Today I attended the memorial service for the New Testament scholar Marcus Borg. It was one of the most beautiful and moving celebrations of the life and death of a person I have ever been privileged to witness. I have never experienced such a tangible sense shared love and joy.
I have never actually met Marcus Borg, but for the last few years, I have been regularly attending and teaching in the church where Marcus was appointed as a Canon Theologian, and Marianne Borg served as a priest for many years. They both left and retired to their home in Eastern Oregon before I arrived, but the impression of their presence remains. I cannot possibly count the number of times I have heard someone in this parish say, “Marcus allowed me to be a Christian again,” or “Marcus’s work was such a relief to me,” or “Marcus helped me find my faith.”
I never, ever, expected to hear such things about a man who I associated with a school of New Testament interpretation with which I was uncomfortable, to say the least. So uncomfortable that I was quite nervous about teaching in a place so shaped by his life’s work. I had first heard of Marcus through the sometimes strident dismissal of the Jesus Seminar during my time at an evangelical seminary. I admit that I didn’t spend much time reading about the method behind what seemed to me to be a mad system of colored beads. The reality is that I was so taken aback by the vicious battle over scriptural literalism which surrounded me, a method of interpretation utterly non-sensical to the metaphorical and allegorical sensibilities of my Eastern Orthodox upbringing, that I could barely make sense of the difference between inerrancy and infallibility, much less grasp the challenge posed by the Jesus Seminar and its proponents. I managed to pick up that the Jesus Seminar rejected the divinity of Jesus which deeply offended my Nicene sensibilities. Overwhelmed by this strange new world, I shrugged my shoulders and buried myself theology (what Marcus referred to, though I didn’t know it, as the “post-Easter Jesus”) and ethics.
It was to my great surprise then, that a few months ago I started reading Meeting Jesus for the First Time. I initially thought to read it because of Marcus’s unavoidable presence in my current ecclesial home. I wanted to understand what was so appealing about his work. More than understand his work, I wanted to understand the love for him and by him that is so tangible among those who heard him speak, who attended his classes. When someone says, “this person helped me reclaim my faith,” I think we should pay attention. The fruits of the Spirit are precious and beautiful, and in my experience, sometimes too easy to ignore when they are not accompanied by the ‘right’ liturgy, the ‘right’ practice, the ‘right’ theology, the ‘right’ body, the ‘right’ belief. This man and his work was clearly, evidently, and abundantly fruitful.
I am not going to discuss what I think of the book here, what I agree with (more than I anticipated) and what I disagree with (considerably less than I expected). Instead, I simply want to say that I am so grateful to be in a parish shaped by two aspects of his work and life. The first was repeated over and over again by those who offered remembrances today. The second was barely touched upon but is, I think, so very important.
Over and over again today, I heard Marcus described as one who “loved to love, loved to hope, a lover of truth and beauty” (from Mindy Haidle). As Marcus himself said, the Christian life is all “about loving God and loving what God loves. It’s about becoming passionate about God and participating in God’s passion for a different kind of world, here and now” (Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most). This is the conviction of a theologian and scholar who spent decades enmeshed in a particularly vicious set of debates (sometimes, I think that biblical scholarship is among the most cruel of religious specialities), a man whose own faith was lost and then found in the most unexpected of ways. His journey, so different than my own, has brought life and joy, love and faith to others. And they, in turn, have made a home that welcomes and loves so many who have found themselves unloved and unwelcome in their previous homes. This first aspect of his life, his abundant love, bears fruit that I am grateful to receive, even though we have never actually crossed paths.
I am all the more grateful since I suspect, had Marcus and I ever crossed paths, we might have quite strenuously disagreed with one another about a few key aspects of the Christian tradition. Yet if the fruits of his life are any evidence, it would have been a most enjoyable disagreement. Somehow, in the midst of a life and work full of strenuous opinion and controversial scholarship, Marcus leaves a legacy of free and fearless disagreement. Reading this, you might think that everyone at the parish agrees with Marcus. This hardly the case. One woman, sharing during a discussion of Meeting Jesus, said that when she first read it years ago, it was so freeing. Today, she is rather shocked by what she now sees as a faulty reading of Jewish tradition. She was not the only person to echo this trope of being-transformed-by-but-not-in-full-agreement-with Marcus’s work. Over and over again, in this place so formed by Marcus, people were free to also say that they disagreed with him. I suspect, had Marcus been there, everyone would have expected him to nod his head, discuss, challenge, perhaps continue to disagree, or possibly nuance a work written over two decades ago. No one, not a one, seemed to think that disagreeing was a problem. I learned today that Marcus was known to be so gracious in his disagreement that even his critics took him out for a beer in the evening after sparring with him during the day.
I come from a world where disagreement unacceptable, where challenge is quickly dismissed as heresy in the hopes of silencing uncomfortable truths, where ‘love’ permits, even encourages, condemnation without understanding in the name of remaining faithful to ‘tradition.’
Whatever I think of Marcus Borg’s scriptural, historical and theological arguments, I am grateful for his life and his death, for the legacy of love, disagreement, and loving disagreement that he leaves behind.
The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor reminded us of Marcus’s own reflection on death: Christians are called to die unto God and hope for the best. What of the future, Marcus asks, that which is beyond our lives? “We leave that up to God.”
Marcus wisely trusted in God based on “insufficient information,” for, as we were reminded over and over again today, how can we ever really know?
I hope to be the kind of theologian that passionately wants to know, that wrestles in love and grace with those things that bring us face to face with God in Jesus again and again for the first time. I hope to be the kind of person who can rest easy in the knowledge that I cannot ever really know, but will enjoy the effort of trying without fear, loving to love, loving to hope, a lover of truth and beauty.