In the summer of 2017 a group of us got together each week to discuss Marcus Borg’s book ‘Convictions’. The book is subtitled ‘A Manifesto for Progressive Christians’ – we were interested to hear and reflect on how Borg was re-envisioning Christian belief as this is a task that many of us in Home feel we are engaged in.
We had some really interesting discussions each Wednesday night! We looked at a couple of chapters each time we got together.
Chapter 1 & 2 : Context Matters | Faith is a Journey
In our first meeting we explored our experience of Borg’s different categories of being Christian – he believes that we can group today’s Christians into the following categories : ‘conservative’, ‘conventional’, ‘uncertain’, ‘former’ and ‘progressive’. As you might expect we didn’t subscribe wholly to this compartmentalisation but we felt it was useful nonetheless.
Borg also spent considerable time talking about his faith in the context of his own spiritual journey – so we decided to do the same and in our first meeting spent some time sharing with each other more about the journeys we had been on.
Chapters 3 & 4 : God is real and is a mystery | Salvation is more about this life than an afterlife
In our second meeting we explored these really interesting chapters. Borg contends that one of the foundational problems with Christian belief as it has been traditionally formed is that it treats God as an external ‘object’, locatable somewhere and ‘other’ to us. The dominant way of expressing this is what Borg terms ‘parent theism’ – God is the divine parent and this is taken literally rather than metaphorically. Borg struggles with this understanding of God and wants to conceive of God instead as a loving presence suffusing all things.
He describes beautiful moments of transcendence he experienced in younger life when subject/object distinctions fell away and he felt at one with everything and a profound sense of all things existing in love.
So Borg has a very different understanding of the nature of God to one many of us are familiar with. He struggles with God as a ‘person’ – for Borg God is not a person like we conceive of what it means to be a person. Perhaps we could say that for Borg God is personal but God is not a person.
We shared our own experiences of – or lack of! – transcendence.
In chapter 4 Borg critiques the obsession that Christianity has traditionally had with the afterlife – and shows how in his view this was of much lesser concern to Jesus than how we live in this life. This, he says, should be the main focus of Christian spiritual practice. (We ran out of time to fully discuss this chapter as we were so interested in the previous one!)
Chapters 5 & 6 : Jesus is the norm of the Bible | The Bible can be true without being literally true
In these 2 chapters we focussed on the Bible – how has it been treated historically in Christianity, how have we related to it, and what is our relationship like with it now.
Unsurprisingly Borg rejects a literalistic approach to the bible. But even when we move beyond literalism and are sensitive to the literary genres that are used in scripture, and even when we choose to understand parts of scripture allegorically or metaphorically, if we are to hold Jesus as being the ‘norm’ of the bible we have to say that sometimes scripture is just wrong.
We talked about what makes the bible sacred. We concluded that the bible isn’t sacred in and of itself but that it is in a sense made sacred by the Christian community who find within it a revelation of God.
Struggling to believe the literal truth of, for example, the virgin birth, doesn’t render such an account meaningless – there is still truth to be found there even if the historical truth is questioned.
Chapter 7 & 8 : Jesus’ death on the cross matters but not because he paid for our sins | The Bible is political
This was a meaty one! Quite a few of us struggled with the traditional understanding of the cross – that somehow God’s anger with humanity needed assuaging and that God needed someone innocent to die (and shed blood) in order for his wrath to be placated.
Borg rejects this understanding of course and sees Jesus’ death much more in the context of him resisting both the political powers that oppress people, and the religious powers that keep people estranged from the love and life of God.
Jesus (non-violently) fought these powers and they responded (violently) by putting him to death. In so doing he exposes the domination system that is built on violence and reveals God’s love.
This is a powerful understanding of the crucifixion but one that is very different to popular notions of the cross.
It also encapsulates the political nature of Jesus and his death but Borg also devotes another chapter in the book to teasing out the political nature of the bible as a whole – the concern for justice and equality etc. This can often be an element missing in Christianity.
Chapters 9, 10 & 11 : God is passionate about justice and the poor | Christians are called to peace & non-violence | To love God is to love like God
We concluded our book group with one final session where we looked at the final 3 chapters of the book.
Much of our discussion this week picked up from where we left off last week – looking at the ‘political’ dimensions of Christian belief : the concern for justice, equality, and the poor.
We also spent some time talking about pacifism and just-war theory. This was an interesting conversation. Borg gets very close to pacifism but can’t quite get all the way there. He does maintain that pacifists are almost always right (but he can’t quite drop the ‘almost’ in that sentence!)
The book finishes, appropriately enough, with a chapter on love. If we are those who say they ‘love God’ then that must mean that we love like God loves. Borg talks about what it means for God to love the world – and therefore for us to love the world too.
Borg goes on to unpack what that means. This love will be expressed through compassion, freedom and courage, and gratitude.
We can nurture a love for God (and therefore a love for the world) by ‘paying attention to God’ through spiritual practices and loving service.
As a group we really enjoyed the book and found it to be a stimulating springboard into lots of interesting conversations. Lots of personal connections were made with the stories of our spiritual journeys so far and people felt safe enough to share on quite a personal level their struggles and experiences.
Let’s do it again sometime soon!