When I was a grad student, I was asked to pick up a world-famous author and professor from the airport, chauffer him back to campus, and make sure he had everything he needed during his visit to SMU. Of course, I knew who Marcus Borg was. I was a PhD student in New Testament. I knew his work very well. But he didn’t know who I was because, well, I was no one particularly accomplished or influential. I hadn’t even started my career, and he was at the pinnacle of his. I’ve always felt that you could tell quite a bit about people by the way they treat others from whom they have nothing to gain. A person’s character is most often revealed in situations in which there is a differential of power or status. Borg was kind, congenial, friendly, and humble. I’ve never forgotten that. I was saddened to learn today that he has died.
I really don’t agree with Borg on very much. It’s not just that I disagree with his conclusions; I disagree with much of what he presupposes. Regardless, many years ago when I read Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time as a seminary student, it blew my mind. Back then, I really didn’t know enough to agree or disagree with what Borg was arguing. I began to become aware of how little I actually knew about Jesus scholarship and biblical scholarship in general. That book really did a number on me, both theologically and intellectually (as did Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography). Rather than cause some type of faith crisis or intellectual crisis, however, reading Borg pushed me to learn more, study harder, think more clearly, and figure out exactly what I did or did not like about what he was proposing.
With Borg’s passing, we lose another of a great generation of liberals. I don’t mean liberal in the sense of his theology or ethics, though he fit quite well within the world of existentialist and process theology. (Just read his book, The God We Never Knew.) I mean that you could dialogue with him. He was liberal in an older sense of that term as applied to academics. You could have respectful disagreement with him. To my knowledge, he did not belittle his opponents or caricature their positions. His work with N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, is a model of respectful disagreement and discourse. Borg was truly a gentleman and a scholar.
As I said, I have ended up disagreeing with Borg, quite strongly on some points—but I learned from him. I learned not only about Jesus scholarship, but about how we engage those with whom we disagree. A dose of humility goes a long way.