Sunday, August 2, 2015
Probing the Underlying Assumptions of Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong
As many of us know, Bishop Spong and Marcus Borg are major liberal Christian theologians who have raised critically important issues particularly for mainline Protestantism. Both Spong and Borg are empathetic to Rudolph Bultman’s project of demythologizing in order to remythologize, a position to which I am far from unsympathetic. Still, I would push these theologians very hard in grappling with the key question, even in its remythologized mode, why Jesus? The deeper question, then, is to what extent is even the remythologized Jesus still relevant to our contemporary setting and on what grounds? To press this further, why do these theologians identify Christ (however interpreted) as their ultimate concern?
What I would like to get at, in part, is whether the answer for these theologians is ultimately existential and personal, or whether there is another ground that transcends such relativism. If there is another ground, I would like them to be as exacting as possible in explaining what that basis is, including a very precise discussion of the inclusive/exclusive issue on whether Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” without equivocation or remainder. For if inclusivism is radically held to, then, by definition, any foundational ground for adhering to the faith becomes questionable. Based on this assumption, I might say, for example, that I ground what Tillich calls “ultimate concern” in some secular philosophy, in which may be nothing intrinsic in its logic, or in principle, to argue that I am wrong.
Now if you were going to say I’m wrong and that somehow the stirring faith of the living Christ is a more satisfactory form of human identification than anything else, then, by definition, that needs to be based on some criteria. What I want to know, in particular, is precisely how these esteemed liberal theologians come down on this issue and on what grounds. These criteria, in turn, would serve as a basis for evaluating other perspectives (both more liberal and conservative).
Historically, the Christ myth has been a very potent symbol for many people for a long period of time. In terms of the Christ myth, my view is that the heights and the depths of its efficacy in mediating the human condition for good are unfathomable, and therefore perpetually emergent in the process of continuous human existence itself. In this respect, its infinite depths are fathomless, which is also true of any “living” secular philosophy. If this is the case, its remythologizing potential, in itself, is not sufficient grounds to base any objective-like claim of exclusive truth, however subtle. Other grounds need to be made. Do Spong and Borg in any sense assume an exclusivist position? If so, the basis for it needs to be clearly articulated.
If not, then one drops back to the inclusive position and interprets the living Christ as one viable pathway to the holy (to use religious language). That may be fine, but that by definition can there be nothing other than a personal, existential decision based on no ground other than personal choice? And even here, I want to press matters. If this is the pathway that Spong and Borg assume there are still reasons operative on what they have based this on. By definition, in emphasizing Christ (however “liberally” interpreted), they are making certain value judgments that are based, at some level, on reasons. Although it may be implicit in their written theologies, I would like these two liberal stalwarts, or their defenders to publicly reflect on their reasoning for placing their ultimate concern on Jesus, including a very honest confrontation with the exclusive/inclusive issue. There is much at stake on the viability of Christianity in grappling with this complex issue in a probing, discerning manner.