In the early 00’s when I was noodling around with how to think in contemporary terms about Christianity, I happened upon The Heart of Christianity and became an admirer of Marcus Borg. Quite apart from the content of his progressive Christian message, I found him an extraordinarily gifted teacher. He knew the value of providing context for content, never assuming his readers already knew anything. He was particularly deft at exploring the unexamined assumptions most of us have about religion in this largely secular age.
At the time I was working as a restaurant cook and considering becoming a priest. I had read poets and apologists, theologians and an assorted grab bag of writers on Christian spirituality but had not put any of that into my own words. It was my fellow cooks and Marcus Borg who helped me begin to do that.
As all restaurant people know, important personal issues are always and invariably worked out, cried out, yelled out in the walk-in (refrigerator) because it is insulated (and sort of soundproof) and the only semi-private space available. When my fellow cooks learned of my intention to enter into a process of discernment for holy orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, one by one they finagled it so that we would be in the walk-in together.
“Why? Why do you want to be a priest? Have you lost your mind? How can you believe in that nonsense?” they asked. They knew me as a lively, level-headed if slightly geeky, secular person. So this religion stuff was coming out of left field. But how to explain myself and how to do it when we’re in a very cold space and there isn’t much time? Marcus Borg taught me to begin with them. He taught me how to unpack assumptions.
“How can you believe in God?” they’d ask. And following Borg, I’d ask, “tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” I heard about their suffering and how they couldn’t believe in a God who allowed such misery to happen. “I don’t believe in that God, either,” I’d say. “I don’t like how God is so judgmental,” they’d say. After I heard their examples and the hurt it had caused, I’d answer, “I don’t believe in that God either.” Slowly, over the weeks in the cold of that walk-in, I learned to articulate what I didn’t and what I did believe, how to answer deep questions with stories from my own life and how to listen to their stories for their own truths. I learned the value of narrative, questioning, mystery, gentleness, trust.
It was a rich crash course in learning to talk to people about serious matters. Thank you, Marcus Borg. May you rest in peace and rise in glory.