Friday, July 06, 2007

Marcus Borg

July 6
FGC Gathering, River Fall, Wisconsin

Marcus Borg was the plenary speaker last night. I have mixed feelings about the event, so I'll start with the positive.

He is a very engaging human being -- friendly, funny, gracious, generous. He seemed genuinely happy to be here among us, even though he has achieved a kind of rock star status in certain circles and makes a lot of talks to groups like ours. And his talk was lucid, well organized, logical, and a joy to hear. He took questions gracefully and answered them directly. And he wore bright red socks, which endears him to me.

And he has a message to deliver. I won't try to summarize his work as a biblical scholar other than to note that the is one of great renown, and that the is a leading light of the Jesus Seminar. Of course, among the liberal Quakers at this Gathering, his scholarship and authority is accepted fairly uncritically. (A participant in the historic Jesus workshop said that the leader noted that Borg and the Jesus Seminar scholars' scholarship is not universally accepted as accurate, but didn't go deeply into the nature of the controversy. Something of that controversy can be found here. (Thank to Marshall Massey for this lead, which he gave in comment elsewhere.)

But here are some concerns I have. First, I'm disappointed that the largest audience at a plenary, by far, was for an address by a non-Quaker. Even discounting the fact that part of the crown were non-Gathering people from the nearby community who were invited to attend, the number of Quakers attending far exceeded that for the first two evenings where we had Quaker speakers. Perhaps there is something about a prophet being without honor in his own land that makes an outsider look more attractive, but we do have thinkers and writers and dare I say theologians within our own family that have something to say to us.

(Borg's address was the second Elizabeth Watson lecture, paid for by the Quaker Universalists group from a legacy for that purpose. John Shelby Spong was the first speaker in the series two years ago. It appears that this group thinks it's somehow important to have liberal Protestants address us.)

Second, I am not sure I could cite chapter and verse to support this statement, but what I heard Borg say sounded to me an awful like early Quakerism, starting with Barclay. Examples include his interpretation of the doctrine of original sin (this refers to the fact that all human beings sin, not a statement about their inherent nature), salvation (it's a liberation from sin, not an insurance policy to some kind of afterlife), and the meaning of the resurrection (it has meaning only if Jesus lives in you, regardless of his historicity). I kept looking for some new insight, something I didn't already know from my study of and experience in Quakerism, and I'm not sure I found very much. It was much more coherently presented in modern language than is often the case, but I'm not sure what of the content was new.

[Gathering moment: A man who is sharing my table just brought a cup of coffee to the table. He must have seen me looking at it with desire -- maybe I look as weary as I feel -- and he offered to give it to me, which I accepted. What a lovely man.]

Except for this, which I liked: He ended his talk by saying that, when asked by an evangelical Christian whether Jesus is his personal savior, Borg says, "Yes, I can say that, but only if I can also say that Jesus is my political savior, too." By this, he means recognizing Jesus as Lord in its political sense, not only as an savior of me as an individual. This seemed to me to also be a perfectly orthodox Quaker statement. Again, I can't cite to a source as I sit here in the cafetria, but I remember statements of George Fox to the extent that the king of England is subject to the Soverign God, and that the king's authority is legitimate only to the extent to which he acts in accord with God's will, and that the Day of the Lord consisted in large part of when earthly rules exercised their power in accord with God's design and abandoned their own selfish aggrandizement.


Well, I've finished my coffee and need to get to the final Sacred Harp singing at 3:15. The workshop ended this morning with good feeling and gratitude. More later, I hope.


MartinK said...

Hi Paul: thanks for taking the time for sharing these stories with us. I too have always wondered why people get more excited by the liberal Protestant Big Names than by Friends (or by any of the much more interesting younger liberal Protestants out there for that matter).

Maybe FGC should supplement the sign language interpreter with a Quaker language interpreter, you know, to pay someone to stand up on stage and translate Borg. Like Borg Friends?, hey you'll love Barclay! You might mention it to next year's evening plenary committee...
Martin @ Quaker Ranter

Bookdreamer said...

Hi,I read many of the liberal protestant thinkers and those on the edges of faiths such as Marcus and many others of the Weststar institute, Karen Armstrong, John Shelby Spong, Don Cupitt, Bart D. Ehrman, Richard Holloway and many of the Sea of Faith writers such as Don Cupitt.

Like you I am struck how many of these writers articulate and expand themes that Quakers are or have explored in our history. The common thread is that many of these writers and explores are trying to share a faith/practice lived by experience which plays to Quakers core practice.

However, this has cost them and they are by no means welcome in main stream Christian circles. Witness the fallout in the Anglican community of John's legacy of an inclusive church, or Karen's relationship with the Catholic church. Or the perhaps the most extreme was Lloyd Geering. In 1967 the Presbyterian Church charged him with heresy for his radical beliefs.

I do read various Quaker writers such as David Boulton, John Punshon and Ben Pink Dandelion and will be reading Consider The Blackbird
Reflections On Spirituality And Language BY HARVEY GILLMAN and want to read Light To Live By:An Exploration In Quaker Spirituality
BY REX AMBLER and Truth Of The Heart An Anthology Of George Fox EDITED BY REX AMBLER. .

However, I am struck that the non quaker writers are grappling with big issues of what God, the church, Jesus, morality etc means if we want to embrace the modern world

Yet this list of 2oth Century Quaker writings
explores inspirational individuals dealing with many issues of extreme injustice or devotional insights but would a non quaker be drawn to them?

So who are our writers and thinkers that challenge us and explain to the world the spirtual riches that could be a beacon for so many who reject a empty formula Christianity and a lets be nice to the neighbours secularism.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Hello, Paul!

Your comments here about Borg's rĂ´le at this year's FGC Gathering run parallel to my own comments, discussed two weeks ago in a "A Christianity with Drums and Feathers", about the problems inherent in bringing in featured speakers from outside Quakerism.

It's good to see that others besides myself are thinking about this matter.

Zach A said...

I'm not sure Marcus Borg or Spong would be at the top of my list either. But I think Friends are some of the most inward-looking, out-of-touch with the wider culture people on this earth, and any opportunity we have to have visitors come inside the "hedge" (or peek beyond it ourselves) is a wonderful thing.

Perhaps Friends were more interested in hearing the outside speaker because our own ideas have gotten a bit stale and inbred?

Liz Opp said...

Zach muses, Perhaps Friends were more interested in hearing the outside speaker because our own ideas have gotten a bit stale and inbred?

Along the same lines, I would muse:

Perhaps Liberal Friends are so secularized (OF the world as well as in it) that we don't value hearing from, or we don't believe we need to hear from, well-known or unknown Quakers about our own tradition.

It is still the pop-religion of our day that captures our attention moreso than the young, old, and aging Friends whose lives bear witness to how we yearn to live our lives...

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Paul L said...

I think Liz gets it just right.

We Quakers as a people do tend to value fitting in with more than standing apart from the modern world which is profoundly atheistic and nihilistic. (These terms aren't necessarily synonymous.)

When the purpose of fitting in is to find a hospitable place in which to engage the world in ministry, that's one thing, and a good thing. But when the fitting in is because we have lost (or never knew) the power of the gospel and the world's allure seems more satisfying, that's another and not a good thing.

I also want to clarify that I do not disagree with much if anything of what I heard Borg say, and deeply agree with some of it. His mantra is "take the Bible seriously, but not literally." My hope is that Friends and other hear the entire sentence and take the Bible seriously in ways they do not today. (And yes, Marshall, I'm speaking of the liberal FGC meeting Quakers I know best and cast no aspersions on any of the other branches in this regard.)

My fear is that we will use Borg and his status as a scholar to justify our disregard of the Bible, or, even worse, to impose our own meanings into the Bible rather than submitting to it as authentic authority. (Yes, of course, secondar to the authority of the Living God, but being secondary authority hardly justifies disregarding it whenever convenient.)

My sense is that the aim of Borg's work is primarily directed towards putting the church back together as a vital and revolutionary force for peace and justice in society, that this is its proper mission. To do that, of course, he has to confront and overcome the heretical doctrines and excesses posed by fundamentalism and Republican evangelicalism. But if all we do is listen to his critique and not his prognosis, we're missing the point.

Marshall Massey said...

It's been interesting to follow the dialogue between Zach, Liz and Paul.

I personally do not get the impression that "Friends are some of the most inward-looking, out-of-touch with the wider culture people on this earth", and I'm not sure where Zach gets it. Western Friends have a very high percentage of members with really good liberal educations, and I myself am endlessly impressed with the breadth and depth of their awareness of what is going on in the world.

I would dearly love to see Zach live for a single week in the lower-middle-class northern suburbs of Denver (where I lived for thirteen years), or here in Nebraska, and then to ask him whether the people he had met in his week seemed less insular and more in touch with the wider culture than Friends are.

If our own ideas seem "stale and inbred" to Zach, perhaps it might be because the people Zach has heard as featured speakers, who have been chosen from within the ranks of Friends, have been people who have largely lost touch with the original bright gospel fire of George Fox and the Valiant Sixty. That doesn't mean that all Friends are equally out of touch with that fire, or that there aren't other Friends whom we ought to be inviting to address us.

Alternatively, the difficulty might actually be that Zach himself, being a convert to "non-theism", is mentally estranged from that bright gospel fire and so is distancing himself from its power. I dunno. But it seems possible to me, anyway.

Paul, I do understand that you are casting no aspersions on branches of Quakerism other than your own!

Finally, Paul writes, with reference to Marcus Borg's position, that the proper mission of the church is to be "a vital and revolutionary force for peace and justice in society". I am not so sure that this is so. I can't help thinking of Christ's comment about the splinter in the other guy's eye and the two-by-four in one's own.

I will be on the bus for the next forty-eight hours, traveling from here in Omaha to Wilmington, North Carolina, for North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). I regret that I will not have another chance to tune in on this conversation until I arrive.