Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Borg and Augustine on the Particularity of God

I'm a bit slow on responding to comments at the mo. Stephen asked some good questions on how to read the final form of the text given contradictions at that level. Read his comments and my response here. I'll get back to the others tomorrow!

Some thoughts for today:

Seitz cites from a report of a national conference called "God at 2000", held at Trinity Church Wall Street.

One of the most celebrated speakers was [Markus] Borg, who advocates a brand of pantheism that rejects notions of a personal God in favor of a broader universal spirit. "I grew up in a time and place where it was taken for granted that Christianity was the only true religion and Jesus the only way to salvation," Borg recalled with distaste. "That's why we had missionaries. ... I find it literally incredible to think that that God of the whole universe has chosen to be known in only one religious tradition".*

Seitz then compares the remarks of St. Augustine.

What are you then, my God - what, but the Lord God? For who is Lord but the Lord? Or who is God save our God? Most high, most excellent, most powerful, most almighty, most merciful, and most just; most hidden, yet most present; most beautiful, and most strong; stable, yet mysterious; unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, never old; making all things new and bringing age upon the proud, though they know it not; ever working, yet ever at rest; still gathering, yet lacking nothing; sustaining, filling and protecting; creating, nourishing, and maturing; seeking, yet possessing all things. You love without passion; you are jealous without anxiety; you repent, yet have no sorrow; you are angry, yet serene; change your ways, yet your plans are unchanged; recover what you find, having never lost it; never in need, yet rejoicing in the gain; never covetous, yet requiring interest. You receive over and above, that you may owe - yet who has anything that is not yours? You pay debts, owing nothing; remit debts, losing nothing. And what have I now said, my God, my life, my holy joy - what is this I have said?**

At least one Trinity Conference speaker got it right when she said, "Surely there is no one participating in this conference who really believes that this conference is about God at 2000. This conference is about us at 2000."
*"Apostasy at 2000: Episcopal Institute Promotes Pantheism, Syncretism," by Mark Tooley, Touchstone (January 2001)

**Book 1, 4; The Confessions of St Augustine, Hal M. Helms, trans. (Brewster, Mass.:Paraclete, 1986), 3.


James F. McGrath said...

Is it fair to classify Borg as a pantheist? His own writings express a preference for the term panentheism, and of course within monotheistic traditions those who have had such outlooks have, historically, often been accused of pantheism. But I wonder whether there is some particular reason you think Borg has 'crossed the line'.

I also am not sure that one has to draw such a hard and fast line between 'God at 2000' and 'us at 2000'. Is there any real doubt that the views of any human being about God in the year 2000 are going to reflect something of the outlook and language of human beings in that time? My own view is that it is those who deny such a possibility who are most likely to fall into the idolatry of assuming that their conception of God does perfect justice to the very reality of the transcendent God.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for your comments James, I always appreciate feedback which forces me to clarify myself!

It's no doubt significant to our appreciation of Borg to distinguish whether he's a pantheist or a panentheist. These things matter (it certainly did to our university chaplain - he felt the latter option was not heretical). He may well have been misrepresented. However, for me, the main force of the quote was to point out that 'particularity' in today's climate really is a genuine scandal. The idea of "the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth" choosing to elect a particular people and reveal himself through them just isn't 'in' (if it ever was). To deny this, however, is to step out of the bounds of Christian faith. The context of the quote in Seitz's essay is one in which he is discussing the particularity of the 'God Almighty' of the creed, who's identity is brokered through scripture, the preservation of which was and is and earnest preoccupation of the church. Thus, Jude talks about "ungodly persons" denying "the Lord our God" and the need to be instructed in the faith of the church. It would seem that Borg's denial of this reality causes him to 'cross the boundary'.

Your second point: in one sense you are right, talk of God is subjective and the totality of our worldview is present in our statements about Him. As such, claims that our language adequately represents Him should be taken with extreme caution to say the least. However, in the context of the quote, the point is being made that a decision to reject the particularity of the God of Israel and opt for a more vauge concept of whatever makes more sense to us is to make our god-talk anthropocentric at the outset. There is a difference between historically particular god-talk which takes its starting point to be what is felt to be reasonable, and historically particular god-talk which is a response to a prior revelation, regardless of how culturally conditioned that response is.

I hope that makes sense ... Feel free to criticise:)

James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for the response and clarification. Does what you wrote assume that those who gave expression in writing to the earlier revelation were not themselves constrained by the cultural horizons, language and other aspects of their specific historical setting?

Phil Sumpter said...

Totally. Human particularity applies accross the board, to Jesus, to the tradents of the tradition and the the interpreters of the tradition. This is something with which B.S. Childs wrestled, trying to understand how the Bible was both historically particular as well as the word of God to all generations. I find the way he has gone about dealing with this tension (i.e. his 'canonical approach') the most intellectually and spiritually stimulating attempt so far. My recent post on typology in Gen. 22 is one illustration of what he's trying to do. In general, most of my posts are somehow oriented to understanding how the Bible can function as scripture to us in the 21st century. See my programmatic statement here. The label Authority of Scripture encompasses every post so far that's tried to deal with the topic (all 11 of them). At the moment, Seitz's work on figurative interpretation is particularly interesting.