The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion To A More Authenthic Contemporary Faith Book
Answering the many “spiritual” questions left unaddressed by such popular historical bestsellers as A History of God and God: A Biography, renowned author Marcus Borg reveals how to embrace an authentic contemporary faith that reconciles God with science, critical thinking and religious pluralism.
How to have faith–how to even think about God–without having to stifle modern rationality is one of the most vital challenges facing contemporary religion. In providing a much-needed solution to the problem of how to have a fully authentic yet fully contemporary understanding of God, Borg–author of the bestselling Meeting Jesus Again for the first Time–traces his personal journey. He leads readers from the all-powerful and authoritarian God of his (and their) childhood and traditional faith to an equally powerful but dynamic image of God that is relevant to contemporary seekers and more biblical and spiritually authentic. Borg shows how the modern crisis of faith is itself rooted in delusion–misinterpretation of biblical texts and of God’s true nature–and challenges readers to a new way of thinking about God. He opens a practical discussion about how to base a relationship with the divine both immanent and transcendant, here and now, always and everywhere.
Arguing that the authentic Judeo-Christian tradition is that God’s being includes the whole world, Borg persuasively shows how this understanding accounts for the whole variety of human religious experience. Ultimately, he introduces readers to a way of thinking about God who is “right here” all around them, rather than distant and remote. This understanding is more intellectually and spiritually satisfying and allows readers to reclaim a stronger sense of God’s presence.
This book about “the God we never knew” describes an understanding of God—or “the sacred” or “Spirit,” terms that I use synonymously and interchangeably—that is very ancient as well as particularly suited to our own time. It is grounded in experience, my own and the experience of others throughout the centuries, and integrated with the biblical and Christian tradition. Though quite unlike the understanding of God that I acquired growing up in the church, it is not “new” but is consistent with the theological tradition of Christianity.
I suppose the title of this book could be “The God I Never Knew,” for it is to a considerable extent my own story. In it, I describe a way of thinking about God and living with God that I never knew as a child and young person, despite the fact that I grew up as a Christian. I did not “see” this way of thinking about God and the religious life until I was in my thirties. I do not know the full explanation of why it took me so long. I may be slow-witted. But a major reason is that the notion of God I received as a child stood in the way. Because of my Christian upbringing, I thought I knew what the word God meant: a supernatural being “out there” who created the world a long time ago and had occasionally intervened in the eons since, especially in the events recorded in the Bible. God was not “here” but “somewhere else.” And someday, after death, we might be with God, provided that we had done or believed whatever was necessary to pass the final judgment.
My childhood notion of God, with refinements, persisted for about three decades. In childhood, I believed in this notion of God without difficulty; in my early teens, I began to have doubts about it; in my twenties, the doubts became disbelief; but through this whole process, the same notion of God persisted. It was what I believed and then disbelieved. Compared to that notion of God, the God I have come to know since is the God I never knew.
But I call this book “The God We Never Knew” because I do not think my experience was unique. Rather, many people in our time have experienced similar problems with the understanding of God they received as children growing up in a religious tradition.
As the twentieth century and the second Christian millennium draw to a close, an older way of understanding Christianity that nourished (and sometimes haunted) the lives of millions of people for over a thousand years has ceased to be persuasive to many in our time. More specifically, over the last thirty to forty years, an older way of thinking about God (and the Bible, Jesus, and Christianity itself) has ceased to be compelling to many Christians, especially those who are the natural constituency of mainline churches.
This older way was the “popular-level Christianity” of a previous generation.1 In harder and softer forms, it was doctrinal, moralistic, literalistic, exclusivistic, and oriented toward an afterlife. In its view, being Christian meant believing that a certain set of doctrinal claims were true, and it meant seeking to live in accord with Christianity’s ethical teaching. It tended to take the Bible and doctrine literally, unless there were compelling reasons not to. It typically affirmed that Christianity was the only way of salvation. And it defined salvation as “afterlife”—as going to heaven. Basically, then, Christianity was about believing in central Christian teachings now for the sake of heaven later.
This older way of understanding Christianity still worked for many of our parents and grandparents. But in the last half of the twentieth century, it has become less and less credible to many people, including many who are mainline Christians. Though fundamentalist and conservative Christians speak about this older understanding of God and the Bible with great confidence, what they have to say makes little sense too many of us. There are millions of people—within the church and the church alumni association, as well as some who have never been part of a church—for whom this older understanding of God and Christianity does not work.
For these, the chief obstacle to being a wholehearted Christian is thus intellectual: the tradition in the form in which they learned it doesn’t make sense to them anymore. My own conviction, developed in this book, is the opposite: the Christian tradition, understood at a deeper level, makes persuasive and compelling sense. It is especially for people struggling with this issue that this book is written.
At the center of the book is God. I am persuaded that there is a lot of uncertainty and confusion about God in our culture and among our churches. Public opinion polls typically report that 95 percent of Americans say that they believe in God, an amazing percentage. This might suggest considerable confidence in the reality of God, rather than uncertainty.
But the percentage conceals as much as it discloses. In his important study of the religious life of the “boomer” generation, Wade Roof notes that the high percentage glosses over “differences both in conceptions of God and in conviction” and that “recent studies indicate, for example, that levels of doubt and disbelief are often greater than the polls would suggest.” He then reports that among the boomer generation, 50 percent of high school graduates and 65 percent of those with postgraduate education sometimes doubt the existence of God.
Uncertainty about God is particularly a problem among mainline Christians and churches. As everybody knows, mainline denominations have suffered a major decline in membership over the last thirty years.
The causes are complex, but among the most important is doubt about the reality of God. Conservative churches have done relatively well in part because of their strong convictions about God, reflected not only in their preaching and teaching but also in their worship. In many mainline churches, on the other hand, there is a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to the question of God, as C. Kirk Hadaway and David A. Roozen note in their recent study. Importantly, they also report that some mainline congregations have been growing and that what they all have in common is this: they take God seriously. Congregations that are full of God are full of people. The converse also seems to be true: churches that are uncertain about God will soon find their pews empty of people.
At the same time that many people are finding the Christianity of their childhood to be problematic, our culture is experiencing a surge of religious and spiritual interest. New Age movements, mega-churches, the popularity of public television series on Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, and Genesis, and the best-seller lists all disclose a large appetite for God and the spiritual life. Thus people remain interested in God, at the same time that many are finding unconvincing the beliefs that were once taken for granted by almost everybody in Western culture. Hence this book about God. It is simultaneously autobiographical, theological, biblical, and experiential. Though it focuses on God, it also looks at much of what is central to the Christian life, including not only concepts and images of God but also Jesus, spirituality, social vision, and salvation. It has three parts: thinking about God, imaging God, and living with God.
It takes seriously several features of contemporary culture, including our culture’s growing secularization of consciousness, which makes many people suspicious of religion as a set of doctrinal claims about the way things are. It also takes seriously our growing awareness of religious pluralism, which makes us suspicious of the claim that any one tradition is the only way. And it takes seriously the turn to experience that marks the spirituality of many in the modern world: what I come to know in my own experience can be trusted to be true in a way that what we learned secondhand from tradition cannot be trusted.
To provide an overview, Part One (Chapters One and Two) treats the issue of how we think about God. The premise of Part One (and to some extent of the book as a whole) is simple: how we think about God matters. It affects the credibility of religion in general and of Christianity in particular. Our concept of God can make God seem real or unreal, just as it can also make God seem remote or near. How we think about God matters for a second reason as well. Because there is a close connection between images of God and images of the religious life, how we think about God affects how we see the religious life.
- Is the religious life focused on this life or the next (and if both, then in what proportion)?
- Is it about meeting God’s requirements, whether they are many or few? Or about living by grace in a place beyond the dynamic of requirements?
- Does it lead to a preoccupation with our own salvation and goodness (or lack thereof)? Or to liberation from self-preoccupation?
- Does it result in an emphasis on righteousness and boundary drawing? Or is the emphasis on compassion and an inclusive social (and even ecological) vision?
- Is it about believing in a supernatural being “out there” or about being in relationship with a sacred reality “right here”?
Mr. Borg begin autobiographically, describing the understanding of God and Christianity I received as a child growing up in the church and then the “revisioning” of the Christian tradition that has occurred in my adult life. In particular, I argue that a “panentheistic” concept of God offers the most adequate way of thinking about the sacred; in this concept, the sacred is “right here” as well as “the beyond” that encompasses everything. This way of thinking about God, I claim, is not only faithful to the biblical and Christian tradition but also makes the most sense of our experience. For there is much in our experience—of nature, human love, mystery, wonder, amazement—that conveys the reality of the sacred, a surpassingly great “more” that we know in exceptional moments. Many of us experience life as permeated and surrounded by a gracious mystery, a surplus of being that transcends understanding, and when we come to know that mystery as God, our faith becomes full of meaning and vitality. I include descriptions of varieties of religious experiences that point to the reality of the sacred.
Part Two (Chapters Three and Four) treats how we image God. Chapter Three explores a variety of biblical images of God and their effects on images of ourselves and of the religious life. In particular, Borg analyze the effects of the monarchical model or image of God (God as king, lawgiver, and judge) on Christian understandings of the religious life, nature, politics, and gender, and then look at the very different effects of alternative images of God in the biblical tradition. Chapter Four treats the role of Jesus in the Christian tradition as “the image of the invisible God.” Here, Borg speak about both the historical Jesus and the canonical Jesus as disclosures of the sacred, as images of the invisible God. Part Three (Chapters Five through Seven) concerns living with God. That is, if we accept the understandings of God and the religious life developed in Parts One and Two, what is life with God like? Chapter Five describes spirituality and a variety of spiritual practices as ways of “opening the heart” to God and nourishing the relationship with God.
Chapter Six, “The Dream of God,” underlines the communal and political dimensions of the biblical tradition and argues that the Christian life as it matures will increasingly be captivated by and committed to an alternative social vision. Finally, in Chapter Seven, Borg describes a wide range of biblical images of salvation. Although he looks at the question of an afterlife, Borg argue that the primary meanings of salvation have to do with our lives this side of death.
Thus, in addition to being centrally about God, this book is to some extent a Christian “primer”—an introduction to what seem to me to be the central elements of the Christian life as a life of relationship to the sacred.
To return to the cultural climate in which this book is written, Borg note that it is almost exactly two hundred years ago, in 1799, that a brilliant young German theologian named Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) wrote a book that is often cited as the fountainhead of modern Christian theology? He addressed it to “the cultured despisers of religion.” That is a harsh-sounding phrase, but Schleiermacher meant nothing insulting by it. He was referring to the educated elite of his time, a small minority whose thinking had been shaped by the emerging worldview of the Enlightenment, that revolution in Western intellectual history that generated the modern era. Scientific ways of knowing were beginning to replace sacred tradition and divine authority as the basis of knowledge. In our time, most of us in the Western world have become “cultured despisers of religion,” whether we know it or not. What belonged only to the educated elites two hundred years ago has become the widespread modern worldview—the taken-for-granted assumptions of our culture about what are real and what life is about.
Some of us resist the impact of the modern worldview by becoming fundamentalists, insisting on the truthfulness of pre-modern Christian ways of seeing things in spite of their conflicts with modern knowledge. Indeed, this very conflict prompted the birth of fundamentalism.
Others of us seek to add the notion of God to the modern worldview. To an essentially Newtonian view of the universe as a gigantic machine, made up of tiny bits and pieces of “stuff” all operating in accord with natural laws, we add a notion of God as a supernatural being who created the whole but who is essentially outside the process, except for the rather extraordinary interventions recorded in the biblical tradition.
But this notion of God and God’s relationship to the universe makes God distant. Most of the time, God is uninvolved and not here. Others give up on the notion of God. For some, this happens consciously, because the notion of God begins to seem incredible and incapable of substantiation. For others, letting go of the notion of God is more functional than consciously thought out. God becomes largely irrelevant. The notion of God in fact plays no major role in their lives although they may agree in opinion polls that “God exists.” They are practical atheists.
And still others seek to take seriously what the Christian tradition and other religious traditions say about God or the sacred, even as they also take seriously what we have come to know in the modern period, but without absolutizing it. They seek to integrate Christianity with modern and postmodern perceptions, producing a revisioning of Christianity. This is the path to which my own experience has led me, and this is what this book is about.
Almost a century ago, William James, in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, distinguished between firsthand religious experience and secondhand religion. In this book, Borg seek to help readers make the transition from believing in (or rejecting) secondhand religion to experiencing firsthand a relationship with the sacred. It is both an invitation to a life with God and a guidebook to the central elements of the Christian vision of such a life.
Marcus Borg, a distinguished scholar who has devoted himself to studies of the “historical Jesus,” has written from his own experiences as a Christian, informed by a lifetime of scholarship, about our need to develop a personal relationship to God. In clear, precise, down-to-earth language, he manages to explain difficult concepts while outlining a reasoned, convincing approach to Christian faith. Every page conveys a sense of deep respect for, and faith in, a continuing and vital relationship to God. His theology can liberate us from magical thinking and narrow-minded literalism, and points the way to a continuing, ever-deepening relationship to God.
In a thoughtful, non-defensive manner, he describes a basis for deep religious faith fully consistent with our contemporary world view. I have never found a book on religious faith so helpful, so clear, and so inspiring for a modern reader. By liberating us from a “requirement-based” faith in a “monarchical” God, he has shown the way to a meaningful, day-to-day relationship to God as the foundation of our lives, the “ground of being” described by Paul Tillich.
His book is a gift to us that I am glad to have found, and I will follow the advice of William Wink, who wrote about another book of Borg’s that we should read everything he writes. I wish everyone could read and reflect on the message of this book.
This is possibly the best book on spirituality I have ever read. A must for anyone who has dismissed as “bunk” the beliefs they were taught as a child and found him or herself with nothing to replace the “bunk.” Borg calls on his own experiences to suggest ways of viewing God and religion in general that make sense. Even if one doesn’t agree with Borg’s thoughts, at least he gives the reader something to consider. Marcus Borg has a unique ability to write about complex, scholarly issues in a simple, straightforward style that is easy to understand. How about you?