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.
I really appreciate your thoughst in this post. I have been thinking a lot about the things I have been seeing in the church. The thing that I have been seeing the most is the tendency to stress what I would call doctrinal purity. Doctrinal purity could be seen in many different ways including the points that you brought up. I know about Martin Borg and his involvement in the historical Jesus movement. You have given me an interest in reading more fully his writings.
I agree with you completely that the Church, generally, and RMN specifically, favor holiness over compassion. (Actually that’s not exactly what you said but I think we agree). Anyway, I think one reason why progressive folks are troubled by the modern Church is this very issue. I can think of many progressive or x-Mormons who feel this way.
When RMN outlines sad heaven, is he being holy or compassionate? When JR Holland tells the BYU faculty to hold the line on LGBTQ issues, same question. And just this week at Christofferson gave a talk in which he advises us to not allow our compassion to get carried away.
The Church is very capable of modifying its messaging. One year we are Mormons and the next year we aren’t. The Brethren need to pay attention to the results of the surveys they send out. Or maybe read J Reis’s articles.
If the Brethren are wise, they will mellow out a little on the holiness talk and turn up a level the volume on compassion. But I’m afraid that won’t happen until RMN exits the scene.
How is it possible to be holy without compassion?
Alice, Elder Ulisses Soares message in the October 2021 conference was probably speaking to that very point.
Here’s a link to the talk (referred to by Josh h) that by Elder Christofferson gave at BYU this week:
I think it’s a wonderful talk. IMO, it brings into balance some of the seeming contradictions required of those who are committed to following the Savior.
@josh h and @jack I think it’s an awful talk and precisely illustrates the point that the Church prioritizes purity over compassion. Christofferson like Holland and even Uchtdorf has been disappointing lately as the leadership seems to be doing a major retrenchment.
God would never ask us to discriminate against other people in order to love God. We love God by loving others. Only an abusive parent would ask one child to mistreat another in order to prove loyalty to and honor the parent. As a parent my biggest wish is for my kids to love and care for one another – and, if we are to take seriously Enoch’s vision of the God who weeps – our God feels the same way and weeps when we mistreat one another. And I’m guessing is downright angry when we mistreat one another and blame it on God’s will.
The first and second commandments should never be in conflict. If they are, we misunderstand the first.
Elisa – thank you for this thoughtful and timely article. It arrives at a good moment in the ongoing discussion.
Elisa, I keep seeing overlap in thoughts and approaches as I watch what you do at Wheat&Tares, and keep trying to figure where the parallels come from. I could have written your OP myself. In fact I did something similar but much more private. That’s a way of saying I agree. The more important way to say I agree is that I have essentially dropped out of all the love debates (conditional vs unconditional, 1st great commandment vs(?!) 2d great commandment) because I’m swallowed up in the idea of compassion and am not interested in downgrading my thinking and learning.
I feel like RMN/Oaks are possibly directing the other apostles to teach these concepts of conditional love, 1st great commandment in competition with 2nd great commandment etc. Elder Holland basically said so when he gave his very uncharacteristic “musket” talk at BYU. I get the impression the others are no longer as free to preach what they feel inspired to, it seems like they are being given the assignment to teach RMN’s agenda.
@christian kimball God Is Love. Sounds trite and simple. I think it’s actually deeply profound, true, and difficult.
christiankimball’s comment resonates very deep. Love is hard, but judgement is even harder. I simply don’t have time to provide for myself and my family and master both love and judgment. So I choose to attempt to master love and leave the judgment to God. I’m far from perfect, will probably never master love in my lifetime, but choices have been made. I came to this conclusion roughly nine years ago and am still committed to my choice.
Also I agree with E. Elder Holland’s talk left me reeling for weeks to where even driving by my church building suddenly left me in tears. I couldn’t have been more surprised with the exception of perhaps Elder Uchtdorf giving such a talk. Had the same talk been given by other members of the FP/Q12, I would have shrugged it off. It felt so out of place. I have no room in my life for this rhetoric. Conference weekend, I’ll be horseback riding with my family in Tucson.
You asked if the purity culture ever comes in conflict with the compassion culture. I’ll pick on the internet’s favorite bad object lesson to explain one way the YW are exposed to this conflict in droves. All those lessons about smashed cake and chewed bubble gum. The cake or gum becomes impure and a woman’s worth is in her purity. Not her choices, let alone any inherent value in just being a child of God. This type lesson fits the rape situation much better than the consensual sex situation because rape is violent, like smashing the cake, but consensual sex is nonviolent. In zero of these lessons is the object in the object lesson choosing to become unclean. The very idea that they are using an object turns the whole message into a purity lesson, not an agency lesson. And then we are supposed to turn up our nose at the dirtied object. Not have compassion for the poor cake.
It gets applied secularly also. Consider the difference between the police reaction to a woman who is hospitalized because she was raped and the business man who is hospitalized because he was mugged. The business man gets compassion, while the rape victim gets asked if she was drinking. The rape victim’s purity has been violated while the business man’s purity is intact. So, the police look for a way to blame her, even when they have been taught better.
Re the Christofferson talk: I honestly do not understand this impulse to pry apart the first from the second commandment. And the warning against “unbridled compassion.” ??? Wasn’t Christ’s point that love of God and fellow beings are in essence the same thing? And holiness vs. compassion as a dichotomy also doesn’t compute . . . I should be so holy as to be possessed of unbridled compassion. Thank you christiankimball.
As for purity, it seems to me a very self-centered, even antisocial, focus. Like walking around town wearing a personal protective hazmat suit preventing you from close interaction and sharing experience with others.
Compassion is exactly the opposite, seeking shared experience.
A focus on purity culture invariably cements a connection between the member and the church–it makes the church essential. Telling people that God wants his children to love him and one does that by treating all his children with compassion and love removes the role of bishop as confessor, eventually makes the ordinances and temple attendance (in my mind purity rituals, as evidenced by the initial washing and anointing) less important and, over time, decreases tithe paying and the legitimacy of the organization. By elevating and separating the first commandment (this seems to require simply ignoring the phrase “like unto it,” which is a not insignificant but telling omission), however, and cementing the relationship between showing love for God and following the dictates of “his” church, there will always be a role for the church to play.
The primary objective of any successful, growing, wealthy organization is to preserve the organization. Everything else is kabuki.
After showing compassion to the woman taken in adultery, Jesus told her to go her way and sin no more. I interpret this as “obey the commandments and be holy or pure”. So He showed compassion first, but then afterward encouraged better behavior in the future.
I share this story because I think sometimes the lines get blurrred between compassion and acceptance/approval. Or more frequently I see disapproval being incorrectly called uncompassionate. It is obvious that Jesus did not accept or approve of the behavior of the woman taken in adultery, but He did show compassion on her. He was compassionate but disapproved of her lifestyle.
This is an interesting topic. When I’ve thought about it and tried to sort it out in my mind, I’ve used the words “Obedience and Love” instead of “Purity and Compassion” but same difference. Obedience and Love should not be mutually exclusive, but I can’t get my dumb mind to understand why so often they are. I’ve known lots of people who (I perceived) are very obedient but not very loving, and lots of people who are very loving but not very obedient. I’ve known very few people who (I thought) were both very obedient and very loving. That logically shouldn’t be the case. They should grow together, right?
But in my own life I notice the same thing. I once made a chart of my life with “Obedience” on the left and “Love” on the right, and “Obedience and Love” at the top, and it had two spindles. The goal to is get both spindles together at the top (meaning very good at Obedience and Love), and I can never do it. The more I focus on obedience, the less loving I become no matter how hard I try. It’s bizarre. So I set a new goal for myself, “Always make sure that my “Love” spindle is higher than my “Obedience” spindle”. I’m not great at either one, but I think making sure I’m focusing more on love than on obedience has served me well.
@bwbarnett, I think you’re reading a lot into that line that isn’t required by the text.
In any event – and we will get to this in a future post – if the woman was actually cheating on a spouse, the compassionate thing for her to do could be to stop doing that. So even that might not be about “purity” but about living in right relationship to others. We don’t know.
It’s probably worth mentioning that for people attuned to Borg’s work and thinking (as I am) reading Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time can leave you with the feeling that this is Truth revealed. Borg himself is careful to say this is only one part of the Gospel story, a part that is most relevant and apparent when we ask what was Jesus the man walking the foothills of Galilee really like, what did he really do as an itinerant Jewish preacher? However, according to Borg a much larger part of the Gospels and most all,of the rest of the New Testament is the priestly story, the deification of Jesus in a form that serves as the foundation for churches, for institutional religion. The difference between an ethic of compassion and an ethic of holiness can be described in private religion vs institutional religion terms. It’s clear to me that both are present in the scriptures. I know where my sympathies and attention lie, and I also know and expect any institutional church including ours to emphasize the other view.
@Elisa It seems like you’ve said a few times in other posts and just now in this one, that you will address a topic in a future post. Do you have a list of topics you will be posting about all planned out? I don’t have any “agenda” in asking, I was just curious is all.
And regarding your response above, you may be correct. It might not be about purity but about living right in relationship to others. If the translation is accurate though, it seems to lean more toward purity and obedience with the use of the phrase “sin no more”. My beef though is that sometimes people get called uncompassionate based solely on their disapproval of someone’s lifestyle. I’m sure there are some people who are disapproving and uncompassionate, but it’s inaccurate to blanketly categorize anyone who disapproves as uncompassionate. I believe the example I shared of Christ’s interaction with this woman demonstrates that, and that there are many who can learn a “compassion first” approach from this example.
@bwbarnett, for this post I had intended to go into specific commandments but it was getting long and I wanted to spend sufficient time on the paradigm overall. So “I will post on this another time” here is because the post is incomplete for now as far as what I’m interested in exploring with this topic.
I do have other ideas in my head but I don’t have a master plan :-).
I think Christian’s comment gives good perspective on why sometimes Jesus seems compassion-oriented and why other times he seems purity-oriented.
I get what you mean about disagreement too often being interpreted as lacking in compassion, although to be honest I don’t know what it means to “disapprove” of someone else’s lifestyle (as opposed to making choices about our own). It sounds too much to me like hate the sin, love the sinner, and IMO that never works out well. But maybe you have an example of what you mean by this.
The once-common expression of the purpose of the Church was threefold: perfect the Saints, proclaim the Gospel, and redeem the dead. Apparently as an afterthought, in 2009 “care for the poor and needy” was added to the list. This fourth mission never received much emphasis.
The temples both redeem the dead and perfect the Saints, as the Saints are supposed to be, well, Saintly to participate in the rites therein. The immense proselytizing force and other public relations serve to proclaim the Gospel. Humanitarian aid consumes some unknown resources, but seems more of an aside than a main mission of the Church.
It’s as if the Second Commandment receives short shrift.
@Elisa, On Borg’s holy v. compassionate:
A parallel conceptual construct would be commandment v. covenant, lower and higher laws.
Key: obedience is to commandment as responsibility is to covenant.
Unlock: Obedience and purity correspond to a commandment paradigm, whereas, responsibility and compassion [my brother’s keeper] corresponds to a [new/everlasting/restored] covenant paradigm.
Mary Douglas’ “Purity and Danger,” “Leviticus as Literature,” and “In the Wilderness,” might compliment Borg.
“[T]he true measure of our love . . . is to love without measure.” Father Greg Boyle
@trying to love, I LOVE Greg Boyle. Thanks for sharing that.
@travis I will check those resources out. I do think that’s a useful paradigm to think about, although I think purity rules are qualitatively different from compassion rules. So not sure it’s a lower / higher issue. Jesus seemed to think a lot of purity rules were just plain foolish, not just lower laws.
Another thought provoking post by Elisa with a bit of an aha moment for me. Borg’s perspective helps me see the meaning of the phrase that it is not that which enters the body, but that which comes out, that defiles a man, in a whole new light . Honestly, that phrase has bothered me for a long time, but now it makes more sense. This post definitely makes me want to read Borg.
@10ac, I’m pretty sure Borg uses that example in the book. There are a ton of examples of course that I didn’t include.
The book definitely challenges a lot of pre-existing ideas about Jesus but I thought it was really, really good and made a lot of Jesus’ teachings make sense that I previously didn’t understand.
Fascinating topic and comments. What I keep coming around to as I read is that the Jesus’ compassion is ultimately a function of Grace.
@jaredsbrother I’ve been thinking about your comment as well as @christiankimball’s re the “priestly” account in the New Testament and I think that’s very insightful. There’s a public / private divide that seems to align with purity / compassion focuses. One reason may be as you suggest to keep the institution meaningful to people (who depend on it for purification) and I’m wondering what other reasons may exist for this alignment.
Christ for me is an enigma. He was certainly a rebel. Otherwise, there was no need for a crucifixion. I suspect that a big concern was His partial rejection of a rule-based religion. And His emphasis on compassion, particularly for those people in the lower rungs of Jewish and Roman society.
I’ve never really understood the need for an Atonement. And for me, Christ’s miracles have little meaning.
I view Christ as a social activist. Someone who saw world conditions and wanted to make it a better place. That constitutes religion in it’s purist form. Obviously, since Christ’s crucifixion, a lot of unnecessary baggage has been added to Christianity and Mormonism. For example, the TR questions have little to do with living a Christ-like life. They are mostly rule based.
I wish the Church would dedicate itself to it’s 4th mission: assisting the poor. Isn’t this the best way to honor Christ’s life? I hope my personal religion is compassion based.
Purity, like many aspects of Mormonism, is an illusion. It’s a shared fiction that, at best, motivates members to better themselves towards a Platonic ideal and, at worst, acts as an unattainable measuring stick and source of shame used by the leadership as a system of control. But there is no such thing as purity. That’s not how humans work.
Compassion, on the hand, is absolutely real. It can be seen and felt and has real-world, real-time benefits to both the giver and recipient of help. It’s one of the many ways the church could heal itself by better aligning itself with reality and the present moment instead of imaginary worlds and nebulous hereafters.
It appears to me that the conflict between purity and compassion is rooted in our perspective about why we should be obedient (pure) and our role in helping people achieve it.
I personally don’t see any inherent value in obedience. The only value in keeping any commandment is the peace and joy that comes from living correctly, and avoiding the harm done to those around us when we don’t. If there is no empirical data to support that actions or behaviors lead to chaos or unhappiness, or harm, there is no commandment from God. I believe it therefore comes from men (or a church)
To cite bwbarret’s comment above about the women taken in adultery, the chaos introduced into her life and the lives of those around her from an adulterous affair preclude peace and joy, this I believe is the reason for the encouragement of Jesus. It is further enlightening to notice that the admonition to go and sin no more follows the removal of any judgement, not the other way around.
Fundamental to the discussion between purity and compassion seems to be a world view that influences the two camps:
Is a person more likely to change behaviors that bring chaos and unhappiness by condemning them and their actions? Or is that change more likely to come from unconditional love, acceptance, patience and kindness.
Each person must choose.
@robert love this.
Elisa, in my view there are no other reasons. The church has planted itself between members and God and made itself essential because of what it argues are necessary ordinances based on legitimate authority. I think that’s the whole ball game. So long as members buy into that–and I do think leaders are presenting the dynamic in good faith (no pun intended)– there will be a need for many to appear more pure, more devout, more Mormon. It seems like they’re hoping God will notice without acknowledging that God also sees hearts and minds. I’m of the belief, however, that if such a thing as a judgement exists, God will evaluate individually whether each person did the best they could. The unfortunate byproduct of the public purity parade is that it creates miserable people who think they are happy and lack self awareness. How to dispense with that? Build a culture of authenticity, in my opinion, by promoting values like compassion and love and not rewarding performative religion, which is not an easy task.
Truth is, I have always been biased against Marcus Borg because of his writings in connection with the Jesus Seminar. He, along with Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan, and others, come across as pretty arrogant, especially in their colored beads “voting” of which scriptures are authentic teachings of Jesus and which are not and should be discarded. To present 1st century Biblical scholarship research as a refined science where these so-called scholars can make such pronouncements is a sticky wicket indeed. Throwing out anything in the Bible that smacks of being miraculous is hardly new. Thomas Jefferson did the same thing. But they reject 80% of the sayings of Jesus, citing their PHD’s and scientific methods where there is so, so little substantial data to work with from 1st century Levant and Asia Minor, is problematic.
But I’m glad you found cool stuff in his personal writings.
Late to this, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post. It is well-written on an important topic. I will have to check out Borg. I had come to a similar framework recently, though with purity and justice. Purity is an aesthetic judgement at the end of the day. What we consider pure and what we think ought to be pure has no inherent relationship with moral questions. To do justly, however, I think you need to clearly examine circumstances and arguments about right and wrong. There can’t be justice without compassion, imo. Again, great post.
@seeker, I warn people I recommend Borg to that they will read things that challenge their concepts of Jesus AND that they don’t have to agree with him to find value in his work.
Borg doesn’t throw out all miracles but has criteria around the ones he accepts. He finds value, though, in all of the accounts of miracles whether he thinks they actually happened or not.
In fact, that’s one of the things I most value from Borg – he sets aside “did this happen or not” for the most part and instead focuses on what the story teaches us. I get that gets tricky with Jesus but at least he’s transparent.
“ Purity is an aesthetic judgement at the end of the day. What we consider pure and what we think ought to be pure has no inherent relationship with moral questions.”
Word up, Hanson. Purity is also largely performance.
Those obsessed w/ purity per se should start w/ section 89, particularly the part about eating meat: you’re killing things while simultaneously damaging body & planet. THAT’S THE REVELATION! Over the years the Brethren have jury-rigged this thing such that it bears no resemblance to original intent.
I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men. – D&C 64:10
From a scientific perspective, there is no such thing as purity. Even in the vacuum of deep space, quantum mechanics suggests a constant froth of random chaos. All we can strive for is “good enough”, and by “good” I mean adequately charitable to others to have brought a net benefit to the wellbeing of those we have come in contact with.
I tried to make a quick tally of people I know in my ward and stake who are very service oriented and full of compassion towards the needy in an out of the church. In the “compassion camp” are many orthodox members who are also trying very hard to live the purity standards and also some unorthodox members who are not interested in purity culture. So I think the two paradigms are naturally brought together in a fairly large percentage of LDS members. I think life is more complex than a dichotomy emphasized by an interesting academic. I personally don’t enjoy the purity culture aspect of the LDS church but I think there are many who can do compassion and purity.
@plvtime I agree that they often don’t conflict and people can do both. I do think there are areas where they conflict – primarily around gay marriage (necessary contradiction), emphasis on modesty over being a good person (not a necessary contradiction but one where purity gets emphasized more), etc.
With an apology for filling the comments section with yet another, and a long one to boot, I’d like to add the concluding part of my own private review of Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time, just to clarify that compassion vs purity is one important part of Borg’s lesson but not all and not even the most important for me.
“As a devotional, not a scholarly exposition, Borg’s ultimate objective in this book is to map out an alternate vision of the Christian life. Borg outlines what he sees as the three macro-stories of the Hebrew Bible: the exodus from Egypt; the exile and return from Babylon; and the institutional story of temple, priesthood, and sacrifice. The exodus from Egypt is a story of bondage, liberation, journey, destination. The exile and return is a story of separation, powerlessness, marginality, victimization, separation from home, and a journey of return. “[I]n the wilderness prepare the way of Yahweh, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Two journey stories. By contrast, the priestly story of temple, priesthood, organization, and sacrifice, can appear as a story of sin, guilt, impurity, uncleanness, and sacrifice and forgiveness. In this third story we may feel less journeyers finding our way home and more sinners seeking redemption.
“Borg does not reject the priestly story. He finds that third story, as well as the exodus and the exile, in teachings of the historic Jesus. However, he finds fault in Christian churches making the priestly story the dominant or only story. When the priestly story is the only story Christian life becomes a repeated cycle of sin, guilt, repentance, forgiveness. It becomes a life of being told what to do, what to believe, who God is, what comes next. The priestly story is “politically domesticating.” It directs attention to the afterlife instead of solving human problems in this life.
“By contrast, when the priestly story is viewed as one of the important stories, through the lens of Jesus as sacrifice, for Borg it means that “our own sense of sin, impurity, and guilt need not stand between us and God. It means that new beginnings are possible; we do not need to be held in bondage by the burden of our past.” In that way the priestly story becomes a third journey story. As with the exodus and the exile, it speaks of alienation and distance and the possibility of return. In that form, return is less like washing clean and more like re-engaging in a relationship. It’s less about a church official offering absolution and more like the father welcoming his prodigal son to the feast set in his honor.
“Borg’s model of a Christian life is journeying with Jesus. Eating at his table and experiencing his banquet. In Borg’s terms, his own journey led beyond belief, and beyond doubt and disbelief, to an understanding of the Christian life as a relationship with God or the risen living Christ or the Spirit, in whom we live and move and have our being.
@christiankimball that’s a great review & additional context. For me, purity and compassion is what unlocked many of Jesus’s teachings and practices that had been inscrutable to me and so really stuck with me. But the other themes Borg touches on are very insightful as well.
Ultimately Borg’s concept of religion and faith as relationship rather than a set of beliefs is very compelling to me and has saved Christianity for me.
About 10 years ago I was refused a TR because I would not agree that “obedience is the first law of heaven”, I said Christ had said 1 & 2 were to love God and our fellow man.
Haven’t heard obedience is the first law of heaven but the sentiment doesn’t seem to have changed.
I just don’t think God is love. Any more than I think Jesus is love. We are a product of God, an investment if you will. Unless he wants to lose the product, he has to take certain steps. Those steps involve some type of rule breaking regarding justice. Or God isn’t just, which is more likely. Love has nothing to do with it. He’s just taking care of his investment.
I think of it more in terms of how parents sacrifice for their children. Certainly there’s a sense of investment in those sacrifices–but we have to ask ourselves what the “payoff” really is. Is it parents rejoicing in their own aggrandizement through the success of their children? Or might it be rejoicing in the success of their children for their *children’s* sake. I believe what God is doing looks more like the latter of the two. And if so–then God must be motivated first and foremost by love. Because love’s greatest desire is to seek the happiness and wellbeing of others.
This is a fascinating post, Elisa. Thanks for highlighting this dichotomy. I haven’t actually read Jonathan Haidt, but from what little I know, I wonder if there’s any relationship between the purity vs. compassion in a religious sense that you’re talking about and the interest in purity that’s common on the political right but not so much on the political left vs. the focus on fairness that’s bigger on the political left than right. Really, I’m just throwing this idea out (very late, I know) in case someone who knows the ideas better wants to explain if there’s any relationship.
Love this post.