Marcus J. Borg 1942-2015

29 January 2015

He was one of the giants in the Christian faith during the last 25 years, widely read, widely known and widely respected. He was a quiet man, humble and unassuming, yet simultaneously he was brilliant, provocative and stretching. He was one of the three major shakers and movers of the Jesus Seminar, the other two being the founder, Robert Funk, and the Roman Catholic New Testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan. It was that Seminar which brought the study of the historical Jesus out of the academy and placed it squarely into the consciousness of those ordinary people, who still occupy the pews of our churches. This body also gained the attention of those who have given up on organized religion altogether.

With a name like Borg, he had to be of Scandinavian descent. Bjorn Borg had identified that name with Sweden during the years that he reigned as the world’s top male tennis player.

Marcus was born in 1942 to Lutheran parents in Fergus Falls, in Western Minnesota, not far from the boundary with the Dakotas. The Lutheran Church was at the heart of this family’s self-identity and it provided the young Marcus with a deep sense of his place in the universe. That Lutheranism was, however, of the literal, traditional, fundamentalist variety, perhaps not as strange or as strident as the Missouri Synod Lutherans, but close, far too close, to hold this bright, inquisitive young lad for very long. He matriculated at Concordia College, a Lutheran school in Moorhead, Minnesota, but his educational goals did not, at this time in his life, point him in a religious direction. He wanted to be an astrophysicist so he began his college career planning a double major in math and physics. The ensuing internal conflict that his studies created between his Lutheran faith and his academic pursuits, however, finally became so intense that it almost immobilized him. His childhood Christian faith had never been called upon to engage the universe of thought that he was now confronting. The need to wrestle openly with these colliding views of reality became so intense that he finally changed his major field of study to political science and philosophy. Now he could confront, publicly and privately, the definitions of his childhood religion, which drew him deeply into worship, and the expanding world of knowledge to which his education was introducing him. He perceived that the work of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Freud, among others, was forcing Christianity to move into a radically new direction or into total irrelevance. The young Marcus Borg found himself torn and plagued by doubt. The forms of Christianity in which his life had once been so secure, now no longer compelled him at all. His faith either had to change and grow or it had to die. There was no middle ground.

Following his undergraduate days, Marcus decided to accept a grant from one of the Rockefeller Foundations to study theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. He could not simply walk away from the faith of his fathers and mothers, as so many in his generation were doing. At that time, Union was the premier graduate school in America for the training of Christian scholars. Its faculty featured Paul Tillich and W. D. Davies in Theology, Reinhold Niebuhr in Church and Society, James Muilenburg in Old Testament and many others. This robust faculty was presided over by its president and dean, Henry Pitney Van Dusen. Marcus settled into these challenging theological waters and began to learn to swim in an entirely new way. He became particularly drawn to W. D. Davies, whose interest was in the Jewish background of the New Testament, and who helped him chart his own path to greatness. After he received his Master’s degree in Divinity at Union, he went on to Mansfield College at Oxford University where he earned his Master’s degree and his Doctor of Philosophy degree in Theology. He was clear that his calling was not to the ordained ministry of the Lutheran Church. Perhaps he knew he could no longer live within the boundaries that institutional religion seemed to require, but had come to see that his vocation was to be the pursuit of Christian truth on the stage of the academic world no matter where that pursuit led him.

With his newly-minted Oxford degrees, he ventured forth into his teaching career, at first back in the familiar confines of Concordia College, his alma mater. He did not move far from his religious roots for a decade, teaching not only at Concordia but also at nearby South Dakota State University and then at Carleton College, another Minnesota school. In 1979, his career took a determinative turn when he accepted an invitation to join the faculty at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. It was for him a dramatic shift. He was now no longer an intellectual skeptic in a religious college, but had become a religious pioneer in a secular university. This was exactly the proper setting needed to bring out his incredible gifts. He remained at this post until he retired in 2007. His original title was “Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture.” In 1988 Marcus was appointed chair of the Department of Religious Studies, but four years later in 1992 that department was closed and Marcus became a member of the Department of Philosophy.

One does not think of Oregon State University as the citadel of contemporary Christian scholarship and knowledge in the United States, but under the leadership of Marcus Borg, that is what it became. So influential was this great teacher that a wealthy man and an Oregon State alumnus, Al Hundere, endowed Marcus’ chair at Oregon State University because he had been touched so deeply by Marcus’ understanding of Christianity. Marcus then gained the additional title of being the occupant of the “Hundere Endowed Chair in Religious Studies.” Marcus first came to national attention with his book, Jesus: A New Vision, published in 1987. This book also brought national attention to the Jesus Seminar that was just beginning its work. In his “new vision” of Jesus, he looked deeply into Jesus’ Jewishness. That book was thought of as radical, but that was only because he dared to make routine biblical scholarship available in the kind of language that everyone could understand. Nonetheless, the traditionalists and literalists howled in pain and protest, but the seekers after truth began to drink this elixir of grace with a joyous new openness.

Marcus and I became colleagues in the Jesus Seminar in the late 1980’s. That Christian think tank was a great support to me in my ministry as a bishop. The Seminar validated my own theological journey and my Christian quest. Strangely enough, in that body of scholars, Marcus and I were thought of as “conservatives.” In 2004 when the Jesus Seminar came to Times Square in New York, he and I, “the conservatives,” were pitted in dialogue and debate with Don Cupitt of Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and Lloyd Geering, retired professor of Victoria University in New Zealand, who were “the radicals.” One of Cupitt’s books was entitled, Taking Leave of God and one of Geering’s books was entitled, Christianity Without God. What really set the two of us apart from “the radicals,” however, was the fact that both of us still held a deep love for the Christian Church that had nurtured us all of our lives. We wanted to challenge it, to reform it and to do battle with it, but neither of us ever wanted to abandon it or to destroy it.

When I first read what was my favorite of all Marcus’ books, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, I was so deeply touched by it that I wrote my friend, Phyllis Tickle, who was the head of the religious department of Publishers Weekly to tell her that this was the best Jesus book I had read in the last decade. Publishers Weekly clearly agreed and that book became Marcus’ best-selling volume. It deserved the recognition that it received.

More than anyone else in the Jesus Seminar, Marcus and I took our teaching on the road. At one time, I was doing as many as 250 public lectures a year across the United States and the English-speaking world. I still do about 100 a year. Marcus and I would thus run into each other consistently on that circuit. He had either recently been at the same venue or was coming in the next six months. We were constantly playing “John the Baptist” for each other, one preparing the way for the other’s arrival. Marcus was much sweeter and gentler than I and he had an amazing ability that so many religious leaders seem to lack, namely to “suffer fools gladly” and at some length. I know of no one, friend or foe, who actually disliked him.

Denominational loyalty means very little in Christian academic circles, but despite that, I was pleased when I learned that Marcus had been received into the Episcopal Church by the Bishop of Oregon, Robert Ladehoff, who happened to have been a friend of mine since our teenage years in North Carolina. I suppose that becoming an Episcopalian was inevitable for Marcus, since his wife, Marianne, was an Episcopal priest, serving as a Canon of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. Shortly after being received, Marcus was installed as the Canon Theologian of that Cathedral making it a kind of family affair.

I did not see Marcus much on a one to one basis. When together we were almost always in a crowd of people. I resonated deeply with his work, however, and thought of the two of us as engaged in the same enterprise. We both shared a passion for God, a devotion to Christ and to what has been called a “love that will not let me go.” We challenged those who wanted the Christian faith to stop with what is, and tried to force them to look deeply at what the Christian faith could become. We also tried to challenge those who had left Christianity to take up citizenship in the “Secular City,” by asking them to look again at the Christ they were rejecting to see if there were not far more to this figure than they had ever seen before.

Marcus died on January 21, 2015. I shall miss him deeply. One has few associates in life that are really soul mates.

~JohnShelby Spong

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