Thursday, January 22, 2015

Fare Thee Well Marcus Borg, 1942-2015

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Having just mentioned him two days ago in my 2014 Reading List (I read two books by him last year), I learned late last night that my favorite Christian scholar and theologian, Marcus Borg, died yesterday at the age of 72.

There's not yet much information about what happened, but one Episcopal blogger, who is also a personal friend, said that Dr. Borg had died after a "prolonged illness."  This doesn't make much sense, since Borg was blogging himself as recently as December without any mention or indication of an illness.  

Either way, I am heartbroken to hear of his passing.  Here's what I wrote about him in a blog post last year:  

Marcus Borg is my favorite Christian scholar and writer.  To me, he's a modern-day Christian Bodhisattva.  Just reading his books gives me a sense of peace and tranquility.  He's also a brilliant scholar of the bible and the historical Jesus.  Unlike many academic biblical scholars, however, he's also a Christian theologian.  I had the pleasure of hearing him preach one Sunday morning in Lexington, Kentucky, a few years back.

Among my favorite scholars and theologians, he's the only one I've ever heard speak in person, and I've always regretted chickening out of going up to him after the service that day and introducing myself.  I especially regret it now that he has died. 

Borg was well-known as a scholar and theologian, a university professor in Oregon, a prolific and best-selling writer, and a major voice in the field of historical Jesus scholarship.  I've read a number of his books.  "Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary," published in 2009, is hands down the best book on the historical Jesus I have ever read.  I awarded it the Serene Musings Book of the Year Award in 2010, one of only two non-fiction books that I've ever given that title to.  I always tell people that if you are interested in getting beyond the Jesus of Sunday School and learning more about the Jesus of history, how he lived, why he lived, what motivated him, and what he was really trying to teach, this is the first book you should go to.  And that's true whether you are a progressive, conservative, liberal, traditional, evangelical, or an atheist.  Certainly if you are a traditional evangelical, you won't agree with everything you read in the book, but one of Borg's gifts was not just the ability to effectively communicate his ideas, but to do so in a gentle, compassionate, and inclusive way.  Of all the biblical scholars I read, I think Borg is the one best able to bring people together from all ends of the theological spectrum.  His kindness and gentleness towards ideas and beliefs contrary to his own are what sets him apart from most religious writers, in my opinion. 

Having grown up in moderate Southern Baptist churches, and having attended a moderate Southern Baptist college, I found myself, in my mid- to late-20s, having a sort of spiritual crisis.  Like a lot of reflective and cerebral people, I started questioning a lot of the things I had grown up believing.  Somewhat opposite of those stories you frequently hear in church, or from religious people, about experiences that "proved" to them that God is real, I had some experiences that, at the time, I could only view as more or less "proving" that God was either not real, or was, at the very least, totally different from what I had always believed.  

After a few years of struggling and questioning some things, I found myself in 2004, 29 years old, divorced, living alone, and questioning whether I could really believe in God at all anymore.

It was then that a therapist I was seeing suggested the books of Marcus Borg.  Specifically, he suggested Borg's book "The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith."  

I can say beyond any shadow of a doubt that, if not for this book, I likely would have lost my religious faith all together - something I have seen occur to a number of people around me.  This book, quite simply, allowed me to continue to believe in God.  And it set me on the path of religious discovery that I have been on ever since.  It's what started my now decade-long interest in religious scholarship, theology, and history.  I even considered, briefly, applying for graduate programs in the field of religious studies.  Though I obviously never did that, I did embark on a course of self-study that continues up to the present day.  For several years, this blog was basically my classroom, where I posted dozens of essays on religious scholarship, many of which are still among my favorites.  All of that, ultimately, goes back to "The God We Never Knew" and Marcus Borg's profound influence on my own spiritual path.  

Regardless of where you stand on life after death, one thing is undeniable: you continue on, here on earth, beyond your death, through the influence you've had on other people.  Your words, your actions, your behaviors...these are the things that continue to be real and tangible beyond your natural life.  In that sense, Marcus Borg will live on for a very long time in the countless lives, including mine, that his work and teachings have enriched.  Godspeed, Dr. Borg.

Well done, my good and trustworthy servant.  Enter into the joy of your master.      

Serene Musings Books of the Year, 2005-2014