The God We Never Knew by Marcus Borg

[A book review by John S. Morgan]

"…watching my wife in her role as an Episcopal priest distributing the bread of the Eucharist one Sunday morning. Among the people kneeling at the altar rail was a four-year-old girl, looking expectantly at my wife’s face as she bent down to give her a piece of bread. My wife has a beautiful face and a wonderful smile.

As I watched the young girl , I suddenly wondered if my wife’s face was filling her visual screen and being imprinted in her mind as an image of God, much as the face of the male pastor from my childhood had been imprinted on mine And I was struck by the difference: an image of God as a male authority figure shaking his finger at us versus an image of God as a beautiful woman bending down to feed us."

Borg divides his book, The God We Never Knew, into three parts: Thinking About God, Imaging God, and Living with God.

Thinking about God

John Shelby Spong has said that the way Christianity was told to us has been changed so dramatically that the way we were telling the Christian story no longer is communicating to anybody. He says: "I think what we've got to do is to separate the Christ experience, which I do believe is eternal, timeless and divine, from every explanation of it in history. And then we've got to seek a different way to explain the reality of God and the way that God somehow was in this Christ.'' He says that we must stop thinking of God theistically. Borg's way of thinking about God in his youth was a vision of his pastor shaking a finger at him, a very theistic and anthropomorphic understanding of God.

Borg seems now to have the answer to Spong’s concerns. He suggests Christian history and tradition have proclaimed God as transcendent and immanent. [But heretofore the transcendent aspect has been dominant.] He uses the word panENtheism to encompass these two aspects of God, God more than the universe and God everywhere present in the universe, near at hand, within us and we in Him.

Imaging God

Borg outlines the many images of God in Scripture, and suggests that these metaphors cluster around two primary models of God: The Monarchical model and The Spirit model.

The Monarchial model implies imaging God as judge, king, male, lawgiver. ["A monarchical model of God and a monarchical political order go hand in hand." They support the establishment; the model legitimizes dominance over relationship; it downplays the place of women; it leads to an excessive preoccupation with sin.] In times of kinghood it is easy to see how this model rose to the foreground.

The Spirit model on the other hand stresses relationship, intimacy and belonging. This model gives the title for his work, because while both models are deeply rooted in scripture what he calls ‘Spirit model’ is the less known.

Very much a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, Borg is quick to observe that the actual utterances of the Historical Jesus is more in tune with the Spirit model. He speaks of the Pre-Easter Jesus [the historical] and also the Post-Easter Jesus, which can be seen in the layers of early Christian reflection metaphorically mixed with historical anecdotes to form the framework of the New Testament.

He describes the historic Jesus this way: he was a Spirit person, healer, wisdom teacher, social prophet, movement initiator, and a religious ecstatic. He found him filled with the Spirit of God. Borg says that both visions are important. "Our glimpse of the Pre-Easter Jesus discloses what the Word made flesh, the Spirit of God embodied in human life, looks like. The canonical Jesus [Post- Easter Jesus] discloses what Jesus became in the experience and life of early Christian communities."

Living with God

Borg finds the concept of the Sacred important in seeing God all around us; it is at the heart of spirituality. He finds Protestantism having reduced itself only to sacredness of ritual. He sees what we might call catholic elements with their sacred seasons, sounds, music, liturgy, incense, stained glass more conducive to access another layer of reality that can disclose the nearness of God. He is only criticizing one aspect of Protestantism. In general he rejects exclusive claims of religion and finds value in many religious traditions, Christian and otherwise.

I would characterize Borg’s view of God as non-anthropocentric and non-interventionist but as presence.

If God is all around us, or as the historical Jesus observes, "The Kingdom of God is at hand", why is this not easily evident. He suggests such answers as ‘our preoccupation with producing and consuming’, ‘our orientation toward our five senses’, and ‘hardness of heart’.

Compassion is the final result of living with God, and demands a social gospel that does not merely demand charity but rather mandates change in social structures which result in equitable distribution of wealth. He sees this as the dream of God and the vision of the Historic Jesus.

Speaking of an afterlife, Borg says: "There is much that I do not know about it and do not have any beliefs about. In this sense I am an ‘agnostic’ about an afterlife…" He does admit that scripture has many positive and varied views on the question. Borg is a very honest author. I have only scraped the surface of this marvelous work.

My critique

Borg says: "One of the most important claims of this book is that God is all around us." "Yet we commonly do not know or experience this." I find his rationale for explaining why it is difficult to see the kingdom of God weak.

He hints at a better reason when he quotes from a book called Flatland written by an Anglican headmaster and scholar, Edwin A. Abbott, who tells a story of a two-dimensional universe and has us imagine what a Flatlander would experience as a sphere intersected with Flatland. They would see first a dot, then a widening circle then a narrowing one and at last a dot again. The experience would be a severe distortion of a three dimensional reality. The problem is of a two dimensional being attempting to experience a three dimensional world.

It would seem to me that a supreme being immanent and transcendent would have no trouble having his creatures fully knowledgeable of his existence. The answer, that I would give, is one I heard suggested in a course on Existentialism that I took as an undergraduate. Namely - the God of the Universe - for His/Her own purposes elects to keep such disclosure secret. One can suppose many reasons. Perhaps such disclosure and/or intervention would prevent mankind from self realizations. Perhaps it would interfere with important self learning processes. Perhaps we are called upon unaided to write the great dramas.

In the end we are yearning for answers that entail a three dimensional creature approaching a multidimensional God. I am not uncomfortable living in a world where the glimpse of the Almighty is through a glass darkly. Some of the Almighty’s footprints are hard to hide.

It would also seem curious to me that a supreme being immanent and transcendent who is so very much in love with his creatures would have only a temporary and transitory interest in them. What is overall reality like? Are all our experiences in time-space out there somewhere? Perhaps our souls will walk in the footsteps of our fathers - eat in their old bodies. Perhaps reincarnation is frequent on this planet or elsewhere. Perhaps we will see our lives in the visions of others. Perhaps their are eternal relationships. I think the moderns are uncomfortable with the idea of heaven because they can not see a plausible mechanism.

I repeat, it seems to me more than likely that the Supreme Being, who set the grand stage for the emergence of life, and who, engulfed with love for his creatures, would have more than a transitory interest in them. However, as Borg quotes Paul, "If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s"