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  • Behnaz Moludy

Dynamic Dialogues

Updated: Sep 26, 2023


Dynamic Dialogues: Exploring Faith and Reason through the Theological Lens of Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright

By: Behnaz Moludy

Interdiction

Sigmund Freud, a seminal figure in psychology, emphatically underscored that the realm of individual human psychology is fundamentally intertwined with the broader social environment. In his meticulous exploration, Freud illuminated the intricate pathways through which an individual seeks to gratify their instinctual impulses. However, it is only within the confines of extraordinary circumstances that individual psychology can disentangle itself from the complex web of relationships that bind the individual to others. Intriguingly, the mental landscape of an individual is invariably populated by the presence of others – be it as role models, objects of desire, aiding allies, or even as adversarial forces. This intricate interplay leads us to grasp that, in a profound and justifiable sense, individual psychology is inextricably enmeshed with social psychology from its very inception. ”1


Within the realm of contemporary theology, few concepts bear as much weight and generate as much contention as the notion of divine revelation. This engrossing theme traverses the authority vested in Holy Scripture and the validity attributed to sacred writings. The vast expanse of this field has birthed an impressive array of books, treatises, and articles, collectively striving to unravel its intricacies from multifarious vantage points within the tapestry of contemporary theological discourse.


The legacy of the Enlightenment era, ushering in the reign of critical thought, combined with the ascendancy of modernity's tenets in Western intellectual paradigms, wrought a seismic shift. It called into question any semblance of authority that did not emanate from the bastion of human reason. In this epoch, the Holy Bible, a sanctified repository of theological wisdom and a cornerstone of Christian faith, found itself besieged by the most trenchant criticisms.

The progenitors of Enlightenment ideals, driven by their incisive cognitive faculties, ruthlessly set aside any facet of knowledge that failed to align with their stringent standards of rationality. In this unrelenting pursuit of rational validity, the venerable authority and authenticity of the Holy Bible – a text traditionally viewed as transcending human comprehension within ecclesiastical and Christian doctrinal contexts – bore the brunt of skepticism and derision.


This intellectual battleground assumed a posture of paramount importance, particularly within the domain of Protestant theology. Unlike the Catholic Church, which draws from the wellspring of tradition and the Aristotelian rationale, exemplified in the philosophical edifice of Thomas Aquinas, Protestant theological edifices are securely anchored solely to the bedrock of the Holy Bible. This foundational principle is succinctly encapsulated in the clarion call of the Reformation era: "Sola Scriptura" – Scripture alone.


The dialectic between the juggernaut of modernity and the bastions of orthodox Christianity ushered in a transformative epoch. Certain theological luminaries, attuned to the zeitgeist of their times, laid the groundwork for what would be recognized as liberal theology. This theological stream unabashedly challenged the hallowed authority of the Holy Bible. Conversely, a parallel cohort of Christian theologians undertook the formidable task of recontextualizing orthodox Christian tenets within the contours of modern thought.

Within this expansive panorama, the theological oeuvres of Marcus Borg and NT Wright emerge as beacon lights. While unquestionably occupying a pivotal space within contemporary theological discourse, these luminaries are equally inheritors of their historical epochs. Their perspectives bear the indelible imprints of the sociopolitical vicissitudes, economic currents, and social dynamics that punctuated the modern era. Notably, the effervescent fervor of the Liberation theology movement in Latin America inflected their philosophical foundations with distinctive hues.


For an exhaustive comprehension and nuanced appraisal of the article at hand, an expedition into the intricate realms of interpretation, exegesis, and hermeneutics as expounded by these distinguished theologians is paramount. This intellectual odyssey necessitates an exploration of their foundational paradigms, their corpus of literary contributions, and the profound insights encapsulated in their myriad articles. This scholarly sojourn promises to unveil the unique cognitive contours that underpin the ideational tapestries woven by each luminary.



Marcus Borg: A Paradigm of Liberal Theological Interpretation

As aptly noted by The New York Times, Marcus J. Borg occupies a pivotal position as a biblical scholar who masterfully popularized a liberal intellectual approach to Christianity, particularly through his insightful lectures and illuminating books that shed new light on Jesus as a historical figure.2


The roots of liberal biblical interpretation can be traced back to the late 18th and 19th centuries, an epoch characterized by the emergence of rationalist thinkers who engaged in profound discourse critiquing the Bible and its Christian teachings. Their discourse boldly questioned the validity of miracles and supernatural occurrences documented in the sacred text. At the heart of this intellectual upheaval lies the magnum opus, "The Life of Jesus Critically Examined," penned by the German theologian David Friedrich Strauss (1874-1808). This seminal work systematically challenged the historical authenticity of supernatural events chronicled in the Gospels, asserting that these occurrences were in fact mythic narratives and legends that took root in the period spanning the demise of Jesus and the composition of the Gospels during the second century AD. 3Some, such as Arthur Drews, took an even more audacious stance in his 1910 publication "The Christ Myth," positing that the entirety of the Bible is a work of fiction.


Within this intellectual milieu, Markus Borg strides forth, treading the same theological path that aligns with the tenets of liberal theology. He candidly states, "I find myself saying about holy sites associated with Jesus, 'well, it probably didn’t happen here' or 'Well, it probably didn’t happen at all'." 4 This approach, reminiscent of Kantian philosophy and the Enlightenment era, emphasizes the human and moral dimensions of Christianity while sidelining the metaphysical and supernatural aspects. This trajectory reflects a decisive break from the metaphysical scaffolding of classical theology, a rupture that was ushered in by the Enlightenment's vigorous dismantling of antiquated metaphysical paradigms.5

Borg's theology gravitates toward the elevated ethical teachings of Jesus, eschewing explicit references to Jesus as the divine Son of God. In his theological tapestry, Jesus assumes the role of an extraordinary pedagogue of love and morality. His mission transcends the mere dissemination of moral teachings; rather, he aspires to engender a moral transformation in every individual.


It is noteworthy that Borg exercises caution, navigating a middle path between the extremities of liberal theology. He consciously veers away from the radical positions advocated by figures like Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), a leading figure in liberal theology who undertook a pivotal role in debunking the moral depiction of Jesus prevalent in the 19th century. Schweitzer's portrayal of Jesus relegates him to the status of a religious preacher and even a flawed politician.


Borg's hermeneutic methodology in interpreting both the Old and New Testaments showcases his distinctive penchant for delving into non-metaphysical dimensions of sacred texts. His rationale for this emphasis lies in the Bible's foundation on historical narrative. Furthermore, he contends that these texts, though tethered to historical reality, often transcend this realm to unveil deeper insights rarely plumbed by contemporary scholarship.


This nuanced theological stance crystallizes Borg's view that religious texts, albeit grounded in the historical context, often possess profound allusions to a spiritual reality that eludes the scrutiny of empirical research. His hermeneutic endeavors lean into the examination of the world as it is perceived and the world as it is symbolically hinted at, weaving a textured tapestry of interpretation that bridges these realms. 6


As one engages with this article, the overarching impression of Borg's theology crystallizes. His theological ethos appears to divest Jesus of his divine status, reimagining him as a historical sage. In this paradigm, biblical narratives emerge as reflective of the disciples' theological perspectives, shaping the contours of the texts. This divergence becomes even more pronounced when juxtaposed with the theological standpoint of Bishop Wright, who offers an alternative vista on the role of Jesus within the tapestry of Christianity.


NT Wright: Illuminating Pathways in New Testament Scholarship



N.T. Wright, or Tom Wright, emerges as an eminent luminary within the realm of New Testament studies. A profound Christian scholar and esteemed senior researcher, his intellectual prowess has found expression in an extensive corpus of over seventy books spanning a diverse spectrum of academic disciplines. Yet, it is not merely within academia that Wright's impact is felt; his oeuvre encompasses practical dimensions of Christian life and spirituality, enriching the theological discourse with a dynamic blend of erudition and pastoral sensitivity. As an ordained Anglican clergyman, Wright's journey in the ecclesiastical realm culminated in a distinguished tenure as the bishop of the Diocese of Durham 7, a role that endowed him with a unique vantage point from which to comprehend the intricacies of Christian ministry.


Unlike Markus Borg, whose theological proclivities lean resolutely towards the realm of liberal theology, Wright charts a nuanced theological course that transcends facile classification. His theological landscape, while not overtly orthodox, presents a multifaceted panorama that occasionally diverges from conventional orthodoxy. The complexity of Wright's stance is evident in his contemplation of Chalcedon – a theological watershed. His reflections, marked by a delicate balance of skepticism and reverence, characterize Chalcedon as resonating with an element akin to a "confidence trick," encompassing implications that reverberate throughout history. Notwithstanding these intriguing excursions, the overarching trajectory of his theological orientation aligns with the steadfast defense of the church's faith. 8

Wright's intellectual journey sharply diverges from Borg's, embarking upon an alternative trajectory that eschews the traditional debates concerning biblical inerrancy. With remarkable finesse, he sidesteps the realm of scientific and archaeological proofs that frequently underpin discourses on the Bible's authenticity. In doing so, Wright deftly eludes the confines that Enlightenment thought and modernity have historically imposed upon theological discourse. Instead, he ventures into unexplored domains, pioneering a novel perspective that elevates the discourse to a heightened echelon.


Traversing the annals of historical debate surrounding the Bible's centrality in Christian life, Wright introduces a paradigm-shifting proposition. He contends that the divine intention is for the written word, the Bible, to be the preeminent conduit through which God reveals Himself. Within this narrative tapestry, the word of God emerges not merely as a static textual record, but as a dynamic medium through which the Divine communicates His divine will and cosmic plan to humanity. This assertion reimagines the word of God as an active agent of divine engagement, shaping human history and purpose.


The narrative of Jesus Christ, within Wright's theological vista, serves as a pivotal lens through which to fathom the complex milieu of first-century Judaism. Wright's methodology navigates the intersection of textual analysis, archaeological evidence, historical documentation, and the foundational framework provided by the Gospels. However, he posits that a holistic understanding of Jesus' historical context mandates a more comprehensive exploration. His insistence on scrutinizing contemporaneous historical sources, including the writings of Flavius Josephus, lends depth to his approach. Wright recognizes that comprehending the nuances of first-century Judaism demands a panoramic approach that extends beyond textual analysis, embracing archaeological findings, historical context, and the intellectual milieu of the era.


Navigating the labyrinthine depths of first-century Judaism proves a formidable task, replete with intricate complications. Wright acknowledges the disjunction between the questions that animate contemporary discourse and those that pervaded the minds of first-century Jews. In this vein, he peels back layers of history to illuminate a worldview framed by distinct concerns, yielding a multifaceted understanding of that epoch.


Emerging from this historical odyssey, Wright accentuates the transformative potency of the word of God. For him, the Bible serves as a conduit through which divine power advances God's Kingdom in the world. This theological orientation propels him to assert, "I propose, then, a no-holds-barred history on the one hand and a no-holds-barred faith on the other."9

Within Wright's paradigm, the word of God reverberates across epochs, fueling the ongoing process of divine creation. His theological framework resonates with the notion that God's creative enterprise extends through His word. In his varied works, the underlying themes elucidated in this succinct essay materialize as cornerstones. As he embarks on a compelling critique of modernist thought, Wright unmasks the inherent contradictions that underlie Enlightenment ideals. He deftly exposes the incongruities that lie concealed beneath the facade of modernity's aspirations for rationality and wisdom.

While Wright endeavors to render his explorations accessible, the intricacies of his subject matter render even this seemingly straightforward essay an expedition into intricate domains.

Wright's quest to unravel the historical Jesus extends beyond academic pursuits. It seeks to authenticate the reverence and worship that Christianity has historically bestowed upon Him. Wright's acknowledgment of Reimarus (1694-1768), a deist who cast doubt upon the factual basis of resurrection narratives, underscores this quest. Wright deems Reimarus a reformer, asserting that his influence compelled the church to subject its understanding of Jesus to the rigors of historical investigation. In this engagement with modernity, Wright navigates the terrain on terms that mirror the contours established by the antagonists of orthodoxy.10


Conclusion: Illuminating Divergence and Convergence in Theological Discourse

The juxtaposition of Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright within the tapestry of contemporary theological thought unveils a landscape both diverse and convergent. These two luminaries traverse distinct pathways, each characterized by its unique blend of scholarly rigor, philosophical grounding, and theological conviction. As the realms of liberal theology and orthodox interpretation intersect, they prompt a deeper exploration of the multifaceted nature of faith, reason, and biblical interpretation.

Borg's legacy is one of unabashed engagement with liberal theology. His exploration of Christianity within the socio-historical context underscores the dynamism of theological thought. By embracing a perspective that nuances the supernatural and emphasizes the human and moral dimensions, Borg invites us to reflect on the evolving nature of faith in an age shaped by Enlightenment ideals. He emerges as a voice that both challenges and enriches traditional narratives, compelling us to navigate the nuanced landscape of biblical interpretation.

On the other hand, N.T. Wright's journey is a testament to the intricate tapestry of theological exploration. Anchored in meticulous historical investigation, his theological vista fuses faith and reason, transcending facile categorizations. Wright's conviction that the Bible's power reverberates through history propels his exploration of the nexus between divine revelation and human engagement. By charting a course that integrates rigorous historical analysis with profound theological insight, Wright illuminates pathways that navigate the complexities of faith in the modern world.

While Borg's liberal theology emphasizes the human dimensions of Christianity, Wright's engagement spans a spectrum that incorporates elements of orthodoxy. As they traverse these diverse paths, they jointly underscore the necessity of navigating the ever-shifting terrain of theological discourse. Borg's call to recognize Christianity's ethical tapestry and Wright's quest to unveil the historical Jesus converge in a shared aspiration: to unearth the layers of meaning within sacred texts and to connect them with the lived experiences of believers.

In conclusion, the dialogues initiated by Borg and Wright resonate with the ongoing quest to reconcile faith and reason, tradition and modernity. Their respective contributions, though differing in orientation, invigorate the theological conversation, prompting us to delve deeper into the foundations of our beliefs. Their intellectual legacy underscores that the pursuit of truth is as multifaceted as the faith it seeks to illuminate – an endeavor enriched by the tension between liberal inquiry and orthodox devotion. Ultimately, it is within this rich interplay that theology finds its vibrancy, ensuring that the discourse remains ever relevant and illuminating in the ceaseless journey of seeking to understand the divine.



Bibliography:


1. Fromm, Erich. The Dogma of Christ (Routledge Classics). 29 July 2004. Pages 1-2.

2. "Marcus Borg, Liberal Christian Scholar, Dies at 72." The New York Times, 27 January 2015. Accessed August 24, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/27/us/marcus-borg-liberal-christian-scholar-dies-at-72.html.

3. Strauss, David Friedrich. The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined. 1902. Digitized: 31 July 2015. Page 86.

4. Borg, Marcus. Seeing Jesus: Sources, Lenses, and Method. Page 4.

5. Roach, William C. "Hermeneutics as Epistemology: A Critical Assessment of Carl F. H. Henry's Epistemological Approach to Hermeneutics." 24 July 2015. Page 111. Accessed August 24, 2023. Also see: Kant, Immanuel. "Immanuel Kant." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed August 24, 2023. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant/.

6. Scorer, Tim (Author), Marcus Borg (Foreword). Experiencing The Heart of Christianity: A 12 Session Program for Groups. 30 April 2005. Page 20.

7. "Three Books That Changed N.T. Wright's Life." Christian Today. Accessed August 24, 2023. https://www.christiantoday.com/article/three.books.that.changed.nt.wrights.life/104297.htm.

8. Wright, N. Thomas. Jesus And the Identity Of God. Volume 14: An International Journal for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture. Edited by Klyne Snodgrass. Publisher: Wipf & Stock Pub, 23 June 2004. Page 46.

9. Wright, N. Thomas. Knowing Jesus: Faith and History. Page 18.

10. "ANVIL Vol 20, No 1, 2003." Page 16. Accessed August 24, 2023. https://www.gospelstudies.org.uk/articles/20-1_009.pdf.

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