“The Heart of Christianity”

This is the title of a book by Marcus Borg, published 2003. I can strongly recommend it.

I’ve been doing some reading to provide background for some more extended writing I have in contemplation, around the topic of panentheism and Christianity, and caught a reference to this book, which had slid past my consciousness ten years ago. Now, I’ve thought for quite some time that Prof. Borg was what I’ve previously described as a “closet panentheist”, in that parts of some of his previous books strongly hinted to me that he had arrived at a broadly panentheist conception of God. I was interested to see if he went further in “The Heart of Christianity”.

If he was in the closet, in this book he has come out; he’s loud and proud, as you might put it. He goes a lot further. He puts forward a way of viewing scriptures and traditions within “the emerging paradigm” which really demands a panentheist stance, and then goes on to explore specific issues; being “born again” and the Spirit generally; the Kingdom; “Thin Places”; Sin and salvation; praxis; and finally Christianity in a pluralist world. He does it very well, as you’d expect from a biblical scholar of his experience and credentials and a best-selling communicator.

2003 was a bit late for this book to have saved me a lot of thinking, even had I read it fresh from the presses, but I’d have loved to read it in, say, 1993, and had it been in existence and I’d read it in 1973 (or, even better, 1968) my whole spiritual adulthood would probably have been very different. Since 1968 I’ve laboured under the difficulty that my panentheist stance, about which I really have no option, is not “standard Christianity”; here is a well-respected scholar arguing that not only is it a viable and valid way of moving forward with Christianity in a postmodern and pluralist world, but also to some extent respectable in terms of pre-modern thought (say, before around 1500). I grant you, I’ve yet to come across a church anything like local to me in which this kind of approach has reached more than (at most) the leadership, but armed with this book 45 years ago, who knows what might have happened?

I might have liked to see more about what I see as a panentheist thread running through Christianity, or at least it’s mystics, from the earliest days. Prof. Borg does touch on that, but only extremely lightly.

He arrives at his position from a direction entirely different from my own. Prof. Borg has, so far as I can see, been a Lutheran from childhood, and has been thoroughly within the church throughout, arriving eventually at a panentheist conception which re-invigorates and makes sense of his Christianity for the future. I started out as an atheist with an experience which I could only sensibly interpret as panentheist, and then spent many years trying to find out how to fit that into an available faith community (it was only in the late 1990s that two online friends persuaded me that I was, in fact, legitimately a Christian, albeit of a rather unusual flavour). It is interesting to see that Prof. Borg arrives at many of the same ways of looking at things as do I, for instance concepts of sin and salvation; exclusivity; the Kingdom. Neither are they just the same in outline; often he chooses the same passages and analogies as do I. Maybe this further validates the stance?

5 point heart, no point head

A few months ago I posted that I seemed to be emotionally a five-point Calvinist, and how this irritated me.  A few years ago I wrote the following (over-inspired by the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s rap Othello):-

“Bro, let me tell you ’bout a concept called TULIP/big in the South where they like mint julep/totally bad is the way that we’re created/only by election is /the way that it’s fated/Jesus came for some but not for others/God gives grace to some of the brothers/Once you’re elected escape their ain’t/’cause you’ll persevere like all of the Saints”

otherwise “The Calvin Rap”, which I gather pretty accurately describes the five points under the acronym “TULIP”; Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Persistence of the saints.

I also wrote the “Anti-Calvin Rap” in reply to myself:-

“God messed it up in his first creation/Gave a way to save themselves to Israel’s nation/”Follow my commandments” was his prescription/”Even if you sin, I’ll save” was the prediction/Are you serious that God can’t hack it?/Gives commandments that aren’t a good packet?/Jesus came to save us all as John well said/”Believe in what he said to us; you won’t be dead”/Gave new commandments that we could use/”Love me, your fellow men you don’t abuse”/We have the choice as to whether we do it/If we do we will reap the fru-it/Falling away a question poses/’Cause in that case your life ain’t ROSES”

ROSES is a reference to a competing concept, standing for Redeemed on condition of faith, Open to all, Separated by sin, Elect to good works, Sealed by the Spirit. “Elect to good works” means you are chosen by God to do certain things; if you don’t, you are still “saved” but subject to discipline.

There’s a spirited defence of ROSES against TULIP by Jeffrey A at http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?tsn=7&nav=display&webtag=ws-religion&tid=155430, which I won’t repeat here. As it happens, I’m not so sure about ROSES either, but it’s theoretically better than TULIP!

Now, as my history records, I got “zapped” in my mid-teens entirely out of the blue. I had really done nothing to deserve it, nor to make it more likely that such would happen. I was, frankly, a pretty miserable specimen of humanity before this, wholly self-centred, manipulative and – well – very teenager-like. Intrinsic to the experience was first a conviction of how bad I had previously been, but also a conviction that I was forgiven. I have no problem with “total depravity”!

I was powerless to resist the experience at the time (surprising, as my reluctance to “let go” has since been the bane of my existence in following a path of meditation and contemplation), so “irresistible” chimes. So does “unconditional”, as I was not fulfilling any conditions which I can think of at that time. I have never since felt that things could be (in the deepest sense) any way other than as in that experience, and have sought to repeat the experience and to act in accordance with the paradigm change it produced in me, so “persistence” probably works, though I’m uneasy about the word “saints”. That’s four points…

I suppose, in a sense, so does “limited”, as I have met very few people who have had a similar experience of such intensity. I don’t understand why I should have been favoured above others (particularly far more deserving candidates). Very many people seem to get by with relatively very weak experiences of consciousness of God, or indeed just on hope.

But… the consciousness of God which I experienced then and since is not consistent with an arbitrary selection of some and rejection of others; the inevitable result of 5 point Calvinism, it seems to me, is that you’re either saved or damned without any question of worth, without any consideration of what you have done or will do in the future, without even any requirement to try. That does not sound like the God I know, whose policy on acceptance or rejection seems to me far better summed up in Ezekiel 18, to which I was referring in the second rap.

I’ve also met a lot of people who have at some point had all the signs of having had at least a loosely similar experience to my own, and have then lost their adherence to their new paradigm. The usual answer I hear from the 5 point Calvinist is that they were merely imitating those who are actually saved, but it overwhelmingly seems to me that you can, in fact, fall away from at the very least the consciousness of being irrevocably in God’s love and protection, and certainly from keeping commandments and manifesting the fruits of the Spirit. People do. Sometimes they return. Often they don’t.  I don’t see persistence there, nor unconditional election, nor irresistible grace. Particularly not the last of these, as I have met a very few people who have testified to an experience very similar to mine and of at least near that force, but who have dismissed it as “just one of those things” or, as one friend charmingly puts it “a brain fart”. In conscience, I suppose it might have gone that way with me too – I didn’t at the time accept the existence of a God, and my first thoughts were to seek medical help. Had my doctor not assured me that there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with my brain function or mental processes at all (including TLE, which was my best guess), I suppose I might have just dismissed it, and not gone on to act on it.

I think I’ll stick with my head on this, whatever feels emotionally correct.