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A Mixed Bag
on March 1, 2005
The God We Never Knew follows the success of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and carries Borg's reconstruction of theology further into the realm of the Doctrine of God. He begins on an autobiographical note by describing the conception of God he was taught as he was raised in the conservative wing of the Christian church. The emphasis was placed, he says, on a powerful God "out there" who shakes a chastising finger in part because he was modeled on a pastor who did likewise. Borg integrates the image of a transcendent and judging God with the theological scheme perpetuated by fundamentalists and evangelicals: the inerrant inspiration of Scripture, the way of salvation through Christ alone, judgment for heaven and hell, etc. After reviewing through his mind-opening seminary education, Borg then speaks of the need to reclaim the immanence of God alongside transcendence.
Thus he sets up a dichotomy between what he calls "supernatural theism," which he claims has been the historic emphasis throughout church history, and "panentheism," which notes that while God is more than everything, God is right here and everything is in God. However, as he himself admits, the balance of transcendence and immanence is not really an innovation but goes back to the panoply of Scriptural voices. "Supernatural theism" is thus not a necessary foundation for conservative theology, in my mind, but an unfortunate tilt to far to one end that conservative theology has more often than not embraced. This is not a God "we never knew" but more like a God whom we have obscured or distorted. Growing up in the conservative church I would speak from my own experience that we certainly believed in the immediate presence of God as well, thus nullifying any straight dichotomy in Borg's scheme - although I imagine he would deny attempting to fix such rigid boundaries.
Borg then moves on to a discussion of how we "image" God, based on the metaphors we choose to rely upon. He contrasts the "monarchical model" of God as lawgiver, judge, king and patriarchal father versus the "Spirit/relational model" of God as mother, companion, friend, and lover. The author affirms that both models are based in biblical witness but heavily criticizes the monarchical model, preferring to promote the latter. However, I do not think that a reinforcement of God's fatherhood or kingship necessitates the extremes of the monarchical model.
Very rarely is Borg original in this book. His promotion of "panentheism," as he himself tells us, is nothing new. He lifts the two-models approach of imaging God from elsewhere, he parrots current critical scholarship concerning the "Jesus of history" versus the "Christ of faith" (or, in his words, the Pre-Easter Jesus and the Post-Easter Jesus), and in the later part of the book he adopts as his own Verna Dozier's terminology for the biblical vision as the "dream of God." It appears to me, after having read a few of his books, that Borg's strength and popularity do not reside so much in providing something innovative but in writing so attractively and sincerely that he is fully capable of capturing the reader's imagination. He is particularly moving in the latter part of the book as he calls for opening the heart to God and embracing a politics of compassion.
I have an ambivalent relationship to Borg's work. He writes in an engaging and disarming manner and shows a definite passion. He is certainly more appealing than hardliners on the right. But Borg goes too far, in my mind, in his attempt to reform Christianity. One would think that his friendship with N.T. Wright would soften his stance on the difference between the Pre-Easter and Post-Easter Jesus, and I find his understanding of the resurrection to be pale and disappointing. Nevertheless I always enjoy the challenge and adventure of reading the liberal church's most charming author.