The Heart of Christianity

What does it mean to be a Christian?

In his book ‘The Heart of Christianity’, Marcus Borg argues that a literal interpretation of the bible leads to an unpersuasive view of Christianity while a metaphorical interpretation leads to a view that satisfies both the head and the heart.

One reviewer of Borg’s book wrote: “It was good for me to read this book to get a better understanding of how a liberal Christian might view the Bible, and it gave me a respect for their viewpoint, but still it's not something I can agree with. For example, the author appears to not believe the miracles in the Bible really happened, such as Jesus turning the water into wine. He instead reads a metaphorical meaning into it (as do other liberals who cannot accept Biblical miracles as literal). Borg claims that when we read the Bible as a literal document, we miss the metaphorical meaning (the meaning for life). The metaphorical interpretation he gave for the water into wine story was rich in meaning, and I think he has a valid point that we may miss such rich meanings by only reading them as a literal reporting of events, but I don't think it has to be either/or; we can believe the miracles happened as stated, and learn to read the metaphorical meanings from them also”.

Another reviewer wrote: “Christianity without relying on the Bible is like basketball without the ball. Borg's book misnamed "The Heart of Christianity" is not about Christianity at all. To further the basketball analogy, Mr. Borg walked onto the court one day and decided to substitute the basketball for a ball that he made up. His ball looks like a somewhat larger golf ball. Because his ball is different and it is impossible to play basketball with it, he invents his own rules. He then continues to call his game "basketball" even though what he is doing has nothing to do with basketball except that he is using the same court”.

What are your thoughts?

February, 26, 2007


Michael N. Hull said...

I grew up in Ireland which had a very fundamentalist/evangelical culture. I was taught that the bible was literally true and inerrant, and that unless I “believed” and was “saved” I would be “lost”.

When I studied science in both high school and university an apparent conflict between faith and reason soon entered my thinking. However, I also studied English literature and came to understand that the methods that I applied to science - methods involving mathematics and models - could not be applied to a study of Shakespeare, Keats or Charles Dickens - to understand great plays, poems and novels one had to understand metaphor and metaphorical language.

Today I understand that science pursues factual truths – what is the nature of the atom for example – while religion and faith pursue intrinsic truths – what is the nature of forgiveness, what is meant by love etc. I also understand that the physical world is ‘mechanistic’ and thus one can exercise no free will over it. On the other hand, the metaphysical world is ‘spiritual’ and thus permits one the exercise of free will – one can choose whether or not to hold feelings of anger or hatred, for example.

One’s ideas can only be shared with others through the use of either a model or a metaphor – there are no other means available - and each is equally important and valid. Models use diagrams or mathematical equations to explain phenomena such as the nature of gravity or the nature of atomic fusion. Metaphors use symbols and imagery to explain such phenomena as the nature of grief, or the joy of laughter.

Models are descriptions of the way things might be, but never are. This means that one must maintain a state of agnosticism about one’s models since in the physical world - in this case the world of science, further information will eventually come along and the model will have to be dropped in favor of a new one that will be a closer approximation to the truth of the actual reality i.e. one’s model ‘might be’ that way but it usually never ‘is’. Once mankind believed that the sun orbited the earth; today we believe that the earth orbits the sun.

Metaphors are descriptions of the way things never were, but always are. In the metaphysical world we already understand many matters such as love, hatred, jealousy, greed, the goodness of God etc. However, one continues a never ending search for better ways to describe these realities. One’s metaphors are expressed in poetry, novels, and biblical stories that, while they may or may not be strictly factual, reveal intrinsic truths about human nature and our relationship with the Divine. Romeo and Juliet is not a factual tale but it reveals truths about love, human behavior, and death etc. Romeo and Juliet 'never were' but one learns from this narrative several truths that 'always are’. Some of our metaphorical narratives are the stories we tell about the relation between this world and the sacred. The bible should be read mostly from this perspective – the perspective of metaphorical narrative. Thus, for example, one can accept that the Genesis creation stories are metaphorically true (God created the universe) but also accept that they do not portray a correct ‘model’ of His creation.

So I guess I agree with much of Borg's basic positions.


Neil said...

Borg seems to offer something to both the literalists and the non-literalists. He was once asked:

“How can I know the truth about Christianity if I question the Bible's status as the literal Word of God?”

He replied:

"For people who are literalists and see the Bible as a divine product, having a divine guarantee to be true, if that set of beliefs isn't getting in their way, if it's not causing them intellectual problems, and if they're not using those beliefs to judge other people and beat up on other people, then I have no need to try to change them. The spirit can work through Biblical literalism. Most often, of course, it does lead to a division of the world into the “saved” and the “unsaved.” But basically, if a literalistic way of seeing the Bible is leading to a life that is more and more filled with the spirit and filled with compassion, I have no problem with people staying in that place.

But for people who can't be literalists and for people who are literalists and are fearful if they let go of [their literalism] then the whole thing falls into ruin, I would say that in one sense of the word know, we can't know that Christianity, or any of the religions, is true in the sense of being able to demonstrate it. One use of the word "know" in the modern period is something you can verify. In that sense, we can't know.

But we can take seriously a different kind of knowing. It's a very ancient kind of knowing. The ancients called it intuition. And, unfortunately, in our world, intuition is seen as kind of a weak thing. It's associated with women's intuition, a vague hunching or something like that. But the ancient meaning of the word "intuition" or “intuitive knowing” is direct knowing, a knowing that's not dependent upon verification. A synonym for intuitive knowing would be mystical knowing. There are people in every culture who have had what they regard as direct knowing experiences of God or the sacred. That kind of knowing is possible, and for me personally, it's that direct knowing, that intuitive knowing, that is the most persuasive soft data for affirming that God or the sacred is real."

That seems a reasonable approach but I doubt that the fundamentalist wing of Christianity will ever accept it.


Thomas G. Nimick said...

I think that Bork has missed the historical background of literal interpretation. That is a major question when scripture is defined as the ultimate authority. If that is accepted, then how it is to be read becomes vital to the definition of being Christian. But he has not engaged the fact that the idea of scripture as authority is a relatively recent development. I would point to its emergence in the writing of the Westminster Confession of Faith in the seventeenth century. At that time the question of authority within the church had been hotly contested. Was it to be a function of state power, papal fiat, the decision of councils, the "church fathers"? Many churchmen were dismayed by the violence triggered by the issue of authority. I think that at least some of the writers of the Westminster Confession hoped that turning to scripture as the authority would rule out further violence. In the process they turned disagreements into a new channel in which we still find it today.

The challenge of Bork's position is how it intersects with the idea that scripture is authoritative. If you accept that view of scripture, then Bork's position undermines the attempt to use it as a guide because it is too uncertain. Bork claims that he is just redefining interpretation, but his position is actually challenging scripture as authoritative without proposing an alternative. I would be interested to know what he thinks is the source of authority in the church. If it is intuition, as was suggested in Neil's post, then we need to think about what sort of structure has ever been built upon intuition.

I think that Bork has engaged the issue without recognizing either its background or its full implications.

Michael N. Hull said...


You wrote "Bork claims that he is just redefining interpretation, but his position is actually challenging scripture as authoritative without proposing an alternative. I would be interested to know what he thinks is the source of authority in the church."

Maybe I am misunderstanding Borg but my impression is that he does not deny the 'ultimate authority' of the Bible when one looks to it for 'metaphorical' rather than 'factual' truth?


PS: I hope you meant 'Borg' and not 'Bork' or we are off on an entirely different discusssion ;-)

Thomas G. Nimick said...

The key word in our discussion is "authority" and it has two different meanings in this context. The first is the authority for defining our individual piety and and individual's relationship to God. The second is the source of authority within the Christian community. Borg has focused on the first type of authority without acknowledging that his views also impact on the second type of authority. Therefore I would suggest that his consideration of the issue is incomplete.

The quotation that Neil provided is quite revealing in this regard, and it has helped me clarify the uneasiness that I had with Borg's position. Borg has made a strong case for a historical and metaphorical view of scripture, but his introduction of intuitive knowledge changes things considerably.

In order to understand the potential impact of Borg's position, it may help to consider how scripture became so important to authority in the Christian community. It had been somewhat important since the canon was established, but the particular importance of scripture emerged with Martin Luther. When he questioned the church's position on indulgences, the current pope, who was considered the primary authority in the church, declared that Luther was mistaken and ordered him to recant. Luther refused, and he did so on the basis that scripture had higher authority than the Pope. This was the key position of the Reformation, but most of the reformers soon found that they were not comfortable with allowing individual's understanding of scripture to be authoritative, so they developed different forms of church government to determine proper interpretation. Note that they still affirmed that scripture was the primary source of authority in the Protestant Christian community.

As you are probably aware, the disputes over interpretation became tangled in political disputes and led to the wars of religion that wracked Europe after the Reformation. Britain experienced significant violence and I think that the writers of Westminster Confession chose to affirm a literalist interpretation as a way of eliminating competing interpretations as an excuse for violence.

Borg has wrestled with literalist interpretation on the level of individual piety. Our pluralistic society largely tolerates the differences in interpretation of scripture that result when individual piety is based upon intuition. That is what Borg is suggesting at the individual level.

What Borg does not address is what intuitive interpretation does to the idea that scripture is the source of authority in the community. Basically it removes any standard for deciding between two contradictory interpretations. It makes every interpretation authoritative. If everyone has authority then no one has it.

The mainline denominations have largely accepted the concept of historical and metaphorical interpretation because they still have the text itself and some standards for historical knowledge and even reasonable metaphorical reading. But we should recognize that intuitive interpretation can be accepted only if one thinks that denominational structure and doctrine are no longer relevant. Those are the stakes in Borg's position.

I hope that this clarifies what I meant in the earlier comment.


Jim Rodgers said...

I've read Borg's book “The Heart of Christianity” because my wife, as a churchgoer all her life, is starting to doubt much of what she hears from the pulpit. However she still views the church as a useful social construct to help people in need. Here are my comments as a non-church-going secular humanist.

Borg supports an "emerging paradigm" of Christianity that does not believe the literal interpretation of the bible. He says that this view is now held by most of the major Protestant Christian denominations, and selectively by the Catholic church. It is not held by a large number of evangelical fundamentalists in the US, who cast aside the findings of science when they conflict with the bible – their newest defense being “Intelligent Design.”

To summarize the differences as I understand them, the "earlier paradigm" states the bible is a divine product, God's revelation to the world. As a divine product, it is infallible. The afterlife is emphasized as a reward for good behavior in this life, and the only way to salvation is through Jesus. All the other ways (Islam, Buddhism, etc) are wrong. Borg's conclusion is that this form of Christianity is a religion of requirements and rewards with God toting up the points.

So far so good. This is the stuff most of us were taught when I was growing up in Ireland. The "emerging paradigm" is that the bible is a human product, intended for the tribal communities of their day, when the knowledge of science was limited. It therefore should be viewed as a fallible historical text, containing stories that, while we do not know their factual truth, do provide guidance on how to live a good life. This means that the Genesis story and miracles such as the resurrection need not be factually true, but provide metaphors for underlying moral truths. The emphasis is not on the afterlife but how to deal with the "why" questions of this life. The "emerging paradigm" is also non-exclusive. It will accept that other religions can also provide a way to a satisfactory life.

Now, I'm not saying that I buy this "emerging" viewpoint. I believe it is more reasonable than the literal-factual position. But it makes assumptions that I am not prepared as an agnostic to accept, that there is a God, Supreme Being, whatever, that is interested in human affairs, and that Jesus is his emissary. The book does not make a convincing case, in my view, why one should choose Christianity over Buddhism or Islam if one is interested in the "why" questions of existence. It skillfully slides round the uniqueness of Jesus.


Neil said...

Tom Nimick wrote:

“What Borg does not address is what intuitive interpretation does to the idea that scripture is the source of authority in the community. Basically it removes any standard for deciding between two contradictory interpretations. It makes every interpretation authoritative. If everyone has authority then no one has it. The mainline denominations have largely accepted the concept of historical and metaphorical interpretation because they still have the text itself and some standards for historical knowledge and even reasonable metaphorical reading. But we should recognize that intuitive interpretation can be accepted only if one thinks that denominational structure and doctrine are no longer relevant. Those are the stakes in Borg's position.”


Why should my interpretation not be authoritative to me and anyone else who likes that interpretaion? Do I have to accept a denominational structure and doctrine that are not relevant to me and do I have to accept some other (orthodox) authority?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called on the Christian world to separate Christianity from religion and he spoke of “Religionless Christianity”. I like that thought – what is important is the Christian message and how one lives out that message within one’s own life. Why should we all ‘believe’ something in the same way rather than ‘practice’ the belief in the same way. Can ‘Christians’ not all ‘believe’ in different ways yet come together as a community to ‘practice’ Christianity in a corporate way in the world?

Is this not what Borg is getting at?


Thomas G. Nimick said...


If the only function of denominational structures was to dictate orthodoxy, then I could agree with you, but I would like to suggest that there is more to those structures. They were created for sound reasons; they should not be measured solely for the ways in which they can be used for control.

I think that your model for how people will get together is a bit utopian. You are likely aware that strongly held beliefs and open trusting community can be abused or even manipulated. The historical record is full of such instances. Church governments were developed for a reason. It seems to me that a well ordered church government attempts to provide protection for the weakest in the community from abuse of their beliefs and trust. It should organize to provide education so that people are less easily abused. Of course we know that church organizations can also be used in abusive ways. Neither free association as independent believers nor a formally organized church is intrinsically better; they are both human creations with all that implies. My sense is that in any given historical circumstance we have found one form helpful. As it develops we tend increasingly to see its shortcomings and move towards the other. You are drawn to the free association. I am more hesitant that we should discard the benefits of an organized church. What is needed to inform that choice is much broader historical perspective of the potential consequences, both intended and unintended, of each choice.

Borg’s position points to free association. I think that church government still plays an important role, particularly if it is a form that allows internally for change and correction. My issue with Borg is that he has not made it clear that his position undermines the idea that it is useful for a corporate body to deliberate and help its members differentiate between proposed interpretations of scripture. It often tends towards a single orthodoxy, but not always. I wonder if Borg realizes that much of the scholarship that he cites was supported by denominations that wanted more careful looks at appropriate interpretations. The irony is that now that he has his interpretation, he is basically saying that those supporting structures were never necessary. I would even go so far as to say that there is an inherent contradiction in his position.

If Christians choose to associate, as they are urged in scripture to do, then the problem of authority naturally arises. Who makes the decisions for that association and on what basis? Or to put it in different terms, what should be the basis for any one person’s legitimacy in their exercise of authority. That is where a level of agreement is necessary. The Protestant tradition has affirmed that scripture is the basis of that authority. If you discard that or make it unworkable by affirming individual intuitive interpretation, as you propose, what will replace scripture as the source of authority?


Megan Zamprelli said...

Borg is a bit of a strange fish. He’s very vague on some things that he should answer with more certainty if he could. I saw him in a debate and someone asked if he believed there is an afterlife? He replied “You know, I'm very happy to leave that up to God.” When the interviewer said that his comment was “very politic” he went on to say “Well, the answer is that I'm convinced when we die we die into God, but I don't know what that means in terms of survival of a personal identity or reincarnation. I'm not inclined to believe in reincarnation, but I have no idea what happens after death.”

So is there any difference here between Borg and the nihilists?


Thomas G. Nimick said...

I am picking up here a line of thought that began in the section of the blog on forgiveness, but which has since turned to issues, as the moderator reminded us, more appropriately considered here. The turn began with a reference to “being saved”. Since then it has developed in two paths: one a discussion about whether “salvation” is to be understood primarily as an afterlife or as transformation is this life, the other is about the definition of “fundamentalist Christian” and the views with which it is associated. Both discussions have touched on positions taken by Borg and so should be read by those interested in this line of discussion.
I would like to take up here what Desmond said in that discussion. He was addressing the point raised by Peter that fundamentalists tend to focus overly on the afterlife. Desmond said: “Surely there can be a balanced approach? Jesus taught, in response to a question from a lawyer, that the two "great Commandments" were to
1) love God &
2) love one's neighbour as one'self. (Matt chapt 22 vv 36-40)

“The first takes care of our relationship with God & therefore, with eternity secured, enables us to get on, in this life, with God's help, working on our love for our fellow-men/women.”

Desmond, surely you see that this passage need not refer to the afterlife at all. The first commandment can be readily understood to be focused on how you live your life – what are your priorities. Loving God creates an entirely different set of priorities than those commonly upheld in human society. So the first commandment is about how you live your own life and the second is about your relationship to your fellow human beings. I may disagree with Borg in a number of points, but I find compelling his analysis and conclusion that an emphasis on the afterlife turns Christianity into a matter of requirements rather than grace.

Thomas G. Nimick said...

With regard to the definition of “fundamentalist”, the word began with a group within the Presbyterian Church in the United States who objected to the denomination departing from what they considered five fundamental beliefs: inerrancy of scripture, the virgin birth and thus the deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection, and the authenticity of Jesus’ miracles. The one position that is at issue in this discussion is the inerrancy of scripture. As I mentioned previously, this concept of inerrancy of scripture emerged with the writing of the Westminster Confession, and it was intended to eliminate disputes over interpretation that had turned violent. I found, however, that when I read the Westminster Confession, that the writers had problems with the position of inerrancy even within their own arguments in the Confession. To relinquish the position of inerrancy, however, brings us into discussions about interpretation. That is where we find ourselves now. Fortunately our ancestors decided in the meantime that these differences were no longer a cause for violence.

What has happened in a number of fundamentalist churches is the triumph of doctrine: one interpretation has been made into orthodoxy. I know this from personal experience. In college I was in a prayer group with two young men, friends of mine, who were also members of a quite fundamentalist Christian group. I visited the group one evening and they were talking about how to deal with people who did not accept the proper interpretation. They said that if people would not change after remonstration with them, then they should be cut off from the group. Not long after that I was told that the leader of that group wanted to meet with me so he could make sure that I was not leading the two young men in the prayer group astray with mistaken beliefs. I declined to go and the young men were then told by the group to cut off their contact with me. I disagree fundamentally (if I may use that term) with that claim to orthodoxy: in my mind it conflicts with scriptural teaching about the unlimited nature of God.

I think that my faith is more appropriately based on relationship, first to God and then to my neighbor. It is not a matter of doctrine, as important as that can be.


Desmond. said...

Hi Tom.
Take your point that Matt 22 (two Great Commandments) can possibly be read both ways.

However, I was just using these as an illustration of what I called a balanced approach to one's faith. To me, a "Christian Faith" which did NOT include, and indeed major upon the glorious prospect of Eternity in Heaven,with Christ, would be little better than a set of rules to be adhered to, for no particular purpose.

I believe that the relationship one has with God, upon becoming a Christian, means that one has already begun what the Bible calls "eternal life" (1st John Chapt 5 vv 11 & 12) and indeed, Jesus, in John chapt 11 vv 25 & 26 tells us that if we are believers in Him, we, in effect, never die!!

Tell me where else you will find a promise like that!!

Paul, in 1 Cor chapt 15, v 19 says that "if in this life ONLY we have hope in Christ, we are to be greatly pitied".

It seems impossible, to me, therefore, to consider the Christian Faith OTHER than to include the dimension of Eternity.

Now, I'm sure you are familiar with the expression "so Heavenly minded as to be no earthly use!"

I believe that the role of the Christian, as set forth in the two Commandments, is to love one's neighbour-not from a sense of duty or to "earn" one's right to Heaven but rather as an expression of one's love for and gratitude to, God in the first place.

This, when we allow it to work properly, should motivate us to be the best that we can be in our relationships with others.

That's what I believe!