"I see Jesus as a Jewish mystic," said scholar Marcus Borg, a leader in progressive Christian scholarship, in an interview Oct. 8. "He stands in the tradition of the Jewish Bible. He was very much shaped by stories of Moses and the prophets of Israel and their radical criticism of the monarchy of their day. To me, the name Jesus refers not just to a figure of the past but also to a spiritual presence that continues to work in people's lives today."
Borg, who will give the Sage Chapel Homecoming service, Oct. 14 at 11:15 a.m., on "The Surprising and Subversive Jesus," seeks a return to the core of faith: passion for a God that inspires just action on Earth. He sees Jesus as an exemplar of burning moral outrage at the conditions of his time and place whose encounters with the divine propelled his revolutionary social agenda.
"Jesus as a historical figure was somebody deeply centered in God and who, as a result, taught an alternative wisdom," noted Borg, author of 14 books and a fellow of the Jesus Seminary, a group of scholars that examines the historical accuracy of the words and deeds attributed to Jesus . "He was a radical political critic of the domination system of his day. For Jesus and Judaism, God is passionate about the world. When the world is violent, God is passionate that it be otherwise."
In the provincial outpost that constituted Jesus' earthly experience, the Roman Empire's political oppression and economic exploitation hit home. Jesus, born into the peasantry in a time of worsening straits, saw his people lose their land to pay Roman levies. "Because he was deeply Jewish, he believed strongly that this was not the way God wanted the world to be," Borg said.
According to Borg, "Jesus undertakes a program of public activity of inviting people to become passionate about God's kingdom on Earth -- a kingdom of economic justice and nonviolence. And it's because Jesus is an advocate of this, and because he criticizes the powers that move his world, and was beginning to attract a following, that he is arrested and executed."
The struggle against injustice remains vital, Borg suggested. "We live at a time in which there are two very different versions or visions of what it means to be Christian. The church in North America is deeply divided theologically and politically. My work on Jesus occurs within the context of that division within the church. My real passion is to try to shape the life of the church in our time."
Borg described himself as a "deeply committed" Christian (his wife is an Episcopal priest) who is an advocate within Christianity of a different way to follow Jesus. "To follow Jesus means to be passionate about what the God of Jesus was passionate about, namely the kingdom of God," he said. "It combines the spiritual and the political."
As for the core text, Borg has reservations. "I think the Bible contains a fair amount of material that was never the will of God," Borg said. "How do we discern what parts of the Bible reflect the passion of God and what parts are simply ancient conventional beliefs? When there's a conflict between Jesus and the Bible, Jesus trumps the Bible. Taking Jesus seriously is about much more than believing certain doctrines, and ultimately, not about believing or about being good. It's about a relationship with God that involves us in a journey of transformation."