The Heart of Christianity

by Phil Johnson

A full sanctuary greeted Marcus Borg at Wayzata Community Church on November 15, 2004. Dr. Borg is a member of the Jesus seminar and the author of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, The Heart of Christianity, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, and others. United Theological Seminary and Wayzata Community Church brought Borg to the Twin Cities.

Dr. Borg described two paradigms of Christianity in America. He named them “Earlier Christianity” and “Emerging Christianity.” There are significant differences between them. Borg believes that Christians need to look for ways to build bridges between these groups that can lead to shared Christian faith and fellowship.

“Earlier” does not mean earlier historically since both paradigms are responses of Christians to the enlightenment and the rise of modern science. Thus, each is about 400 years old. Earlier suggests earlier in the lives and development of most Christians in America. A majority of us, including Dr. Borg, a Lutheran pastor’s son who spent part of his growing up years in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, grew up within the earlier paradigm.

Paradigms are lenses through which we see and understand things. The Ptolemaic and the Copernican views of the solar system are frequently used as examples of competing paradigms. The Ptolemaic view presumed that the earth is the center of the solar system and that the sun revolves around it. Interestingly, this system could predict the movements of the stars and planets; it was a satisfactory paradigm until Copernicus came along. According to the Copernican view, the sun is the center of the solar system and the earth revolves around it. The chart below shows how Borg describes the differences between the two paradigms of Christianity that he identifies.

The subtitle of The Heart of Christianity is “Rediscovering a life of faith, how we can be passionate believers today.” People who have discovered that the Bible is not a reliable science book and have too hastily concluded that a literal interpretation of the Bible is the only faith option become part of what Borg calls “the church alumni association.” Christians who understand that many of the most important truths are beyond or more than literal are found mostly in mainline denominations. To those who are under the influence of the earlier paradigm, Emerging Christianity folks may appear to lack passion about the Christian faith and their churches may seem like clubs and social institutions.

Metaphors have more than factual meaning and are not inferior to literal meaning. A strictly literal interpretation of the Bible is impossible. Does God literally have hands and feet? Here is a section from The Heart of Christianity about more than literal truth.

Thomas Mann defined a myth as “a story about the way things never were, but always are.” So, is a myth true? Literally true, no. Really true, yes.

To quote a Swedish proverb and then to modify it: “Theology is poetry plus, not science minus.” The proverb affirms that theological language is more like poetic language than factual language, even as it is more than poetry in that it makes a truth claim. As such, it is not “science minus,” not inferior to the language of factuality. Thus biblical metaphor is poetry plus, not inferior to factual language.

The same point is made by a Native American story teller as he begins telling his tribe’s story of creation: “Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but the story is true.” (p. 50)

Borg thinks Earlier Christianity will decline as people become more informed by scientific knowledge and can no longer believe the creation story, for example, as a satisfactory description of how things actually happened.

Three comments. First, I’m not as confident as Borg that Earlier Christianity with its pre-scientific, literal understandings will diminish. Forty years ago I thought that would happen but it seems to have become stronger. Second, I appreciate Borg’s call to persons of the Emerging Christianity paradigm to recover passion in their faith and that his work provides a foundation for doing so. Third, he calls all Christians to work at bridging the gap between these groups by finding common Christian ground. His main suggestion is to get beyond debates about how things actually happened and move on to share with all Christians what these things mean—what it means that God created the universe and that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the living God and what, in light of these realities, is the meaning of the miracle of our lives. This makes a lot of sense to me.

Earlier ChristianityEmerging Christianity
Bible’s originDivine productA human response to God
Biblical interpretationLiteral-factual
Genesis literally true
Historical and metaphorical
Genesis profoundly true
The Bible’s functionRevelation of doctrine and moralsMetaphorical and sacramental,
Poetry plus
SalvationAfterlife in heaven.
Christianity is the only way
In this life through transformation & healing relationships. God speaks to humans in many ways.
Christian life Emphasis An afterlife and what to believe or do to be saved. Correct belief is required. Morality a matter of individual behavior. Transformation in this life through relationship with God. Heaven is in great shape, earth is where God’s grace and human action are needed: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Phil Johnson is Editor Emeritus of Pietisten.

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