St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary
The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, by Marcus Borg
Preface and Chapter 6 and 7:
“Born Again: A New Heart” and
“The Kingdom of God: The Heart of Justice”
> Learn more about Marcus Borg: click HERE
Discussion Led By Mike Kreutzer
Sunday, April 24, 2005
The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith by Marcus Borg
(San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004)
Session 4, April 24 and 27, 2005
Chapter Six — Born Again: A New Heart
103 “the Christian life as a relational and transformational vision”; “the two transformations at the heart of the Christian life: the individual-spiritual-personal and the communal-social- political.”
105-110 “being born again” // “dying and rising”; a radical transformation
109-111 Dying and Rising in Paul’s Letters
“Embodied in a ritual, baptism symbolizes the internal transformation of dying to an old way of being and birth into a new way of being. Death and resurrection – being born again – as a metaphor for perpetual transformation is the foundation for Paul’s shorthand phrase for naming the new life. It is life ‘in Christ.'”
111 Dying and Rising in the Gospel of John
“Just as Jesus is the ‘Word made flesh,’ so he is ‘the way’ made flesh, the path embodied in a life… For John, as for the New Testament generally, ‘the way’ embodied in Jesus is the path of death and resurrection. Dying and rising is the only way to God.”
112-113 The Cross and Being Born Again
“Sometimes this internal process of dying is spoken of as a ‘dying to self’ or the ‘death of the self”… ‘Dying to self’ has been used to encourage the repression of the self and its legitimate desire. Oppressed people, in society and in the family, have often been told to put their own selves last out of obedience to God. When thus understood, the message of the cross becomes an instrument of oppressive authority and self-abdication. But the cross is the means of our liberation and reconnection. It is not about the subjugation of the self, but about a new self… of an old and new identity and way of being.”
119-123 “Being born again is the work of the Spirit. Whether it happens suddenly or gradually, we can’t make it happen, either by strong desire and determination or by learning and believing the right beliefs. But we can be intentional about being born again. Though we can’t make it happen, we can midwife the process. This is the purpose of spirituality: to help birth the new self and nourish the new life.”
“For Jesus, the primary quality of a life centered in God is compassion.”
Chapter Seven — The Kingdom of God: the Heart of Justice
126 “The Bible is political as well as personal. It combines sharp political criticism and passionate political advocacy: radical criticism of systems of domination and impassioned advocacy of an alternative social vision.”
127-129 The biblical emphasis on God’s justice has been neglected for several reasons.
· “the ‘powers that be’ were Christian.”
· “a common misunderstanding of God’s justice”; “Most often in the Bible, the opposite of God’s justice is not God’s mercy, but human injustice.”
· “our culture is dominated by an ethos of individualism”
· “We more easily recognize the negative impact of systems on human lives in retrospect.”
“The test of the justice of systems is their impact on human lives. To what extent do they lead to human flourishing and to what extent to human suffering?”
129-131 The Hebrew Bible; three characteristics of pre-modern domination systems:
· “They were politically oppressive.”
· “They were economically exploitative.”
· “They were religiously legitimated.”
131-138 The New Testament
“The Kingdom of God” is a political metaphor. “it is what life would be on earth if God were king and the rulers of this world were not.”
“the kingdom of God for Jesus was something for the earth.”
“the best-known Christian prayer names the two central material concerns of peasant life in the time of Jesus. The coming of God’s Kingdom involves bread and debt forgiveness.”
“God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
138-145 Meanings for Our Time
Consciousness-raising in the Church
Advocacy of God’s Justice
“the politics of the Kingdom. It would be a politics suspicious of the way wealthy and and powerful classes use their power and wealth to structure systems largely in their own interest. Elites have always been very good at that. It would be a politics concerned not with privilege, but with compassion for ‘the least of these.'”
“Militarily, we are the world’s superpower. We are also the world’s major economic power. The combination of global military and economic power is the defining characteristic of empire. We are the Rome of our time.
“The perennial temptation of empire is the overuse and misuse of imperial power. We need to be as thoughtful, responsible and creative as possible in the use of our power, for it can be used in two very different ways. We can use it to try to control the world in our self-interest, to structure the system so that it serves us, to impose our will on the world. Or we can use it to build up. We can use our power with the world’s well-being in mind rather than primarily our own.”
Here is a related article for suggested reading by G. John, as authored by religious scholar, Karen Armstrong:
Psychologist Carl Jung once said that a great deal of institutional religion seems designed to prevent the faithful from having a spiritual experience. Instead of teaching people how to live in peace, religious leaders often concentrate on marginal issues: Can women or gay people be ordained as priests or rabbis? Is contraception permissible? Is evolution compatible with the first chapter of Genesis? Instead of bringing people together, these distracting preoccupations actually encourage policies of exclusion, since they tend to draw attention to the differences between “us” and “them.”
These policies of exclusion can have dramatic consequences. Most notably they have given rise to the militant piety that we call fundamentalism, which erupted in every major world religion during the 20th century. Every fundamentalist movement, whether in Judaism, Christianity. or Islam, is convinced that the modern secular- establishment vents to destroy it. Fundamentalism is not inherently violent; most fundamentalists simply want to live what they regard as a good religious life in a world that seems increasingly hostile to faith. But when a conflict has become entrenched in a region,-as in the Middle East. Afghanistan, and Chechnya,-religious fundamentalists have gotten sucked into the escalating violence and become part of the problem. Even in the United States members of the Christian Right believe that their faith is in jeopardy- and that they have a sacred duty to protect it by attacking their liberal opponents. When people feel that their backs are to the wall, they often lash out aggressively. Hence the hatred that continues to cause so much turmoil around the world.
Yet such religiously inspired hatred represents a major defeat for religion. That’s because, at their core, all the great world faiths-including Confucianism, Hinduism. Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-agree on the supreme importance of compassion. The early sages and prophets all taught their followers to cultivate a habit of empathy for all living beings.
Why, then, do supposedly “religious” leaders declare war in God’s name? And why do some people use “God” to give a sacred seal of approval to their own opinions?
I would argue that these people have forgotten what it means to practice compassion. The word compassion does not, of course, mean to feel sorry for someone. Like sympathy it means to feel with others, to enter their point of view and realize that they have the same fears and sorrows as yourself.
The essential dynamic of compassion is summed up in the golden rule, first enunciated by Confucius in about 500 B.C.E.: “Do not do to others as you would not have done to you.” Confucius taught his disciples to get into the habit of shu: “likening to oneself.” They had to look into their own hearts, discover what gave them pain, and then rigorously refrain from inflicting this suffering upon other people.
The Buddha also taught a version of the golden rule. He used to advise his monks and lay followers to undertake meditative exercises called The Immeasurables. They had to send out positive thoughts of compassion, benevolence, and sympathy to the four corners of the earth, not omitting a single creature (even a mosquito!) from this radius of concern. They would thus find that once they had gone beyond the limiting confines of egotism and self-interest, their humanity had been enhanced. They would even have intimations of infinity.
Rabbi Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus, taught the golden rule in a particularly emphatic way. One day a heathen asked him to sum up the whole of Jewish teaching while standing on one leg. Hillel stood on one leg and replied: “‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn it!-This is an extraordinary statement. Hillel did not mention any of the doctrines that seem essential to Judaism, such as belief in one God, the Exodus from Egypt, and adherence to the complexities of the Law of Moses. Jesus taught the golden rule in this way: he told his followers to love even their enemies and never to Judge or retaliate. If somebody struck them on the face, they must turn the other cheek. In his parable of the Last Day, when the King comes to judge the world, those who enter the kingdom do not do so because they have adopted orthodox theology or observed the correct sexual mores, but because the\- have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, and visited the sick and criminals in prison. St. Paul agreed. Christians could have faith that moved mountains, but if they lacked charity it was worth nothing.
Islam is also committed to the compassionate ethic. The bedrock message of the Koran is an insistence that it is wrong to build up a private fortune, and good to share your wealth fairly in order to create a just and decent society where poor and vulnerable people are treated with respect. On the Last Day the one question that God will ask Muslims is whether they have looked after the widows, the orphans, and the oppressed, and if they have not, they cannot enter Paradise.
Why was there such unanimous agreement on the primacy of compassion? Truly religious people are pragmatic. The early prophets and sages did not preach the discipline of empathy because it sounded edifying, but because experience showed that it worked. They discovered that greed and selfishness were the cause of our personal misery. When we gave them up, we were happier. Egotism imprisoned us in an inferior version of ourselves and impeded our enlightenment.
The safest way of combating ego was to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put others there. Perhaps one can explain it this way: we are programmed for self-defense; human beings completed their biological evolution during the Paleolithic Period, when they became hunters. Aggression is thus deeply written into our nature. If we make a consistent habit of countering this aggression, we probably do experience a change of consciousness.
Human beings by nature seek ecstasy, a word that comes from the Greek ekstasis, meaning “to stand outside” the self. If we do not fund ecstasy in religion, we turn to art, music, dance, sex, sports, even drugs, But such rapture can only be temporary. Religious leaders claim that the practice of the golden rule can give us an experience of ecstasy that is deeper and more permanent. if every time we are tempted to speak unkindly of an annoying colleague, a sibling, or an enemy country we asked how we would like such a thing said of ourselves, and, as a result o€ this reflection, desisted, in that moment we would transcend our ego. Living in this way, day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, we would enjoy a constant, slow-burning ecstasy that leaves the self behind. The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once remarked that when we put ourselves at the opposite pole of ego, we are in the place where God is.
The practice of compassion has to be consistent; it does not work if it is selective. If, as Jesus explained, we simply love those who are well disposed toward us, no effort is involved: we are simply banking up our own egotism and remain trapped in the selfishness that we are supposed to transcend. That, I think, is why Jesus demanded that his followers love their enemies. They were required to feel with people who would never feel affection for them, and extend their sympathy without expecting any benefit for themselves.
Does that mean that we are supposed to “love” Hitler or Osama bin Laden? The practice of compassion has nothing to do with feelings. According to the 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, what we call love simply requires that we seek the good of another. If we allow our rage and hatred to fester, this would not hurt our enemies-it would probably gratify them-but we ourselves would be diminished. Anger is what the Buddha called an “unskillful” emotion. Peelings of rage are natural, but if they are indulged they are unhelpful, since they often proceed from an inflated sense of our own importance.
I have noticed, however, that compassion is not a popular virtue. In my lectures I have sometimes seen members of the audience glaring at me mutinously: where is the fun of religion if you can’t disapprove of other people! There are some people, I suspect, who would feel obscurely cheated if, when they finally arrived in heaven, they found everybody else there as well. Heaven would not be heaven unless those who reached it could peer over the celestial parapets and watch other unfortunates roasting below.
We need training in compassion because it does not come to us naturally: The ancient Greeks knew this. Even year, on the festival of Dionysus, Athenian citizens watched tragedies written by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and other play-wrights. It was a course in empathy. Suffering was put on stage, and the audience was able to weep for people whom they normally would have considered beyond the pale.
These tragedies were part of a religious festival; they were designed to make the audience extend their sympathy to people such as Oedipus, who murdered his father and had incestuous relations with his mother, or Heracles, who in a fit of divinely inspired madness killed his wife and children. These powerful dramas gave people a liberating purification of the emotions that helped transform the horror and disgust inspired by these human tragedies into compassion. We need to find similarly imaginative ways to educate people today.
The history of each faith tradition represents a ceaseless struggle between our inherent tendency to aggression and the mitigating virtue of compassion. Religiously inspired hatred has caused unimaginable suffering around the world. But secularism has had its failures too. Auschwitz, the Gulag, and the regime of Saddam Hussein show the fearful cruelty to which humanity is prone when all sense of the sacred has been lost.
None of these atrocities could have taken place if people were properly educated in the simplest of all principles, the golden rule. We live in one world, and we have to learn to reach out in sympathy to people who have different opinions, at home and abroad. We need the compassionate ethic more desperately than ever before.
Former nun turned religious scholar Karen Armstrong is the author of The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) and Buddha (Penguin, 2001).