Jesus was a peasant–which tells us about his social class.

Clearly, he was brilliant. His use of language was remarkable and poetic, filled with images and stories. He had a metaphoric mind.

He was not an ascetic but world-affirming, with a zest for life.

There was a sociopolitical passion to him; like a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King Jr., he challenged the domination system of his day.

He was a religious ecstatic–a Jewish mystic, if you will–for whom God was an experiential reality. As such, he was also a healer. And there seems to have been a spiritual presence around him, like that reported of Saint Francis or the Dalai Lama.

And I suggest that as a figure of history, he was an ambiguous figure–you could experience him and conclude that he was insane, as his family did, or that he was simply eccentric, or that he was a dangerous threat–or you could conclude that he was filled with the Spirit of God.

Marcus Borg The God We Never Knew, p. 90

The other day the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion sponsored a lecture by Marcus Borg, a member of the Jesus Seminar and the author of a number of well-regarded books about Jesus. Unsatisfied by the subjectivist orientation of the lecture, I took a look at Borg’s latest book, The God We Never Knew (HarperSanFrancisco 1997), which turned out to be the source of most of the lecture material, including the 164-word description of Jesus quoted above, originally prepared for a live television interview. The book is a sincere and, arguably, socially necessary attempt to make God meaningful for modern people skeptical of transcendental beings “out there.” But although it fleshed out what was sketchy in the talk and edited out the speaker’s distracting self-consciousness, it only confirmed my original impression. Borg develops his theology for our time without a word about the human reciprocity that religion in general and Christianity in particular exist to promote. His only ethical notion, presented as “God’s dream” for humanity, is “compassion,” a term that, as I have had occasion to observe in these Chronicles, tends to reflect an unfortunately non-reciprocal and politicized vision of human relations. Borg’s book provided just one more proof that it is the mensonge romantique [romantic lie] rather than the “supernatural” that poses the chief obstacle to a genuine anthropological understanding of religion.

Borg’s chief aim, with which I am not without sympathy, is to get beyond the image of God as a judgmental father-figure about whom we learn at second hand through religious texts, an anthropo- and andromorphic entity we imagine added to the beings we find in the world. Although Borg touches on it only incidentally, this religious supernaturalism is directly connected to the sacrificial, that is, to what the Judeo-Christian tradition is notable more than any other for having demystified and denounced. Thus his enterprise, in its initial inspiration, is consonant not only with the anti-sacrificial thrust of GA, but with the fundamental aim of Christianity itself. In this respect, although Borg himself seems to deny this, it is true to the original reforming spirit of the Lutheranism in which he was raised.

But Borg’s replacement for the sacrificial in the form of objective, external supernaturalism is… subjective, internal supernaturalism. After having rid ourselves of religious alienation in the form of an external authority-figure, we bring it back in the guise of internal “spiritual experience.” This God is emphatically not the “superego“–a term that Borg borrows unreflectively from Freud. Borg’s experience of God is not one of authority, le nom/non du père the Lacanians like to tell us about. It is rather an “ecstatic” one, such as those regularly experienced by shamans and mystics, and occasionally by ordinary folks like ourselves. In the absence of supernatural belief, Borg offers us psychological “experiences of the sacred.” But he fails to see that the psychological inversion of the institutional sacred is still a form of supernaturalism. It is always a question of “my relationship to God,” a dual relation between a human being and a non-human other in the absence of other humans. Because God’s otherness is non-human, it can only be attested in exceptional circumstances; whether we call them “other-worldly” or “ecstatic” is a secondary matter.

What is missing from this account of religion is what the word’s etymology so clearly requires: our relationship to other people, not in “compassion” but in love. I don’t know what the Jesus Seminar thinks of the authenticity of texts like “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12) or “Leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother” (Matthew 5:24), but what is truly unique about Christianity, although it exists in less lucid form in all religion, is its understanding that the Being of God is a mediating force that defers conflict among human beings. Borg seems constitutionally unable to conceive of human otherness; he reduces even Martin Buber’s conception of the “I-Thou” to a modality of the relationship between the isolated individual and “the world.”

Hence it should not surprise us that Borg’s picture of Jesus, however reverently intended, tells us nothing of what made him and his movement unique. It is entirely fitting that the description quoted above was composed in answer to a television personality’s question, “what it would have been like to be Jesus’ disciple.” Borg’s religious realism purges Jesus of fantastic attributes like virgin birth and bodily resurrection, but in their place provides nothing but the banal mediatic exceptionalism of one who is “brilliant,” speaks in poetic images, and has a “spiritual presence.” The appeal to the Dalai Lama–who has no personal doctrine, nor indeed an individual existence, since his name is a title–suggests that Borg expects, perhaps rightly, that his audience will find it easier to relate to the Tibetan’s pacified sacrificial charisma than Jesus’ moral message, which appears nowhere in the book: God is love, aimez-vous les uns les autres [love one another]. As for the reference to Martin Luther King, I can only imagine what that devout Christian would have thought not merely to hear himself, with all his sins, compared to Jesus, but to hear Jesus compared to him!

What makes Jesus one of the great figures of history are not the “spiritual” features that distinguish him from you and me, and ultimately make us resent him, but what he teaches us of our common humanity, what makes us want to love him and everyone else as both different from ourselves and yet our equals. No doubt Jesus “challenged the domination system” –an unfortunate term that washes out all tensions between the Jewish and Roman “dominators” in a binary opposition between the good oppressed and their evil oppressors. But our own century has surely taught us that political implementations of righteous anger against the social order in the attempt to realize God’s kingdom or some secular equivalent on earth are anything but productive of social justice. “Taking the side of the victim” in the Christian sense is far more than a political act of rebellion against “the system”: it is the concerted and never facile attempt to stand on the side of love against resentment, including the resentment of “the oppressed” that has fueled so many of history’s greatest horrors. The Holocaust that Borg so rightly treats as the worst of these was the act of Germans who fancied themselves “oppressed” by the Treaty of Versailles.

However praiseworthy this author’s aims, his conception of religion in general and of Christianity in particular is untouched by any insight into the function of religion in the human community. If Borg’s Protestantism has the admirable quality of requiring him to establish his own radically individual relationship to God, it has the enormous flaw of detaching his relationship with God from its primary function–constantly emphasized by Jesus for whom he cares so much–in mediating his relationships with other human beings. I am sure Borg would himself put away his sacrifice to reconcile himself with his brother, but he fails to see that his deepest experience of the God who is love lies in this very reconciliation, not in “external” and “internal” mystical states and the other “varieties of religious experience.”

But perhaps the popularity of Borg’s writings and the visibility of the Jesus Seminar in which he is an active participant should give us pause. All but a happy few, most of whom can identify historically or personally with the mimetic theory of desire, would rather see themselves as subjects, however deconstituted, confronting objects, however deconstructed, than as participants in triangular relations of mediation. If this be a weakness, then it is a near-universal weakness. Perhaps religion exists precisely for those who could not otherwise shed their self-definition as autonomous subjects of desire, so that the truth of GA’s notion of God is demonstrated by its very incapacity to found an “irrational” belief system. The GA aficionado who finds Borg’s arguments inadequate would doubtless never believe in God anyway, whether in Borg’s or the fundamentalist’s terms.

Yet I cannot accept this reasoning as definitive. A theory too subtle for its time is not the same as a theory too intelligent for humanity in general. The former is “world-historical” in Hegel’s sense; the latter is not. The Enlightenment project, whose intellectual heirs we all are, arrogantly oversimplified the relation between religion and human knowledge. I think that Generative Anthropology is the first form of secular thought that does not share in this error.

This by no means implies that GA is passively accepting of religion; it implies just the opposite. The only way in which religious thinking can adapt itself to GA is to change radically. Not only the big daddy God of old-time religion, but the “feminine” spirit God of Borg cannot help but be radically transformed by a way of thinking that makes God’s revelations to man the bearers of not merely religious but anthropological truths. Whether the breakthrough be made by GA or some later equivalent, religion cannot forever keep its back turned to the insights of a minimalist anthropology founded on the mimetic theory of desire.