Dr. Marcus Borg: Putting Away Childish Things (Excerpt 2)

Chapter 12

_ pp 128-134 _

On Tuesday evening, Martin slid into a pew near the front of a church not far from Scudder. He had come to hear a concert by a Lutheran college choir on its annual winter tour.

Martin had grown up Lutheran, though he had become an Episcopalian some twenty years ago. But he continued to love the Lutheran choral tradition, especially sung a cappella. "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" continued to be one of his favorites, and he found the Lutheran melody for "Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying" so much more joyful than the melancholic version in the Episcopal hymnbook.

He had drunk deeply of Luther's emphasis on justification by grace through faith and the contrast between "living under the law" and "living by grace"--though it had taken him more than thirty years to begin to see what it meant. Through his adolescence and early adulthood, he had experienced the opposite of grace--namely, a deep anxiety that he didn't believe strongly enough to be justified "by faith." Believing had become the new "law," the new "work." Ironically, the Lutheran emphasis on grace had not delivered him from the "law," but had left him living under the "law of believing."

But in his mid-thirties, he felt that he began to understand grace for the first time: that we are accepted by God, affirmed by God, beloved by God just as we are. Life is not about the anxious project of measuring up, but about living one's life grounded in God's grace.

By that time, he was no longer Lutheran. He thought back to when it had happened. He commonly said that he was Lutheran until he was about thirty, but in more precise retrospect, he realized that the change had begun earlier. In his first year in seminary, at age twenty-two, he had requested a "field work" placement in a church of color and was assigned to a Presbyterian church in a multiracial neighborhood. Its mostly black and Hispanic congregation had been very good to him, a racially naïve young man from a very white part of the northern Midwest. So for a year he had worshiped and sometimes led worship in a Presbyterian setting.

The next year, shortly after he arrived in England, he went to the only Lutheran congregation in Oxford and discovered that it was made up mostly of aging German immigrants, some of whom had left Germany in the 1930s; others left in the early postwar years. He may have been the only person under sixty in the small gathering. He didn't go back. Now, in hindsight, he wished he had sought out their stories.

So during his years at Oxford, he attended Anglican ser vices, especially Evensong on weekdays in the chapels of Christ Church, New College, and Magdalen. When he returned to the States and for most of his thirties, he hadn't been part of a church at all. As he neared forty, and in part because of undergoing Jungian therapy for several years in the troubled second half of his thirties, he began worshiping in an Episcopal church. Within a couple of years, he was confirmed as an Episcopalian.

Martin's musings about his Lutheran past came to a halt as the choir entered the chancel and arranged itself on the risers. He was initially startled at how white and blond they were. Not all of them-but a much higher percentage than Martin had become accustomed to seeing. He was immediately taken back to the white, blond Lutheran world of his childhood and youth, visually and musically.

As Martin had hoped, the concert ended with his favorite piece of choral music: "Beautiful Savior" as arranged by F. Melius Christiansen. It had become Martin's favorite the first time he heard it sung forty years ago by another Lutheran college choir. It moved him, and had done so ever since.

He listened, eyes closed, as the choir wordlessly harmonized the melody. Then a young female soloist sang the first verse:


Beautiful Savior, King of Creation,

Son of God and Son of Man!

Truly I' d love thee, Truly I' d serve thee

Light of my soul, my joy, my crown.


The choir sang the next verses:


Fair are the meadows, Fair are the woodlands,

Robed in flowers of blooming spring;

Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer,

He makes our sorrowing spirit sing.

Fair is the sunshine, Fair is the moonlight,

Bright the sparkling stars on high;

Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer,

Than all the angels in the sky.


As they sang the last verse, the choir's volume progressively increased:


Beautiful Savior, Lord of the nations,

Son of God and Son of Man!

Glory and honor, Praise, adoration,

Now and for evermore be thine!


And the glorious crescendo and climax: the repetition of the last line, "Now and for evermore be thine!"

Martin walked the few blocks from the church to his apartment. Though it was nine thirty, he decided to stay up for a while, maybe even until midnight. He enjoyed the late evening hours, and he didn't have to teach on Wednesday. He knew that he could sleep in-or, since he wasn't very good at that, take a nap during the day.

In his study, he poured himself a short glass of Glenlivet, lit his pipe, and watched the smoke drift upwards. He decided to brainstorm ideas for a lecture he was to give in a few days in a large church on the other side of the country. His Saturday lectures were prepared, but he still needed to shape the Friday evening lecture. Brainstorming was one of his favorite things to do-he loved the focused freedom of thinking within the circumscribed framework provided by a lecture topic.

The group sponsoring the lecture had suggested a title: "Mysticism and the Christian Path." Martin had agreed immediately. He realized the topic would give him an opportunity to talk about what mattered most to him-the reality of God and his understanding of what religion at its best was about. Now he wrote the title at the top of a narrow-lined white tablet-to his mind, the only kind of tablet to use. He avoided yellow tablets, or white tablets with wide lines. He sat in silence for a few minutes and then began jotting down thoughts.

After about half an hour of brainstorming, he put together a preliminary outline:

Begin with the gist of a quote from Karl Rahner (note that he was one of the most important Catholic theologians of the last half century): the Christianity of the future will be mystical, or it will not be at all.

A broad and experiential definition of mysticism: a state of consciousness in which there is a vivid sense of the presence of God-of knowing God, the sacred, "what is," "the Real." Consistent with a definition from medieval Christianity: mysticism is the cognitio experimentalis Dei-"the experiential knowledge of God."

As a state of consciousness, mysticism has two primary features (William James):

  • A sense of union, connection, with God, the sacred--with what James calls "a more," "the more."

  • A sense of illumination-of enlightenment. The language of mystics is full of images of light, seeing, and knowing and their opposites, darkness, blindness, and ignorance.

Mysticism and the Christian path/life:

Would affect our sense of what the word "God" points to: a reality that can be known and that is "all around us"-not a personlike being "out there," separate from the universe, a superpowerful authority figure whose existence can be argued about. (Note that the contemporary atheist critique of theism is directed against the latter notion of God.)

Would affect our sense of the "inner" dimension of the Christian life: it's about opening ourselves to God, the sacred. The primary purpose of Chris tian spiritual practices: to open the heart, the self, to God by spending time in practices that can become "thin places" in which we sense the presence and reality of God.

Mysticism and the goal of the Christian life:

A caution: mystical experience is not the goal. To focus on "having one" would be a form of grasping. Mystical experiences happen, or they don't.

Rather, the goal of the Christian life is participating in the passion of God, as disclosed in the Bible and Jesus. God's passion is that we center more deeply in (1) God ("You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength") and (2) the world- a world of justice and peace. These are the inner and outer dimensions of the Christian life and of Christian mysticism-union with God's passion.

Martin looked at his outline and thought it worked. He could do the lecture with no additional preparation, but he also knew that he would return to it and fill in the details.

Setting his tablet aside, he poured himself another Glenlivet. He moved from his desk, walked a few feet across a deep red and blue Turkish rug, and settled into one of his brown leather chairs. He relit his pipe, thought about God, and gently brought his attention into the moment. Looking around his room, he felt peaceful and grateful.


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