Lutherans in the Twin Cities

With a foundation of ‘radical grace’

Jesus Seminar scholar to speak in Minneapolis at November symposium

Marcus J. Borg is canon theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland and holds the Hundere Chair of Religion and Culture in the Philosophy Department at Oregon State University. He numbers Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota, among his previous teaching positions.

Borg believes that Christians and churches in North America today are deeply divided by two very different visions of Christianity, including different ways of seeing the Bible, the Christian tradition, the Christian life, and what it means to be Christian. He is often associated with the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who use a variety of interpretive methods to understand the life and teaching of Jesus. Borg will be the 2010 Johnson Symposium on Faith and Society lecturer at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA), Minneapolis, on November 12-13. He will speak about the differing visions about the Christian tradition and what he sees as an emerging form of Christianity today.

The Rev. Jay Carlson, pastor at Holy Trinity, interviewed Borg for Metro Lutheran while Borg was vacationing on the Oregon coast. For more information about his presentations or to register, visit www.htlcmpls.org/borg.

Metro Lutheran: Your presentation here is a return to “home country,” both in that it’s in Minnesota and at a Lutheran church. What do you appreciate most about your Lutheran upbringing?

Marcus J. Borg

Marcus Borg: I appreciate more than one thing about it. From growing up in the Lutheran church, I received a strong sense of the importance of God, Jesus, and the Bible. My family took church and Sunday school seriously. Confirmation classes met twice a week for two-and-a-half years — an hour on Thursday afternoons and all morning on Saturdays. I attended Sunday school through high school and went to a Lutheran college (Concordia, Moorhead). I taught Sunday School in a local parish my first year at Concordia (and maybe my second). For this deep immersion in Christianity in its Lutheran form, I am grateful.

Looking back as an adult on my Lutheran heritage, there are three things that I value most about the Lutheran tradition beyond my upbringing: its music, its theological and intellectual tradition (including its 19th and 20th century biblical and theological scholars), and its emphasis on unconditional grace — a notion unfortunately turned into conditional grace by a good number of Lutherans. Unconditional grace, radical grace, was the content of Luther’s breakthrough experience and the foundation of his gospel and theology.

What do you see as the most important changes taking place in North American churches today?

That is a big question. American Christians are deeply divided in our time — between theologically and politically conservative Christians and theologically and politically progressive Christians, with a large group in the middle. I am dismayed by much of what I see in conservative Christianity, including its generally enthusiastic support of a militaristic foreign policy and a domestic economic policy that privileges the wealthy.

“Surveys suggest that about a third of American adults have had at least one religious experience, though they often do not know that these are called “mystical experiences.”

I am encouraged by the moderate to progressive dynamic present in mainline denominations, including the ELCA — a movement away from a literalist and absolutist understanding of the Bible, and a movement toward a more faithful way of taking its passion seriously.

We rightly abandoned Christian legitimizing of slavery about 150 years ago, Christian legitimizing of sexism in the last 30 to 40 years, Christian legitimizing of heterosexism more recently. Now Christians and churches need to take seriously the issues of our nation’s almost unquestioned assumption that it is important to be more powerful militarily than the rest of the world combined, and the majority opinion in this country that we cannot afford to improve the economic condition of the bottom half of our population.

Though my comments may sound “only” political, the God of the Bible and the God of Jesus are passionate not only about transformed individuals, but about a transformed world — a more just and peaceful world. An increasing number of American Christians are realizing this — though still a minority. The most publicly visible form of Christianity is the Christian Right — think of how it dominates Christian television and radio and most mega-churches. Consider also that the church is the only large institution left in this country where “hate speech” is still okay — think of the vilification of gay and lesbian people, the mendacious attacks upon Islam and Muhammad.

This is terribly sad. That form of Christianity has little future with 20 and 30-somethings — and should have no future.

You have written about mysticism as “the experiential knowledge of God.” How do you understand such an experience of God, and do you think it is becoming more important in the emerging form of Christianity?

That’s another big question Mystical experiences are experiences in which God (or “the sacred”) becomes real — not just as something deeply believed, but as known. Not all people have them. Surveys suggest that about a third of American adults have had at least one such experience, though they often do not know that these are called “mystical experiences.”

For those who have had such experiences, God is no longer an article of belief, but an element of experience. They have “seen.” Those who have not had such experiences should not feel inferior. As Jesus in John’s gospel said to Thomas, “Do you believe because you have seen? Blessed also are those who believe without having seen.”

Surveys suggest that about a third of American adults have had at least one mystical experience.

So mystical experience should not be used as a way of establishing a hierarchy among Christians, but they are important and have been from biblical times to the present. Without such experiences, the notion of God and the truth of Christianity become “hypotheses” — and as hypotheses, they’re not compelling. Christianity without an experiential base remains “hypothetical.” Karl Rahner, among the greatest of 20th century Catholic theologians, said that the Christianity of the future will be mystical, or it will not be at all. The reason: Christianity without a grounding in experience is no more persuasive than other understandings of life, be they secular or religious.

In what ways do you differ from other Fellows of the Jesus Seminar?

I differ from, and am similar to, other Fellows of the Jesus Seminar in the same way that I differ from, and am similar to, members of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the largest professional association of biblical scholars in the world. All of us have doctoral degrees in a field of biblical scholarship or a closely-related field, like archeology or classical studies. Most in the Jesus Seminar and the SBL grew up as Christians, though a small minority did not. None in the Jesus Seminar and few in the SBL are fundamentalist or conservative-evangelical Christians. Some in both organizations are now agnostics or atheists. And some in both organizations are passionate Christians deeply intentional about shaping the life of the church and religions more generally.

In the Jesus Seminar, these include its most-published authors: John Dominic Crossan, Walter Wink, Steve Paterson, Karen King, Karen Armstrong, and me. We are not primarily “nay-sayers,” but “yes-sayers” to what we understand to be a more authentic vision of Christianity and religion.

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