Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Book Review: The God We Never Knew

The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion To A More Authenthic Contemporary FaithWhen I picked up Marcus J Borg’s The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith, I instantly associated him with the infamous (to some) Jesus Seminar. This seminar meets on a regular basis and the attending scholars examine and decide which parts of the New Testament gospels are authentic, original sayings of Jesus and what is considered to be later traditions formed as the early Christian church developed. I had heard that the Jesus Seminar makes its decisions, in part, by voting with little coloured marbles. Whatever I read had come from a conservative evangelical perspective. Because of this association, I was tempted not to read the book. Borg would be considered a "liberal" Christian who, as I understand it, doesn’t believe in the divinity of Christ or a literal resurrection. Despite the negative things I had heard about the Jesus Seminar, I decided I would read Borg’s book - a critically thinking Christian seeks out different views to one’s own as a way to challenge thinking and test out one’s own ideas. The God We Never Knew was a very pleasant surprise. Borg shares his experience growing up in a conservative Christian culture and how, as the years progressed, traditional Christianity became increasingly difficult for him. His questions led him on a spiritual journey that, in his view, has led him to a more authentic form of Christianity which is attractive to contemporary people. Borg is an excellent writer. He is clear, conversational, and makes complex ideas easy to understand. The perspective that Borg presents is called panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism!) Panentheism, according to Borg, is more consistent with biblical understandings of God. It asserts that God is both transcendent and imminent. Borg defines panentheism as the view of God
... as encompassing Spirit; we (and everything that is) are in God. For this concept, God is not a supernatural being separate from the universe; rather, God (the sacred, Spirit) is a nonmaterial layer or level or dimension of reality all around us. God is more than the universe, yet the universe is in God. Thus, in a spatial sense, God is not "somewhere else" but "right here." (p. 12)
Borg contrasts panentheism with what he identifies as supernatural theism which
... conceptualizes God as a supernatural being "out there," separate from the world, who created the world a long time ago and who may from time to time intervene within it. In an important sense, this God is not "here" and thus cannot be known or experienced but only believed in (which, within the logic of this concept, is what "faith" is about).
As Borg teases out his concept of God, it becomes fairly clear that he does not think of Jesus as divine in the orthodox sense, nor accepts a literal virgin birth, and sees the gospels as the produce of a developing tradition within early Christianity. A lot of evangelical Christians will feel uncomfortable with these "liberal" understandings of the biblical story. But it is important not to let what might be disagreeable get in the way of what Borg has to say. Borg has some incredibly important things to offer in his understanding of Christianity, particularly in the way that Christians should live in the modern world. The book is divided into three sections: 1) Thinking about God; 2) Imaging God; and 3) Living with God. In the first section, we are led through the two main alternatives in understanding God ("supernatural theism" and panentheism). This is important to consider because, as Borg says, how we think about God has implications for everything else we believe and do. For Borg, panentheism is most consistent with the biblical view of God and Christian tradition. In the second part, Borg explores a range of images and metaphors for understanding and conceptualising God. There is an incredibly rich array of images for God in Scripture that, when recovered, provide a superbly fresh understanding of God and God’s relationship to the world and humanity. There is a whole chapter on the relationship between God and Jesus and Borg carefully describes what he sees as the pre-Easter and post-Easter views of Jesus. When Borg arrives at the third section of the book, Living with God, he really has some very significant things to offer about the way that Christians should live in the world. Tackling the big issues of spirituality, the politics of compassion, and salvation, Borg articulates a vision of contemporary Christian spirituality which would result in a radical lifestyle that has relevance now on earth rather than being primarily concerned with an other-worldly salvation that takes the focus away from immediate social concerns. The God We Never Knew really made me think about God in fresh and exciting ways that, if followed through, would change the focus of my Christian life to a more communal, socially aware, and relevant faith that enacts itself in positive practical ways to bring about the "dream of God" for the world God loves. I was moved by this book. Borg walks a line with his theology that I don’t always follow. But he has some essential things to say and his view of spirituality is enriching, relevant, and inspiring. It will appeal to anyone who needs a fresh, inclusive contemplation of Christianity that speaks to the 21st century mind and heart. Related Links

1 comment:

  1. Another book I now must read. I am on my 2nd Marcus Borg book ("Jesus")This man has really transformed me. He makes our faith "alive" and that has helped remove to some of the spiritual blinders that were covering my eyes.

    I just wrote about this on my blog, the study of panentheism that is.

    Good thoughts.