Two Christianities

By Deryl Davis

Do we need to be re-educated about Christianity? That was religion scholar and Jesus Seminar participant Marcus Borg’s contention in his address before the recent Church for the 21st Century conference at Washington National Cathedral. In his address, entitled “A Tale of Two Christianities Today,” Borg argued that the common understanding of Christianity of a generation or two ago has become “hugely unpersuasive” in our time and that adult theological re-education in local congregations is now one of our most pressing needs.

Drawing from his recent popular book The Heart of Christianity, Borg set forth two “paradigms” for understanding Christianity, the common “belief-centered paradigm,” which he said was passing away, and a “transformation-centered paradigm,” which he argued has emerged as a major movement in mainline Christian denominations. In essence, the belief-centered paradigm is based on assent to a set of specific beliefs, while the transformation-centered paradigm, which Borg holds to be the more authentic, “is primarily about a path, a way [of being], for the individual and the world.”

Borg contended that the belief-centered paradigm, heretofore dominant in the modern era, is largely a product of the “collision” of Christianity and the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment, rather than a product of early Christianity and the pivotal church councils of the first centuries. The transformation-centered paradigm is also only about 300 years old, Borg asserted, a product of a narrow circle of Enlightenment-era elites that has grown into “a major grassroots movement” in recent years.

Borg drew a number of important distinctions which he saw between the two paradigms. He asserted that the belief-centered paradigm focused on the afterlife and personal salvation, and was therefore “centered in one’s own well-being,” while the transformation-centered paradigm focused on spiritual transformation in the present life and was “at its best centered in God.” While the belief-centered paradigm turned religious faith into a “system of requirements and rewards,” the transformation-centered paradigm acknowledged that only a personal relationship with God and the sacred can change an individual. Not least among these differences, Borg argued, was that the first paradigm affirmed Christianity as the only way to God, while the second affirmed religious pluralism “out of a deep conviction that the God who created the universe has been known in all enduring religions.”

Examining the role of the Bible in both paradigms, Borg drew distinctions on matters of scriptural origin, authority, and interpretation. While the belief-centered paradigm views scripture as inerrant, infallible, and directly from God’s hand, the transformation-centered paradigm assumes a “historical-metaphorical approach” that understands scripture as a human product and a social construction representative of a particular people or peoples, place, and time. “What we have in the Bible,” Borg said, “is how our spiritual ancestors saw things, not how God sees them.” Borg argued that, rather than a reduction of scriptural meaning, the historical-metaphorical approach looked beyond the literal meaning of words for what they tell us about the generations of readers transformed by them. The approach is not dependent upon factuality, as is the literalist, Borg said; therefore, it is open to nuance and imaginative construction.

While strongly asserting his preference for the transformation-centered paradigm, Borg acknowledged that the spirit of God can and does work through the older, belief-centered model. The problem, he asserted, is that in recent years, adherents of the latter, literal scripture approach “have become aggressive and judgmental in the use of this paradigm” using it “to beat up on others.” Thus, the belief-centered paradigm has become “an obstacle and a stumbling block” for many Christians. By way of contrast, Borg offered the transformation-centered paradigm as a “neo-traditional view” of Christianity, recovering and retrieving what was most central to the faith before the collision with modernity occasioned by the Enlightenment.

Borg concluded his prepared remarks by noting commonalities between the two paradigms and pointing out the history of the words “faith” and “belief.” Both paradigms hold Jesus and the Bible as primary sources of revelation, both the Word of God, making Christianity distinct from all other religions, Borg said. Christians see Jesus as the “decisive” Word of God, Borg asserted, and understand Christianity as a transformative journey undertaken by means of a relationship with God in Jesus.

Borg contended that, before 1600, the word “believe” as used in Christian parlance did not refer to consent to a set of truths but rather to a commitment or loyalty to a path, as illustrated by Jesus. “The word ‘believe’ never had a set of statements as its direct object,” Borg asserted. “Faith is not about [that],” Borg argued, “but about a deepening trust in God in Jesus.”

Borg’s provocative remarks elicited a number of audience questions on the supposed decline of mainline denominations (it’s reflective of a former cultural expectation of churchgoing, Borg said); on literal interpretation of the ancient Christian creeds, especially statements about the resurrection (whether the tomb was empty or not doesn’t really matter, Borg said; what matters is that Jesus continues to be known as a figure in the present); and on the criteria for discerning the meaning of scripture (there are no objective criteria, Borg asserted; discernment is best done in the context of the Christian community and in relation to “progressive revelation” – understanding that specific meaning may change and grow over time). Borg concluded this segment of his address with a reference to Martin Luther, to the effect that “what is authoritative about the Bible is what is consistent with Christ. We know him through the gospels, we know the spirit of Christ as discerned through scripture.”

Deryl Davis is producer of the Sunday Forum at Washington National Cathedral and an associate faculty member in religion and drama at Wesley Theological Seminary.


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