that are not literally true
Just days before Christmas last year, the Kane County Chronicle carried an article
about Northern Illinois Bishop C. Joseph Sprague's review of Marcus J. Borg's Meeting
Jesus Again for the First Time. Borg is a major player in the Jesus Seminar.
Responses to the review have occasioned two articles of clarification by Bishop Sprague
in the Northern Illinois edition of the United Methodist Reporter. In his most recent
column, he noted accusatory and hostile letters he had received and expressed amazement at
the "incivility" of some "Christian" attacks. He also admitted that as
a public figure, he must "stand the test of fair critiques, knowing that public
people have little private space."
We, too, know what hostile and accusatory letters are like. Our exchanges should rise
above such attacks. However, serious debate must not automatically be viewed as being
hostile and accusatory. Rather, it's a necessary means of clarification about what we do
and don't believe, so we can be held accountable in our covenant relationship. For sure,
the bishop has raised issues the UM Church must discuss.
The concern about the review of Borg's controversial work is that Bishop Sprague
acknowledged at the conclusion of his review that Borg's book is "a very provocative
and, I think, very much on target piece of work" (emphasis mine).
The following is Borg's reflection of his first mainline seminary New Testament course:
"There I learned that the image of Jesus from my childhood-the popular image of
Jesus as the divine savior who knew himself to be the Son of God and who offered up his
life for the sins of the world-was not historically true. That, I learned, was not what
the historical Jesus was like. I learned that the gospels are neither divine documents nor
straightforward historical records. They are not divine products inspired directly by God,
whose contents therefore are to be believed. Nor are they eyewitness accounts written by
people who had accompanied Jesus."
Borg concludes, "My journey from the childhood state of precritical naiveté
through the critical thinking of adolescence and adulthood now led to hearing John and the
Bible as a whole in a state of postcritical naiveté-a state in which one can hear these
stories as 'true stories' even while knowing that they are not literally true."
We can better understand the great gulf that exists between seminary lecture hall and
pew when we hear about "true stories" that "are not literally true."
It takes a liberal seminary education to understand that kind of talk.
The responses Bishop Sprague has received no doubt reflect the suspicion that something
destructive is being done to the church's message, especially its Christology. Borg
presents Jesus as a religious seeker who was made a messiah by the church.
About the crucifixion, Borg writes: "Moreover, this story is very hard to believe.
The notion that God's only son came to this planet to offer his life as a sacrifice for
the sins of the world, and that God could not forgive us without that having happened, and
that we are saved by believing this story, is simply incredible. Taken metaphorically,
this story can be very powerful. But taken literally, it is a profound obstacle to
accepting the Christian message. To many people, it simply makes no sense, and I think we
need to be straightforward about that."
Orthodox Christianity holds that the crucifixion is not an obstacle to the Christian
message, it (along with the resurrection) is the Christian message. As Charles Wesley
wrote, "Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?"
Bishop Sprague raises further questions about his Christology, saying, "I believe
that Jesus was fully human (how else could he be humankind's Savior?), who in his radical
and complete trust in and commitment to the God he called 'Abba,' experienced such
at-one-momentness with God that he revealed in and through himself the very heart, the
essential nature of God. Thus, he was fully God, fully human-not by some trans-human
altering of his genetic code, but by relationship with God, Neighbor and Self."
We would ask: is the Son a part of the eternal Godhead, that is, the Trinity? Again,
were one of us to have radical and complete trust in and commitment to God, might we also
attain that "at-one-momentness" with God, thus also revealing "the
essential nature of God." If so, then in what way is Jesus unique?
The bishop implies something is being kept from the rest of the church. At the
conclusion of his review, Bishop Sprague admitted, "We who are clergy have done a
disservice to the laity for about 100 years. We've feared that if we told the truth about
what we learned in seminary, [you laity] couldn't take it."
And what is it they have learned in seminary? It appears that what was learned is how
to present the stories of the gospels as "true stories" while believing they are
not literally true.