Pilgrimage is a significant Old Testament theme. Abraham and Sarah, first generation migrants, moved (at age 75 for Abraham) from Ur to Canaan. This was the first of many migrations that took place for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they were welcomed, sometimes they were viewed as illegal immigrants. To think biblically includes put oneself in the situation of a migrant–or to at least having empathy for those who journey from one place to another.
Some pilgrimages were permanent life resettlements. Some were occasional or annual, such as journeys to Jerusalem for Passover. In the OT, Psalms 120-134 were sung as pilgrims made their way to the Temple mount in Jerusalem. The one biblical story of Jesus’ youth was about his separation from parents during a pilgrimage of Nazareth folks to the Jerusalem Temple. Pilgrimage can be a way of remembering our roots and i can be a journey to new and better days.
As part of a month-long camping trip, much of yesterday was spent at the Roosevelt Campobello International Park, just across the Maine border in Canada. Unexpectedly, I became emotional. The park’s spirit of international cooperation, the leadership role played by the US, and the extraordinary leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt reminded me of the America I remember before our detour into lesser things with the rise of Trumpism. Campobello was a healing pilgrimage, a homecoming.
In 1991, I was part of a team that introduced Disciple Bible Study to a large suburban congregation. DBS is a small group, 34-week Bible study with reading assignments equivalent to a seminary class. Seventeen of the weeks were devoted to the Old Testament. The OT may seem long ago and far away, which it is, but that’s not all it is. The OT is a life resource for anyone, regardless of one’s faith tradition.
The next few posts will be about the Old Testament as resource. As one gets into this material, it becomes clear that OT stories form a significant part of the foundation of the western world. These stories are relevant for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, three monotheistic faiths that sprang from the OT, as well as other faiths and secular persons who identify with no particular tradition.
The OT drops a plumb line into our midst (an image used by the OT prophet Amos), an objective voice that calls for impartial justice and fair treatment of all persons, regardless of their status or wealth. In these times, when political ideology prioritizes the end (election victory) over means (or any ethical consideration), the OT is a much-needed resource to help society find its bearings.
The recent exercise of political power by a US governor to send immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard is the kind of thing that the OT plumb line exposes as abuse. In ancient days, poor people were considered pawns to be used at will by people, as in King Ahab’s seizure of Naboth’s vineyard. The OT says, “No.”
My friend Kathy asked about Friday’s post, “What do you mean by relational justice?” I replied that I see all justice as relational. I added the word “relational” because sometimes we think of a transgression as a violation of an arbitrary rule that has been established by a hierarchical power (civil or religious). Some religions believe in after-life punishment for violations of religious law or purity codes.
Many people carry a load of guilt around because they have internalized a parental voice, a teacher’s voice, or a “divine” voice that has accused them of having “gone wrong.” Many times it’s false guilt that we carry around needlessly. While some religions focus on individual transgressions or sins, with faith a matter of individual repentance, much of the focus of biblical faith is corporate, or social.
I see justice (regarding both individual and corporate wrongs) as the healing of brokenness. In the Jewish tradition, Sabbath is the weekly celebration of being one with all creation. It’s the one day when every beggar is royalty. It’s a recognition of how things ought to be and one day will be. Sabbath justice and all forms of healing restore and reconcile our brokenness. It’s the process of wholeness or salvation.
When ancient people sought to convey divine reality, they looked to the heavens for words or images of majesty, grandeur and power. From Psalm 19.1: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” One of my childhood memories is reclining on the trunk of our family car, with my head propped up by the rear window, looking at the blue sky and the formation of clouds–thinking Someone had a great idea.
The Christian church post-Constantine consolidated power and stifled dissent. When someone began to think “outside the box” by proposing that the universe is more vast than previously thought, the church was intolerant. Ironically, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) have endured as great minds who have helped the church think bigger about the cosmos.
This week we visited our son, who is making plans to work at the south pole for several months. When he points “up” the heavens, he points in a different direction than those of us in the northern hemisphere. “Up” for heaven is an archaic by-product of the time when people thought the earth was flat. Our minds have moved well past that ancient metaphor for heaven, but our language hasn’t caught up.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), another voice the church sought to silence, helps me think beyond this earthly existence. I don’t grasp the noosphere, but I’m encouraged by the direction of his thought. My favorite resource for thinking about “the beyond” is a novel written by Scott Peck, In Heaven As On Earth. The key principle of the afterlife, in Peck’s novel, is “freedom.”
My early life was influenced by what Marcus Borg called an “earlier paradigm” of Christianity. I was not as focused on life after death as some folks, but Billy Graham (in the 1950s) and the dominant Protestant culture of my youth gave me a consciousness that included afterlife.
In my mid-20s, coincident with my time in seminary, I began to view life after death as “sheer bonus” (a Theodore Runyon phrase). I saw it not as an extension of earth-ways, but a cosmic, universal reality that is without beginning and without end. Eternity is now, and always.
A dear friend, shortly before his death at a relatively young age, told me that he had heard a definite though not audible Voice say, “You take care of things on your side of the river and I’ll take care of things on this side of the river.” The “river” became a comforting metaphor.
About a decade ago I studied with Richard Rohr for three days in Albuquerque with a peer group. I was helped by Rohr’s focus on a non-dual, unitive view of the Universe and on the generosity of a radical, grace-based, inclusive hospitality.
Add some Borg, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and others I’ve mentioned, and you get a Jesus-flavored universality that includes all creation, rests entirely on unmerited favor, or grace, and sees reconciliation, relational justice and healing as inherent to cosmic union and eternal life–a great celebration.
In Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity, pp. 107ff is about “Born Again: Dying and Rising.” He wrote: In the gospels and in the rest of the New Testament, death and resurrection, dying and rising, are again and again metaphors for personal transformation, for the psychological spiritual process at the heart of the Christian life.
When I was young, operating from the “earlier paradigm” Borg describes (September 13 post), I thought resurrection and life eternal were “invented” by God after the death of Jesus. Borg wrote: … the path of death and resurrection is “the way” that Jesus himself taught. I now see that the crucifixion and resurrection story as a revolutionary, timeless “object lesson” to demonstrate the way things are.
Borg helps me understand that the point of this story, of creation, of life itself, is transformation. It is a universal experience to which Christianity witnesses but does not hold a copyright. It is at the heart of every faith and everyone’s life experience, whether or not one is conscious of it or grateful for it. Because transformation is a universal experience, it can be a starting point for every human conversation.
The Jesus story–which I understand within the context of the larger Jewish story, which I understand within the larger context of the story of the Universe–is my story. As I live into the theme of transformation (which I understand to be the heart of everything), I’m able to receive, appreciate and find common ground with everyone’s story. This makes me excited about waking up every morning!
Marcus Borg helped me appreciate the power of metaphor. Ancient Jews and early Christians understood the inherent power of story and the depth of meaning that can come through a parable. A literalist may assert that the faith issue in the story of Jonah is whether one believes Jonah survived three days in the belly of a big fish. But, the point of the story is a bigger, and tougher, issue: God called Jonah to love the hated Ninevites. Who might God be calling me to love?
Of course, it’s okay to interpret the Jonah story literally. Also, It’s okay to interpret it metaphorically, as a parable. I love history. It’s important to look for the historical context of the biblical stories. But the Bible is more than history. I believe it is trans-historical, full of timeless truth. Borg helps me see that the question, “Is it true?” is more important than the question, “Did it happen?” Borg wrote, “emphasizing the historical factuality of the stories can distract from their meaning.”
Borg writes of the miracle stories about Jesus: When their factuality is emphasized, the miraculous elements are emphasized so that “believing” these stories means believing that all these spectacular events happened. This emphasis often produces a sterile debate between those who think they are factual and those who think they aren’t, an endless back-and-forth: “It happened this way, “No, it didn’t,” “Yes, it did.” When this happens, the rich, more-than-literal meanings are most often lost.
It helps me to not to ask, “Is this story literally true?” Rather, I ask, “Is this really true?” (It may be both, of course, but what’s most important to me is whether it is really true.) Borg ends his section on “The Truth as Metaphor” with these words: …when people say, “I believe the Bible is literally true,” I want to ask, “Are you saying that you believe the Bible is really true? If so, I agree with you.”
In The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg describes “an earlier paradigm” of Christianity that typically viewed Christianity as the only true religion, which saw the Bible as a divine product to be interpreted literally, and which focused on believing, the afterlife and a life focused on requirements and rewards. From his mid-teens to his mid-thirties, “Christianity didn’t make much sense intellectually” and the faith he learned in childhood “ceased to be persuasive.”
However, Borg became convinced that “there are no serious intellectual threats to being Christian, and he rediscovered a life of faith “that makes persuasive and compelling sense of life in the broadest sense—a way of seeing reality and our lives in relationship to what is real; a way of seeing God, our relationship to God, and the path of transformation. The sacrifice that Christianity asks of us is not ultimately a sacrifice of the intellect.”
He wrote the book to share his personal attraction to an “emerging paradigm” of faith that has been developing for over 100 years, “to communicate this way of seeing to those for whom an earlier understanding of Christianity makes little or no sense. They number is in the millions.”
In these two sentences, Borg describes the importance of this emerging paradigm: …the earlier paradigm uses the language of God’s grace and compassion and love, but its own internal logic turns being Christian into a life of requirements and rewards, thereby compromising the notion of grace. Indeed, it nullifies grace, for grace that has conditions attached is no longer grace.
I think Ernie named Marcus Borg (1942-2015) as an important resource and my Friday brain trust (a Fullness of Loving group) all agreed. Like us, Borg was a US citizen and roughly our contemporary in chronology. Borg was a teacher of theology. We are students of theology. Our Friday group resonates with Borg’s thought, though as my friend Don says, “I don’t agree with anyone about everything.” Borg’s 2003 book, The Heart of Christianity, will be the focus of this week’s posts.
The subtitle is “Rediscovering a Life of Faith.” The cover jacket proclaims, “How we can be passionate believers today.” I think today Borg might speak about being a “follower” (of Jesus) rather than a “believer.” Like our Friday group, Borg grew up in a world dominated by memories of World War II and the realities of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. He pointed out (in 2003) how much the world had changed since Will Herberg’s 1953 book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew.
Borg noted (in 2003): The religious landscape in America is rapidly changing…. In the last thirty-five years, we have become the most religious diverse nation in the world.” He experienced an escalation of this diversity in his remaining dozen years, and since Borg’s death this diversity has intensified. Today, we have an unprecedented ability to learn from each other, but diversity meets resistance from those uncomfortable with change, including extreme opposition by xenophobic tribalism.
Though he is deceased, Borg’s wisdom is still available to us through The Heart of Christianity and his other writings and presentations. He can help us see diversity as a gift. That’s my goal for this week.