Almost 20 years ago, newly engaged to Jane and working in LA, but not quite ordained as a rabbi, I met a man who would become my best friend – Laurence Keene. Back then, he was both an active minister and professor. And, back then, I had scant knowledge about the Christian Bible. Larry gave me a syllabus of books (Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong) and, over the course of years, we spent hours discussing the ideas of these erudite, brilliant, yet down-to-earth theologians.
Marcus Borg died on January 21. I asked Larry to summarize what he learned from Borg so that the learning could be multiplied.
What I Have Learned From My Friend, Marcus Borg Dr. Laurence Charles Keene
I have always worn two ‘occupational hats’ during my adult professional career. I have been a sociologist who taught at Pepperdine University for 40 years. I have also been an ordained Christian minister who has been engaged in preaching and parish work for almost 60 years. These ‘two hats’ represent two very different ways of looking at the world around us. One hat calls for the way of scientific validation as we look at the world around us and the other hat summons us to the call of faith as we journey through life. Many have found it very difficult to put these two very different hats on the same head. Admittedly, it has not always been easy for me either but it has become easier as the hair under these hats has become thinner and more white!
I grew up in a Christian denomination that was very conservative in its religious and political views. As I grew older and read more widely I became less and less comfortable with this conservative understanding of the Bible, God, and the social world around me, that had guided me in my youth and young adulthood. I increasingly became aware that there is nothing wrong with a fifth-grade understanding of the Bible . . . as long as one is in the fifth-grade! At some time in my mid-twenties I realized that my fifth-grade understanding of the Bible wasn’t working for me any longer. Enter, Marcus Borg. From the 21 books Marcus Borg has written (all of which I have read three or four times), the following insights are just a few of the many lessons I have learned that have moved me onward from the fifth-grade to a deeper and far more enriching understanding of God, the Bible and the religious journey I started in my youth and continue to enjoy and celebrate now in the sunset years of my life!
The Bible as Truth, not True
I learned from Marcus Borg that understanding the Bible (and particularly for us Christians, the New Testament) it is far more revealing and empowering if we read and interpret the scriptures metaphorically than if we read and interpret them literally. Borg (and most of the respected biblical scholars today) suggest that this is the way the early Christians interpreted both the words of Jesus and the mighty works that accompanied his ministry. Instead of asking: “Did these miraculous events literally happen or take place?” (the old liberal vs. conservative debate) one should look at these events and say: “What do these events (for example, Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 with a little boy’s lunch) mean for us today?” In short, Borg is saying to us that it is better to look at the scriptures as truth statements (statements that are trying to reveal a truth to us) and not necessarily as true statements (that is, as literally factual statements). To state it a little differently, Borg is saying that this way of looking at scripture, while it may be different than the way we looked and interpreted it in our youth, still looks at scripture seriously even though it does not look at it literally.
It’s Not About Belief, It’s About Surrender
The second valuable lesson I learned from Marcus Borg is that the heart of the message of Jesus was not primarily contained in a list of beliefs and ideas we may give assent or agreement to that will ensure for us the gift of eternal life in heaven some day in the future. Rather, for Borg, the heart of Jesus’ teaching points us to the surrendering of our lives to God’s presence within us that will both transform us and will create a force within us that will also transform the world around us as well! In fact, the very desire on our part to live forever in heaven, or anywhere else for that matter, is a clear proof that God’s transforming power is not working within us at all! It is clear proof that denying ourselves, crucifying ourselves, and obliterating our egos has not taken place in our lives at all. All of these characteristics are the hallmarks of those who truly have been “born again”, “born anew”, and “born from above”.
Keeping the Mystery Alive
There is so much more I have learned from this learned and humble man, but let me close with this final lesson that has been so insightful and helpful to me. As important as ideas are (and, of course, the language required to help in the communicating of them), ideas and language are simply not enough to help us navigate and understand the inner and outer worlds we have to deal with in life. There is something more that is needed! Ideas and language can actually domesticate (or tame) the full reality we seek to clarify and understand in life. We get close to this truth when we examine one of the important elements of Eastern philosophy and that is their emphasis (sometimes through meditation) on the “stilling of one’s mind”, that is the playing down or minimizing the effect of one’s intellect. The whirling (or dancing) Dervishes in Sufism actually drink alcohol and then dance to accomplish this effect. Borg urges us to open ourselves to the mystical experiences that are available to us in our religious pursuit of God. Borg used ‘Mystery’ (with a capital ‘M’) as being synonymous with ‘God.’ He tells us that God can be known, or more properly ‘experienced’, in those quiet mysterious moments in our lives not just in the ideas or beliefs that we glean from holy scripture. When we attend a theater to see a play being performed, once the ‘mystery’ has been solved and we find out that “the butler did it”, the play is over! Borg urges us to not let that happen in our faith journey. Not everything can be solved or understood. We must keep mystery alive in our religious quest. For me, a scientist and a man of letters and education, this is an important and sometimes a very difficult lesson to learn. It is vital for us to understand that our religion is not just a matter of the head. It is also a matter of the heart for which there is not always a word or an idea to express or explain it!