth and not heaven. As Borg’s partner Crossen said, “Heaven is fine, it is earth that has problems.”
Borg’s other books continued to build on these themes. When he came to Calvary he preached along the same lines and I thought his preaching got better.
I often think about his focus on our having an “open heart.” This is what allows us to feel that we are near to God. There is nothing I want more than that.
When Borg became ill with pulmonary fibrosis. his lungs became stiff. There is no effective treatment. Breathing becomes very difficult. It is a hard way to die. But apparently he was very graceful in accepting his end.
He has one last book I have not yet read. It is very personal about how he has dealt with his own faith journey. I will be reading it soon. He caused many people who had turned away from their belief to understand that Christianity has relevance in the modern world. He clearly made his mark on the world.