Mr. Cub and Dr. Borg

Ernie Banks, known with great affection against his protestations as “Mr. Cub”, died yesterday, two days after theologian Marcus Borg.

Each excelled in his respective field, Ernie in the ivy-covered walls of  “the Friendly Confines” of Wrigley Field, Marcus in the ivy-covered walls of the academy. Though their fields were different, their way of life was the same. It was humble.

Ernie objected to the “Mr. Cub” title, arguing that the designation should be shared among team members who excelled each year.

Marcus responded to the question “How do you know you’re right?” with “I don’t know. I don’t know that I’m right.”

Each was humble, and each anticipated death.

“I may have ten years left. Not sure I want more. There comes a time to let go. And I could, with gratitude, sooner than that. My life has been very blessed.”

Dr. Marcus Borg (Mar. 11, 1942 – Jan. 21, 2015) to former student and friend, the Very Reverend Barkley Thompson, October, 2014.

“When I die, I want my ashes to be spread over Wrigley Field with the wind blowing out!”

–  “Mr. Cub” – Ernie Banks (Jan. 31, 1931 – Jan. 23, 2015)

Thank you, Gentlemen, for the memories. R.I.P.

Marcus Borg Up Close and Personal

Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg (1942-2015), renowned scholar, teacher, and theologian of progressive Christianity, died January 21, 2015. (Click HERE for information on Dr. Borg.) When Don Dempsey learned of his death, he wrote to six close friends. Views from the Edge publishes it here with permission:

This morning I received notice of Marcus Borg’s death.

Marcus was one of my favorites – he spoke to me.  His “The Heart of Christianity” was one of the most meaningful books I’ve ever read!  I also used his book “Speaking Christian” for several adult ed classes.

When I served as an interim pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, I coordinated and arranged for Marcus to be present for a weekend visit.  It began with a Friday night presentation, followed by a Saturday workshop, and preaching at both services on Sunday.  He was controversial to some, but I loved it all.  Saturday was standing room only with the majority who were present not from FPC.  He had quite a Chicagoland following. 

It was my honor and privilege to be his guide and host the whole weekend.  It began on Thursday as Meg and I picked him up at O’Hare airport.  We told him we’d meet him at the baggage claim.  As Meg was getting out to go in and find Marcus, she asked, “how will I recognize him?”  She found him right away. 

After picking him up on Thursday we had a delightful conversation driving him to his hotel in Lake Forest.  As we dropped him off we asked, what are your dinner plans?

He said, “What do you suggest?”  We looked at each other and quickly said “Why don’t you get settled in and we’ll be back and pick you up for dinner at our house.”

What a great evening!  Marcus was such a warm and engaging person, he wanted to know all about us, he listened so intently to our stories.  That evening sitting on our deck sharing conversation, beaking bread, and sharing wine was indeed a celebration of communion that Meg and I shall never ever forget.

He inscribed my copy of “The Heart of Christianity” on 9/16/06:

To Don and Meg,
With rich memories, gratitude for your hospitality, and best wishes.
Marcus Borg

Rest in peace my friend, your voice and your presence will be greatly missed!

Don and Meg Dempsey

Don and Meg Dempsey, gracious hosts of Marcus Borg

Don and Meg Dempsey, gracious hosts of Marcus Borg

The Rev. Dr. Donald Dempsey and and Meg live in Fort Sheridan, Highland Park, IL. Don is one of six McCormick Theological Seminary friends who gather annually for renewal of friendship and theological inquiry.


“I don’t know that I’m right”

Marcus Borg‘s answer to the question “How do you know you’re right?” is spot on.

“I don’t. I don’t know that I ‘m right.”

Barkley Thompson reports the exchange in yesterday’s posting on God in the Midst of the City following Dr. Borg’s deathre-posted today on Views from the Edge as “Tribute to Marcus Borg (1942-2015)”.

I never met Marcus Borg. I wish I had. We were born in 1942 within a few months of each other. You might say we grew up next door to each other in different towns. There’s something about time that situates people in the same location, asking the same or similar questions, searching the same search, vexed, in our case, by the early horrors of World War II, German concentration camps, the Holocaust, and the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As children of faith we grew up asking how we could square a loving God with the stacked bodies of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the economic disparities of poverty and injustice of racial segregation.  As happened to a lesser extent with some of his peers, Marcus developed a theology and Christology that rose out of these compelling questions about the real world that had shaped him, and the irrepressable hope for something better that drove him deeper and wider as he grew older and wiser.

Marcus’s humble response to the questioner who asked how he knew he was right -“I don’t know. I don’t know that I’m right” – is one for the ages. If only we could clone it to create a humbler humanity of neighborliness across all the terror our world is making, we might fetch the blessing from the curse of absolute religious certainty.

“God’s dream for us is not simply peace of mind, but peace on earth.”- Marcus J.Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, 2007, HarperOne.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 22, 2015


Tribute to Marcus Borg (1942 – 2015)

Cover of Marcus Borg book

Cover of Marcus Borg book

Marcus Borg’s writing and teaching affected millions.  Steve Shoemaker received an email of Marcus’s death yesterday from Barkley Thompson, who had quickly writtten the following tribute to Marcus on his blog “God in the Midst of the City“.

My friend, Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg died this morning after a prolonged illness. I received a phone call this afternoon from a Cathedral parishioner and friend of Marcus, relaying the news to me.

I first became aware of Marcus Borg when I was a sophomore at Hendrix College. His landmark book, Jesus: A New Vision had just been released. It hit me at exactly the right time. I was a philosophy & religion major who knew God and increasingly knew about God, but I had little room or need for Jesus. Marcus’ book gave me an entirely new access point: to consider Jesus as Jesus had been historically, as a wisdom teacher, a healer, a social prophet, and more.

Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg

I first heard Marcus speak at Hendrix. He was the epitome of a college professor, right down to the cardigan sweater and pipe. He spoke calmly and with passion, and the first time I heard him in person was also the first time I understood how those tho things–calm and passion–could coincide.

I heard Marcus speak several other times over the years, but it was after I’d become a priest that I came to know him personally. When he was the annual Dodson Lecturer at St. John’s-Roanoke, he and I went to dinner. I was starstruck and wanted to quiz him about his research and his approach to Christianity. He’d have none of it. Marcus wanted only to talk about me, about St. John’s, about our ministry, and about my experience as a young priest in the Episcopal Church. He was solely interested in me, and I’ve never forgotten it.

Several shared meals and opportunities for fellowship later, my Christology has become higher and higher as the years have gone by. In ways I could not have done all those years ago in college, I now attest without hesitation that Jesus the Christ is God Incarnate, the hinge of history, the defeater of death, and the fulfillment in a single human life of God’s hopes for the whole world. And yet, my approach to Holy Scripture, my social convictions, and my love for the Episcopal Church mirror Marcus’ own perspectives quite closely. I once introduced Marcus to a church audience by saying, “I agree with roughly 75% of what Marcus will say to you this evening.” When he stepped into the pulpit, Marcus quipped, “I’m tempted to forego my notes and discuss with Barkley the other 25%!”

Unlike so many other writers in the field of religion (on both ends of the spectrum), Marcus was humble. Once one of my parishioners asked him during Q&A, “But how do you know that you’re right?” He paused, looked at her thoughtfully, and said, “I don’t know. I don’t know that I’m right.”

Very many people who had left the Christian faith have returned to it through Marcus’ evangelism (though he would grimace at my use of the word, I suspect). Marcus was a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ in word and in deed. He understood Jesus (and especially the Resurrection) differently than I do. But the veracity of his faith was clear. And calm. And passionate.

Marcus and I last corresponded in late November. I’d asked how he was doing, and he responded, “I may have ten years left. Not sure I want more. There comes a time to let go. And I could, with gratitude, sooner than that. My life has been very blessed.”

Like Abraham, Marcus was blessed so that he could be a blessing. He blessed my life, and I am grateful.

NOTE: Since February 2013, Barkley serves as the eighth dean and twentieth rector of historic Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, Texas.  Click HERE for more information about the him.


The Pearl of Great Price for a Video Game

Preparing to preach last Sunday, I stumbled across this sermon by New Testament scholar Robert Hamerton-Kelly, former Dean of Chapel at Stanford. I came to know him during his stay as Associate Professor of New Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, where I had returned to work on a New Testament passage that consumed my interest. No matter that he didn’t know me; he made himself available to two days.

Robert preached the sermon on Christ the King Sunday in 2007 to a meeting of the Saint John Society. Having read the sermon, I looked further only to discover his obituary from last July. His sermon and the obituary spoke powerfully to me, not only in and of themselves, but because his interest in the memetic theory of Rene Girard, one of Robert’s colleagues at Stanford, is one I have come to share. Robert, it turns out, was a leader in the Girardian theological interpretation.

Rene Girard, Robert Hammerton-Kelly, et. al. at conference on Girardian theory.

Rene Girard, Robert Hammerton-Kelly, et. al. at conference on Girardian theory.

Having felt as though I had discovered a pearl of great price, I shared the entire sermon with the congregation last Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, 2013. RIP, Robert, your influence survives your passing.

Christ the King and the Ethics of the Kingdom
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Col 1: 11-20; Luke 23: 33-43

“There was also an inscription over him. ‘This is the King of the Jews’.” — Luke 23:38

Today, on the festival of Christ the King and the last day of the Christian year AD 2006-2007, I want to approach the Kingship of Christ through the ethics of the Kingdom. I want to ask, ” Given that our King expects us to live in a certain way in his Kingdom, what may we deduce from this life about His nature, what do the ethics of the Kingdom tell us about the nature of its King? The short answer: He is a Generous King; the ethics of generosity reveal a generous king and a kingdom of expansive kindness.

I love to preach in the summers when the lessons set are the parables in the central portion of Luke’s gospel: the prodigal son (the generous father), the good shepherd (the caring king – shepherd was one of the prime symbols of the king in the ancient near east, e.g. the Pharaohs were always portrayed with a shepherd’s crook in hand), the unjust steward (the generous boss), the lost sheep (the shepherd of impetuous love). These parables and others (e.g. the man who pays all the workers the same despite some having worked longer than others, showing that our reward depends not on our deserts but on God’s generosity, and who says to the complainers ” Can I not do what I please with my own money? Or is your eye evil because I am good?” And Jesus adds, “Thus the last shall be first and the first last” Matthew 20:15-16) all attest that our God is a God of expansive generosity, rather than retributive justice.

It is a truism in liberal theology that the historical Jesus was so to speak “on the side of” the poor and against the rich. So far do these theologians, like Marcus Borg for instance, go in identifying him with the poor that they empty him of divinity. Jesus is not, as we believe, “…the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation,” but rather a social prophet, concerned to clean up corruption among politicians, exploitation by businesses, and cruelty in kings. He is a partisan of democracy and an enemy of aristocracy. As far as he is concerned, “Behind every great fortune is a great crime.” These theologians must be the last Marxists in the world out side the jungles of Nepal.

His theological identity aside for the moment, such a claim clashes with the title Jesus was given, namely, King, and the name he gave to the nature of his community, Kingdom. For me, Borg’s Jesus is a complete mystery; a social worker who became in the eyes of his followers the image of the invisible God and the first-born of all creation. For Borg such claims are not statements of fact but metaphors of feeling, to which I say that such distinctions are impermissible because metaphors are statements of fact too. When someone says Jesus is the image of God he does not mean only that he personally believes this but that it is not “objectively” true. This kind of logic is way out of date, especially in view of progress in the neurosciences and in what used to be called epistemology but is now known as “cognitive science.” Metaphors are ways of stating “facts,” (another term that has lost its firmness of meaning).

I picked up Borg recently and found myself appalled at the sloppy reasoning and careless historiography by which he erases the King of life and death, the conqueror of sin and despair, and replaces him with a poet of social justice, like the folk singers of the sixties of last century. (I once reviewed Borg and said that his Jesus was like the Hippy remnants of Boulder Creek where we then had a house, and Santa Cruz). Now that is very bad news indeed; Jesus the community organizer and the Kingdom a great commune of love, flowers, and free sex.

Jesus is a king, which is not such a bad thing to be when you compare it to presidents. Currently we have a president who would be king and whose best pals are the rancid royals of Saudi. On this evidence there is no a priori reason to be anti-monarchy and pro-presidency; on the whole kings have not been more corrupt and rapacious than presidents. In the case in point look what democracy achieved: twice it produced catastrophe.

To be sure it was Jesus’ executioners who give us the title we cite today; it is the title on the Cross. However, it was not simply a slander, it must have had basis in fact; people did call him “King of the Jews,” and for good reason; there was something royal about him, something that reminded them of the great king David.

There was also something in his ethical teaching that was royal or at least aristocratic, namely, generosity. In this alone Jesus was not a social prophet of the OT kind. Those wooly rubes were far from generous; on the contrary they were hypercritical and flamingly partisan. If you listen to those OT prophets you hear mostly ferocious condemnation, self-righteous accusation, and venomous jingoism. You hear them excoriating the kings for being friendly with foreigners and at the bottom of the well you hear them demand that true Jews divorce and drive out all non-Jewish wives, and one of their exemplars, Phineas the priest once took a spear and killed an Israelite man and a Moabite woman in the act of love, for the sake of his god (Numbers 25:6-9). (Just like the Taliban religious police). Their vision of social justice would bring about a community like Stalin’s USSR or Warren Jeffs’ fundamentalist Mormons, or Saudi Arabia, or Taliban land.

Against the low class ressentiment and venomous indignation of these OT prophets, Jesus sets the ethic of generosity. He behaved like an aristocrat of the best kind; he was merciful, he was humane and he was generous. This is the overwhelming evidence of the parables of the Gospels.

Recently I have been reading Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 2007), a very good book, sane and reliable, which I recommend to those who are willing and able to read a demanding text. I learned from Taylor the history of the word “generosity” from its arrival in Western European discourse in 16th century French. Here is the description: Taylor is asking where we might have found the resources for a universal beneficence absent the divine commands. He writes, “Now one obvious place they might have found these resources was in pride. Not the negatively judged pride of Christian preaching but the positive force which was central to the warrior- aristocratic ethic, whereby one is moved by the sense of ones own dignity to live up to the demands of ones estate. This motive in 17th century French was called ‘generosite.’ Corneille’s characters incessantly evoked it. Here is Cleopatra’s speech from Pompe:

‘Les Princes ont cela de leur haute naissance…
Leur generosite soumet tout a leur gloire.’

(This to their high extraction Princes owe…
Their magnanimity subjects all to their glory.)

Generosite is translated “magnanimity,” a marvelous word! The opposite of pusillanimity and the narrow, nationalist meanness of the prophets. And the phrase, “…whereby one is moved by the sense of one’s own dignity to live up to the demands of ones estate,” translates the biblical phrase, “for Thy name’s sake.” We pray God to act generously not for our sake nor for our merit but for his own name, that is, the sense of his own dignity which makes him live up to the demands of his estate.

Think again of Christ the King in this light: his high birth is without peer, (“He is the image of God, the first-born of all creation…in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” Colossians1: 15&19). Out of this peerless dignity Jesus would of course show magnanimity and not pronounce condemnation. My friend Ed P Sanders of Duke University, whom I regard as the best historian of Jesus of our generation, points out that Jesus did not call first for repentance and then for entrance to the Kingdom, but rather for sinners to enter the Kingdom as they were, unrepentant or whatever, and subject themselves to its magnanimous influences. This, Sanders says was one of the reasons they crucified him, that is, for undermining the prophetic demands that people measure up to the prophets’ standards before they approach God. Jesus reversed this, and that is how he became the King who ruled from the Cross, the highest born among us in the place of slaves and traitors; he offered unconditional acceptance in a world of competition and conditions.

But through it all he never once ceased to be the King, your sovereign and mine. From that Cross he forgave us because we did not know what we were doing (Luke 23:34); and out of his magnanimity he still forgives us when we pander to current culture and its incapacity for truth, and thus crucify him again on a cross of pusillanimity and obsequiousness. Be assured, when we have Judas-like given over to them our magnanimous king, the prize givers of our culture, whom our renegades regard with such awe, will not reward us; they will despise us more, because we will have exchanged the pearl of great price for a video game, and even in their ignorance they can smell the rot of self-destruction.