The God We Never Knew
Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith
by Marcus Borg, 1997
Chapter 2: Why Panentheism?
Panentheism as a root concept for thinking about God is a broad umbrella that encompasses a variety of more specific theological positions. Within it I include all concepts of the sacred that strongly affirm both the transcendence and immanence of God. It is what John Macquarrie calls “dialectical theism”: the affirmation of two apparent opposites, God as “beyond” and God as “right here.”God is more than the world (and more than a metaphor for the world). Yet God is present in the world—not only (or at all?) in moments of supernatural intervention (the God “out there” momentarily breaking into the world), but always “here,” and in moments disclosed to us.
Panentheism is unfamiliar to many Christians, so deeply entrenched is supernatural theism. When they do hear of it, some welcome it enthusiastically because it makes sense and fits their own experience....
When I first ran into this way of conceptualizing God in modern thinkers like Tillich and Robinson, it seemed to me like a way of trying to evade the intellectual difficulties posed by thinking of God as a being “out there”... But I now see this as one of the virtues of panentheism: it does genuinely resolve much of the intellectual difficulty posed by supernatural theism. For the most part, modern skepticism and atheism are a rejection of supernatural theism [naturally, since they reject God's moral law and cross], but if God is not thought of as a supernatural being separate from the universe, then the persuasive force of much of modern atheism vanishes. [page 33]
If God can be “seen” and “known,” then God is accessible to human experience and cannot simply be transcendent but must also be thought of as here. Moreover, knowing God is attested to not only by biblical texts explicitly referring to it but in the experience of the central figures of the biblical tradition. The stories about Moses’ experiences of the sacred, the call stories of the prophets, and the story of Jesus all speak of people who knew the sacred. For them, the sacred was an element of experience, not simply an article of belief. [page 37] [Yes, but their "experiences" were not universal. Those men were blessed in God's presence because they first believed or -- as in Moses case -- because God had specifically chosen him for a purpose]
EXPERIENCES 0F THE SACRED [Borg uses pagan or mystical illustrations to validate his unbiblical beliefs]
...if the sacred—if God—can be experienced, then God is not simply somewhere else but also right here. The most dramatic of these experiences involve nonordinary states of consciousness. They are “ecstatic,” which means literally to be out of
oneself, or out of one’s ordinary state of consciousness. Sometimes occurring spontaneously, these nonordinary states can also be entered through ritualized means and spiritual disciplines.
Ecstatic religious experiences and their implications for how we see reality have been made central by many scholars of religion, classically by William James and Rudolf Otto near the beginning of this century and more recently by Mircea Eliade and Huston Smith.21 Otto spoke of them as experiences of “the numinous.” Eliade spoke of them as “hierophanies” (manifestations of the sacred) and “theophanies” (manifestations of the sacred as God).
In the nonordinary states of consciousness that mark these experiences, reality is experienced as “more” than the visible world of our ordinary consciousness. Importantly, the experiences have a noetic quality to them—that is, people who have them consistently say that they involve a knowing (and not simply a feeling).... [page 37]
Shamanic experiences are similar in one respect to visions and may be regarded as a special type of visionary experience. In them, the person not only sees into another level of reality but journeys into it, embarking on “magical flights” and “spiritjourneys.” Shamans enter the alternate reality and interact with it for the sake of their people. They are technicians of the sacred; they have techniques for entering the alternate reality and techniques for mediating, on behalf of the group, spiritual power (Often healing power but also divination and clairvoyance, among other functions). Sometimes shamans seek to affect entities encountered in the alternate reality. There are also reports of journeying through alternate reality to another place in ordinary reality; there the shamans are able to see events that are happening at a great distance from their actual physical location.
Mystical experiences involve ecstatic states of consciousness in which one is vividly aware of the presence of God. ...
Earlier in this century, Rufus Jones, a Quaker scholar, defined mysticism as a type of religion which puts the emphasis on immediate awareness of relation with God, on direct and intimate consciousness of the Divine Presence. It is religion in its most acute, intense, and living stage.... Though mysticism has not been well regarded by much of modern Protestant theology it is a central element in the history of religious experience, including the Christian tradition.[page 39] ...
...it seems to me that ecstatic religious experience is the primary reason for taking seriously the reality of the sacred, of God. These experiences lead to the inference that there is more than one kind of reality, more than one level of reality, and that these other levels or layers can be (and are) known. ...
I find the evidential value of religious experience to be far more interesting and suggestive than the traditional “proofs” of God’s existence, which I am convinced do not work. [Of course not. God never said He would "prove" His existence skeptics].... [page 45]
All of our thinking about God—our concepts, as well as our images, which we shall consider in the next chapter—are attempts to express the ineffable. The ineffable—one in whom we live and move and have our being—is beyond all of our concepts, even this one. And yet the ineffable, the sacred, is real and present. To use an inscription important to Carl Jung, “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.” These words were carved in Latin over Jung’s front door as a reminder to both him and his patients. They are also on Jung’s tombstone....[page 49]
I now see that the Christian life is not essentially about beliefs and requirements; it is not about believing in a God “out there” for the sake of an afterlife later. Rather, thinking about God panentheistically leads to a relational understanding of the Christian life, which is, I am convinced, both true and profoundly life-giving.
Put very simply and directly, the course of my own Christian journey from supernatural theism to panentheism has led me, experientially and intellectually, to three central conviction:
● God is real.
● The Christian life is about entering into a relationship with God as known
● That relationship can—and will—change your life.[page 51]
Borg's view of the Kingdom of God
The alternative wisdom of Jesus—the way of Jesus—challenged the conventional wisdom not just of his world but of every world. It involves a radical recentering: from being centered in our tradition—that is, in our map of reality, whether religious or secular—to being centered in that to which these maps (at their best) point. Life within tradition is transformed to life in the Spirit. The life of performance becomes the life of relationship. (That sounds good, but keep in mind that Borg has redefined tradition to mean Biblical faith in the God's unchanging Word and ways.)
Fifth, Jesus spoke and enacted a social vision grounded in God—what I will call “the dream of God” in Chapter Six. We see his social passion and vision in several ways: in his role as a social prophet who indicted the ruling elites at the top of an exploitative domination system; in his boundary-breaking behavior and in the inclusive shape of his movement, which undermined the sharp social boundaries of his day; in his inclusive table fellowship, his practice of “open conimensality,” which embodied his inclusive social vision. We see it also in his frequent use of the phrase “kingdom of God,” at least one of whose meanings is social and political.
The contrast is to the kingdom of Herod and the kingdom of Caesar: What would the world be like if God were king
and not Herod or Caesar? This is a very different vision. There is thus a social—political dimension to Jesus, and if we see Jesus as a disclosure of God, it follows that God cares passionately about what happens in human history. [page 100]
...taking the pre-Easter Jesus seriously as an epiphany of God suggests a massive subversion of the monarchical model of God
and the way of life (individually and socially) to which it leads. God is not a distant being but is near at hand. God is not primarily a lawgiver
and judge but the compassionate one. The religious life is not about requirements but about relationship. God as king has not ordained a social order dominated by earthly kings and elites but wills an egalitarian and just social order that subverts all domination systems. Indeed, Jesus used the monarchical language of “kingdom of God” to subvert the monarchical model: in the kingdom of God, things are very different. [page 101]
THE CANONICAL JESUS AS A DISCLOSURE OF GOD
...I will focus on what might be called the completed canonical story of Jesus: what happens when the story of Jesus is put within the framework of the canonical stories about the beginning and ending of his life. In short I will focus on the stories of his birth, death, and resurrection and the way they generate the classic Christian story of Jesus as a disclosure of God.
To do so, I will use the term myth. Using this term requires a strong warning against a common misunderstanding of the word. For many
people in the modern world, myth is a dismissive term. In popular usage, myth most often means an untruth that need not and should not be
taken seriously. Thus for many Christians, speaking of biblical stories as “myths” is unsettling or even inflammatory. This is unfortunate, for myth has a very different meaning in the study of religion. It is a very useful and illuminating term. Religious myths or sacred myths are stories about the relationship between the two worlds—the sacred and the world of our ordinary experience. In short, a myth is a story about God and us. As such, myths can be both true and powerful, even though they are symbolic narratives and not straightforward historical reports. Though not literally true, they can be really true; though not factually true, they can be actually true.
The stories of Jesus’ birth are myths in this sense. Along with most mainline scholars, I do not think these stories report what happened. [page 101]
The dream of God as we see it in Jesus—his alternative social vision—is usefully crystallized in three complementary ways. First, I call it
a “politics of compassion.” For Jesus, compassion was more than a virtue for the individual. It was the basis of his criticism of the social
order: for Jesus, the compassion of God stood against the domination system of his day Compassion was also the paradigm or core value of his social vision: Jesus’ understanding of God as compassionate led to a social vision grounded in compassion. It stood in sharp contrast to the core value of the social vision of elite theology, which was a politics of holiness and purity centered in the temple and legitimating the social
order. Compassion as a core political paradigm suggests a political order that is life-giving, nourishing, and inclusive.
Second, the most effective shorthand nonbiblical language known to me for the dream of God and its opposition to elite theology and
politics has been supplied by Walter Wink. Elite theology and politics lead to “domination systems.” ... God’s “domination-free order”—is the dream of God. The exodus paradigm, which surfaced again in the prophets and Jesus, is meant for all of us. We are not meant to live under the domination of Pharaoh or Caesar, whatever form that takes.
Third, one may speak of Jesus’ social vision with one of his most frequently used phrases: “the kingdom.of God.” Though the phrase had
several nuances of meaning, one was theopolitical. His hearers knew about other kingdoms, especially Herod’s and Caesar’s. The kingdom of
God is what the world would be like if God were king, rather than Herod or Caesar. In such a world, the poor would be fortunate, the
mighty put down from their thrones, the rich sent away empty-handed.....
Strikingly, we pray that this kingdom—God’s kingdom—might come on earth every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom
come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But we often miss the connection because of the cadence with which we most frequently pray this prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” is separated by a single—beat pause from “on earth, as it is in heaven.” But the syntax is clear: we are praying for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. [page 143]
Salvation as the Kingdom of God
“Kingdom of God” is the most common image of salvation in the teaching of Jesus. We have already considered it in the previous chapter,
but I include it again here because of its importance and because it underlines that biblical images of salvation include a communal and political dimension. For Jesus, the kingdom of God is both a social vision (and thus future) and a present reality (whose power is already at work
and which can be known in the present).
As a social vision, it points to a way of living together in which, to use the language of the beatitudes, the destitute are blessed, and the hungry
are filled’ As a present reality, the “kingdom of God” points to living under the kingship of God instead of under the kings and lords, of this
world. These rival lords are political, cultural, and psychological. The image thus connects to the exodus story as well: one is liberated from
bondage to the lords of this world by living under the kingship of God....
People under political and economic bondage often experience hunger and thirst as well; the rations for slaves in Egypt were meager. The exiles in Babylon were not only strangers in a strange land but also blind and deaf. Bondage and sin can be combined: we are in bondage to anxious self-preoccupation and habituated and hurtful ways of being....
Together, these images of salvation also make striking affirmations
God wills our liberation, our exodus from Egypt.
God wills our reconciliation, our return from exile.
God wills our enlightenment, our seeing.
God wills our forgiveness, our release from sin and guilt. [page 166]
Compare Borg's "Kingdom" theories with Brian McLaren's view of the Kingdom of God: Who defines the Kingdom of God?
TWO MODELS OF GOD
The first model, which I will call "the monarchical model,"9 clusters together images of God as king, lord, and father; it leads to a "performance model" of the Christian life. The second model clusters together images of the God that point to intimate relationship and belonging. I will call it "the Spirit model"; it leads to a "relational model" of the Christian life. [page 61]
9. Following Sallie McFague and other. See McFague, Models of God.... Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (San Francisco: Harper... 1981) refers to this model as "monarchical monotheism."
"...Borg makes the case for revising our conceptions of God. In place of a monarchical, dominating deity, the author proposes a 'belonging model' of a God who is always among us. In dispensing with older images of God that have lost their persuasive powers, Borg stresses the importance of reconceiving our relationship to the sacred."
"...Borg reveals how to embrace an authentic contemporary faith that reconciles God with science, critical thinking and religious pluralism. ... In providing a much-needed solution to the problem of how to have a fully authentic yet fully contemporary understanding of God, Borg... traces his personal journey. He leads readers from the all-powerful and authoritarian God of his (and their) childhood and traditional faith to an equally powerful but dynamic image of God that is relevant to contemporary seekers.... He opens a practical discussion about how to base a relationship with the divine both immanent and transcendant, here and now, always and everywhere.... This understanding is more intellectually and spiritually satisfying and allows readers to reclaim a stronger sense of God's presence." www.bestprices.com/cgi-bin/vlink/0060610352BT.html
Metropolitan Community Churches--ECUMENICAL AND INTERFAITH NEWS: "All Saints MCC (Christchurch, New Zealand) joins Durham Street Methodist Church for a monthly Theology Discovery Group to discuss the thoughts of such theologians as Bishop Spong, Marcus Borg, Tom Harpur, Jurgen Moltmann, and others writing in the tradition of Progressive Christianity."
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