Marcus Borg died this morning after a prolonged illness. I received a phone call this afternoon from a Cathedral parishioner and friend of Marcus, relaying the news to me.
I first became aware of Marcus Borg when I was a sophomore at Hendrix College. His landmark book, Jesus: A New Vision had just been released. It hit me at exactly the right time. I was a philosophy & religion major who knew God and increasingly knew about God, but I had little room or need for Jesus. Marcus’ book gave me an entirely new access point: to consider Jesus as Jesus had been historically, as a wisdom teacher, a healer, a social prophet, and more.
I first heard Marcus speak at Hendrix. He was the epitome of a college professor, right down to the cardigan sweater and pipe. He spoke calmly and with passion, and the first time I heard him in person was also the first time I understood how those two things–calm and passion–could coincide.
I heard Marcus speak several other times over the years, but it was after I’d become a priest that I came to know him personally. When he was the annual Dodson Lecturer at St. John’s-Roanoke, he and I went to dinner. I was starstruck and wanted to quiz him about his research and his approach to Christianity. He’d have none of it. Marcus wanted only to talk about me, about St. John’s, about our ministry, and about my experience as a young priest in the Episcopal Church. He was solely interested in me, and I’ve never forgotten it.
Several shared meals and opportunities for fellowship later, my Christology has become higher and higher as the years have gone by. In ways I could not have done all those years ago in college, I now attest without hesitation that Jesus the Christ is God Incarnate, the hinge of history, the defeater of death, and the fulfillment in a single human life of God’s hopes for the whole world. And yet, my approach to Holy Scripture, my social convictions, and my love for the Episcopal Church mirror Marcus’ own perspectives quite closely. I once introduced Marcus to a church audience by saying, “I agree with roughly 75% of what Marcus will say to you this evening.” When he stepped into the pulpit, Marcus quipped, “I’m tempted to forego my notes and discuss with Barkley the other 25%!”
Unlike so many other writers in the field of religion (on both ends of the spectrum), Marcus was humble. Once one of my parishioners asked him during Q&A, “But how do you know that you’re right?” He paused, looked at her thoughtfully, and said, “I don’t know. I don’t know that I’m right.”
Very many people who had left the Christian faith have returned to it through Marcus’ evangelism (though he would grimace at my use of the word, I suspect). Marcus was a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ in word and in deed. He understood Jesus (and especially the Resurrection) differently than I do. But the veracity of his faith was clear. And calm. And passionate.
Marcus and I last corresponded in late November. I’d asked how he was doing, and he responded, “I may have ten years left. Not sure I want more. There comes a time to let go. And I could, with gratitude, sooner than that. My life has been very blessed.”
Like Abraham, Marcus was blessed so that he could be a blessing. He blessed my life, and I am grateful.