Friday, October 12, 2012

Borg & Wright on Christology


             Borg and Wright accept the basic Christian proclamation that “Jesus lives” as “both Lord and Christ” (p.129). For Borg, these affirmations are a post-Easter phenomenon that did not reflect the reality of what the Jesus of history proclaimed nor what his disciples believed during his earthly ministry.  They reflect, rather the simple fact that “the followers of Jesus, then and now, continued to experience Jesus as a living reality after his death” (p. 135).  Thus, whatever actually happened during the ministry of Jesus and in the events surrounding the reports of the empty tomb and the post-crucifixion sightings of the risen Messiah, it is “the post-Easter Jesus as an experiential reality” that is of enduring importance.  It is the risen Christ “encountered as a living spiritual reality” (p.135) which is the grounding point of faith for Borg, upon which the authenticity of doctrine and tradition are legitimized as a metaphorical expression for truths that transcend the boundaries of language.

 Wright also accepts Borg’s thesis that the full incarnational view of Jesus was a product of “a developing tradition” (p. 130).  However, Borg does not draw distinctions between Jesus as the Jewish Messiah as plausibly identified by himself and his initial followers both before and after the crucifixion, as does Wright, and the fully formed Christ of the New Testament, the suffering and risen God of the Incarnation.  Thus, for Borg, the various referencing of Jesus in the New Testament, whether as “The Wisdom of God” “The Son of God,” or “messiah,” point metaphorically to the same existential reality; that of “tak[ing] very seriously what we see in him as a disclosure of God” (p. 152).  Wright, by contrast, argues that an implicit incarnational perspective was assumed very early on.  This was reflected, Wright argues, in the letters of Paul (particularly 1Cor 8:6, Phil. 2:5-11, and Col.1:15-20), based on the grounding belief that God’s will in full bodily form was exhibited in the life, teaching, the symbolism of the healings, along with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  This Jesus, perceived as Israel’s Messiah interpreted through the prism of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, was the basis of a more fully developed incarnational perspective, already implicit in key Pauline texts.  In Wright’s words:

 If you start with the God of the Exodus, of Isaiah, of creation and covenant, and of the psalms, and ask what God might look like were he to become human, you will find that he might look very much like Jesus of Nazareth, and perhaps never more so than when he dies on a Roman cross (p. 167).                                                                                         

 The general point by way of critique of Borg’s position is not that the New Testament does not use metaphor, but the significance in its own right between the images evoked and that to which the images refer, namely to Jesus the Christ as “the image of the invisible God” upon whom “all the fullness [of God] should dwell” (Col 1:15, 19).  With Borg, the metaphorical reality beneath this language has universal significance beyond the thought categories of second temple Judaism and even fully formed christological ones in their symbolic pointing toward a more transcendent and universal reality than that which can be depicted in words.  The metaphorical emphasis in Borg is reinforced through a pre and post Easter dichotomy, which he seems to conflate with a before and after New Testament depiction of Jesus.  For Wright, they emerge from their grounding in Jesus’ messianic vocation in which fully formed christological claims only make sense to the extent to which they maintain their rooting in the creation, covenant, wisdom, and apocalyptic longing based on Israel’s story.  Otherwise one is referring to another story lending toward syncretism.  The force of Wright’s argument cannot be used to substantiate what actually happened in the first few years after Jesus’ death.  However, it does lend support to counteracting the notion that the concept of Jesus as both Israel’s Messiah and the Lord of human history was a product of a latter faith community, which the gospel writers retrojected back into history through their narrative constructions. 

Both Borg and Wright agree that the Christian revelation was not simply a product of the imagination of Jesus, or of the events and beliefs surrounding his life, teaching, death and resurrection, nor even a product simply of the early faith community, and the writings of the books that became the New Testament.  For both writers all of these events are crucial for the understanding of the emergence of first century Christianity.  What both writers would also say is that it was (and is) God working through these events which brought to proximate fulfillment in the mission to the Gentiles,  God’s covenant with Abraham as depicted in Genesis 12.  Where Borg and Wright differ is both in the extent to which they perceive the actual history and the claims of faith as continuous or discontinuous, and its corresponding significance in shaping how faith is defined. 

 For Borg, the importance of the resurrection is “that the risen Christ journeys with us” (p. 134) through our lives.  The cost, as well as the joy, Borg notes, is in following Jesus “on the path of death and resurrection” regardless as to the literal truth of the biblical narrative.  What Calvary signifies in its most fundamental sense is “the path of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being” which is only possible through radical death to old self.  It is in this profound mirroring of the pathway to new life in unswerving faith in God that Jesus as Christ “becomes the incarnation of the Way” (p. 139).  The metaphorical truth, on Borg’s account, beneath, through, and beyond the biblical story is valid whether or not the events in the gospel narratives took place as described, which has its analogues for those of other religious traditions, in the faith traditions that belong to them. 

Whether there was an actual historical reality upon which the gospel writers provided elaborated resurrection accounts, as Wright suggests, is a secondary matter for Borg, of which he is highly suspicious.  What he does argue is that it was the “experiences of the risen Christ as a continuous presence” [that] generated…the story of the empty tomb” (p. 137) and the corresponding sightings, whereas Wright maintains the reverse.  Empathetic identification with the risen Christ leads, on Borg’s reading, to a profound hope, that in some ultimate sense, “the domination system [which] killed him” (p. 137) is reversed.  This, in the most fundamental sense is what the resurrection signifies—“Jesus is Lord.  Rome [as a symbol of the domination system] is not” (p. 136) and that “all the would be lords of our lives,” whether personal and political, would be subordinated to the lordship of Christ, onto life, onto death, and onto new life.  For Wright, this is also pivotal, except for him unless this belief had deep roots in actual history, a gnosticism in the venue of Matthew Fox’s “cosmic Christ” or that of Bishop Spong’s theology “beyond incarnation” or theism is an all-too-present outcome of a disembodied Christian spirituality.

      Unlike Wright, Borg does not think the historical Jesus “foresaw his own death as a sacrifice for sin,” or that he likely viewed himself as Israel’s Messiah.  Moreover, Borg rejects any notion that “God can forgive sins only because of Jesus’ sacrifice” even as the sacrifice of Christ is “a powerfully true metaphor of the grace of God” (p. 140).  On Borg’s account, Christ’s sacrifice “is a metaphorical proclamation of the radical grace of God,” pointing to “the abolition of the system of requirements, not the establishment of” a new set based on a literal interpretation of the atonement.  In this respect, any notion of Jesus as God’s unique son as articulated most fully in the Gospel of John and the Epistle to the Hebrews is viewed by Borg, as a profound and beautiful metaphor signifying the sufficiency of God’s grace which can find congruence in other stories and images reflected in other religious traditions. 

 Viewing the Trinity itself as a metaphor rather than descriptive of something of the essence of the personhood of God, Borg can claim that Christ as Lord is decisive for those affirming the Christian faith as their unique pathway to God, but not decisive in any ontological sense in the claim of Christ as “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6) without equivocation and remainder as an objective statement of the human condition.  This is a complex issue that requires a much more nuanced examination than is often given that, in the most profound sense, this claim is based on faith rather than knowledge, but which, nonetheless, has the capacity to more than hold its own apologetically as well as doctrinally.  However much work is required to substantively flesh out this foundational belief, invariably through a mirror, dimly, to shift too quickly to a “metaphorical” explanation is to slide too easily over the scandal that God is revealed most fully in a particular religious tradition rooted in a specific time and place.

 This is the central argument of traditional orthodox theology which underlies the mandate to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Sprit” (Mt 28:19). Namely, the claim that “for us there is only one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things through whom we live” (1Cor. 8:6).  Such missionary zeal and the theological certitude it presumes would not have a place, except perhaps metaphorically, on Borg’s vision of the Christian revelation, which, if taken on its own terms, could only be interpreted as finds incredibly naïve, arrogant, or both, utterly out of place in the pluralistic multi-religious perspective of the contemporary era.


By contrast, Wright roots his theology firmly in the radical particularity of Israel’s central monotheistic claim, christologically interpreted through 1Cor 8:6 in which there is no other greater, even as the full mystery of the biblical revelation remains beyond human comprehension.  This requires “great risk,” as Wright puts it partly for rhetorical effect, that “our God is the true God, and your gods are worthless idols” (p. 160), a comment that necessitates much elaboration.  On this, Wright is challenging the “gods of this age” (my quotes), whether “the earth goddess, Gaia, revered by some in the new age movement” (p. 158), the secular project of social integration via Jurgen Habermas’ (1984, 1997) ideal speech act, or the postmodern deconstruction of all mettanaratives, except for that of its own—that all world views are historically construed, and therefore relative in their depiction of truth.  Israel’s God is utterly different, too, from Paul Tillich’s panentheistic “‘God above God’ who transcends the polarity of being and nonbeing, infinity and finitude actuality and potentiality,” the “creative force that moves the world to higher possibilities” (Bloesch, 1995, pp. 21, 19), a process god.  

 In short, Wright rejects the modernist project of correlative apologetics.  Apologetics is essential work in opening space for discussion in the public square.  At its best, however, the effort to “translate” the gospel in other idioms than its own revelatory language only goes so far in communicating the untranslatable, the irrevocable power and Lordship of YHWH, embedded historically “in Jewish soil,” both radically transcendent and immanent, the God of judgment and infinite embrace revealed fully and finally through the Word and the Spirit in Jesus of Nazareth.  Wright’s forte is in placing history and faith claims in closer proximity even while recognizing the invariable chasm between the two, a niche that has given shape to his Christology of a fully embodied and fully transcendent suffering, redeemer, God, of love, judgment, finality, and truth.

Thus, for Wright, as well as for Borg, Christian spirituality, fully rooted in Jewish soil, is not some detached essence beyond the illusion of the body or human history as encountered.  Rather, it is within the location of both the glory and limitations of human finitude where in the midst of human history “the true God is strangely present, knowable, and lovable” (p. 208) revealed through a mirror/dimly in Israel’s story.  Within the context of who we are, both in our personal lives and public culture, the essence of Judeo-Christian spirituality remains the commandment to love the Lord, your God with all your heart, mind, strength and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.  It is this gnosis lived through radical faith which gives rise to increasing knowledge about that which is most important, namely, God’s truth as revealed especially in the wisdom literature of the Old and New Testament.  It is in this respect that Wright embraces both creator and creation spirituality “while firmly rejecting the magical” (italics removed) in relation particularly to the latter. Thus, “creation can be the bearer of God’s presence, holiness, love, and grace” (p. 209), but not the source as is at least the temptation in theologies that embrace “mother earth” as the body of God.  To the extent that creation embodies God’s presence its relevance as expressed in Judeo-Christian spirituality is its sacramental power.  So it is with history in which for Wright, there is “no Jesus of history played off against the Christ of faith” (p. 210) even as the relation between history and faith requires subtle mediation.   

The more fundamental point is that the essence of who Jesus is lies in the totality of what this “no other name” (my quotes) represents through whom true God is most fully mediated.  This Wright insists upon much more unequivocally than does Borg, which his historical studies have helped him to confirm.  Thus, for Wright, the essence of Judeo-Christian spirituality lies in the dynamic tension between loving the world to the point of radical commitment toward its reconciliation with God and rejecting any deification of the world, and certainly its evil, which requires an element of radical separation.  For Wright, “Christian spirituality, focused on and shaped by Jesus, looks at the glory and shame of it all and brings both, in prayer and liturgy before the presence of God” (p. 212).  It is this particular spirituality, in all its folly and scandal that speaks to the fullest aspirations and needs of humankind, which, even as “the secret things belong to the Lord, …those things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut: 29:29). Within this context of revealed truth, one finds and is found by the God who can be revered, who desires and commands our full allegiance.  This is the essence of Wright’s historically grounded embodied Christology.

 What then of history?  We cannot leave things at this point without taking a closer look at the nuanced way in which the relationship between history and faith is teased out in Wright’s theology in his desire to “speak truly of God” (p. 214).  Such truth, Wright notes, is a scandal in light of modern and postmodern secular thought which he seeks to counter by pointing to the presuppositions of all world views, while relying ultimately on faith through God’s “self-revelation” via the confluence of Scripture and history.  It is this, Wright claims (pace Deut. 29:29) that “has given us such knowledge as is possible and appropriate for us” (p. 214) even without the capacity to unravel all mysteries in the quest to transcend human fallibility and finitude, the underlying temptation of gnosticism.  Within this framework Wright constructs a methodology that combines building best case plausibilities in juxtaposition to the perceived limitations of other perspectives.  It is this “critical realism” that grounds his analysis of the relationship of faith and history.  In short, “split the historical Jesus off from the Christ known in faith, as some have tried to do [including some narrative theologians], and you are left without a revelation of the one true God within our world, the world of physicality and history” (p. 214).

The question remains not whether, but how faith and history interact, for without question the origins of Christianity were embedded in the dynamic culture of second temple Judaism and the personage of Jesus of Nazareth and his early followers.  What Wright says bears careful observation, for in the final analysis he acknowledges the invariable gaps in the historical record which limit what can be definitively claimed even as there is reasonable evidence to draw upon for best case hypothesis formation.  Rejecting Borg’s characterization of “history metaphorized” on meaning being beyond authorial intent, one of Wright’s central points is that the gospel “authors  thought [italics added] the events they were recording—all of them, not just some—actually happened.”  Noting that they could have been mistaken on, say the resurrection sightings or the transfiguration story, Wright argues that if that were the case the gospel writers would have failed “to convey the most important meaning they had in mind, which was precisely in these events as historical events [italics in original] Israel’s God, the world’s creator, had acted decisively and climactically within creation within Israel’s history” (p. 215).

At this point Wright is parsing matters closely.  It is one thing to say that the Bible speaks of truths that are “dependent on history” and even to argue that events as described have a solid plausibility as to their facticity.  It is another altogether to claim that what is written in the gospels is an accurate description of what actually happened, a position which Wright does not claim, though this begs the question then of precisely “what Israel’s God was doing in actual history” (italics in original) (p. 215).  A major concern of Wright’s is the all-too-prevalent emphasis in contemporary Christian spirituality as reflected in Borg, but especially Bishop Spong and Matthew Fox in their proclivity toward a “dehistoricized spirituality” cut off from the actual personage of the pre-Easter Jesus of Nazareth. 

What Wright is contending for in the most fundamental sense is the veracity of the claim that “our God is the true God, and your gods are worthless idols” (p. 160).  As a historically-based religion that claims to embody the fullness of God in its founder it matters whether there is a solid correspondence between what is stated that happened in the written testimonies and what actually happened in fact, even as the quest for the historical Jesus remains ever elusive in the most fundamental of details.  Working from a “realistic” epistemology, Wright notes that “whether the [gospel] stories really did happen” is beyond the purview of contemporary historical evidence to discern, even as the critical point remains that “everyone who told them thought they did” (p. 216). 

 In light of the cloud of witnesses giving testimony to the resurrection sightings, Wright draws as the most likely conclusion that the sightings on the road to Emanus and elsewhere actually did happen.  For if they did not it would raise the profoundest questions about any such claims having a historical referent as the basis in identifying the universal God in the radical particularity of Israel’s truth.  The full force of Wright’s embodied Christology depends, then, on the accuracy of an actual historical event, namely, the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead, as documented in all of the gospels and the letters of Paul, even given the likely elaboration in some of the texts.   

What Wright does not sufficiently discuss, at least in The Meaning of Jesus is the difference between history as lived and the realistically-based historical description as a biblical genre, which includes both history as lived and history as remembered.  Closely related is history posited in the mouth of Jesus in the manner of the ancient historian who sought through narrative to highlight the essence of the historical character through descriptions that were invariably idealistic, however true to the character and to the era portrayed.  Still with Wright, Paul’s writings provide more than a little persuasive evidence that the tradition, canonized in the gospels formed very early even as the first several years after the crucifixion remain opaque as to precise historical description.  In short, Wright has provided tantalizing insights on the relationship between faith and history even as the questions he raises begs additional ones that require further investigation.

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