Heart and Home: Being Christian in an Age of Religious Pluralism

Week 11 of 12 | The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg

What do Stephen Curry, Buster Posey, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Joe Pavelski have in common?  They are all leaders of their respective teams, and they are all incredible athletes.  Next question: who among them is the best?  It’s a ludicrous question, of course, that cannot be adequately answered without clarifying what activity we’re talking about.  Basketball? Baseball? Football? Hockey? Sports in general? We can quickly recognize that it may not be fair to compare these players to each other since their respective games are played and scored differently.  They all play to win, but they play according to the rules of the game they play.

What do Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed have in common?  They are all founders of four of the largest, enduring religions in the world. Note: Hinduism dwarfs Judaism, but has no single founder. Rather, it is a synthesis of various Indian cultures and traditions.  Who among the four are the best?

The way we are accustomed to think about religion is to declare one the winner, or one as “true”, and the others as false, as “losers”.  Borg refers to this as the absolutist understanding of religion.  Christian Fundamentalism and its child Evangelicalism are built on the absolutist understanding of religion, and therefore take very seriously the work of converting people to Christianity as a means of saving people from what they deem as a false religion and the hell from which it stems and to which it leads.

Casual bystanders witnessing this passionate proselytizing pursuit are rejecting this absolutionist perspective in increasing numbers and accelerating speed.  Like Ricky Gervais, they see the surface argument in similar terms as my sports star analogy and throw up their hands – they walk away from both God and religion because the latter doesn’t seem to connect them to the former. They toss the whole thing as rubbish.  Borg refers to this as the Reductionist understanding of religion. Perhaps, then, using the same logic, they should also throw aside all sports since they all play by different rules.

But that’s not fair to Steph, Buster, Jimmy, and Joe; and certainly not to Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed, either. It’s way too simplistic in its understanding of religions, and far too hasty in its reaction to dismiss them all.

There is another way to understand religions of the world. Borg refers to it as the Sacramental approach.  This perspective recognizes that each of the world’s enduring religions were developed by human beings in response to their experience of the “More” – aka God, the Divine, the Ground of Being.  The purpose of the religions was to connect humanity with the sacred in their time, place, and with their language, stories, worldview and traditions.  Because they were created in their respective contexts, they sound different from each other, and only in the most general respects are they similar. That’s why the Reductionist approach goes too far – or actually not far enough – saying that religions all say the same thing.  They don’t – they are as unique as their origins. Different religions are trying to “win” at mediating the divine within their respective contexts as different sports offer contextualized games with the goal of winning in their particular way. Rather than seeing religions as in competition with each other, Borg sees them helping each other: “Understanding other religions can enrich our understanding of Christianity and what it means to be Christian. Religious pluralism can help us to see our own tradition better.”

In this “Religion as Sacrament” vein, the enduring religions of the world are viewed as such:

1.       Religions are human creations…

2.       … in response to experiences of the sacred

3.       Religions are “cultural-linguistic traditions”

4.       Enduring religions are “wisdom traditions”

5.       Religions are aesthetic traditions

6.       Religions are communities of practice

7.       Religions are communities of transformation

While the enduring religions of the world are different one to the other, they also share these following attributes in common:

1.       They all affirm the more, the real, the sacred

2.       They all affirm a path of transformation

3.       They all provide practices for the journey

4.       They all extol compassion: life’s primary virtue

5.       They all contain collections of belief/teaching

Some use the example of various paths leading up the same mountain.  Christians who have adopted the absolutist view balk at the analogy, saying that the other religions don’t adequately deal with sin, or don’t even refer much to heaven, therefore they are inferior to Christianity. Borg offers a different version of the analogy, however.  Each path originates from its particular place on the base of the mountain, with all of its contextual influences.  Each path makes its way toward the top of the mountain where the clouds cover the peak.  The path doesn’t take you to heaven, it takes you to the Divine, God, the Greater Other, the Higher Power.  Winning isn’t defined by which formula gets you into heaven.  As sacramental vehicles, success is ushering adherents into the Presence of God.

A normal, natural question in response might be, why bother with religion at all?  Why not just be spiritual and call it good?  Borg suggests that religions still play a crucial role in our spiritual pursuit.  “Religion,” he says, “is to spirituality as institutions of learning are to education.”  Can you learn apart from the institutions?  Sure.  But you’ll likely learn more, faster, with the external forms of religion helping you.  The wisdom, rituals, practices and collections of beliefs serve as vessels of spirituality, mediators of the sacred and the way.  Without them, I believe you will get stuck and miss  out on much of what is offered: both in terms of understanding the Divine and the fuller experiences of life.

Another question might be, what about the statements attributed to Jesus that appear to support an exclusive understanding of Christianity as the only legitimate religion?  Borg suggests that we see and hear such words as those communicating truth and devotion.  For Jesus and his early followers, following Jesus was the only way that resonated with them, was the object of their devotion, and was the center of their message of hope.  Borg noted that we may use similar language when referring to our “home” – our dwelling or perhaps the geographical place we live or our country.  We speak with absolute devotion about our “home”, articulating the truths of its splendor to whoever will listen.  But, as Borg notes, loving our home deeply doesn’t make it superior to someone else’s home.  They can love and have their home wherever they are.

There is a beautiful song sung to the tune Finlandia that communicates this reality.  Imagine replacing references to nations, lands, and countries with religion, faith, etc.  Below are the lyrics, and here is the song beautifully sung.

This Is My Song (Finlandia)

This is my song, O God of all the nations
A song of peace, for lands afar & mine
This is my home, the country where my heart is
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine

My country's skies are bluer than the ocean
And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine
This is my song, O God of all the nations
A song of peace for their land and for mine

The Dalai Lama was asked by a Christian if she should convert to Buddhism.  He told her, “No. Instead, become a very good Christian.”  Borg recalled a wisdom saying: “If you desire water, you are better off digging one well 60 feet deep than six wells ten feet deep.”  It is good and wise to respect different traditions and religions.  It is also good and wise to go deep with the one that is most “home” – for the overwhelming majority of people in the United States who are already familiar with the Christian tradition, this is a well worth digging into.  You are likely to find a spring that offers living water that will never run dry.

Borg ends his book with this, as part of his answer to why he is a Christian: At the heart of Christianity is the way of the heart – a path that transforms us at the deepest level of our being.  At the heart of Christianity is the heart of God – a passion for our transformation and the transformation of the world. At the heart of Christianity is participating in the passion of God.

I am, and certainly plan to remain, a devoted Christian.  Christianity mediates the sacred well for me and so many others.  With it’s guide I am ushered into the Loving Presence of the Divine, guided to love and be loved, and compelled to be used by God to be an agent of restoration, renewal, and even resurrection in this very good world we call home.

What about you?  Where is your “home”?  How deep is your well?

The Heart of the Matter: Practice

Week 10 of 12 | The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg

Just like riding a bike… When did you learn to ride a bike?  When was the last time you rode a bike?  Why did you ride a bike?  Why do you now, or why don’t you anymore?  My guess is that most of you reading this are very occasional riders, and do so for pleasure, not transportation.  It’s a relaxing thing to do when it’s not too hot or cold, not too windy, and you are in just the right mood.  You and I are not Danny Macaskill, for instance, who recorded one of his more impressive rides on the Isle of Sky, Scotland (get your mind blown here).  Danny Macaskil didn’t tackle that ride the same week he learned to ride a bike.  He was able to achieve that level of mastery over years of hard work and practice, working through mistakes and the injuries that came with them.  Learning new techniques while unlearning ways that no longer work for the rides he takes.

Faith is like that.  We don’t commit ourselves to God in one moment and discover we’re saints the next day or week.  Those with deep, growing, maturing faith have worked hard to develop it over time.  They have worked through mistakes they’ve made and the injuries that came with them.  They learned new ways of being while letting go of ways that no longer work for the faith they’ve grown into.  In the tenth chapter of The Heart of Christianity, Borg gets down to the nitty gritty: he writes about practices that help faith develop.  He notes a lot of things, including making church attendance a regular part of your life rhythm (for a range of good reasons), and especially encourages getting involved in justice issues that surround us.

I want to get practical as well, but instead of using Borg’s metric, I’d prefer to look at CrossWalk’s.  We designed our belief statement to be a behavior statement as well, a picture of what we’re trying to embody individually and as a community of faith.  Not surprisingly, there is plenty of overlap between the substance of what I am writing and what Borg wrote: we are both trying to get at the same thing.  We are trying to paint a picture of what a well-rounded faith looks like so that we have a clue whether or not we’re on the right track or, if we’re just beginning, a clue where to start and where it’s leading.

Be aware of potential tensions that may emerge as you read and as you strive to live your faith.  First, settle the issue in your mind that your favor with God in no way whatsoever is contingent on how well you develop your faith.  You are loved fully, unconditionally, and eternally by God.  It is impossible for God to be God and not love you.  Therefore, you are not trying to earn your way into anything or any status: you already have it.

Second, be aware of the “tyranny of the shoulds,” a phrase that originated with one of the shaping voices of modern psychology, Karen Horney.  We can easily get into a rut where we do a bunch of practices and actually find ourselves more distanced from God, leading to resentment of God for “making you do all this stuff.”  When we find ourselves with a bad attitude about doing things we normally would love to do, we need to carve time to drill down on what’s happening, because something has taken the life out of something that was supposed to give life.  Find out why.  Get insight from someone you trust.  Seek healing for hurts.

I really like what Borg says about the purpose of practices: they are about paying attention to God; our formation as Christians with a new identity; and our nourishment – they feed us.  Keep these three purposes front of mind so that you are less likely to get off track.  Also, please realize that Jesus did not airdrop from heaven at 30 years old.  He was born into a tradition that formed his thinking.  Much of what he said was not new, but rather a restoration of the core of what Judaism was meant to say all along.  In other words, some of the practices – if not all – were taught him.  Sometimes I get binary with this stuff. I like to think that if our hearts are really pure and our relationship with God is super strong, our behavior will naturally reflect it.  Certainly, our core faith fosters such behavior.  But sometimes – maybe all the time? – we need practical instruction.  Sometimes if we live into a mask we choose to wear, we eventually fit the mask.  That’s not so bad if the mask reflects Jesus.  So, as we look at the practices of Jesus, may you see a mask worth wearing, and may you eventually find your face and life forming into it.

We are resurrection people.  That born again into new life thing is where we start, and also informs our mission in the world: to bring about life where death has claimed victory.  Renewed selves, renewed culture, renewed creation.  Pursuing this resurrected living requires a choice to actually embrace it.  Not one choice for all time, but a choice that is made daily or even more frequently to live our lives in the Way of Jesus in contrast to the way of this world.  The Way leads to life, and is a choice we make to follow or not.  The following are practices that we choose to embrace, as Jesus did, so that we might experience the life Jesus lived.

·       We stretch.  To pursue a relationship with God is a choice to be continually stretched to new ways of thinking and being.  When Jesus was with Nicodemus, John the Baptist, and the Samaritan woman at the well, he stretched their thinking with love and respect, even though it required them to let go of the familiar.  Therefore, we choose to stretch as God grows in us, and we lovingly help others stretch toward God as God works through us.  John 3-4

o   How are you choosing to be stretched?  What inputs are you allowing in to stretch you?

o   How are you being a catalyst to stretch others in their thinking?

·       We kneel.  Jesus served humbly without discrimination.  He served enemies of the state, touched untouchables, healed those who were broken, and fed those who were hungry.  Therefore, we choose to share God’s love by kneeling to serve as Jesus modeled, bringing healing to our world.  John 5-7

o   How are you allowing others to serve you?

o   How are you serving others with your time and presence?  How about financially?

·       We grace.  Jesus was famous for lavishly extending grace to everyone, but especially to those who were feeling condemned.  Be it an adulterous woman caught in the act or a blind man convinced that he was beyond grace, Jesus acted with and spoke grace into their lives in order to free them from condemnation in all its forms.  Therefore, we choose to lift up those who experience shame, to love instead of judge.  John 8-9

o   How are you allowing God’s grace to form you?

o   How are you an agent of God’s grace in an unforgiving world?

·       We incarnate.  God’s love was perhaps most profoundly expressed in the incarnation, when God entered the full human experience with us in the person of Jesus.  He loved deeply by being intimately present with people in their grief, joy, shame, pain, filth, denial, and even their betrayal.  Therefore, we choose to welcome God into our darkest corners, and as those who are being indwelled by God’s Spirit, we choose to live deeply with people in the same intimate places Jesus chose to dwell.  John 10-13

o   How are you making time to really be with people in your sphere?

o   How are you allowing people to be with you?

·       We connect.  Jesus’ Way kept him connected to the heartbeat of God.  Jesus fostered an intimate, personal relationship with God by practicing a variety of disciplines (solitude, prayer; gathering for worship, service, and community life) that allowed God’s presence to guide and direct his steps.  Therefore, we choose to be so connected that the image of God is clearly reflected in our thoughts, passion, and mission.  John 14-17

o   How are you providing space in your life to be more deeply connected to God?

o   How are you encouraging others to connect with God more deeply without sounding like a self-righteous jerk?

How is all of this going for you?

Let’s talk about bikes some more.  For most – if not all – of us, while Danny Macaskill’s riding skills are incredibly impressive and inspiring, they are not especially alluring.  I doubt any of you are going to go to Skyline in response and attempt its technical trails at full speed!  Most of you are fine knowing how to ride a bike, yet are also fine if you never ride one again. I think that’s fine with bike riding.  Take it or leave it.

But faith is not bike riding.  We claim to believe that faith so defines our lives that to not live in our faith is to actually not really live.  When we talk about our faith, we’re talking about our lives.  When we talk about settling in our faith, we’re talking about choosing to not live into resurrection, into renewed life. 

Mostly, we don’t willfully settle.  There’s not a day on our calendar where we look back and say, “That’s the day I decided to blow off God and settle for less of a life.”  It’s much more subtle than that, and usually goes hand in hand with our level of comfort.  Many of us came to faith in response to crisis.  What we didn’t realize was that when the crisis was alleviated – often with the help of faith – our sense of urgency to continue developing our faith diminished.  We slide back into comfortable routines and ruts.  Decades pass and we wake up one day realizing we are the same person we were long ago, with few significant changes.  That’s not the Way of Jesus.  That’s the way of the world, the way of self-preservation, the way of apathy.  That’s the way we insure the world continues on the same trajectory it has been on for as long as anyone can remember.

This isn’t a leisurely bike ride we’re talking about.  This is your life.  This is your role as a change agent of hope in the world.  This is the nourishment of your soul.  This is the source of your hope.  What are you doing with it?

Sin and Salvation: Transforming the Heart

Part 9 of 12 | Based in part on Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity

Think back to your earliest impressions of the Church and the Christian faith – the two are often intertwined.  What was the point or goal as you understood it?  My hunch is that if you grew up in the United States, the dominant message articulated was that sin was and is an issue that needs to be addressed to restore our relationship with God.  Salvation is what we called accepting that forgiveness, which was mediated on the cross which killed Jesus, who was considered a final, eternal, complete sacrifice canceling the power of sin.  You no longer need fear hell, and could confidently look forward to heaven.

This has been the dominant message from Western Christianity for the past few centuries.  In the United States in particular, the emphasis became more individualized: the idea of a personal relationship with a personal savior became paramount.  “Are you saved?” became a leading question in evangelistic strategies, which was really asking, “have you accepted the forgiveness of God to cancel your sin so that you can go to heaven?”  Fear of death is universal, and fear of eternal punishment is certainly correlated!  For people with minor to major awareness of sin issues in their lives, this is truly good news, and has been received as such for millions and millions of people, including me!  If we were creating a resume for God, we could put “Sin Forgiver and Heaven Provider” right at the top.

Concern about death and afterlife weren’t always the central message communicated from our faith tradition.  In fact, there is little evidence that the Jewish people were even thinking about the afterlife much before 150 B.C.E.  For them, there was a bigger issue: getting back home.  The people of Israel were scattered by the Babylonians, and longed to go back home.  The message of the prevailing prophets for a couple of centuries was that God was going to lead them back home.  That was “salvation” for them, and it was truly good news.  So, add “Guide” to the resume.

Before Israel was decimated, the focal point of the Jewish faith was the Exodus event, where Israel was rescued from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, and God miraculously redeemed them from there, eventually leading them into the Promised Land.  Salvation for those early Jews meant being saved from slavery.  The remembrances of God in worship all centered around that great event, which was truly good news.  So, add “Liberator” to God’s resume.

These are three major themes that work through the entirety of scripture.  They provide great hope for people who are worried about how mistakes and sin in general might affect our afterlife; hope when we feel lost and want to get back home; and hope when we feel oppressed and need liberated.  And yet, as sweeping as these themes are, there is so much more that God provides.  Here are a number of examples from the life and ministry of Jesus to give you an idea:

·       He taught people a new way to live based on a new identity from God.

·       He spoke words of hope to people who felt hopeless.

·       He healed people of every disease.

·       He demonstrated how to achieve peace with enemies.

·       He restored sight to the blind.

·       He brought those who strayed back into the fold.

·       He fed hungry people.

·       He challenged those who were abusing their power.

·       He touched people who were untouchable.

·       He kept judged people from dying.

·       He brought dead people back to life.

·       He taught and modeled how to forgive and restore people.

·       He chose to come alongside people no matter what.

·       He modeled nonviolence.

·       And more…

That’s a pretty strong resume.  I wonder how many people shortchange faith because they just don’t quite see all that God is capable of doing.  I think we sometimes miss out on a lot because we just don’t ask God for help in ways that God can.  It’s like asking Bill Gates to just help you connect your computer to your printer.  Or Warren Buffett to just help balance your checkbook.  Or Steph Curry just to teach you how to do a proper lay-up. Or guitarist Tommy Emanuel how to play a “E” chord. Or Thomas Keller to just teach you how to fry an egg.  So much more depth than we ask, partly because we’ve siloed faith to the sin management and afterlife realm.  Important?  Of course.  Complete?  In countless ways, no.

So, take a look in the mirror.  As you examine yourself, keep that resume handy.  How have you sold your faith short because you simply haven’t looked to God for guidance on so many areas God has expertise?  Having trouble feeling good about yourself?  Or forgiving others – or yourself? Or unsure how to deal with enemies? Or feel hopeless?  Your faith speaks into all aspects of life -  have you wondered how God might help you find your way home, or help rescue you from captivity?

In our culture today, it is all too easy to stop there.  We discover anew what’s in it for us, and feel like we’re done.  God surely is personal and definitely does want to help us become more whole in every regard.  And yet if we could place ourselves in Jesus’ culture, we would quickly recognize that they were not driven by a “what’s in it for me” mentality, but were much more interested in their community as a whole. It wasn’t okay if they were well fed if their neighbor was starving.  We need to shift our gaze away from our reflection in the mirror and look through a window into our world so that we can see how we might help everyone experience all that God provides. 

This is a tough sell for us unless we are facing a crisis.  Tragedies of all kinds bring out the best in people – we know we have it in us.  But when the urgency is gone, we often resort back to just looking after ourselves.  If it’s not our problem, or if it’s not our experience, then we feel like we needn’t lift a finger.

Unfortunately for you (if you are a CrossWalker), we have this little phrase that we say a lot: Go Be Jesus.  Jesus didn’t just look after himself – he spent his life looking after others.  I don’t think he would have been as fully actualized had he not have spent his life serving others.  Jesus is our model.  If he’s going, we need to be following.  If he’s on the move, it must be a good idea, so we need to do it.

The question isn’t will you serve others, it’s how will you serve others? So now, look out the window onto the world, and as you do, hold that resume in your hand.  The things Jesus did still need doing, and he needs you to do them.  You need you to do them.  The people who need to be served need you to do them.  What are you going to do to live into the footsteps of Jesus?

Thin Places: Opening the Heart

Part 8 of 12 | Based on The Heart of Christianity, by Marcus Borg

In the eighth chapter of his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg shifts to addressing God breaking into our consciousness as individuals and community, then draws attention to why God would do such a thing: to open our hearts.  When we use the term heart in a non-medical sense of the word, we are generally talking about a person’s deeper self, their identity, their passion, their emotional life – a range of things.  This is similar to how biblical writers employed the term as well, using it to refer to the inner self as a whole.  If a person’s heart was off, or not “in it”, or closed, it meant there was something deeply wrong.  This is because, as Borg notes, “The heart is an image for the self at a deep level, deeper than our perception, intellect, emotion, and volition.  As the spiritual center of the total self, it affects all of these: our sight, thought, feelings, and will” (120).

A closed heart, therefore, would refer to a person who wasn’t seeing fully, thinking correctly, has a poor attitude, and isn’t likely manifesting itself in the kinds of behavior God would encourage.  There are times when our closed heartedness catches up with us and slaps us in the face (or worse).  When we see it, we know we’re in a mess, which often brings us to a fork in the road where we humble ourselves and open up to God, ourselves, and others about it and begin moving in a healthier direction.  Or we double down and stay stuck, choosing instead to beef up our pride, puff up our chests, deny any wrongdoing and pretend things never happened.  This latter choice makes our hearts harder still.  The former choice, however, opens us up to the experience of God by created “thin places” that allow God to be especially present right here.  Thomas Merton expressed it well:

Life is this simple.  We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.  This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything – in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. It’s impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it.

The reason God chooses to come close is to help open and keep open our hearts, our deepest selves, to God’s presence and purpose for life.  We are a part of the whole, we impact the whole, and when we are open, we bless the whole.  Open hearts allow people to see more fully, think more openly, walk through life with life-giving attitudes, and act as God leads.  This is where beautiful things can happen.  Borg notes: “The Christian life is about a new heart, an open heart, a heart of flesh, a heart of compassion.  The Christian life is about the Spirit of God opening our hearts in thin places” (131).

A concept Borg noted in his chapter on being born again that stuck with me fits this pursuit of thin places.  He wrote about “spirituality as midwifery”, that what we do with our lives, and in particular our spiritual lives, fosters the born again experience.  Only God can truly make it happen, but our actions play a role in improving the likelihood of the new life being born in us.  So, how do we move beyond closed hearts toward open hearts?  We allow for, we facilitate, we create opportunities for thin places where God is more likely to get through to us.

Borg highlighted a handful of “tools” that help us cultivate thin places in our lives.  Music, for many people, has the capacity to take us to higher heights and deeper depths.  Sometimes it’s the lyrics that connect.  U2’s Grace comes to mind for me.  Sometimes the song doesn’t need to have lyrics to be powerful.  Barber’s Adagio for Strings comes to mind.  Worship provides a thin space where music, community, and learning come together.  Study is a means for me – when I read something of depth, or listen to a good podcast, or watch an engaging video, it opens me up to God’s voice somehow.  For many, nature is the quickest path to thin places, where we are caught up in creation which always reflects the Creator. 

For our culture – now more than every before in history – I think we need to consider one other variables that I believe will provide space – think places – for God to break in: silence.  We surely live in the noisiest time in history.  If the sounds of traffic, construction, emergency vehicles and the like aren’t enough to pollute your auditory senses, there’s always that gadget in your pocket or purse.  Our phones.  Which are TV’s, juke boxes, and – oh yeah – telephones, berate us with an assault of noise.  Seemingly constantly.  Biblically, however, silence seems to go hand in hand with experiencing the inbreaking of God’s voice.  I would even suggest that the Way of Christ whispers.  Constantly.  That Way – God’s Way – is all over the Bible.  The creation hymn in Genesis 1 begins with silence, broken with God speaking everything into being.  Adam and Eve were hiding in silence when that critical, post-forbidden fruit talk needed to happen.  Abraham no doubt heard God in silence.  Joseph, his great grandson, experienced God’s visions in the silence of dreams.  Job only heard God responded after his friends stopped talking, and when he himself finally shut up.  Samuel heard God calling only when he was alone and quiet.  Isaiah had a vision which undoubtedly necessitated silence as well.  Elijah heard God in the still, small voice – literally in the sound of silence.  Zechariah was quiet before God in the Temple when he heard the news that he was going to father John the Baptist.  Mary had to be quiet enough for the angel to speak, and Joseph had to be asleep – quiet! – for the angel to get through to him.  Jesus himself, after his baptism, spent 40 days in the wilderness alone in the quiet to sort out what God wanted him to do.  Peter was quiet in meditation when he received the message about including Gentiles.  Paul was quieted by Christ’s surprising visit, then spent a season in quiet learning about what was true and what wasn’t.

We may not be comfortable in silence, but how are we to hear the whisper of God if we constantly keep the noise on?  We need to learn how to quiet ourselves.  It takes time and work.  Olympic athletes don’t suddenly become incredible – they started somewhere and kept learning and growing.  Some folks can barely go 10 seconds before their minds are wandering all over the place.  Depth cannot develop with such short attention spans.  So, get an app that will help you develop the skills of meditation, so that you can be quiet, then quiet before God.  Imagine all you have missed over your life because you simply weren’t listening!  Imagine what awaits!  Listening in quiet provides a thin place which become sacred space which leads to open hearts which leads to life at its best for everybody.

Dag Hammarskjold, Swedish diplomat and Secretary General of the United Nations (1953-1961) understood what cultivating an open heart represents, as witnessed in his journal which he used while on a peacekeeping mission in the Congo.  May his pray be ours:

Give us pure hearts, that we may see you;

Humble hearts, that we may hear you;

Hearts of love, that we may serve you;

Hearts of faith, that we may abide in you.

The Kingdom of God: The Heart of Justice

Note: Due to technical difficulties, there are no audio or video recordings of this teaching.

Part 7 of 12 of Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity

“Don’t talk about politics or religion.”  That’s how we avoid fisticuffs in social settings.  Luckily, reading this blog or listening to the podcast or watching this teaching on YouTube isn’t social, so we can talk about both.

At what point in your life were you able to clearly articulate the political position of your parents?  At what point were you able to (as objectively as possible) recognize the differences between your positions and theirs?  My kids took a Political Science/Government class in High School.  One of their earliest assignments was to take a brief survey, and then have Lynne and I take the same survey separately.  I knew what was up as soon as I heard what was being asked.  The teacher wanted to discover to what extent his students reflected their parents’ political leanings.  As you might guess, nearly every student was closely corelated to their parents.  Of course.  Parents are the primary influence for the first 18 years of their kids’ lives.  How they see and articulate the world is passed along to their children.  And, unless something causes the child to seriously evaluate those positions, they are likely to be held well into adulthood – perhaps their entire life – without serious reflection.

So, I ask again in another way: when did your political opinions become your political opinions and not just a parroting of your parents? 

Jesus, Son of Man.  Jesus was human, if you haven’t heard.  He was born at a particular time in history, in a very specific geographical location, into a demographic none of us would choose.  He was raised in rural northern Israel while it was under Roman occupation.  Very, very few (like .1%) of Jewish people were living what we might call a Middle Class existence where they had more than enough to live on.  99.9% were poor, very poor, or extremely poor.  The poorest were day laborers, which likely included people with carpentry skills.  Jesus, like his father who trained him, was a carpenter by trade.  He was very poor like most of the people around him.

Like his contemporaries, Jesus struggled throughout his life to get food on the table and avoid debt – two chief concerns of normal everyday folk in first century northern Israel.  Like all others around him, Jesus undoubtedly had strong opinions about Pax Romana – the Peace of Rome – which made  sure peace was kept by strong military presence and action.  Rome called it keeping the peace.  Israelites like Jesus and the vast majority of others called it oppression.

Two Kingdoms.  If you ask biblical scholars what the chief themes of Jesus’ teaching would include, at the top of the list will be the Kingdom of God.  When Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God, he was really talking about what things would be like on earth if God were in charge.  These teachings would, by their very nature, stand in sharp contrast to the Kingdom that wielded power of their lives every day:  Rome.  Rome led by domination.  They were politically oppressive – allegiance was mandatory.  They were economically exploitative – someone had to pay for the Roman Road and Caesar’s excessive pageantry.  And unfortunately, as it seems to always go for humanity, since they were the dominant “Super Power” in the world at that time, it surely must have meant that the gods were smiling on them, legitimating everything they stood for and the actions their stance led them to take.

Except for the Jewish aristocracy leading in Jerusalem and a few Jewish people who were in the right place at the right time, everybody agreed that Rome was ripping them off, making it harder and harder to live.  Everybody knew that being poor sucked, and that the Roman system made sure they stayed poor by over taxing those they oppressed.  If you couldn’t pay the taxes, you owed a debt.  If you couldn’t pay the debt, you went to jail, which made it harder to pay the debt, which led to a cycle of generational oppression which carried with it a hopelessness that is hard to overcome.  All of this while you wonder if God sees you through the same lens as Rome?  And, at the end of the day, while Rome gave plenty of room allowing for people to continue Jewish cultic practices, when you were asked to pledge allegiance, it had better be to Rome and her Caesar.  Or you may be put to death under certain circumstances (like on Tuesdays or Wednesdays or other days ending in “day”).  Nobody in the first century needed a history lesson on the politics of the Roman Empire because they all lived it.

When Jesus spoke of the way things would be if God were in charge, everybody knew he was drawing a contrast and implicit criticism of the Roman Empire.  They knew it because they were living it.  Jesus’ rhetoric, lifestyle and ministry were boldface challenges to those who held power – political and religious – and everyone knew it.  When Jesus was inviting people to “Follow me!”, it was an invitation to pledge allegiance to a different Kingdom that operated in sharp contrast to Rome.  Just because you and I don’t readily recognize it doesn’t change a difficult-to-swallow reality: Jesus was extremely political.

Politically Speaking.  There are words attributed to Jesus that we float on by and even quote that were direct challenges to Rome and we probably didn’t realize it.  We have sanitized and sanctified some words and phrases so much that they only now refer to matters of heaven.  But when Jesus used these words, and especially when he said that the power of such words is sourced in God and not Rome, he was giving the finger to the Empire.  Evangelism.  Salvation.  Peace.  Savior.  Lord.  Cross.  Bread.  Debts.  Resurrection.  All of these were deeply meaningful words used in Roman rhetoric before Jesus used those same words to speak of God’s Kingdom.  The Good News (evangelism) that Rome came to declare was that the Empire was the source of salvation for all who pledged allegiance to the Savior and Lord, Caesar, who would in exchange provide peace.  For those who did not comply, the cross was provided as a symbol of Roman dominance.  Of course, the oppressed knew the taxes such allegiance required would not be adequate to provide daily bread, and would usher them into servitude as their debt to Rome climbed.  Rome legitimated itself with direct proof from the gods: when an emperor would die, they would look to the heavens and behold: a shooting star would eventually appear: a sign that their Lord had been resurrected to life in heaven among the gods who ruled from on high. 

Jesus challenged all of that.  Since the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were charged with keeping the Jewish people in line with Roman politics, Jesus’ threat to Rome was also a threat to them, their position, and their authority.  Of course, plenty of things Jesus said and did threatened their authority in myriad ways; the politically-charged, insurrectionist vibe was just the icing on the cake.  Jesus was a threat.

Pledging Allegiance?  When Jesus invited people to follow him, he was asking people to pledge allegiance to the Kingdom of God, to strive toward the things God would strive toward if God were running the show.  This meant that life on earth would be lived differently because the world and the people in it needed help now, not just after life on earth was over.  Why?  Because, as New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan explained, “Heaven is in great shape; earth is where the problems are.”  Marcus Borg (The Heart of Christianity) continues: “Seeing the political passion of the Bible and Jesus calls us to a politically engaged spirituality that affirms both spiritual and political transformation.  What we see in Jesus and the Bible answers our deepest personal longing, to be born again, and the world’s great need: the Kingdom of God.”  The systems of the world throughout history has failed.  The ones who it has failed the most are the most vulnerable in the world – the poor, the suffering, the immigrant, the outcast.  Those who pledge allegiance to the Kingdom of God are pledging to care for them, because the systems of the world can’t, don’t and won’t.  Regardless of what lips are saying.

As Jesus followers, this means we are called to follow in his political footsteps.  You may reel at this, shaking your head as you shout: “I refuse to be political!”  Well my friend, I have some potentially unwelcome news for you: you already are, and you have been your entire adult life.  Whether or not you realize it, you have been pledging allegiance all along with your words, your time, your wallet, your behavior, your passion, your gifts and skills, your dreams, everything.  Perhaps you already understand this to a degree as you have seen the lack of potency the various world systems have offered in their failed attempts at leadership.  For some of you it’s personal: you are a woman who realizes that it is not right that you are not treated equally to men.  Or maybe you’re among those in the LGBTQ community or love someone who is.  Or you’re an undocumented immigrant or love someone who is.  Or you are poor and know you’re stuck.  Or you’re facing health challenges and can’t afford treatment even with “affordable care” that still isn’t for so many.  Or you’ve taken an Alaskan cruise and seen for yourself the retreating glaciers caused by global warming.  Or you’re beginning to become numb to the horror of school shootings because they are so frequent and you realize that is problematic and something has to be done.  Or a hundred other scenarios.  Jesus is saying there is another way, another Leader who is calling for allegiance that will help bring about the healing the world cannot do on its own (and won’t).

This means you and I need to wake up to the fact that this is bigger than a Republican v. Democrat issue.  That our pledge has to be higher than the American Flag.  That our vision has to be broader.  That our love has to run deeper.  That our hopes need to soar higher.  Because God is behind God’s own Kingdom, and it is everlasting.  Pledging allegiance to this Way means at times you are going to challenge whatever the Republicans are saying.  And at other times the Democrats.  And at other times you will be called to take issue with U.S. stances on who knows what.  Because the United States is not God, even though we feel like we rule the world at times.  The Kingdom of God is globally focused and not simply nationalistic.  It is deeply personal and individual and yet is about all people everywhere, and the entire creation not just for now but for the future as well.

You already are political.  The question is, to which Kingdom are you pledging your allegiance?

Before you click out of this, I have a dare for you.  Now that you know that Jesus was deeply political in his life, ministry, and teaching, I dare you to read and pray the dangerous prayer Jesus taught, but with new eyes.  May it challenge you to consider your politics and get your butt in gear to help do your part in bringing the Kingdom Come.  By the way, it’s hard.  If it’s really easy for you, you’re probably not paying attention. It was meant to be a model to riff on, not just something we recite like programmed minions.  “Our Father (our Identity), Who art in Heaven (not Rome), Hallowed be Thy Name (may you be revered and seen as holy).  Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven (as Crossan pointed out, ‘heaven is in great shape; earth is where the problems are’).  Give us this day our daily bread (because we’re not sure we’ll eat today otherwise), and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors (which is an economic mechanism that is used to control people into submission).  Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from evil.  For Yours is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory forever (again, not Rome).  Political, political, political.

The Lord’s (Dangerous) Prayer: Our Father Who Art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name.  Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.  Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory forever.  Amen!

Born Again: A New Heart

Part 6 of 12 | The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg

The Gospel of John is my favorite of the four “biographies” of Jesus.  John’s agenda is not merely giving the story, but weaving it along theological lines. One of the first stories provides an allusion for one man named Nicodemus, and for all people everywhere trying to find God and their way in the world.  The third chapter starts with Nicodemus coming to see Jesus under cover of darkness.  He was a very well educated leader who held a seat on the Sanhedrin Jewish leadership table.  He had undoubtedly heard about Jesus’ renown as a gifted teacher and healer, and he wanted to see for himself what kind of man he was.

It’s no accident that he came at night – he didn’t want to be seen visiting this upstart.  More than that, he was in the dark personally, not yet exposed to the Light shining in the darkness, the bright Spirit that was illuminating Jesus’ life, teaching, and ministry.  Breaking the ice, Nicodemus started the conversation with a compliment about Jesus’ clear connection to God.  A bit of a setup, actually, to see how arrogant Jesus was.

Jesus jumped right into the deep end of the pool, dragging Nicodemus with him.  He spoke of the need to be born again to see the Kingdom of God – a phrase denoting space that is particularly infused with the presence, characteristics, priorities and practices of God.  Nicodemus took Jesus literally, and wondered how, exactly, a grown human would get back inside the mother’s womb.  At that, Jesus probably rolled his eyes and let out a sigh (murmuring “METAPHOR!”) before he continued:

     Jesus said, "You're not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the 'wind hovering over the water' creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it's not possible to enter God's kingdom. When you look at a baby, it's just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can't see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.
     "So don't be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be 'born from above'—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it's headed next. That's the way it is with everyone 'born from above' by the wind of God, the Spirit of God."

This “born again” thing, becoming something new – different, more God-inspired – than before, is not just a Jesus thing.  This theme runs through the entire Bible.  God is always inviting people into a new way of being that is grounded in who God is and empowered by the Spirit God provides.  Abraham sensed God calling him to leave everything behind to start fresh, different, led by God.  Throughout Israel’s history we see consistent invitations from God to get back to who they were meant to be – the people so close to God that God just oozed out of them in myriad ways.  The talk of wind?  That’s a reference to a vision God gave the prophet Ezekiel about what God wanted to do with Israel: even the deadest, driest bones can be brought back to life with the power of God’s Spirit. 

Borg notes (The Heart of Christianity, 107), “In the Gospels and in the rest of the New Testament, death and resurrection, dying and rising, are again and again a metaphor for personal transformation, for the psychological-spiritual process at the center of the Christian life.”  Here are just a few examples:

Because of this decision we don't evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don't look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 (The Message)

I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn't work. So I quit being a "law man" so that I could be God's man. Christ's life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ.  My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not "mine," but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.   – Galatians 2:19-20 (The Message)

I'm absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us. – Romans 8:38-39 (The Message)

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don't love, I'm nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
     If I speak God's Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, "Jump," and it jumps, but I don't love, I'm nothing.  If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don't love, I've gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I'm bankrupt without love. – 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (The Message)

Everything God has done, is doing, and will do is related to this invitation to be born again – as individuals, as relationships great and small, as an entire human race.  Jesus’ whole reason for living and dying was related to this invitation.  His mysterious resurrection provided experiential “proof” that God was indeed with him through it all, and that there is more to life than flesh and blood.  This may come as a shock, and initially disappointing, but this entire exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus is all about this life, right now, here on planet earth.  Not heaven.  This matters a lot, because part of the conversation gets to the famous quote of Jesus used in evangelism: For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever would believe in him would not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).  This has become a proof text to assure folks that all it takes is belief to get to heaven (and if you don’t believe, you are toast).  Biblical scholars of every stripe agree on this – it’s about this life, being born again into life God wishes for us, empowered and led by the God who created us to live our True Self.

I love how Eugene Peterson phrased it in his Message translation: "This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”  The “born again” life is the eternal life that comes by believing.  Which leads to another really important and disturbing point for many of you: believing isn’t what you believe it to be.

In our time and context, we think of belief as mental assent or agreement.  “I believe the world is round.”  “I believe in love.”  “I believe the United States is the greatest country in the world.”  “I believe the United States stands for peace in the world.”  “I believe the United States has the largest military in the world.”  “I believe in God.” Some of these statements are more fact-based than others that are more subjective.  The key thing to remember here is that for most of us in our time, to believe is to agree with a statement or sentiment on an intellectual plane.  That kind of belief isn’t very effective, however.  Certainly not enough to bring about eternal life, which Jesus stated was the key component for such a pursuit.  Could it be that Jesus’ remembered saying here about belief being the key to eternal life (and by necessity being born again) be based on a different rendering of the word?

The Greek language gives us the word that is translated “belief”.  That word connotes three different nuances, or facets that make up the whole.  Think of “belief” as a three legged stool.  Our Western, still-guided-by-scientific-thinking viewpoint does support part of what our first century ancestors in faith regarding belief.  Intellectual assent is part of it, one leg.  So, it matters.  But the stool won’t stand on one leg.  Belief isn’t belief if all it has to stand on is intellectual assent.  What are the remaining legs on the belief stool?

Another leg of the belief stool has to do with “heart”.  When we wonder if a person’s heart is “in it”, what are asking?  We’re wondering if they have any passion for the pursuit, any genuine concern or care about it.  If a person lacks heart, it means they have no drive, probably give their task weak effort, and are likely fairly apathetic, even if they mentally understand it.  I don’t know anybody addicted to smoking cigarettes who thinks it’s a good thing for their health.  They mentally agree.  But they don’t have the heart to quit.  In the ancient world, to believe was more than to agree intellectually.  Belief meant your heart was in it.  But head and heart are still just two legs.  The stool won’t stand.

The third leg of the belief stool relates to one’s hands.  Action.  Changed behavior.  Without action, your intellectual assent and heartfelt passion don’t account for much in your life and in the world we are called to serve.  Action can be as subtle as new behavior toward yourself and those you are in relationship with, like not adding to the problem when provoked, but seeking something redemptive in your response.  Action can be as magnificent as giving your life to a cause much bigger than yourself.  This is not in any way to be construed as “earning your way into God’s favor.”  On the contrary, this is in response to the favor you already have.  Perhaps Jesus’ brother, James, said it best: faith without works is dead (James 1:22, 2:17).  No life, eternal or otherwise.  Definitely not conducive to being born again.

One mistake I think the Church has made in articulating the “you must be born again” Good News is that we have overly focused on the initial “YES!” and have not adequately communicated that the first yes is one of perhaps thousands of yes’s to come.  We’ve done this because we’ve overly played up the “get your butt to heaven” piece of the message, so much so that we speak of being “saved” as a once-and-done thing, when in actuality, salvation is a process that lasts a lifetime.  We’re fully saved when we draw our first breath in heaven.  Until then, we’re invited to pursue and enjoy – with God’s help – as much eternal life as we choose.

I think one of the reasons so many people are leaving the church is because so many professing Christians stopped looking like Jesus not long after their first yes.  We’ve tucked our salvation away and adopted a warped version of life that is symbolized more by the American flag or the Almighty dollar than it is by the cross.  More by the pursuit of self than the giving away of self.  We’re not invited to be born again.  We’re invited to be born again and again and again and again and again – 70 X 7 times – as we work out what eternal life looks like as we mature, then choosing to believe with our head, heart, and hands.

When was the first time you were born again?  When was the last time you were born again?  When do you suspect will be the next time you will be born again?


Christocentric Alphapoem by Linda Murphy

Wonderful God who

Has always

Owned my heart

Down through time

Over years of humanity

You have

Opened us


Sensed our


Yearned to

Teach us of Your






Memory of who we can become in You


Some (hopefully) helpful stuff…

Reflection Questions: The Way of Exile and Homecoming

From Experiencing the Heart of Christianity, by Tim Scorer

The Road into Exile.  Exile is an inevitable feature of the human journey that leads us from birth, through the growth of self-awareness and self-concern, and into a place where we live lives that are conferred on us by our culture more than chosen by who we are truly meant to be (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 117)

1.       Recall a time in your childhood when you remember yourself as a unique child, relatively unshaped by societal, parental, cultural, and religious messages.

2.       Recall a time in adolescence or early adulthood when you remember yourself as self-conscious and significantly shaped by the three A’s: appearance, achievement, and affluence.

3.       Recall a time in adulthood when you would say that you were living “a false self” and were exiled from your true identity.

The Road of Return and Exile.  The road of return is the road of recovering true self, the path to beginning to live from the inside our rather than the outside in.  Being “born again” involves dying to the false self and being born into an identity centered in God. The born-again experience happens in many ways.  Marcus Borg describes four.  Personally, we may know about one or all of them.  Reflecting on the born-again experience in these ways can help broaden its definition.  How have these been part of your experience?

1.       A sudden and dramatic moment in your life (a revelation, a life-changing epiphany, a sudden conversion).

2.       A gradual lifetime incremental process (experiencing the self-forgetfulness that accompanies a deepening trust in God).

3.       The shorter rhythms of our lives (may occur several times in periods of major change or transition).

4.       The micro-rhythms of daily life (each day forgetting God – becoming burdened – remembering God – rising from confinement).




Jesus: The Heart of God

If you’re reading this out of your own volition, I assume there’s something in you that finds Jesus compelling, or at least intriguing. 

Christianity is the only major world religion that says God is seen primarily through a person, which is both deeply compelling and, as it turns out, results in some pretty strong disagreements. Jesus may be the most compelling, controversial and fought over person in human history. Wars have started in his name, and peace movements have been spawned by those imitating him. People have killed each other over disagreements about who he was, and others have been killed for following him. You can find any version of Jesus you want - rich, poor, handsome, ugly, hippie, prude, party-animal. You name it, there’s a Jesus to match.

This is pretty understandable. We disagree about the significance of people who are a live, much less a person who lived 2000 years ago before journalism, history books and media. So then, in the sea of Jesuses, how do we choose? What do we make of him? 

Fortunately, Marcus Borg is here to help us. If you’ve been following along for the past few weeks, you’ve journeyed with Borg, via Pete, through some of the most fundamental aspects of Christian faith. And now, we arrive at the central figure of the whole Christian story: Jesus. 

Let me start with a confession: exactly what I believe about Jesus changes, almost weekly. So I’m not going to try to defend any particular understanding of Jesus. But I think that’s ok. To me, what we believe about Jesus isn’t as important as where Jesus leads us: to God.

As Borg has pointed out, we have a tendency to focus our faith on literalism. Literalism has boiled Jesus down to a set affirmations: Son of God, born of a virgin, physically resurrected, etc. But is the revelation of God just about agreeing to a set of facts? How boring is that? No one person can be boiled down to a set of facts, much less one of the most compelling figures in history. As Richard Rohr says, the literal meaning is always the least interesting.

When we get past our inclination to boil Jesus down to a set of literal facts, we just might end up somewhere more interesting: the heart of God. As Borg say, “Jesus is what can be seen of God embodied in a human life…He shows us the heart of God.”

Pre-Easter vs Post-Easter

Before getting too far into the weeds, Borg wants to make a really important distinction about the voices in the Gospels that give shape to Jesus. Namely, our Pre-Easter understanding of Jesus and our Post-Easter understanding of him. Here’s what he means. 

The Pre-Easter Jesus isn’t where most disagreements are found. The Pre-Easter Jesus was a first century Jewish man. He taught throughout Israel with a moderate following, and was executed by the Roman empire. This Jesus is gone, which sounds controversial ,but isn’t really.  Jesus does not currently exist in flesh and blood, like he did in the first century. Even the most conservative and liberal Christians seem to agree on this. Most people don’t think Jesus is roaming around in a human body somewhere, stuck on an island with Elvis and Tupac. 

The Post-Easter Jesus is a bit more wide-ranging.  It revolves around what Jesus became after his death. Particularly, how he was experienced by his early followers, and how we experience him today. These experiences are broad, and have branched off throughout history in many directions.

The difference between pre and post Easter understandings of Jesus may seem small, but it is important, especially when we read the stories about Jesus’ life. Namely, it means we let Jesus be a human being. We don’t assume that because he was entwined with God that he never worried or felt pain. We let him grow, learn and suffer. As it turns out, this is a way more interesting way to read the Jesus stories, and otherwise, we miss the point of a lot of those stories. 

Let me give you an example. In both Matthew and Mark, there’s a story that goes something like this:

From there, Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.”  But he didn’t respond to her at all.

His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.”

Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.”

But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”

He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”

She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”

Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed. (Matthew 15:21-28)

People bend over backwards to try to justify how Jesus acts here, because it doesn’t seem very loving and God-like. But, if we actually let Jesus be a human being here, the story gets really compelling. It shows Jesus learning and growing. 

What we find in the beginning of the story is Jesus reflecting the prejudices of his day. He treats this foreign woman like most ancient men would - as less than, as a dog. Then something crazy happens. She doesn’t take it. She shames Jesus by saying “Ok, but you’re treating me even worse than a dog. What does that make you?” Then something even crazier happens. Jesus agrees! He learns. This foreign woman puts him in his place, points out his prejudice and he changes his mind. 

So if we want to experience the heart of God, perhaps we need to learn to face our prejudices and learn from those we think are less than. But we’d miss all of that if we don’t let Jesus be human.

The Nature of the Gospels

To really see where Jesus leads us, Borg suggests we need to understand the nature of the Gospels - the texts that narrate Jesus’ life. First, he points out that they’re a product of a developing tradition about Jesus. They were a collection of oral stories that where eventually written down about 40-60 years after Jesus’ death. Those early Christian communities where wrestling with who Jesus was, and trying to make meaning of the stories they had heard. 

This is important because it means we’re not reading a literal history of Jesus. We’re reading the reflections of Jesus’ followers as they look for the significance of his life.  

This realization can be jarring for some of us, especially if we’ve been taught to read the texts like a history textbook. But, when we look closer, we realize that trying to make these stories into literal historical accounts does a disservice to the texts. We’re holding them to a standard that didn’t exist at the time and keeps us from seeing what the texts are saying. 

Our version of history didn’t exist at that point in time. No one was trying to, or thought they could, record events exactly as they happened. How could you without pen, paper, wide spread literacy, photos or videos? 

Look at what Plutarch, an ancient writer says as he records events, 

“For it is not Histories that I am writing, but Lives…Accordingly, just as painters get the likenesses in their portraits from the face and the expression of the eyes, wherein the character shows itself, but make very little account of the other parts of the body, so I must be permitted to devote myself rather to the signs of the soul in men…”

When ancient writers wrote about the lives of others, they were more interested in expressing their “soul” or the essence of who they were. Of course, many of these stories were based on actual events, but they felt the liberty to fill in the gaps and paint with different colors. The writers of the Gospels were no different.

So then what are the ancient stories of Jesus? Borg thinks they’re a mix of memory and metaphor. They’re profoundly true, but not always literal. They combine the limited memories go Jesus’ followers with deeply true insights they learned from him, often expressed in symbolic stories.  

He gives the example of Jesus’ first miracle: turning water into wine. At face value, it seems like a pretty cool trick. And it kept the party going, so that’s great. But is the point just for Jesus to amaze people who were probably really drunk? Perhaps the writers were using familiar images to evoke something in the reader. 

For instance, when a reader heard a story about a wedding, they’d know that was a familiar metaphor for God’s relationship with humanity. When the story referenced the  third day, they almost certainly would have thought of resurrection. The writer isn’t just recording history. They’re stirring up the reader’s imagination, and asking them to see the deeper meaning beneath the story.

For instance, weddings weren’t hour long celebrations. They were huge parties, that lasted days. These celebrations sharply contrasted with their normal peasant lifestyle. Instead of working constantly, they were celebrating with friends and family. Instead of eating meager helpings of affordable food, they were feasting and enjoying things like meat and wine. 

And all of this is at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. As Borg says, it’s as if the writers are trying to show where Jesus is trying to lead us: a wedding banquet. Not just a wedding banquet, but one where the wine never runs out. Not just a wedding banquet where the wine never runs out but also where the best is saved for last. We’re being invited to see the world as a divine celebration, and even when it seems like the celebration has ended, God is in the business of saving the best for last.  

Son of God: Statement or Image?

For some strange reason, we tend to think that the Bible is mostly making claims about Jesus. But if we look closely, the Bible speaks of Jesus in metaphors, which is quite a bit different than a declarative statement. We acknowledge this with some metaphors: bread, door, shepherd, vine, hen, and many more. But Borg thinks there’s one big metaphor we miss understand: Son of God.

While it sounds like a declarative statement about Jesus, it’s actually an image as much as those others. It conjured up certain things in the reader’s mind. In the Hebrew scriptures, Israel and some of its kings were called Son of God. Around Jesus’ time, some mystics called Son of God. Culturally in that time, a son could speak for their father in all matters. 

Politically, it made a statement about Caesar and power. Caesar was though to be a son of the gods, so the image challenged Roman imperial power. 

When we boil it down to a doctrinal statement, we miss what’s going on. The texts are trying to show us what it means to be full of God, in a way Israel had been longing for and that a political empire could never provide. As Borg puts it, “Jesus is, for us as Christians, the decisive revelation of what a life full of God looks like.” 

Here, and throughout the chapter, Borg chases an important rabbit trail. Namely, does Jesus being a decisive revelation of God mean the market is cornered on the divine? What about other religions? In short, no. Borg thinks that God is defined by, but not confined to Jesus. While is a really humble statement. We can claim that our path has led us to a life full of God without saying or knowing that others don’t.

I heard a helpful metaphor recently. Imagine that you’re staring at a wall full of holes. On the other side of those holes is light - divine light. If you want to see the source and shape of that light, you have to get up close and look through one particular hole. 

Or, as the Buddha said, if you want to strike water, don’t dig five shallow wells. Dig one deep one. 

The Death of Jesus

Jesus was killed. Executed by Rome to be exact. This was a fate left only for political troublemakers. These few facts are pretty well documented event in Roman, Jewish and Christian writings. So, while these ancient writings aren’t modern history textbooks, it’s a fairly safe bet to think they happened.

But there’s a deeper question. What does Jesus’ death mean? Was it part of a divine master plan, or a natural consequence of living an authentic life connected to God? Christians have argued about the meaning of Jesus’ death for centuries, and scripture doesn’t give a clean cut answer. Borg sees five main understandings of Jesus’ death described in scripture, which are: 

  1. Rejection and Vindication. This sees Jesus’ death and resurrection as a political statement. The governing authorities rejected Jesus, but God vindicates him, proving that his way has power. 
  2. Defeat of the Powers. This one starts with the same explanation as the previous theory, but goes a layer deeper. It assumes there’s something behind the authorities, namely “the powers”. While this sounds odd, it’s essentially the idea that evil can take on a life of its own, in the form of oppressive systems, wars, destructive ways of thinking and more. So Jesus’ death is about defeating any force that seeks to dominate, control and oppress.
  3. The Way. This idea sees Jesus’ death and resurrection as the path to spiritual and psychological transformation. The world is full of smaller deaths. Jesus shows us how to be transformed and experience resurrection. 
  4. Revelation. In this theory, Jesus’ death reveals how much God loves us. We see the depths of God’s compassion in how God’s willingness to experience our suffering. 
  5. Sacrificial. Jesus died for our sins. (More below…)

This last one needs some unpacking. It is likely the most common understanding today, at least in American Evangelicalism. But many of us have found it weird, troubling and not particularly compelling. Specifically, it seems to have some weird implications for God. It assumes God is angry and needs a sacrifice. God needs death to forgive. 

Borg is incredibly helpful here. He suggests that we’ve lost first century meaning of the metaphor of sacrifice. In Jesus’ time, God’s presence was confined to the temple. If you wanted to connect with God, you went to the temple. But, if you did something that made you unclean or broke part of the Mosaic law, you couldn’t go into the temple. Some of these “sins” required sacrifice before you could worship and enter in to the presence of God.

This is why Jesus was so angry when the temple was turned into a marketplace that exploited people. If you were poor, you literally couldn’t afford to experience God. God’s presence had gatekeepers.

So Jesus as a sacrifice isn’t making a statement about an angry, violent God. It’s making a statement about who can access God - everyone. It’s showing us what was always true. 

Here’s the ironic thing: we’ve put up another gate. We make mental ascent to certain statements about Jesus the new gatekeeper to God, when the whole thing was about knocking down gates. 

Metaphor and Sacrament

So if Jesus connects us to God, how does that happen? Borg sees Jesus leading us to God in two ways: as a metaphor and a sacrament. As a metaphor, we see God through Jesus. For Christians, Jesus is THE metaphor for God. Just as a metaphor reveals something to us, Jesus reveals to us who God is. 

As a sacrament, we experience God through Jesus. Sacraments are those things things that lead us to experience God. There are formal ones: communion and baptism. And there are informal ones: good conversation, music, art, family. For Christians, Jesus is the primary sacrament. Like a straw that leads you to a much needed drink, Jesus leads us into the depths of God. 

So, I’m pretty sure what I believe about Jesus will continue to change, but I’m equally confident about where he’ll lead me: into the heart of God.

God: The Heart of Reality

This is part four of a twelve week series based on Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity.

Why are you bothering with this whole faith thing?  Seriously – what’s your motivation?

I imagine that your responses are along the lines of learning about God, learning how to be a better person, making a difference in the world, etc.  Awesome.

If you blow the whole faith thing, what is your greatest fear?  If you turned your back on God entirely, what would you be most terrified might happen? Sorry for the clumsy wording – you get my point.

In the fourth chapter of his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg walks the reader through three sets of comparisons: competing Worldviews, dominant Concepts of God, and resulting notions of the Character of God.  Here is a picture of those three sets for your observation:

Worldview, God, Character Comparisons.jpg

Most of you reading this are at least open to the idea that there is “MORE” to life than the particles and force fields that hold everything together in the universe.  I think I can safely assume that.  (For further reading on this subject I recommend Rob Bell’s What We Talk About When We Talk About God).

Assuming we’re on the same page in our pursuit of “MORE” leads us to thinking about God.  How we get our minds around God matters, as Borg notes: It makes a difference how we see the character of God, for how we see the character of God shapes our sense of what faithfulness to God means and thus what the Christian life is about (The Heart of Christianity, 66). 

With this last quote in mind, slowly read through the Concepts of God and The Character of God comparisons and imagine how these different perspectives shape what being “faithful” might mean.

For some of you reading this, your greatest fear if you blow off the whole faith/God thing is that you will pay a very serious price as soon as you die: hell.  Since CrossWalk is a church that seems to attract folks with no significant church background or those looking to recover from a damaging church background, I know this is true for a good number of you.  The reason you have this deeply rooted fear is because you have been operating in the Supernatural Theism way of orienting yourself to a God of requirements and rewards; a God of law.  Walk away from God and you’re screwed.  Forever.  Sucks to be you.  This view of God has been so strongly set in your brain that you experience real anxiety at the thought of challenging that view.  Yep, really sucks to be you – you can’t even question it without fear of burning for eternity.  Better not question anything.  Just keep doing what you’ve been told will keep God pleased and your butt out of hell…

I questioned it at a fairly early age – I was 13 years old.  I grew up in a mainline denomination as opposed to an Evangelical/Fundamental one.  This means that Supernatural Theism ruled the language, but the “turn or burn” rhetoric was absent from our pulpits.  The notion of forgiveness itself bothered me.  I couldn’t understand the whole “Jesus died as a sacrifice for my sins” piece.  I knew the story and the argument, but it just didn’t add up.  I even asked my sister  Ann, who went into a flurry of activity to help me “get it” – at one point she murmured under her breath, this kid is really screwed up…  True – I was not fitting into the Evangelical/Fundamental/Orthodox story even then.  That understanding of grace didn’t seem like grace at all.  It seemed incongruent that a loving God would punish someone forever if they didn’t believe the right thing.

Some people freak out when they hear or think this. They immediately jump to supposed heretical thinking about universalism, and counter with “axe murders and war mongers better not be in heaven”.  Borg has a good response to this: Unconditional grace is not about the afterlife, but the basis of our relationship with God in this life.  Is the basis for our life with God law or grace, requirements and rewards or relationship and transformation?  Grace affirms the latter (Ibid., 67).  Further, Borg connects the dots between hosting a view of Supernatural Theism versus Panentheism and the life it fosters:

What’s at stake in the question of God’s character is our image of the Christian life.  Is Christianity about requirements?  Here’s what you must do to be saved [and stay saved]. Or is Christianity about relationship and transformation?  Here’s the path: follow it.  Both involve imperatives, but one is a threat, the other an invitation (Ibid., 68).

If Supernatural Theism works for you and is making you more Jesus-like, then keep it going.  It is biblical – it’s just not the only biblical way to view God.  It is a way readily understood by our ancient ancestors who lived in a time when sacrifices were a regular component of religious cultic practices.  I can understand that perspective.  I can respect and appreciate the view.  But I do not espouse the view.  It does not resonate with me, and in many ways creates dissonance, is a distraction, and even a road block in my relationship with God and my quest to know God and become more aligned with God in my life.

The panentheistic alternative – also biblical – resonates deeply with me.  In that view there is room for wonder, mystery, awe.  As Borg notes, God is not separate, but right here, and more than here.  Expansive, yet deeply personal in God’s intention and interaction in my life.  I can tell you that I have experienced the reality of the presence of God in this approach, even at times when the other view would tell me it would be impossible to enjoy such presence given my state.

For those of you who have been reared in a Supernatural Theistic paradigm, making this shift really hard work.  Keep it up.  It is worth it.  If you cannot live with it, trust me as one you know personally that there is more to learn.  You can still respect what you were raised with and respect those who really resonate with it.  The songs and verses can still play a meaningful role when viewed in context.  But the good news is that there are new songs to sing that speak a different way that brings life and love into our lives and into the world, that raises the bar on behavior away from law and into covenant and love.  It leads to a deep, mature life of response to the love we experience, and helps us to love more fully personally and as proponents of social justice.  It is rich and deep.  A life-pursuit of discovery and growth.

The Bible: The Heart of the Tradition

This is the third teaching in the twelve part series based on Marcus Borg's book, The Heart of Christianity.

The Bible is foundational for the Christian faith.  Yet many people have left the church because of how the text has been handled, and how earlier Christianity has demanded that the Bible to be understood.  For people who grew up with the earlier Christian view, the Bible is seen as God’s product, so powerfully influenced by the Holy Spirit that it is inerrant (there are no errors) and infallible (it cannot be wrong).  To question this way of thinking about the Bible puts one immediately on thin ice, and may even call one’s faith into question.  According to foundational statements that support both Fundamental and Evangelical Christianity (both are earlier expressions of the faith), you are not a “real” Christian if you don’t see the Bible as God’s product.  And if you’re not a real Christian, you have no real hope.  Better invest in some fire-resistant pajamas for your afterlife experience…

If you’ve been raised in that earlier tradition, messing with the idea of the Bible as God’s product feels like heresy because that’s how you’ve been taught.  This is a terrifying venture.

Millions of people – and that number is growing – have simply walked away from even thinking about the Bible at all because they know enough to know that to see it as God’s product doesn’t make sense.  Yet the Bible is central to the Christian faith – to chuck it essentially destroys the faith, because it is the central text that shapes the faith in the first place.

This chapter of Borg’s book will be helpful for both types of readers, giving you a way to embrace the Bible without checking your brain at the door, and giving you confidence that your hope may not be in jeopardy – in fact, it may be emboldened.

The primary difference between the earlier-and-currently-loudest rendition of Christianity and what is emerging ultimately comes down to determining how the Bible came to be.  The earlier version quickly quotes from Paul’s letter to his protégé, Timothy: All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  This quickly led to people creating the bumper sticker that says, The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.  Essentially, that verse is interpreted as saying that God wrote the Bible, even if human hands were used.  It’s not a good or even correct interpretation, but it’s popular, and has been used to justify a lot of awful treatment of people in the world: slaves, women, the LGBTQ community, people of other faith traditions, and people who don’t agree with this interpretation.

The emerging view of Christianity view the Bible as a human product in response to God, written for their current audience with great care and prayer.  The Spirit of God was surely sought and received, but the scrolls the biblical writers wrote on were filled with their fingerprints: their worldview, their sensibilities, their agenda, everything.  If we think about who God is, we can affirm that God would not want to wipe those fingerprints away, as God uses people as they are, capitalizing on who they are, working in cooperation with people’s total identity to bring redemption into the world.  In this view, the Bible is an historical product of two historical communities: Israel and the early Christian movement.  The truth that it contains is related to the time and place in which it was written.  Some of those truths easily relate to all times.  Others are clearly time-specific, need to be appreciated, yet kept as a relic from the past that no longer speaks directly to our current reality.  When the Bible is approached this way, a lot of the problems disappear.

Within the emerging paradigm, the Bible is still understood to be divinely inspired: the Spirit of God surely moved in the lives of the people who produced the Bible.  Their written response to God’s movement is the Bible we hold.  By extension, this way of viewing the Bible has implications for the sacred texts of faith traditions beyond Judaism and Christianity.  Using the same criteria, we can appreciate what they are communicating in their time and place in history, too.

In the emerging view, the Bible is Sacred Scripture.  Our ancestors declared that what we have were the most important documents to the faith in it’s earliest expressions.  The Bible provides the foundation for our belief, identity, and wisdom for how we think about reality and how to live.  The text is sacred in the sense that it serves to connect us to the divine.  The Bible is no less important in the emerging tradition than the earlier tradition – the primary difference is essentially on who gets the most credit for producing it.

The final major distinction Borg recognizes as it relates to the Bible is that it needs to be appreciated as metaphor, and not necessarily literally.  This might initially freak people out who have been raised with the earlier paradigm, as it might conjure up the idea of the Bible-as-fiction, or worse, Fake News.  Borg notes that modern Western culture identifies truth with factuality, and devalues metaphorical language.  When we ask the question, “Is that story true?” we are usually asking, “Did that actually happen?”  This bias toward factuality blinds us to metaphorical truth – something we all operate and employ quite frequently and comfortably without apology, even while we denounce it. We are hypocrites in this regard, as I would guess the two most memorable teachings of Jesus which communicated great truth were parables.  The parable of the Prodigal Son and the parable of the Good Samaritan are widely known and embraced as communicating great truth about the love God has for people and what love looks like when it’s lived out faithfully.  Yet they are stories.  Not factual events.  They never happened, yet they’ve happened a million times.  Metaphor, as Borg notes, is not to be understood as less-than-factual, but rather more than literal.  Read that again.  Borg further contends that “the more-than-literal meaning of biblical texts has always been most important,” and that “only in the last few centuries has their factuality been emphasized as crucial.”

One of my favorite musicals is Into the Woods, which dovetails multiple children’s fables together into a crazy mish-mashed adventure.  I love it because of the truth it speaks about the human experience.  Great truth is communicated through the lyrics and characters and storyline.  The metaphor is more than factual.

With the understanding of the Bible as historical, sacred, and metaphorical, let’s take a look at a text (Luke 8:22-25, NLT) and see what we can do with it, and what God might do with us.

One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s cross to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and started out. As they sailed across, Jesus settled down for a nap. But soon a fierce storm came down on the lake. The boat was filling with water, and they were in real danger.
     The disciples went and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”
When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and the raging waves. Suddenly the storm stopped and all was calm. Then he asked them, “Where is your faith?”
     The disciples were terrified and amazed. “Who is this man?” they asked each other. “When he gives a command, even the wind and waves obey him!”

Debate all you want as to whether this story is literally true.  At the end of the day, however, the metaphorical truth is what will be of actual value.  I am confident that over the millions of times this story has been shared, the application has not been, “So, if you’re ever in a small watercraft in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, and a storm comes on real fast and threatens to capsize you, remember that Jesus calmed the storm.”  I am certain the power of the story has come across something like this: “I felt like the storms of life were going to take me out.  I cried out to God for help.  Somehow, some way, a peace came over me that I cannot explain, and I got through it.  It’s like God gave me calm in the middle of the storm like Jesus did with the disciples.”  For a group of Christians in the first century who may have been consistently hiding from those who threatened to literally kill them, this was particularly comforting and true.  Truth spoken into their historical context.  It was part of the sacred story that helped them understand the nature of God and everything else, shaped their identity, and provided wise counsel to help them move forward in the way of Christ.  This story provided great truth, regardless of whether or not it actually happened literally. 

Here is a helpful tool to help you gain metaphorical truth from a text:

When I hear the story of ______, I see my life with God in this way: _____________.

Let’s  end with a Psalm and a reflection in light of the text we viewed.  Held together, we see that Luke was tying God and Jesus together, to encourage readers to see that thread and have hope.

God visits the earth and waters it.

God turns a desert into pools of water,

a parched land into springs of water.

The river of God is full of water.

God waters the furrows abundantly,

softening the earth with showers,

and blessing its growth.

– Adapted from Psalm 65:9-10


Christ sails with us to the other side.

Christ turns a raging storm into calm waters,

a place of terror into amazement.

The sea of Christ is full of possibility.

Christ rebukes the wind,

softening the storm with authority,

and accompanying our way.

So true.

Faith: The Way of the Heart: Experiencing the Heart of Christianity

What constitutes a “good” cup of coffee?  What are the first few thoughts that come to mind? 

Maybe for you, a good cup of coffee is a free cup of coffee!  For some of you, a good cup of coffee means that the beans were roasted to perfection, which means there is no bitter, burnt taste.  Also, it means the beans used were of good quality, and from regions around the world that produce varying flavor profiles.  You want nuttiness, so you throw in some beans from Guatemala.  But you also like a bit of a fruity, winey taste, so you add in some beans from Ethiopia.  Then is has to be ground correctly – and not too long after it was roasted.  Naturally, the coffee has to be brewed appropriately and served at the correct temperature.  For it to be really good, it needs to be served in a decent mug, in a great setting with some of your favorite people, with the right playlist in the background.  That’s a good cup of coffee – for me, at least. 

The way we define “good” varies from person to person depending on a wide range of factors, doesn’t it?  The words we use to define “good” sheds light on a lot of things, including who raised us and where, how much exposure to different coffees we’ve experienced, and much more.  We don’t think about why we define good the way we do until something encourages us to do so.

What does it mean to have faith in God?  What are the first few thoughts that come to mind?

The way we think about faith also varies from person to person, but the prevailing way most people in Western culture understand faith is simply believing in God, and believing certain things about God.  There is billboard on I-80 that states in huge letters, “There is proof that God exists!”  For agnostics and atheists alike, faith and belief are about God’s existence.  Is that how people have always thought about faith?  Addressing primarily Jewish Christians everywhere, the Letter to the Hebrews in the Bible’s New Testament gives us a picture of faith:

By an act of faith, Abraham said yes to God's call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going. By an act of faith he lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents. Isaac and Jacob did the same, living under the same promise. Abraham did it by keeping his eye on an unseen city with real, eternal foundations—the City designed and built by God.
     By faith, barren Sarah was able to become pregnant, old woman as she was at the time, because she believed the One who made a promise would do what he said. That's how it happened that from one man's dead and shriveled loins there are now people numbering into the millions.
     Each one of these people of faith died not yet having in hand what was promised, but still believing. How did they do it? They saw it way off in the distance, waved their greeting, and accepted the fact that they were transients in this world. People who live this way make it plain that they are looking for their true home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back any time they wanted. But they were after a far better country than that—heaven country. You can see why God is so proud of them, and has a City waiting for them. – Hebrews 11:8-16 (The Message)

The word faith is obviously a critical part of the equation in these verses.  In fact, some refer to the whole eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews as The Hall of Fame of Faith because it lists so many people in Jewish history who were champions when it comes to faith.  Did they understand faith the same way most Western people do today?

In short, the answer is no.  It’s not that we get it totally wrong so much as we don’t appreciate the fullness of the meaning of the word as those who have gone before us.  This is largely due to the massive paradigm shift that took place in the 1600’s whereby the scientific approach to everything bled into theology.  The reason we can be confident that we’re missing out on something is related to the meaning of the word faith over time in the Christian tradition.  In the history of Christianity, there have been four ways to think about faith, each described below.

Faith as Assensus (think “assent”).  The most dominant way most Western people think about faith is that it is an assent to belief in something as true.  Factually true, to be more precise.  Factually true even in the absence of evidence.  As Borg stated, “Faith is what you turn to when knowledge runs out.  Even more strongly, faith is what you need when beliefs and knowledge conflict” (30).  In contemporary culture, the earlier Christian view calls for faith that God created the world just as Genesis portrays, that the Red Sea really was parted, that the sun really did stand still during a battle, that a virgin really did become pregnant, and every other miraculous thing happened just as it reads in the Bible.  Borg points out that there was no conflict between belief and knowledge prior to the scientific revolution, because the conventional wisdom of the day (regarding everything) was totally aligned with theological thinking.  Faith required no effort then as it does now.  The opposite of this kind of faith is doubt and disbelief, which is often viewed and articulated as sin.  Borg contends that this faith as belief is relatively impotent because it holds very little transforming power.  This way of faith is one that remains largely in the head – a thinking exercise.  In contrast, the remaining three are relationally understood uses of the term.

Faith as Fiducia (think “trust”).  Rather than giving assent to a list of beliefs about God, this way of faith is “believing in God as trusting in God”.  Kierkegard described faith as akin to floating in a deep ocean.  Panicking and flailing your arms struggling to stay afloat will get you drowned in a hurry.  But trusting the ocean – that buoyancy is real – and relaxing will find you floating.  Think of Peter walking on water to meet Jesus.  When his trust shifted from the Spirit of God to the choppiness of the waves, he sank.  The Bible depicts God as a rock, a fortress upon which we found our lives.  Jesus invited us to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field to teach about this kind of faith.  The opposite of this is mistrust, which leads to anxiety and worry, which is what motivated Jesus’ birds/lilies analogy.  Jesus taught that little faith, little trust in God led to anxiety.  The hope offered in this mode of faith, then, is a less anxiety-ridden life, which is a free life, free to live and love.  That kind of radical trust offers great transforming power.

Example: Kevin Durant & Nick Young.  I am a Golden State Warriors fan.  Last year, the Dubs acquired Kevin Durant.  This year, we picked up Nick Young.  Both of these players came from teams with a very different culture than the Warriors.  Each player came in reflecting the team culture they left behind. I knew it would only be a matter of time before the the Warriors’ culture worked into them.  It happened.  The Kevin Durant who was interviewed during his first few months as a Warrior compared to now is stunning in contrast.  The 2016 Durant was guarded, “tough”, spoke few words, and was fairly defensive and short in his responses.  Today, Durant is open, warm, relaxed, engaged, and generous with his love for his teammates and the fans.  Nick Young’s first few games showed everyone that he was used to shooting the ball every time he touched it.  That’s not Warriors culture – we’re known for passing the ball around to open up shots.  Now, after half a season, Nick Young is much more Warrior-like, playing like the culture that has welcomed him.  The culture wins, and wins every time.  I trust the culture of God to win, too.  It may take time, but love really does win.  I have faith in God to do that everywhere.

Faith as Fidelitas (think “fidelity”).  This kind of faith refers to a loyalty to a person, a relationship.  Allegiance and commitment of self at the deepest level are intended here.  The opposite, of course, is infidelity.  Cheating on God – choosing not to be faithful – was an issue the Jewish nation struggled with in the form of idolatry.  The prophets told Israel they were guilty of adultery. Fidelity means much more than “not cheating”, however.  Faith in this way implies a radical centering on God so that to love God means to love what God loves.  Bells might be going off in your head as you recall the greatest and second greatest commandments: love God and love your neighbor with everything you’ve got.  It’s ethical, not just a head trip.

Example: Pete and Lynne Shaw.  The household I grew up in put high value on music and the arts in general.  My sisters introduced me to musicals at a young age, which undoubtedly contributed to my eventual participation in many shows and singing in groups since high school.  I still love a good musical.  My wife, on the other hand, was raised on Kansas City Royals baseball.  She fondly remembers Sunday afternoons sitting with her dad watching a game on the single channel their rabbit-eared TV could pick up.  She is a baseball junkie.  Faithfulness for us means that Lynne has learned to appreciate – even love – musicals.  And I have learned to appreciate – even love – watching games with her (now add Warriors, Niners and Chiefs).  We have done so because we love each other, and have therefore learned to love what the other loves.  When I spend time watching a game and she spends time watching a musical, we show love to each other.  I think this is how it works with faith, too.  As I learn what God loves, I am interested in knowing more.  There are many things I now love that I did not before.  I grew to love them because I love God, and God loves those things.  To love those things is, in a very real way, loving God.

Faith as Visio: “Vision”.  In this mode, faith is a way of seeing, our vision of the whole, of what is.  Borg nods to theologian Richard Niebuhr in his unpacking three ways of seeing.  A first way of seeing envisions the world as hostile and threatening, which leads to a defensive posture warranting our desire for greater and greater security.  In earlier ways of thinking about Christianity, Godself needs to be feared as one who will “get us” in the end if we don’t get things straightened out.  A second way of seeing has us looking at everything as indifferent and uncaring.  While this does not breed the same level of paranoia as the first, it still makes us walk with a tight grip in order to maintain security.  The third type of vision sees “what is” as life giving and nourishing, even gracious.  Faith involves seeing God as generous which leads to radical trust in God, and a willingness to spend oneself for the sake of a vision bigger than self.  It is a marked that is recognized by freedom, joy, peace and love.  The Christian tradition itself in all of its fullness is a metaphor for God – to live within one is to live hand in hand with the other.

Aside.  Borg points out that Martin Luther’s life changed dramatically because of his faith.  Earlier in his life he committed himself to a life of faith in the assensus kind of way.  In fact, it was after he tried his best to live in assent to beliefs about God and beliefs about rules to follow that he came to the conclusion that there had to be another way than the works of and assensus-type faith.  His transformation led him to see differently, trust God, and be faithful – the last three relational modes of faith. 

Example: Pavement weeds.  When I was a kids, our street got a fresh few inches of asphalt.  When they laid it down, it “bled” beyond the original pavement, covering over dirt and grass and weeds.  Whatever it covered, it apparently killed.  The next spring, however, much to our surprise, through a small crack near our mailbox emerged a lone weed!  To quote a great recurring line from the Jurrasic Park movies: life found a way.  We are all too familiar with how destructive fire can be, leaving behind black mountainsides that were once lush and green.  But even just weeks after the devastating fires, after a rain came, so did fresh green shoots of grass.  It is easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless after you’ve been burned.  It makes us tighten up in every way.  But the nature of God’s creation and everything in it speaks of more, of life that comes despite the burn.  Faith means I choose to see the world this way.  In doing so, I naturally become part of bringing it about.

Is there value in the mode of faith that calls for assent to certain beliefs?  Borg says yes.  Within the faith tradition, there are some big notions that deserve big affirmations: the reality of God, the centrality of Jesus to the Christian faith, and the centrality of the Bible.  He notes that our heritage who created and affirmed the creeds of old weren’t simply making statements of items of belief, but that they were committing to a person – God.  Their affirmations were statements of loyalty.  For them, to believe was to belove.

So, what makes for a “good” cup of coffee?  I wonder if your way of thinking about that word “good” has actually whet your appetite to rethink wasting your taste buds on crappy sludge, even if it is cheap or free.  Maybe you’ll think about it a little more now, and enjoy a more satisfying cup because you did.

I wonder also about your faith.  As I’ve noted throughout, it is very likely that the dominant way you have understood faith is through the assensus vein.  Now that you have learned or been reminded of more ways to think about faith, I hope your appetite for God has been whet as well, that perhaps you’re realizing that you may have sold faith short, that there is more here than we’ve thought before.  Something incredibly rich, life giving, rewarding, inviting, and compelling.

Which aspect of faith do you sense God inviting you to explore more?  Here’s an idea.  Pick one of the ways to develop.  It’s not hard, just reflect on it, pray about it, and ask God to lead you toward it.  Then keep your eyes, ears, mind, heart, and hands open and see what develops.  If you need help, I’d be happy to sort some ideas out.  The point is to develop a robust faith that fosters more divine and less dust…

We conclude this session – as with each session – with a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer (Jim Cotter):

Eternal Spirit,

Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,

Source of all this is and that shall be.

Father and Mother of us all,

Loving God, in whom is heaven.

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!

The way of your justice be followed by peoples of the world!

Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.

In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.

From trials too great to endure, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love now and forever. Amen.

*Note: This is a twelve week series based on Marcus Borg’s seminal book, The Heart of Christianity, with significant input from  the group discussion book, Experiencing the Heart of Christianity by Tim Scorer.