Recently around here a lot of talk has been about Marcus Borg. For those who don’t know him, he was raised Norwegian Lutheran in the Upper Midwest and has since become a significant scholar and noted author with several best sellers. His work is part of a significant movement that has gained traction in mainline circles, usually claiming to be a voice for “thinking Christians.”
Having been exposed to Borg and many of his folks several years ago, I am not quite as enamored with him and frankly, occasionally offended by much of this movement's assumptions and presuppositions. They claim to know much about what is actually taking place in congregations around the country yet when I examine their affiliations, I argue that many of these folks haven’t been in “regular” mainline churches (I would count Trinity as one of them) for a long time.
My critique of Borg however, is not the point of this post. He comes up because of his authorship of an article for Word and World (the Luther Seminary theological journal) for their issue on “Heaven and Hell.” (Winter 2011, Vol. 31:1) In the article he states his reasons for being “agnostic” (his word, reminded us that it means “not knowing”) on the issue of life after death. More to the point, he believes that the promise of said life isn’t central for Christianity to have purpose.
To open the article, he uses an anecdotal story of being asked by a “sincere” pastor that if certainty for the afterlife isn’t the key to the Christian faith, then “what exactly is our product?” Borg’s ultimate response is that “our product is transformation-the transformation of ourselves as individuals and communities, and the transformation of the world” (W&W, 12)
This I can totally buy into, I am all about transformation, especially transformational leadership. This is why I am into coaching, I want to assist and walk alongside those who wise to be transformed in their work and also see their communities transformed. And after the month of January K and I have had, we are resolving to restart 2011 and pray it can be a transformational year in our lives, we need that hope, that God can transform loss and pain into hope and new things.
But here is the rub, I didn’t get much of that in my seminary training. In fact, I would say from some of my profs downright discouraged us from assuming any sort of transformation (this side of Rev. 21) was a pipe dream. For them, it was all about the transformation that will occur when the trumpet sounds, that this “wormy” body will take on something better and the sinner will be redeemed etc…
Why can’t we have both? Why can’t I believe fully in Rev. 21, the transformation that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 15, and also believe that this life can be a transformative experience. That Jesus is both the resurrection and the life and that both are possible and that God wants us to have both?
I think this is a real challenge for a Lutheran understanding of leadership and transformation. We take sin VERY seriously, we understand the Bondage of the Will, we get that. But I think we also have to take seriously then the transformative power of the Gospel not only for eternal life but also for today.
My concern is that folks like Borg, beginning with valid critiques of a church so often more heaven bound than earthy good, are encouraging people to give up on that eternal promise as well. Enamored with this life, we forget about the transformation of the life to come. So then what do we say when a good, hopeful life here is cut short? Being a “know nothing” may work for college professors who are content to quote Romans 14 in an abstract sense, but this isn’t an option for me as a preacher, a pastor, a disciple of Jesus.
I believe God has created us and through Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit is transforming us each day (Phil 2:12-13). But for me, the gift of eternal life (the promise of baptism) is the presupposition for that purpose today. It isn't the only transformation God is working in our lives and our world, it is part of God's whole plan for God's people. That new name allows us freedom to act and live in ways we could never be if this was all there is. And although it has been distorted and misused, that does not make it useless or something I can, as a pastor claim to know nothing about.
So can there be a middle for “thinking Christians”? I sure hope so.