Over the last several months, I’ve been on a total Marcus Borg tear. Borg (1942-2015) was a leading scholar on the historical Jesus. He was also Christian; although he spent many years disenchanted with religion and agnostic about God, in his mid-thirties he had a series of experiences he, drawing from the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, described as “radical amazement”– moments when he felt the earth was “filled with the glory of God”, “numinous”, and “holy.” He became convinced that while God was not some being “out there,” God was something “sacred at the center of existence”–a sacred indwelling in and through all things. He returned to Christianity, but did not shy from making unorthodox / non-canonical claims about Jesus if that is what the evidence supports. Personally, I find his balance of scholarship and faith the most refreshing and compelling take on Christianity I’ve seen in a long time. As soon as I finished his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, I ordered every single other Borg book I could find and have been making my way through them. Today I want to explore Borg’s ideas on the purity vs. compassion paradigm that he argues is central to understanding Jesus and that I believe is central to understanding Christianity today.
One of the central claims Borg makes about Jesus in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time is that Jesus believed that “compassion was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centered in God.” This is reflected in the verse, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” While this came from Jesus’s jewish tradition (because, of course, Jesus was a Jew), there was another paradigm in the Jewish tradition that had come to dominate during Jesus’s time and culture: the purity paradigm. Instead of “Be compassionate as God is compassionate,” it was “Be holy as God is holy.” Borg posits that the conflict between these two paradigms–compassion and holiness as qualities of God to be embodied in community and practiced by followers–was critical in Jesus’s own ministry.
Borg then outlines numerous examples in the scriptures that demonstrate how Jesus challenged the prevailing purity codes and prioritized compassion instead: socializing with outcasts such as tax collectors and shepherds (even calling himself a shepherd); touching and healing physically impure people such as lepers and eunuchs; entering a graveyard inhabited a man possessed by a “legion” of unclean spirits (and in the vicinity of pigs, unclean animals); and spending time with women, including healing a hemorrhaging woman. In addition, Jesus’s “inclusive table fellowship” (sharing meals with impure people, including “sinners and tax collectors”) was an extremely socially significant act, as how and with whom meals were eaten was a very culturally significant event in Jewish society.
Jesus’s teachings likewise challenged the purity paradigm. Calling Pharisees “unmarked graves which people walk over without knowing it” was a declaration that they (the enforcers of purity laws) were instead a source of impurity. Teaching that it is not that which enters the body, but that which comes out, that defiles subverts a purity system constituted by external behaviors and rules. The parable of the Good Samaritan was likewise a criticism of a life ordered around purity–the priest and the Levite passed by the wounded man because they could not come into contact with death (a source of impurity); the radically impure Samaritan was the hero who acted compassionately.
When I first read “be compassionate as God is compassionate” juxtaposed with “be holy as God is holy,” my jaw literally dropped. In my experience, mainstream LDS Church – at least what’s taught over the pulpit during General Conference and in the lesson manuals – is primarily a “be holy as God is holy” Church. Indeed, that is clearly one of Nelson’s focuses; it seems he is constantly urging us to become more pure and holy, and I can’t say I hear nearly as much about compassion. Our manuals–and more than anything, the For the Strength of the Youth purity code–also seem to give a lot of air-time to purity rules and less on compassion, other than as an aside.
Personally, I’ve also come to see God much more as a God of compassion than a God of purity–so much so that my number 1 song of 2021 (according to Spotify) was aptly-titled “Reckless Love.” I love it because it tells of God’s “overwhelming, neverending, reckless” love. I think reckless love is a lot more concerned about compassion than purity.
This trend in modern Christianity towards purity culture is not unnoticed by Borg, either. He writes:
“The same hermeneutical struggle goes on in the church [speaking broadly of Christianity] today. In parts of the church there are groups that emphasize their own sharp social boundaries between the righteous and sinners. It is sad irony that these groups, many of which are seeking very earnestly to be faithful to Scripture, end up emphasizing those parts of Scripture that Jesus himself challenged and opposed. An interpretation of Scripture faithful to Jesus and the early Christian movement sees the Bible through the lens of compassion, not purity.”
He goes on to cite the Christianity’s opposition to and negative attitudes about homosexuality specifically as a clear example of a purity paradigm. Based on the comments on my post about BYU’s treatment of transgender patients in its speech clinic, I’ve no doubt this view of certain people and practices as pure or impure heavily influences the LDS Church’s (and other conservative Christians’) views of queer folks. I think a lot of LDS and conservative Christianity views same-sex relationships as impure relationships, and (worse yet) transgender folks as impure people.
Interestingly, Borg also points to the existence of a form of purity paradigm in secular culture as well:
“Our culture has increasingly maximized the rewards for culturally valued forms of achievement and maximized the penalties for failing to live up to those same standards, thereby generating increasingly sharp social boundaries. Moreover, the notion of purity and impurity is at least implicity present in attitudes towards the poor and people with AIDS.”
At some point, I want to do a deep dive and look specifically at commandments and rules in the LDS Church to identify which ones are rooted in compassion and which are rooted in purity. For today, I’m interested in thinking about the broader framework:
- What do you think of Borg’s take on Jesus? Do you agree or disagree that Jesus was presenting a compassion framework to upend an existing purity framework, or do you think Borg is overstating this? Do you see situations where Jesus was concerned with purity? If so, how did Jesus define purity?
- How do you see purity culture reflected in the LDS church? How do you see a compassion framework reflected in the LDS Church? Are there places these conflict, and which one tends to prevail? Are there any specific Church leaders that you think fall into one camp or the other?
- Where do you see purity culture in secular culture? Are there ways the LDS Church imports this secular purity framework back into its own culture? What does a compassion framework in secular culture look like?
- Is there an inherent conflict between a purity framework and a compassion framework? Can they co-exist? Where might they butt up against each other?
 Some translations (including the JKV) translate this as “be merciful as God is merciful,” but Borg believes “compassionate” better reflects the original meaning.