January 2015 has been a hard month to take, with the Sheffield snow lying deep and crisp, reluctant to thaw away. Then came the unwelcome news that Marcus Borg had died.
I am sure that all of us who have read any of Marcus Borg’s 21 books (translated into 11 languages) or who have met and heard him at St Mark’s will share that same sense of loss and sadness, similar perhaps to the passing of a favourite uncle who cannot be replaced.
Tributes have poured in from all quarters of the theological world, not least from those evangelical Christians who have disagreed with much of Marcus’s work. Nicolas Perrin, professor of biblical studies at Wheaton College in the USA wrote: “To have someone who was a credible liberal theologian who….softened the boundaries between conservative historical Jesus scholars and hard-line historical Jesus scholars. …We should thank Borg for forcing us to take seriously Jesus as a political thinker.”
The generosity of such tributes highlights the gentle, humble and yet passionate person who was not only a fine scholar and an enthusiastic educator but also a brilliant communicator. Unlike Jack Spong and Dom Crossan, Borg perhaps, did not present the same threat to the church establishment. Indeed Marcus counted amongst his scholarly friends conservative academics such as Tom Wright, with whom he co-wrote the splendid book “The Meaning of Jesus.”
Whilst being an important influence in the early days of the Jesus seminar, Borg nevertheless avoided the tendency to be critical in a reductionist fashion. Rather his approach bore the hallmarks of a person deeply convinced of the presence and transformational power of God. Hence his long standing desire that we look afresh at Jesus, at God, at the Bible, as it were ‘for the first time’.
I clearly recall one morning in 1999 when John Wood came to church holding a copy of ‘Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.’ My initial reaction was of bemusement at this seemingly evangelical title. My second reaction, after reading through the book, was one of deep gratitude that a learned scholar should so lucidly present the kind of picture of Jesus and Christian faith which had sustained liberals despite the years of our being marginalized by the Church establishment.
Wow! Lets invite Marcus to come and give a lecture at St Marks I suggested to the church council. That was the beginning of a new phase of life for me and for St Mark’s. Marcus came in December 2000 to speak to a title ‘Meeting Jesus Again’. The church was packed, the enthusiasm overwhelming. Here was that eloquent speaker, with notes prepared for the audience and with timer fixed to the lectern, announcing he would speak each time for 45 minutes and he did so to the second!
Over supper I asked Marcus whom we could next invite and immediately he said, ‘my friend Dom Crossan’. Annual lectures from Dom Crossan, Jack Spong, Richard Holloway and many others followed and in 2003 the Centre for Radical Christianity was launched as part of the greater progressive Christian network. But we owed all this to that first visit by Marcus Borg. He returned to St Mark’s again in 2008 and 2011.
In many of his books Marcus alluded to his own modest traditional Lutheran upbringing, of his journey of fascination with the New Testament, which led him to graduate study at Union Theological Seminary in New York and further study at Oxford under Professor George Caird at Mansfield College, a place rooted in the nonconformist tradition.
In returning to the USA he eventually joined the faculty at Oregon State University in 1979, where he taught generations of students until his retirement from there in 2007. His wife Marianne was on the staff of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland Oregon where Borg was made a canon theologian. With characteristic humour Marcus said his wife informed him that ‘canon’ means ‘big shot.’
A ‘big shot’ Marcus certainly was in the reputation gained for writing books so accessible to a general readership. Every one of us will have a particular one or more of his books which are special to us. For me after the groundbreaking book, ‘Meeting Jesus’ and the fine dialogue in the ‘Meaning of Jesus’, I have come to value most ‘The God We Never Knew’, in which Borg explores different meanings of salvation, multiple images for God and that wonderful idea of the dream of God for God’s world.
Walter Wink said that Borg, through his scholarship and his passionate faith might well change your mind about Christianity and change your life. I am sure countless thousands of people, even millions across the continents, have felt able to own the title ‘Christian’ because of Marcus Borg. He has given new life to individuals and to church communities like St Mark’s.
Before his illness and in his final book, ‘Convictions’, Marcus ends by saying:
“What’s it all about? What’s the Christian life all about? It’s 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. And the future, including what is beyond our lives? We leave that up to God.”
We shall miss Marcus and his work deeply and our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and his wide circle of friends across the world. But I am sure there will be ways in which we shall honour him and move forward with fellow progressive Christians as we too seek to be passionate about God’s kingdom on this fragile earth.
Adrian Alker. January 2015