Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A great quote on Orthodox/Catholic unity

[...] reunion of the Orthodox and Roman churches has become an imperative, and time is growing short. I say this because I often suffer from bleak premonitions of the ultimate cultural triumph in the West of a consumerism so devoid of transcendent values as to be, inevitably, nothing but a pervasive and pitiless nihilism. And it is, I think, a particularly soothing and saccharine nihilism, possessing a singular power for absorbing the native energies of the civilization it is displacing without prompting any extravagant alarm at its vacuous barbarisms. And I suspect that the only tools at Christianity's disposal, as it confronts the rapid and seemingly inexorable advance of this nihilism, will be evangelical zeal and internal unity.

-David Bentley Hart, "The Myth of Schism"

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Review of Marcus Borg's "The Heart of Christianity"

HI BLOG! Sorry to be gone so long... where were we. Oh yes...

I recently read progressive Christian Marcus Borg's book "The Heart of Christianity". I highly recommend it for any individual or small group as a piece of reflection. It's a book that probably better discussed than read in solitude. Many things that need to be said are contained in this work, and Borg manages to say them with a flair that I certainly cannot match. Yet, I also find much of what he says disagreeable. Below is my review. If you should ever choose to read the book then I would welcome any feedback:

I really appreciated his laying into the heritage of the Enlgihtenment. In particular, it was nice that he treated "traditional" Christianity - ie: the classic protestant and now evangelical formularies of faith - as relatively modern products (last 400 years) in the grand scheme of a 2100 year old religion. He does a very nice job of articulating a better biblical hermeneutic, which he calls "historical-metaphorical", a combination of historical context and metaphorical meaning that take precedence over historical accuracy. I would like to say that despite what some may say about his proposal, he is really just recognizing this reading strategy It pre-dateds literalism by several centuries. Furthermore, I have noticed that Anglican writers do some of the best work on the interaction between faith and science - Borg is no exception.

I also think that he is on point in terms of what is wrong with the modernist evangelical Protestant approach: bilical literalism, too much focus on the afterlife to the exclusion of the contemporary life, all kinds of 'ists' and 'isms' that arise as a result, and just generally the emphasis on 'faith' as a kind of will to believe those things which are patently unbelievable. These are indeed the cancers of normative Western Christianity.

On the other hand, I always wonder with the Borg's of the world if their remedy is not more destructive in some ways than the cancer (a bit like chemo). In particular...

Christianity has always been enculturated (as he redundantly reminds us), but it has also been a judge of cultures. It isn't true that the morals and ethics of the New Testament squared all that well with the Greco-Roman worldview into which it was born. In particular, the normal Roman imperial world had plenty of alternate sexual and family pratices, and the NT self-conciously took hard-line stances against them. Too often liberal Christians act as if Christianity was birthed into a world of religious singularity, but pluralism has been a reality from the start.

Also, the "scandal of Christian particularity" has been well-attested since the beginning, and early church writers are nearly unanimous in declaring the God of Abraham known through Christ as the pinnacle of human faith, not simply another mystery cult that could be "affirmed" along with the pagan cults. Even if we agree that the Bible may be God speaking metaphorically and allegorically (Borg and I do agree on this...), it does not follow that all other religions are therefore equally valid. God can be just as exclusive via a particular set of metaphors as He can be via literal historical happenings. I cannot accept that faiths which make radically opposing claims regarding the human condition are just people responding to God "in their own cultural stream" - that's a bit mediocre.

Finally, as always, I dislike the tendency to dismiss personal morality and accountability from issues of salvation. Oddly, this is the one holdover from the Reformation that Borg insists on maintaining. I see no issue whatsoever in affirming that faith is, in the final analysis, something of a work. The Reformation notion that we are saved "by grace, through faith alone" is reductionist in the extreme. I think that the tradition is solidly on the side (especially pre-Reformation) of explicitly claiming that a life pursuing the divine virtues is part of the saved mindset. Furthermore, Borg shoots himself in the foot by claiming that we "should" be good little social justice people without expecting that God will reward us. He calls the idea of trying to be righteous to earn God's favor "a religion of requirements and rewards." Simply put - I see no problem with that system. But then, I am not hung up on defending 'unmerited grace' in the form Borg presents it.