Tuesday, March 10, 2015

In Memory of Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg was born on March 11, 1942—eight days after my little sister. But whereas my sister is alive and well—in celebration of her birthday June and I had a good visit (and a good meal) with her and her husband in St. Joe last week—Borg passed away on January 21 of this year.
Borg’s death was a great loss to the Christian academic world, for he was a good scholar and a prolific writer. He will be especially missed by many non-conservative Christians, for whom he was long a noteworthy spokesman.
The New York Times referred to Borg as “a leading evangelist of what is often called progressive Christianity.” His interpretation of the Christian faith convinced many people to remain a Christian.
That article related how Borg spoke at a packed church in Colorado a few years ago. Then, on the day Borg died, the pastor of that church said he received an email from a young woman in his church. She wrote “Without Marcus, I wouldn’t be able to call myself a Christian.”
Similarly, the author of an article in The Christian Century avers that many Christians “identify Borg as the person who made space for them to return to—or remain in—the Christian faith.” To the extent that that is true, Borg is certainly praiseworthy.
Borg’s contribution to contemporary Christianity was much like that of Henry Emerson Fosdick in the 1920s. In the first chapter of my book “The Limits of Liberalism” (2010) there is a brief section on “the liberalism of Fosdick.” Then in the second chapter, Borg is presented as one of the “contemporary leaders of liberalism.”
Borg, like Fosdick, was able to interpret the Bible and Christian beliefs in ways that appealed to those who were no longer able to accept or to abide in the teachings of fundamentalism or restrictive conservatism.
Borg’s picture is also one of four liberal Christian theologians on the cover of my book. Because I thought some of his theological views were too liberal, in the section about him I said that Borg “writes in such an evenhanded and convincing manner that in some ways he is the most ‘dangerous’ of the contemporary liberals.”
Borg began writing his last book when he turned seventy. He called it “Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most,” and it was published less than a year ago. It is a fine book and I enjoyed reading it—and I think it is more balanced theologically than his earlier books.

In the introduction of “Convictions,” Borg writes, “Seventy isn’t a guarantee of wisdom or a license to be dogmatic. It’s quite easy to be an opinionated old fool.” It was generous of him to say that—and yours truly needs to remember that also!
If all I had known of Borg was what he wrote in this book, he wouldn’t have been used as an example of contemporary Christian liberalism. And I find that now I am much more in agreement with Borg’s “convictions” than with the theological stance of my own sister.
During the meal at Ryan’s last week, she began asking questions about my theological beliefs. It became quite evident that my views have changed considerably from what we both believed back in the 1950s. But her beliefs seem to be much the same—and she most likely sees that as a positive thing.

But many realize that a broader theological worldview is needed. So they, and I, are grateful for the life and work of Marcus Borg.


  1. Nice tribute, Leroy. Your blog leaves me with questions, though. So how did you and your sister's conversation go? What was it that you didn't like about Borg's work? (I know I read your book; that doesn't mean I remember all of it. :) How have your views changed? Have they changed with regard to Borg's work? Why would you view liberalism as dangerous? If some people have remained Christians because of Borg, what does it mean, then, to be a Christian? Well, thanks for the blog.

    1. Anton, thanks for raising good and pertinent questions. Let me try to answer them, although it will not be possible to give complete answers here.

      The conversation with my sister was fine, I guess. She mostly questioned my beliefs, and I gave her straightforward, honest answers. It was a very civil conversation, and although there were disagreements, there were no disagreeable attitudes shown—or at least I didn’t think so.

      My main objection to Borg was perhaps concerning what he wrote when he was most active in the Jesus Seminar. I thought he went too far in rejecting the conservative (fundamentalistic) Christianity of his boyhood. As I have often said, it is not commendable to go from one extreme to the other. I still contend there can be, and should be, a radiant center between the extremes.

      Perhaps “dangerous” was too strong a word, but I used it only in quotation marks, by which I meant that the word was being used in a nuanced manner. He was “dangerous,” I thought, because he wrote so well and so persuasively—and thereby was likely to lead others to what I considered to be too far to the liberal side of the theological continuum.

      When I read his last book, I don’t know if he had changed some or whether I had—perhaps a little of both. But I found it much closer to what I consider the radiant center.

      Certainly it is much better, I think, for a person to be a liberal Christian than not a Christian at all. And by “Christian” I mean one who identifies with the life and teaching of Jesus Christ and who seeks to follow the example and teaching of Jesus.

  2. Dr. Jim Tanner, a local Thinking Friend who is a retired professor and administrator from William Jewell College, gave me permission to post his meaningful comments:

    "Have you been reading Brett Younger's columns in ABP News for the past few months? He is on leave from Mercer's seminary and is pastoring a church temporarily in South America. He has been quite eloquent in voicing his discoveries that his God was too small until he had the experience of leading an international congregation in a foreign city and found that, as you say, 'a broader theological worldview is needed.'

    "The gospel he and you and I grew up with is too narrow, too parochial, too culture-ridden. We that have eyes have had to learn to see and have been the better for it."

  3. Rev. Lydia Barrow-Hankins is one of my Thinking Friends in Japan and a personal friend and colleague for many years at Seinan Gakuin (University). I knew she was fond of Marcus Borg and appreciate her taking time to share these comments:

    "Marcus Borg was never too liberal for me. I identify with the comment in the article, Leroy, 'Without Marcus, I wouldn’t be able to call myself a Christian.'

    "Reading Borg made me a kinder, gentler Christian, to borrow a phrase, and more open to respecting the Bible enough to reinterpret for a new generation in ways that preserve the essence even if the wording sounds really different.

    "When Borg came to Mercer University to speak, my son Micah was a student there. I made him promise to go to the lecture. Micah said he considered buying a book for me and having it signed but concluded instead that I probably already had all of Borg's books. So Micah took the program for the lecture up to Borg and asked him to sign it to 'Lydia' because, 'my mother is a fan.'

    "I never got to hear Borg in person, so that is the closest I ever got! It takes courage to be the voice that reinterprets people's sacred cows, and Borg did that for all of us. I for one am truly grateful for his life and his writings."

  4. Dr. Rosanne Osborne, a Thinking Friend whom June and I first knew as a classmate at Southwest Baptist College sixty years ago this fall and who fairly recently became a Methodist pastor in Louisiana, sent the following comments and gave me permission to post them here:

    "I read your post on Marcus Borg with interest. Last week, I preached the funeral of a long-time colleague from Louisiana College at Emmanuel Baptist Church. She had been reading Borg's 'Convictions,' and we had had a conversation about that book the weekend before her death.

    "Of course, that I would preach a funeral in a Baptist church is an interesting commentary on that church, on the changes in my theology since college, and the influence on me of several folks who were influenced by Borg's thought.

    "That broader theological view of which you speak is an amazingly freeing experience."

  5. I first remember being specifically aware of Borg through his columns in Bible Review some years back. A Christmas present in 1997 was a copy from my parents of his book, "The God We Never Knew." So I got to explore the distinct between pantheism and panentheism. It was inspiring to study the writing of such a kind and thoughtful person. Not that I always agreed with him, I am way too stubborn for that!

    Brian McLaren posted a moving tribute to Borg here: http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/in-honor-of-marcus-borg.html

  6. Hmmm. An interesting view of a dynamic/novel approach to western Christianity. Questions should be asked of the faith, but somehow having a foundation in the historic, orthodox Church does not seem a bad thing. Without the foundations, I would not be able to call myself a Christian.