The shape of Christianity’s future is to be found in the theology surfacing today.
When I went to Lutheran seminary in the mid ’70’s I was shocked by how different theological perceptions were at seminary relative to those at the grass roots level. That difference could have been taken as an anomaly were it not for the fact that the same perceptions could be found in the Presbyterian and Catholic seminaries. What was the difference specifically? The de-literalization of scripture. It was based on the historical-critical method of biblical scholarship. It only took a few months studying Tillich, Bultmann, Jeremias and others to realize that grass roots theology was significantly out of sync with professional theology.
Interestingly enough those scriptural and theological sentiments I discovered in seminary in the ’70s are now old hat in the popular theological literature today read by the thousands of Christian seeker’s groups around the world. Apparently there is a few years lag between contemporary professional theology and that found in grass roots religion. Because of the age of information that lag has shrunk significantly.
I believe the same thing is happening now. I just finished reading Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. Marcus Borg might be considered a “popularizer” of theology today. He presents theology in a way that is easily understood by the adherents in the pews and study groups. I would venture to say that he is one of the most popular theologians today being read by church study and seekers groups. If his contemporary theology found in this book also finds its way into public theology just as the ’70s theology did, in a few years Christianity may look very differently. If Borg’s theology is taken to heart, it will cast off the exclusionist elements in the religion and position Christianity as a great religious tradition, but only one among many viable religious alternatives.
Why is that? If there is one consistent theme throughout Borg’s book it is his emphasis on the metaphorical nature of scriptural assertions. Now this is not just concerning things like the creation story or supernatural claims. It is about core assertions that Christianity in the past has not been willing to metaphorize. What are some examples? The divinity of Jesus. The resurrection. Salvation schemes. Faith as belief. The end times and heaven.
Time after time Borg suggests these are to be taken as metaphors. He asserts the Bible is metaphor and sacrament. Jesus is metaphor and sacrament. Borg’s suggestion for a shift in understanding to metaphor should not, however, be viewed as a retreat from the truth of the Christian message. To the contrary. Here’s his understanding of metaphor:
As I use the word, “metaphor” is a large umbrella category. It has both a negative and positive meaning. Negatively, it means nonliteral. Positively, it means the more-than-literal meaning of language. Thus metaphorical meaning is not inferior to literal meaning, but is more than literal meaning.
In this regard, here’s what Borg says about Jesus:
Thus Jesus is a metaphor of God. Indeed, for us as Christians, he is the metaphor of God. Of course, he was also a real person. As metaphor of God, Jesus discloses what God is like. We see God through Jesus.
Jesus is also a sacrament of God, a means through whom the Spirit of God becomes present.
The question that naturally arises from this metaphorical view of religious sentiment is, but what about beliefs? Aren’t they crucial? To this Borg answers that there has been a distortion of the meaning of belief in modern religion.
But in the modern period, we have suffered an extraordinary reduction of the meaning of “believing”. We have reduced it and turned it into “propositional believing” — believing a particular set of statements or claims to be true. …. The premodern meanings of “faith” generate a relational understanding of the Christian life.
He recommends shifting the common emphasis on belief to relationship. For Borg, the heart of Christianity is relationship with God and “dying and rising” as a personal transformation.
It is not possible to deal in depth here with all the aspects of his message, but I consider it revolutionary for a prominent Christian theologian to offer this vision. In my opinion it is a wonderful vision. It is only one wonderful vision among others, but it does provide for the uniqueness of the Christian message while at the same time placing it squarely within a workable worldview for the third millennium.
How well will it be received? Hard to tell. It is so revolutionary, my guess is, it will be met with strong resistance. To many it will strip Christianity of its prominence as a religious framework. If Christian assertions are to be taken metaphorically this does not, in my view, demean the message at all. However, it could lead to more of an openness to recognize and affirm, if warranted, the metaphors found in other religions? As Borg puts it:
When Christianity is seen as one of the great religions of the world, as one of the classic forms of the primordial tradition, as a remarkable sacrement of the sacred, it has great credibility. But when Christianity claims to be the only true religion, it loses much of its credibility.
I believe we are in a period of distillation in religious sentiment. Those symbols and metaphors of Christianity (and other religions) that remain transparent to the divine life will distill out and find their place somewhere in the future mix of religious thought. I believe this is not only unavoidable but beneficial. It destroys the tendencies towards dogmatism and resurrects the importance of personal reflection and discernment.