After Borg: How one lecture gave me atonement to believe in

I pulled it off the shelf last night and paged through-- a sort of eulogy, a sort of thanksgiving.

I pulled it off the shelf last night and paged through– a sort of eulogy, a sort of thanksgiving.

There are many voices lifted up this week in thanksgiving for the life and evangelism of scholar Marcus Borg. Perhaps all the stories that need telling have been told. But this one is mine.

The whole long post is now six and a half years old, and is worth the fun reading if you want to hear me riff on why I dislike The Chronicles of Narnia. I will, however, excerpt some highlights here.

My theological problem had always been very simple. I don’t like what most church says about God.

So much of what traditional church teaches is about how we need Jesus and Jesus is so good and loving, because God-as-Creator is so abusive and mean. God-as-Creator made people and gave them free will, and constructed a system of God’s own justice wherein those beautiful ones, created in the divine image, cannot receive forgiveness without blood, suffering, and death.

That’s not a god I could or can believe in, let alone preach.

Sometime in 2007 ish, I attended a lecture in Middlebury, VT at which Marcus Borg spoke. I don’t remember much, and the notes I copiously took are long lost. But I remember his gentleness and conviction. The audience was mostly church people, not scholars– pastors and lay people from a variety of faith traditions. He was speaking a lot about his then-recent book The Heart of Christianity, and about how it could be possible to teach a rich and subtle theology in Christian education, insisting that “regular” church people can and should think deeply about theology.

I know, what a concept. But it was radical to some of his audience, or at least what he was suggesting be the content was radical.

He handled the comments and questions and challenges with grace, and imparted this vision: that we everyday people could think and teach deeply, and that this would bring people closer to God, and deeper into faith. He demonstrated more than once his famous, humble not-knowing.

But what he said about atonement, as so many have said about so much of his writing and teaching, gave me a faith I could hold:

Borg completely re-explains Jesus as the sacrificial lamb in a way that removes substitutionary atonement from the equation, makes for a much more powerful statement of belief, challenges the systems of sin and forgiveness that require sacrifices in the first place, and is historically valid as a bonus.

It goes like this: by the first century, Jewish Temple worship was a well-oiled machine, and it controlled much in the lives of the common Jewish individual. Sin and being unclean were problems not only for the conscience, but for inclusion in the community; a person whose sin had not been forgiven or a person who had been/come in contact with something unclean (so that’s every woman every 28 days, and her husband, most likely) could not be part of ritual, community meals, or have any entrance into the Temple, and thereby entrance into the presence of God and relationship with God. Forgiveness and cleansing of sin/uncleanness required blood sacrifice of certain animals, offered by the priests on behalf of the sinner in the Temple in Jerusalem. So, those Jews who could afford the animals for sacrifices and the fees for the priests and the trips to Jerusalem could have their sins forgiven, could enter the Temple on the High Holy Days, and could stand in the presence of the Almighty. And the rest, well, too bad for them. The Temple priests held a monopoly on sin and forgiveness. They had become the ancient magic, not only demanding the sacrifices, but setting the fees, limitations, and means by which forgiveness and relationship with God were possible. One might say (although Borg did not, but perhaps I can stretch here) that the Temple claimed that they were the way to salvation, that no one could come to God but through them and the expensive sacrifices they required.

The claim, then, that Jesus is the sacrificial lamb is not a claim about the human blood required for the forgiveness of sins– that’s not part of Judeo-Christian theology in antiquity. It is a claim about the ritual sacrifice offered only by the Temple priests. To say that Jesus is the sacrifice, that he died and his blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins, is to say that the sacrifices and rituals of the Temple are meaningless. No longer do you need to buy an unblemished calf or travel to Jerusalem or pay the fees for a priest to offer sacrifice on your behalf. Christ is that sacrifice, and the Temple monopoly on forgiveness is no more. Through Jesus, whatever we or others might claim separates us from God has been removed and no further sacrifice is needed. He has, in short, challenged the very authority– that of the Temple– which required blood sacrifice, shattering the barrier between the individual and God’s presence, grace, and abundant life (we see this symbolically as the Temple curtain tears at the moment of the crucifixion; the barrier is destroyed).

… If, as Borg insists, we can re-educate the adults of our churches and educate the children as they come through the Christian Education system with what was really meant by ‘Jesus is the sacrifice for sin,’ we have hope of reclaiming Christ’s radical message: that nothing stands between us and the God of life, and no intercessor is needed to stand in the presence of the Holy.

Thank you again, kind teacher.

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