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A Way Back to Faith: Marcus Borg Dies
One of the most important New Testament scholars of recent years has died. His book 'Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time' inspired thousands.
By Erin Wathen
Listen, I don’t have a wildly inspiring story about the time I met Marcus Borg, or how one of his books saved me, precisely, from abandoning the church altogether. I did hear him speak once. From the FRONT ROW. And he was gracious, and engaging, and challenging, and yes, inspiring. But I never met him in person. The internet will be full of those stories today—testimony from those who knew him well, or met him briefly at a critical time in their life of faith, and were transformed by both his work and his way of being. I won’t try to tell that story.
But here’s what I can tell: Marcus Borg was the leading edge of Progressive Christianity, before we ever even had words like Progressive Christianity. Today, at the sad news of his death, many of us are mindful that he gave us the lexicon for this journey.
Some members of our fearless worship team spent some time last Sunday cleaning out that dreaded corner of the church known as “The Worship Closet.” (shivers). If your church has such an area—and I promise you, it does—you know the horrors of going through years of stuff and junk and things. You are not just sifting through dust (and possible bat/mouse leavings), you are literally moving through the church’s history. Seasons of change; loss and heartbreak, hope and growth, all wrapped up with old paraments, drippy purple candles, maybe some unidentified scraps of fabric. They were certainly beautiful, once. Everything in that corner was certainly useful, meaningful, lifegiving. Once.
What Marcus Borg did with his life was the systematic, sometimes tedious, but ultimately crucial work: of going through the Church’s closet. But whereas my church has about 12 years’ worth of stuff piled in that corner, he had to go through the detritus of a couple millennia. He shook the dust off of the Church’s most deeply held beliefs, drug them out into the light of day, and was not afraid to say… Where did this come from? Who gave it to us? Is it true, and does it matter?
The space that he created through that process—we may never know the measure of it. But I hear, over and over again, people say that Borg offered a “way back” for them at a critical time in their faith journey. He offered a lot of skeptical, struggling disciples a pathway back to faith and community. He claimed a sacred space for doubt at the heart of the Christian narrative. He made room at the table for those who did not ‘fit’ the space the traditional Church created for them.
To be clear, he was never just throwing away. Despite what his many critics said (and will continue to say) he was not just tossing away the core beliefs of Christianity. His goal was always to broaden the story; to challenge that which was harmful, rote, and/or merely superstition, and find –beneath the junk—a deeper truth that still held life and meaning.
And critics, there were many. Some politely challenged the veracity of his faith and scholarship. Some worried that he was a danger to ‘real’ faith and biblical authority. And some were just downright hateful, to the point of causing disturbances at his public appearances, and condemning him to hell. I’d venture that he even received threats of violence, at one time or another.
To this latter group—the haters, the rousers, the terrorists—I don’t know, I like to picture Marcus waking up in whatever kind of heaven there is this morning, and saying “Check it, bitches. I got in. Your perfect fluffy-cloud paradise is full of heretics, after all. You still coming, or what?”
Of course, he would never in life have said such a thing, so I doubt he would express such sentiment, even in death. He was far too gracious and kind. Always engaging even the most fearsome critics with patience, trusting that they—even they—were still becoming, in the image of God.
While many today are thinking of the ways Borg saved them—from leaving faith altogether– I’m thinking instead of all the ways he’s helped to save the Church from itself. Cracking windows, breaking down doors, letting some air and light into the places where our attachments and anxieties were slowly suffocating us. And paving a way for the return of those long-ago exiled to the wilderness. To them we say, welcome back, friends. We’re sorry it took us so long, but we’re making more room.
And now the question is… Now what? Who will continue this often-tedious, but very necessary work of shaking off, airing out, and creating more space for whatever new thing God would show us, if we’d just let go of last year’s Lent décor? And, Lord help us, the tarnished brass candelabra that somebody’s grandma donated in aught-7… It was surely beautiful once.
I know it’s not always fun, it’s not always pretty… but I’m putting on my dust mask and I’m going in. Who’s with me? “So, is there an afterlife, and if so, what will it be like? I don’t have a clue. But I am confident that the one who has buoyed us up in life will also buoy us up through death. We die into God. What more that means, I do not know. But that is all I need to know.” –Marcus Borg, 1942-2015.
This article appeared at Patheos where Borg had a blog.
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