Dr. Marcus Borg: Putting Away Childish Things (Excerpt 1)

Chapter 10

_ pp 107-111 _

As Kate walked into class on Tuesday, Erin noticed that she was wearing "dress up" clothes-her usual crisp white button-down shirt, but with a knee-length charcoal pencil skirt and low heels. Red, of course. In front of her in the double horseshoe, Fiona whispered to Allison, "Look how she's dressed-I bet she has a meeting today."

"I want to begin today with a poem," Kate said. "It's by Naomi Shihab Nye, and it's called 'Missing the Boat.'"


It is not so much that the boat passed

and you failed to notice it.

It is more like the boat stopping

directly outside your bedroom window,

the captain blowing the signal-horn,

the band playing a rousing march.

The boat shouted, waving bright flags,

its silver hull blinding in the sunlight.

But you had this idea you were going by train.

You kept checking the time-tables,

digging for tracks.

And the boat got tired of you,

so tired it pulled up the anchor

and raised the ramp.

The boat bobbed into the distance

shrinking like a toy--

at which point you probably realized

you had always loved the sea.


Erin closed her eyes. She loved the imagery of the boat outside her window, horn blowing and flags waving, but in the end the poem was so sad-regret, a missed opportunity. Was the poem talking about a chance to expand her faith, to listen to some other ways of believing? It did feel daunting to set out on a journey like that, especially when it felt as though her friends really wanted her to stay with them and wait for the train. Was it possible she could miss her chance? Could she become so set in her group's way of doing things that she could never think critically about their ideas again? A sense of unease settling in her stomach, she opened her eyes to find Kate's gaze resting on her. Erin's cheeks grew warm. She felt as if Kate had caught her taking the poem too personally.

But Kate just smiled briefly and addressed the class. "Now, to today's topic. What your readings for today are about, and what I want us to talk about, is the cumulative understanding of religion that has emerged in the academic study of it since the Enlightenment.

"I want to provide you with an advance summary before we turn to discussing the way your reading develops these points. I've put it on a handout to make it easier for you to follow along. I think the language is clear, but I know it's also dense-each paragraph carries a lot of intellectual freight. So listen up, or read along."

The basic claim: religions are human constructions. They are human historical products. In one sense, what this means is obvious: all of the world's religions emerged in particular times and places. As products of those times and places, of those cultures, they of course used the language and symbols of those cultures, even as they often challenged the cultures in which they originated. But they nevertheless are historical and cultural products-in short, human constructions.

Moreover, religions address obvious human needs: our desire for explanations, our yearning for security and protection, our anxiety about death, our need for social order and social control, and our desire for meaning. Thus, from an Enlightenment perspective, it's not only that religions look like human constructions because they reflect particular times and places, but it also looks like these constructions have been shaped to serve central human needs.

It is this cumulative understanding of religions as human constructions that most differentiates the modern period from the premodern period. Prior to the Enlightenment and modernity, the divine origin of religion was taken for granted. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all saw their sacred scriptures as divine revelation, as coming from God in a way that no other writings had. Christians, Jews, and Muslims agreed: each saw its own scriptures as a divine product. This is why their scriptures and their religions had authority-they were not human products, not human constructions, but divine revelation.

The conflict between these two ways of seeing is part of what is often called the conflict between reason and revelation-a conflict about how we know things, and a conflict about authority. Should epistemology and authority be grounded in reason and investigation? Or should they be grounded in sacred scripture and tradition?

 "So, that's what I want you to see today: the cumulative understanding of religion within an Enlightenment framework, and how that comes into conflict with pre-Enlightenment understandings of religion. Your readings for today talk about this. So, to begin our conversation, I'm going to ask you to take five minutes to respond to two questions. If you have time, say something about both-but do at least one.

"The first is: What do you make of the central argument-that religions are human constructions? How persuasive is the argument? Any parts of it that you want to comment on or ask about? And the second one: What do you make of the conflict between this and premodern ways of seeing religions? Have you thought about it before? Do you see it around you? How important does it seem to you? Is it illuminating to be aware of it? So take five minutes to think and write about one or both of those."

Erin stared at her notebook. Her sense of unease had returned. The idea of seeing Christianity as a human construction unsettled, maybe even frightened, her. If Christianity was just something people had made up to explain the world around them, then what did that mean for her faith? What was the point? Did that mean there was no heaven? No point in praying? That her relationship with Jesus was all in her head? It seemed to take all that she thought she understood about the world and put it on its head. And that was what had happened to people during the Enlightenment, she knew. But it didn't make it feel any less scary or challenging.

It made her remember one of the things that was so great about believing everything they taught in The Way. It was so reassuring to have everything spelled out, to know that she was saved and to be grateful for it. She hadn't even minded how they put everyone in categories of us (members of the group, those who were saved) and them (those who weren't Christian or didn't believe the right things and weren't saved). At least, she hadn't really minded until she'd realized that her parents and now her brother were definitely in the latter category, according to her friends in The Way.

She realized she was growing increasingly tired of the warlike mentality their categories seemed to foster. They were always praying to bring more people into their camp. They didn't seem to want to listen to others' points of view, except to try to convert them to their own way of seeing things. Even Peter's reaction to Erin and Amy's taking Kate's class-he had acted as if they were there as soldiers to protect the other students from Kate's point of view. Something in Erin was starting to rebel. She didn't see Kate as the enemy. She liked Kate and the way she made her think. She wanted to know more about how you could be a believing Christian and not see the Bible as literal truth, not divide the world into us and them anymore.

Erin started when Kate called them to move into their small groups. She hadn't managed to put anything down on her paper. But she moved her chair obediently, noticing that Amy moved in the same direction again. Great. She'd have to watch what she said again. She wished Amy would join another group just once so that she could talk more freely.


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