The Biography Of Two Revisionists

This originally appeared in the ATR. The biorgraphical materials supplied by two famous revisionists, Marcus Borg and Karen Armstrong show how strongly biography influences the basic intellecutual stance of a thinker. I sometimes think that the biggest obstacles to classical orthodox faith are emotional rather than strictly intellectual. The series of lectures on which the book is based is advertised by the Episcopal Media Center in its most recent catalog as “five outstanding lectures given at Washington National Cathedral by some of today’s leading theologians”

The Changing Face Of God, Frederick W. Schmidt, Editor.
Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 2000.

Review by Leander S. Harding

This is a short little book consisting of the talks given as a lecture series at the National Cathedral in Washington. The premise of two of the most famous of the lecturers, Karen Armstrong and Jesus Seminar member Marcus Borg, is that traditional creedal Christianity is implausible and unbelievable and that they are leading the way in envisioning “the changing face of God.” I found their essays in particular a wearying, depressing combination of neo-Kantian reductionism and effusive enthusiasm for a kinder, gentler, vaguer religion. These two essays could be used as exhibit A of the current class of those who can be described, as my old systematics professor used to say, as believing in God the good and kind gas.

Both Armstrong and Borg recount oppressive formative experiences in a rigid and doctrinaire form of Christianity, Roman Catholicism for Armstrong, Lutheranism for Borg, that were so traumatic they felt compelled to completely “reimage” the faith. Armstrong’s story is a poignant. It is the story of an over scrupulous and perfectionistic young nun who falls into despair because she is not able to achieve spiritual experiences which are sufficiently spectacular. She deals with her revulsion by throwing the baby out with the bath and attempts to have a spirituality without specific theistic commitments. It is tough enough to struggle with scrupulosity, perfectionism and the need to have God’s consolation arrive on a preconceived schedule, according to a preconceived form without your religious order encouraging you in rushing down this dead end, which is apparently just what Dr. Armstrong’s order did. The program that she outlines as a replacement for traditional Christian faith appears to me to be a kind of New Age version of scrupulosity and perfectionism and I can not imagine that it could lead anyplace but to a similar despair.

Borg strikes a similar pose. He warns us against dogmatic, finger wagging religion in a dogmatic, finger wagging way. We are especially warned off the retrograde and unworthy vice of having any interest in life beyond the grave. The mood of both of these writers is summed up in the phrase of another one of the lecturers, Jack Miles, who recommends a “religious agnosticism.”

The essay by James Cone gives a quick overview of the sources of Black Liberation Theology and labels all “white” theology as heretical. It is an angry piece and offers no constructive proposals but it is a sobering witness to the disillusionment of some black intellectuals. The essay by Andrew Sung Park which recommends Patripassianism on the basis of the Asian concept of han is the most irenic of the essays in the collection.

The book could be used as a discussion starter in a Christian Education program, though I don’t recommend it. It comes complete with discussion questions, some of which are quite good and some of which less skillfully direct the student to the “correct” conclusions.

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