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?