Why Church? Why Christianity? + Marcus Borg’s “Heart of Christianity”

July 20, 2009

A few weeks ago, I posted an article titled “Salvation” on my blog. Someone I know commented that they liked what I had to say on most of the points, but being agnostic they asked me to answer for them two significant “whys.” Following and agreeing on the call to social justice, compassion, education, spirituality why must “church,” “Christianity,” and “hell” be invoked and used as relevant concepts as part of the deal? First off, “hell” in the traditional sense is pretty irrelevant to the point but I’ll deal with that in another article sometime.

While thinking about the other two terms, which I do find to be relevant and important parts of this ideal, I happened to read “The Heart of Christianity” by Marcus Borg. I can’t recommend it highly enough, he succinctly and efficiently makes all of the best points I tried to make in my “Salvation” article as well as all the points I hope to make here. He does it clearly, understandably and compassionately. So if you’re interested in progressive Christianity, what Borg terms “the emerging paradigm,” seek out that book. Heck, if you’re a happy traditional Christian read it as well, Borg does his best to find common ground for all Christians and aims to build a bridge between both camps (one point he makes is that we should all quit arguing on literality, if something “actually happened“ and focus instead on what each thing really means). At least you’ll get a good overview of some of the other ways of looking at things you may never have considered before from someone with the work experience and scholarly credentials to support his positions.

Okay. So to start with, why is “Christianity” important. After all, if you feel called to work for the cause of peace, justice and compassion you can do so as a member of any religion or of no religion whatsoever. Many times throughout history organized religion has even worked intensely against peace, justice and compassion. Borg focuses on deflating Christian exclusivism at several points in “Heart…” He even takes the few (for there are really only a few passages in which Christianity is stated as being the exclusively right and only way) and approaches them in a new light. In John’s gospel the famous verse that conservative Christians use to defend Christian exclusivism has Jesus saying “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Borg points out that John’s gospel is one of incarnational theology. Jesus is “Word made flesh,” and so he is “‘the way made flesh.’ the path embodied in a life…what is ‘the way’ that Jesus is?” Borg writes, “For John ‘the way’ embodied in Jesus is the path of death and resurrection. Dying and rising is the only way to God. Christian exclusivism understands this verse to mean that you must know Jesus in order to be saved. But ‘the way’ that John speaks of is not about believing doctrines about Jesus. Rather, it is what we see incarnate in Jesus: the path of death and resurrection as the way to rebirth in God. According to John this is the only way…it is ‘the way’ spoken of by all major religions of the world. Dying and rising is the way. Thus Jesus is “the Way”–the way became flesh…his life and death are the incarnation of a universal way known in all of the enduring religions.”

Borg attempts to deflate exclusivism in many other ways in his book yet also emphasizes the importance and his personal love of and practice in Christianity. So if Christianity isn’t believed to only be about getting to heaven and avoiding hell and it is no longer believed to the only absolute way of reaching our potential and our “salvation,” does that make those of us who feel strongly that it is what is right for us as individuals and good for the world when practiced compassionately foolish or does that make us more sincere since the decision to participate in it doesn’t come from fear or compulsion? Furthermore, why do we find it the right way at this point? I like the anecdote Borg recounts concerning an American meeting the Dali Lama and asking him if he should convert to Buddhism. The Dali Lama told him no and advised him to “stick where your roots are the deepest.” It’s better to have one well dug 50 feet deep than 50 wells dug a foot deep each.

For Progressive Christians in the US, our roots are deepest in the Christian tradition. We are familiar and comfortable in its creeds, hymns, iconography, scriptures, prayers and base. We probably would have been more comfortable with Islam or Judaism if we were born with a faithful base in such, but we weren’t. Yet we recognize the truth at the heart of this tradition, in the person of Jesus and in the scriptures and traditions that emerged from those who were inspired by him. In the church as a force for social justice and compassion in the world if only it can live up to its full potential. Why Christianity? Because as my priest once said, “for me it’s simply where the points line up most fully,” where I can feel myself most in line with God and what I can be and should do.

Why Church? Because although I may not always agree with every person in a pew beside me on every theological and social issue I can still be inspired by the music, prayers, creeds, sacraments and sermons. I prefer a broad, open liberal faith in which I am free to read, think, ponder, doubt and question anything set before me but also that provides me with a link to history and tradition that makes those practices become less about the specific words and doctrines and more about opening the heart to possibility and the mind to inspiration. If the church strives to live up to its potential, as I outlined in an article on this site a few months back, it will be a place of great things. Brian McClaren writes in his book “The Secret Message of Jesus” that a local church should be a place that where at any given time you stumble into it there may be people praying silently in the chapel, students debating philosophy in the classroom, workers serving hot meals to the homeless in the kitchen, adult professionals on their time off planning local and foreign aid to necessary social concerns, people hearing a sermon that both inspires and edifies them while also challenging them to more that they expect. It should be and can be all of these things. Why church? Because as much as we as individuals may feel strongly about, think about and say we plan to do something about important social and community issues we may not stay on ourselves to follow through on them and we may find it difficult to act on such plans without proper resources. A community of like-minded individuals can support, challenge and work side by side to accomplish these types of things as well as have the resources to back them. Of course charitable organizations and clubs can do these things to, so church isn’t the only way for that side of it. Yet equally important is personal edification, inspiration and challenge. We can get a lot of this through personal study and mediation, yet hearing from other perspectives opens our minds to ways we on our own might not have considered. That tie to history and community can open doors and link us to a place outside of ourselves as well. By pointedly leaving our own daily lives to visit a place that aims for a more vertical than lateral approach that is rich in iconography and ritual can help us elevate our hearts. Now I know it takes commitment, which draws many away. Let’s face it, if we work all week and Sunday is our only day off we aren’t always going to want to devote a portion of it to the church for whatever reason. That’s why it should never be viewed as a place where an attendance record is kept like a grade school or a place where we feel pressured to go to every week whether we feel like it or not. No, it should be a place where we feel comfortable to go to once a week or once a month, establishing our own regularity as we feel comfortable to it. Sometimes people want to spend that time with family, in nature or in private study and personal reflection…and that’s good. Yet it should always be there for us, and the deeper some of us get into it the more facets of it we may find ourselves utilizing.

Yes, people in groups can be just as misguided as individuals if not more so. Yes, organized religion in all countries has historical periods of guilt and persecution. Yet the terms “Christian’ and “Church” are still relevant to the modern world and to the works of justice and compassion. The more progressive, thoughtful and varied people that can enter into them can only cause these systems to be more as they truly should be.

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2 Responses to “Why Church? Why Christianity? + Marcus Borg’s “Heart of Christianity””

  1. dave said

    I feel like Christianity and Church are still relevant because while one person can make a difference through peace, and compassion, and love, that one person connected with many people who have a similar goal can accomplish much more.

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