Rethinking Jesus

American New Testament Scholar, theologian, and author Marcus Borg died on January 21. Two years ago, his visit to campus challenged students to examine the historical portraits of Jesus.

Marcus Borg and the Reverend Charlie Holt discuss whether Jesus actually raised from the dead. (Photo by Scott Cook) Marcus Borg and the Reverend Charlie Holt discuss whether Jesus actually raised from the dead. (Photo by Scott Cook)

(This article originally appeared on Rollins360 in February 2013 by Kristen Manieri.)

A small group of students gather for a Christianity in Society course, each with a copy of the book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time in hand. Their instructor, Professor of History Barry Levis, sits among them but he’s not leading the discussion today; Marcus Borg, the book’s author, has that pleasure.

Borg, an influential voice in progressive Christianity and a major figure in scholarship related to the Historical Jesus, recently spent two days on campus, visiting a total of four classes, as well as delivering a public lecture, titled, “The Truth and Limits of Contemporary Atheism,” and participating in a public discussion with the Reverend Charlie Holt, rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Lake Mary, titled, "Believing in the Resurrection: Was Jesus Actually Raised from the Dead?"

Having all read his book, Levis’ pupils are ready to discuss everything from the rise of Christianity to its future prospects in a world where some would argue that religious affiliation is declining almost as steadily as use of the VCR.

“It seems like at the beginning of the Christian religion there was a lot of turmoil and disagreement, and I wondered, in your opinion, how it got to where it is now,” Gian Castillo ’16 asks.

After delivering a mini-lecture on the slow but steady rise of Christianity, Borg acknowledges that things are changing for the church. “Christianity as a whole will be diminishing in this country, and that’s not necessarily bad news. It need not mean a loss of vitality,” Borg says.

Ariel Rivera ‘14 asks how people can have faith when they realize the inconsistencies between the myth of Jesus and the historical facts.

“Faith isn’t really about what you believe; it’s about what you give your heart to, or what you belove,” Borg responds.

Borg sees a shift toward progressive Christianity. “In some ways, worship is very familiar, the same liturgy. But sermons are likely to be different; much less about our need for forgiveness or heaven,” says Borg. He points out a shift during the 10th century to a focus on heaven and hell.  “It was a marvelous form of social control, this message that even if I can get away with a crime because no one will know I did it, God will know. The language is in the Bible, but it’s not a central theme.”

Conversely, Borg sees progressive Christianity as more focused on God’s passion for our transformation than our need to be forgiven for our sins or to behave in a way that paves our path to heaven.

“My critique would be that when the afterlife is emphasized in Christian preaching, it tends to create a contractual understanding of Christianity: If I believe the right things, do the right things, if I do X then God will do Y—there will be reward if I meet God’s requirements,” Borg says. “But that is a self-interested reason for being Christian and continues to be about rewards in this life or the life to come. When the afterlife is emphasized as the motive for being Christian, it feeds a self-centered motive.”