The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2010-04-27
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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Answering the many "spiritual" questions left unaddressed by such popular historical bestsellers as A History of God and God: A Biography, renowned author Marcus Borg reveals how to embrace an authentic contemporary faith that reconciles God with science, critical thinking and religious pluralism. How to have faith--how to even think about God--without having to stifle modern rationality is one of the most vital challenges facing contemporary religion. In providing a much-needed solution to the problem of how to have a fully authentic yet fully contemporary understanding of God, Borg--author of the bestselling Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time--traces his personal journey. He leads readers from the all-powerful and authoritarian God of his (and their) childhood and traditional faith to an equally powerful but dynamic image of God that is relevant to contemporary seekers and more biblical and spiritually authentic. Borg shows how the modern crisis of faith is itself rooted in delusion--misinterpretation of biblical texts and of God's true nature--and challenges readers to a new way of thinking about God. He opens a practical discussion about how to base a relationship with the divine both immanent and transcendant, here and now, always and everywhere. Arguing that the authentic Judeo-Christian tradition is that God's being includes the whole world, Borg persuasively shows how this understanding accounts for the whole variety of human religious experience. Ultimately, he introduces readers to a way of thinking about God who is "right here" all around them, rather than distant and remote. This understanding is more intellectually and spiritually satisfying and allows readers to reclaim a stronger sense of God's presence.

Author Biography

Marcus J. Borg, is Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University and author of many books.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. VII
Introductionp. I
Meeting God Again for the First Time
Thinking About God
Thinking About God: The God I Met the First Timep. 11
Thinking About God: Why Panentheism?p. 32
Imaging God
Imaging God: Why and How It Mattersp. 57
Imaging God: Jesus and Godp. 84
Living with God
Opening to God: The Heart of Spiritualityp. 111
The Dream of God: A Politics of Compassionp. 132
Salvation: What on Earth Do We Mean?p. 156
Indexp. 179
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.


The God We Never Knew
Beyond Dogmatic Religion To A More Authenthic Contemporary FaithHow are we to think of God? Some intellectual questions may not matter much, but this one has major consequences. What is our concept of God (or the sacred, or Spirit, terms that I use interchangeably)? By "concept of God," I simply mean what we have in mind when we use the word God. All of us have some concept of God, whether vague or precise and whether we are believers or nonbelievers.

My central claim is very direct: our concept of God matters.It can make God seem credible or incredible, plausible or highly improbable. It can also make God seem distant or near, absent or present. How we conceptualize God also affects our sense of what the Christian life is about. Is the Christian life centrally about believing, or is it about a relationship? Is it about believing in God as a supernatural being separate from the universe or about a relationship to the Spirit who is right here and all around us? Is it about believing in a God "out there" or about a relationship with a God who is right here?

In this chapter, I will introduce two different "root concepts" for thinking about God. Both are found in the Bible and the Christian tradition. They are fundamentally different. The first conceptualizes God as a supernatural being "out there," separate from the world, who created the world a long time ago and who may from time to time intervene within it. In an important sense, this God is not "here" and thus cannot be known or experienced but only believed in (which, within the logic of this concept, is what "faith" is about). I will call this way of thinking about God "supernatural theism." Widespread within Christianity, it is perhaps what a majority of people (both believers and nonbelievers) think of when they think of God. Some accept the existence of such a being, and some reject it. But it is the notion of God as a supernatural being "out there" that is being accepted or rejected.

The second root concept of God in the Christian tradition thinks of God quite differently. God is the encompassing Spirit; we (and everything that is) are in God. For this concept, God is not a supernatural being separate from the universe; rather, God (the sacred, Spirit) is a nonmaterial layer or level or dimension of reality all around us. God is more than the universe, yet the universe is in God. Thus, in a spatial sense, God is not "somewhere else" but "right here." I will call this concept of God "panentheism." This way of thinking about God is found among many of the most important voices in the Christian theological tradition.

Both concepts of God have nourished Christian lives through the centuries. For most of that time, the majority of Christians thought of God within the framework of supernatural theism. There is nothing wrong with this. Thinking of God as a supernatural being "out there" is the natural inference from many biblical passages, as well as the natural language of worship and devotion. And for most Christians until recently, this posed no serious problem. But in our time, thinking of God as a supernatural being "out there" has become an obstacle for many. It can make the reality of God seem doubtful, and it can make God seem very far away. And many people are not aware that there is a second root concept of God within the Christian tradition--namely, panentheism.

So it was for me. Though I did not know about panentheism as another Christian option for thinking about God until I was in my thirties, it has since become of utmost importance. It resolved the central religious and intellectual problem of the first three decades of my life. Indeed, becoming aware of panentheism made it possible for me to be a Christian again. The story of my own Christian and spiritual journey thus involves the movement from supernatural theism through doubt and disbelief to panentheism. The God I have met as an adult is the God I never knew growing up in the church.

Gropwing Up Christian

My own story of how I met God the first time begins in a Lutheran church in a small town in northeastern North Dakota in the 1940s.There I received a way of thinking about God that for a long time shaped what I thought being a Christian meant.

God and church were important in my town of 1,400 people. Most of us were Lutherans or Catholics. A few belonged to Episcopal, Baptist, and Federated congregations. But I can't recall knowing anybody who wasn't a member of a church. In this sense, the small-town world of my childhood was still the world of Christendom: everybody was Christian.

My earliest memories of God are associated with Our Savior's Lutheran Church. It was a white wood-frame building, with the sanctuary on the main floor and Sunday school rooms in the basement, where church suppers were also held. We attended every Sunday, and my parents were among the lay pillars of the congregation. My siblings, already in high school when I was a preschooler, sang in the choir.

Many of my early memories of God are connected with the music of our worship services. Each Sunday, we sang "Holy, Holy, Holy" as the opening hymn. Its verses created a vivid sense of two realities, God in heaven and us on earth.

Its first verse spoke of us here on earth "early in the morning" gathered for worship of the thrice-holy three-personed God:

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty,

Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;

Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty,

God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

In the second verse, we were taken to heaven, where those who had died joined heavenly beings in adoration of God:

Holy, holy, holy, all the saints adore Thee,

Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;

Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,

Which wert, and art, and evermore shall be.

Its third verse spoke of why we on earth did not see God:

Holy, holy, holy, though the darkness hide Thee,

Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see;

Only thou art holy; there is none beside Thee,

Perfect in power, in love and purity.

The contrast between us and God's holiness, power, love, and purity was strong; seeing with "the eye of sinful man," we lived in a darkness of our own making.

Almost as frequently we sang the great seventeenth-century German Lutheran hymn of praise extolling God as lord and king:

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!

O my soul, praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation!

All ye who hear,

Now to His temple draw near,

Join me in glad adoration.

The hymn that we sang as the collection plates were brought forward combined thanksgiving and gratitude:

Now thank we all our God,

With heart and hands and voices.

Who wondrous things hath done,

In whom His world rejoices.

Who from our mother's arms

Hath blessed us on our way

With countless gifts of love,

And still is ours today.

The most solemn moment for me each Sunday morning was provided by a short piece of music sung by the choir:

The Lord is in his holy temple;

Let all the earth keep silence before him.

I do not know why these words, and the somber mood in which they were sung, so affected me. I only know that they did.

Our celebrations of Christmas and Easter created a strong association in my mind between God and the wondrous. Christmas was filled with wonders: the special star, the wise men, the holy birth in the stable, the angels singing to the shepherds. I recall one Christmas Eve when
as the sun was setting, I thought that maybe if I looked really hard, I would see the Star of Bethlehem.

The music of Christmas was magic:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

Let earth receive her king!

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie . . .

Silent night, holy night; all is calm, all is bright . . .

Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king!

My favorite was a solo my sister sang: "O holy night, the stars are brightly shining; it is the night of our dear Savior's birth."

Easter also had its wonders: the empty tomb, the angels, Jesus appearing to his startled followers. "Christ the Lord is risen today," we sang with as much volume as our Scandinavian hearts could manage. And as we sang "Up from the grave he arose," our voices ascended the musical scale as the body of Jesus rose from the dead. God and the wondrous went hand in hand.The God We Never Knew
Beyond Dogmatic Religion To A More Authenthic Contemporary Faith
. Copyright © by Marcus J. Borg. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from God We Never Knew Pb: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith by Marcus J. Borg
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