The passing of Jesus scholar Marcus Borg last week (on January 21) highlights the continued rift in the Christian world between the conservative and liberal theological camps.
Borg was a liberal theologian who focused on the historical Jesus and used more anthropological methods to direct his scholarship, and this work drew the ire of the conservative theological community. His involvement in the Jesus Seminar was also found to be controversial by conservative Christians.
Borg’s significance centers on his treatment of Jesus as a historical figure and his refusal to pursue theology from a final assumptions-first logical position. Rather than assuming that the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, the miracles, and so forth were factual and then looking back through history and culture and texts to prove them, he was open about what he didn’t know or couldn’t prove. He hedged his terms carefully and didn’t engage theological certainties or slight-of-hand explanations without an epistemological humility. Instead, he focused on Jesus’ use of metaphor and the significance of that literary device in Jesus’ teachings and its ramifications on theology.
For me, Borg represents everything I was discouraged from reading in my personal pursuit of theological and philosophical study in (homeschool) high school and (conservative Christian) college. If I had asked someone if Borg was worth reading, I’d have been told that he wasn’t worth the time, that he was liberal, not a serious scholar, or a heretic for questioning the physical resurrection of Jesus.
Now, even though I didn’t get to read any of Borg’s longer works before he died, I am grateful for his contribution to the academic conversation around the historicity of Jesus. It’s a conversation that deserves a lot more questions along with a willingness to talk about what we don’t actually know, rather than simply jumping off of the premise that Jesus was a historical person and actually performed miracles. Hopefully Borg’s practice of epistemological humility will be continued as the conversation continues beyond his time.
(Image via Wikipedia)