the death of Marcus Borg and his willful ignorance

"R.I.P. Marcus Borg" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

“R.I.P. Marcus Borg” cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

(Buy the original or a print of this cartoon HERE!)

Marcus Borg died yesterday.

The first time I heard of Marcus Borg was in seminary. I went to the very evangelical seminary Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. So to say that Borg wasn’t highly favored would be an understatement.

At the time the Jesus Seminar was at the height of its influence. They used small colored balls to vote on the historicity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus. If I remember correctly, the black ball was a vote indicating that the deed or saying was not historical. We would scoff the seminar as “blackballing Jesus”.

I’d never even read Borg.

Until I entered the severest period of deconstruction. I read his collaboration with N. T. Wright in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (Plus). I appreciated Borg’s arguments. Then I read The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, and I realized  I appreciated the way he articulated my journey.

One of the things I admired about him most was his willingness to say “I don’t know!” Here’s a quote:

“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.”

So when I say “willful ignorance”, I mean his willingness to admit he didn’t know. His willingness to embrace mystery. What I’ve learned is that this is not a cop out. In fact, I claim that insisting it is so or it is not so may actually be the cop out, the unwillingness to enter darkness, to not know, to embrace mystery.

In any profession, it takes courage to say I don’t know. But especially in today’s theological climate of certainty, it’s very risky to do so.

Hm. If I’ve got this right, when the Buddha was asked if there was a soul, he taught the middle path where one embraces that there is a soul and there is not a soul. We don’t insist one way or the other. We paradoxically walk between them.

This middle path is not a passive path, but a very active, insightful and wise path that provokes significant change in our minds and transformation in our lives.

I think Borg understood this, and I appreciate him for that.

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28 Responses

  1. Doug Sloan says:

    The middle path is one of constant tension.

    Thus, Jesus would not overtly dismiss any of the Law. It was about maintaining the tension – the tension between a life of Love, Grace, Justice, and Compassion and a life of legalistic obedience and ritual purity. It is not about indecision or balance, it is not about weighing the options and analyzing the arguments and then making a choice. It is about tension as a cathartic experience, a purifying fire, and death. We have to die to the laws and rituals. Only then can there be resurrection and transformation.

  2. Alpha Lim says:

    Well said. The grasping for certainty where certainty is impossible, is the suspect thing!

  3. Charles Kiker says:

    I am sorry to learn of Marcus Borg’s death. I like David Hayward’s blog and Doug’s comment. Is Marcus Borg in “heaven”? I don’t know. But he has helped me in my not knowingness.

  4. Gary says:

    I am presently reading “Insurrection” by Peter Rollins. Doug I suspect you have read this…and if not I would encourage you too. I think you would find it insightful. For me personally, I have found that embracing the not knowing can be very liberating.

  5. The Cloud of Unknowing. A classic. Borg embodied that idea.

  6. James Harder says:

    I’d been at that point in my journey where my spiritual integrity prevented me from being able to recite the creed for quite some time. When I spotted a poster outside the Quaker Meeting House which read, “We may not have the answers but we can help you ask the questions” I knew it would be a safe place for me..

  7. Sabio Lantz says:

    Ignorance is a tightly embraced precept in my worldview.
    But it does not mean I embrace non-discerning open-mindedness about just anyone’s speculations — be that astrology, spooks, gods or any old thing.

    David, you said:
    “[the Buddha] taught the middle path where one embraces that there is a soul and there is not a soul.”

    As far as the soul goes — knowing what the historical Buddha thoughts is as tough as knowing what a possible historical Jesus thought. But I don’t think you stated the common understanding of his stance on Soul.

    It was not that it both existed and did not exist, but that worrying about a soul [which is what Hindus at his time did — and Christians do today] is unproductive. Just like worrying about unicorns or Elvis’ spirit would be unproductive.

    But I may be wrong — I often am.

  8. I would agree with that Sabio. The Buddha taught the middle path between eternalism and nihilism… which for me indicates the same sort of idea.

  9. Sabio Lantz says:

    I am not sure we are agreeing, David. I think you are over-extending the concept of “middle path” to make him say it is wrong to suspect that something called a soul does not exists.

    You see to be saying that one must stay skeptical about a soul — but I think the Buddha’s position is stronger : thinking about a “soul” is a waste of time and distracting.

    Am I misunderstanding you?

  10. I think it is more than just saying it is a waste of time, but that the middle path transcends opposite statements about existence.

  11. Sabio Lantz says:

    Oooops, did my comments disappear?

  12. I think Buddha would take the middle path on whether or not you and David agree Sabio. 😉 I was sad to see Borg died, David. Truly a great non-knower. I love your tribute to him.

  13. Craig Bartlett says:

    Thanks for this. The willingness to ‘live into mystery’, which people like Marcus Borg embraced, is a gift which we all need to avail of. His death has been a kind of wake-up call for me to take on the task of living out a progressive practice of Christianity. RIP Marcus Borg.

  14. Debbie Davis says:

    I really appreciate the way you describe the middle path: “This middle path is not a passive path, but a very active, insightful and wise path that provokes significant change in our minds and transformation in our lives.” Just because a person can’t articulate their beliefs in black and white language, doesn’t mean that those beliefs are less valid, easier to come by or easier to live with.
    I love the cartoon and your tribute to Marcus Borg. I read two of his books and they were very helpful to me.

  15. I might as well share my embarrassment. I found your material on-line and I was irritated. Can’t they wait a few days to attack, I thought. But I read it and it wasn’t an attack at all. It was actually helpful.

    Thank you for writing it. And shame on me for pasting judgment prematurely. A bit like some Borg critics.

    I traveled with Borg and Crossan in Turkey and came to appreciate his scholarship, his knowledge and his spirit. Later at a public lecture, he gave me words that I actually use from time to time: “Sometimes the Bible is wrong”. Wonderful what freedom retirement gives some of us.

    I have some baggage with Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I attended an United Methodist Church near the campus and a student was leading the adult class. In the course of his lecture he said that 1/4 of United Methodist clergy didn’t believe in God. I challenged him with a bit of my own exaggeration. Something about ignorant statements. But I asked him for his basis for making such a statement. His proof: 1/4 of United Methodist clergy had read a book by John Cobb. The class just listened to this exchange. Afterwards some members quietly thanked me for challenging him. But he obviously had them cowed or wowed. And I wondered about a church utilizing such talent to badmouth their own denomination.

    There are lots of things I do not know, but it obviously doesn’t stop me from expressing opinions.

  16. Wow John I enjoyed reading your comment. Great story. Thanks 🙂

  17. Phil Asquith says:

    I was saddened to hear of Macus’ death. He is/was one of my theological heroes; a bit of a ‘brain crush’. I too loved the way he joyously expressed his uncertainty and was willing to expose his own faith and doubts to the world through his books. Tillich, Borg and Brian McLaren, my three (current) favourite theologians. God has taken two of them, but I’ve still got one left.

  18. Jim Dingle says:

    I know the one in whom i trust
    Doubt is good until Jesus chastises us for having it
    Many of you seem like ‘good’ anglicans, lovely nice soft and woofly peop’s.
    Intellectual mastication rules right?
    Or maybe you are not sure about that?
    Please tell me none of yo are meant to be God Parents?
    I like the cartoon so perhaps i am not a total caveman
    Armchair cowards some would call you
    But then i live in a so called developing country
    Isn’t it could that we can die with only God to know our true faith or true lack of faith
    For me, this site is an entertainment break, hope you do not mind.
    Here i agonise between supplying an antibioitic to a state childrens ward that has had none for over 3 months or milk powder to the same ward. Dead babies don’t need antibiotics, i bought both. What do you do?
    sincerely perplexed about issues too
    in his grip
    Jim 🙂

  19. Ignatz says:

    Borg himself was quite critical of the Jesus Seminar, at least as presented by Funk and Hoover in the Five Gospels. He thought they mischaracterized what the Seminar actually did.

    A good scholar and an honest man. I just found out he died. Biblical Scholarship is much worse off with his passing.

  20. Keith Hays says:

    Like Borg, I don’t know and I don’t expect to have the answer this side of that bourne from which no traveler returns. Sometimes I envy my mother for having learned those answers.

  21. Mothers:

    I remember visiting with a mother in Girdwood, Alaska, who was devastated because her son came home with some new thoughts and ideas from his seminary. She proclaimed that “he was losing his faith”, which I came to understand meant that he had some ideas to which she had never been exposed and certainly didn’t accept.

    Contrast that to my mother’s response when I shared the contents of a lecture on the “virgin birth” from my own seminary experience. She replied: “how fascinating. My mother had some of those same questions and concerns about that particular doctrine.” (That would have been my grandmother.)

    For some it is “my way or the highway”. I am glad to think otherwise. As John Wesley said: “if your heart is as my heart, then give me your hand.” That spirit would cut down some of the conflict we are observing in the 2lst century. We need more hand holding.

    . ose

  22. melanie statom says:

    If Christians truly believe the ineffable” mystery of God” took on human flesh, became the definitive translation ” living Word” of this mystery so beyond us, yet present to us in the living Word and ” translation ” of Jesus Christ, then our knowing or not knowing is never an endless seeking, but a finding not exhausted of its meaning during our time of earthly existence. As an infant in the womb of its mother cannot imagine fully the Mother it gestates in, so too do we indwell the mystery of God and surely at the end of all our exploring there will be a meeting, face to face with the transcendent mystery indwelling our human flesh. RIP Marcus Borg.

  23. Alan Shope says:

    Read many of his books over the years, beginning with “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.” He helped me understand what it means to “follow Jesus” beyond the dogmas of the church. His more recent publication, the New Testament in the order the books were written, clearly shows how Christianity evolved over the first couple of generations from something simple to something far more complex that Jesus ever had on mind. He will be missed.

  24. Yes he will be missed Alan.

  25. Dale says:

    First time visitor to your very thoughtful site, which I discovered via an online list of Top Christian Blogs. (I also went to GCTS.) Biggest reason I wanted to leave a comment here is your gentle, kind, and not at all typical sentiment about Borg. I think highly of NT Wright, and the collaborative book you mention above does a wonderful job of highlighting a long-standing and respectful friendship between two men whose beliefs were not very much in concert with one another. Your warm comments above are great and gracious. Many thanks.