For instance, there is a very clear division between liberal and fundamentalist theologies. This has historic roots from the beginning of the last century. It appears in the educational institutions as well as churches.
This is the background to the life work of Marcus Borg who died in January this year. He was a liberal and progressive Christian believer. He spent his life as a University New Testament scholar and was amongst the founders of the Jesus Seminar. This brought together leading ‘progressive’ academics who attempted to identify what are likely to be the authentic words of Jesus in the gospels. While the venture foundered on its devotion to its chosen tools of analysis, Borg emerged as one of the most interesting and accessible writers of this exercise in liberal Christianity.
I first came across him when I was given a copy of his very personal book: Meeting Jesus Again for the first time. It was to set the tone and approach of many of his subsequent books. Here was no stuffy, argumentative, self- absorbed progressive but a believer who allowed his academic exploration emerge from and return to his own spirituality.
He became more interesting still when I realised that we shared the same lecturers from our time at Oxford. But more profoundly the title of the book summed up my own experience. In fact, I have a number of conversions to Christ. An experience that Borg examines in what became his last book.
His subjects were invariably based on the historical Jesus but his writing branched out into others areas of Christian belief. One of his last blogs was about the Christmas stories and in this extended quotation we get a flavour of what many found appealing in him:
I am not a debunker of these stories. I do not dismiss them as fables or fabrications or falsehoods.
He observes for many people the issue is presented as: did the birth of Jesus happen in the way described or did it not and then he continues:
There is a third option. Namely the Christmas stories with their miraculous elements were not intended to be factual in the sense of what actually happened. Rather they are Christian testimony. They testify to the significance that Jesus had come to have in their lives and experience and thought. The stories are parabolic, metaphorical narrative that can be true without being factual.
This is hardly novel. Borg wasn’t really saying much that was new. But somehow he captured the attention of people who needed to hear that for the first time and opened up the possibility of following Christ in a new way.
Brian McLaren is an example of the new breed of evangelical in the USA. In his tribute to Borg he comments: my back ground would have predisposed me to disagree with and dislike him (my italics) but he made it hard to do either, especially the latter.
I have often found that too many Christians who have disagreed with my views have therefore made it plain they do not rate me as a person. This has often puzzled me. I am glad that Borg seems to have transcended this through the nature of his character and capacity to treat with seriousness the arguments of those who disagree with his views.
The sharp divide between liberal and fundamentalist does not exist at present in this country. But I think for any believer who feels they can no longer hold to the fundamentals of what it means to be a Christian with any sort of integrity he would be a worthy companion.
Here is a final quotation from Borg which gives us an insight into both his importance and appeal. He is reflecting on mortality and how Western culture hides from death and dying in his blog of 14 October 2014
Psalm 90 appeals to God to teach us to number our days so that we are given a heart of wisdom. If this wisdom is true, then the diminishment of a visceral awareness of death and our own death may impede our ability to live as fully and vitally as we might.
This might be the musings of a person who was numbering his own days but he offers a worthy aspiration for any teacher.
Will what I offer bring a person to light or just cast them into the shadows?