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Days of Awe and Wonder: How to Be a Christian in the 21st Century

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
November 2017
Fred's Rating: 
Marcus J. Borg
Total Pages: 

Marcus J. Borg (1942-2015) was a canon theologian at Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland and the Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State Univ. His progressive (or emerging) Christianity and his many bestselling books won him wide recognition. (For his many books I’ve read, click on his name.)

I bought the hardback edition but I give here the Amazon website for the Kindle edition since it has more to see.

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this books' covers at the website above.]

The home page has a good summary (click on ‘Read more’). I recommend using Amazon’s ‘Look inside’ option and scan down to the Contents page. First read the moving six-page Foreword by Marianne Borg. I identify myself to be one who has just read Marcus “again as if for the first time” – a phrase he used in some of his book titles. I have never objected to reading “again as if for the first time” anything he has written. Just after the paragraph that uses this phrase the next five paragraphs lists four themes “that await you in this book.” They are all well stated and followed by other statements about Marcus and this book.

Before I read Ch. 1, I skipped ahead and read the 9-pp Afterword by Barbara Brown Taylor, another writer that I hold in high regard. Choosing her for an Afterword was an excellent choice. You can access all but one page of her 9-pp Afterword, which is deeply personal about Marcus’ final days, by using the ‘Look inside’ option and entering Afterword in the ‘Search Inside This Book’ window and click on ‘Go’. I highly recommend doing so.

In the 15-pp Ch. 1 – Listening to the Spirit – the Kindle preview ends on the fifth page. I continue here with the next two paragraphs, for I feel that a closure to this subsection is important. [Any comments by me are in square brackets.] “It is difficult to know how literally we should take this language. Language about the ‘other world’ is necessarily metaphorical and analogical, simply because we must see language drawn from the visible world to try to speak of another world constituted by very different realities and energies. If anything is to be communicated at all, it must be by analogy to what we know in the ordinary world or in images drawn from the ordinary world. Thus God is ‘like’ a father or mother, ‘like’ a king, ‘like’ a shepherd, ‘like’ fire; but God is not literally any of those things. Yet, though the language is metaphorical, the realities are not.

“Moreover, this other world is not ‘literally’ somewhere else. It is not the localized heaven of the popular imagination. Though God can be spoken of as being ‘up in heaven,’ the tradition makes it clear that God and the world of Spirit are not literally elsewhere. Rather, according to the tradition, God is everywhere present. To use somewhat technical but useful theological language, for the biblical tradition God is ‘immanent’ (everywhere present, omnipresent), even as God is also ‘transcendent’ (not to be identified with any particular thing, not even the sum total of things).” [Among non-theistic religions, this thought has been unfortunately replaced by ‘nothing’ instead of the accurate translation of not-a-thing.] “As omnipresent and immanent, God and the world of Spirit are all around us, including within us. Rather than God being somewhere else, we (and everything that is) are in God.* We live in Spirit, even though we are typically unaware of this reality.**”

[The * is for note 12, which contains a reference to Isa. 6.3: “the whole earth is full of his glory” and to an approving attribution to Paul in Acts 17.28: “In God we live and move and have our being.” The ** is for note 13, a reference to Huston Smith’s book Forgotten Truth (Book 728), p 21: The “higher levels (of the primordial tradition) are not literally elsewhere; they are removed only in the sense of being inaccessible to ordinary consciousness.” I looked online at Smith’s Forgotten Truth, I bought it, I read it, and I review it next.

Think about the word ‘ordinary’, here meaning our ‘ordinary’ image of God. That which is inaccessible to ordinary consciousness would be the “ineffable Godhead.” There is a ‘cloud of unknowing’ that lies between us (below this cloud) and the “ineffable Godhead” (above this cloud}. If you want to see online Huston Smith’s 1-p figure for the ‘cloud of unknowing’ and the ‘ineffable Godhead’ figure, go to Book 1 – Why Religion Matters – by Huston Smith. Then follow the simple instructions I just added to my review of Book 1, using the paperback website that I also just added to this (my first review) this morning (11/10/2017).

Many of the chapters in this book have a single and very important purpose. Such chapters usually conclude with a summary paragraph. For Ch. 1 – Listening to the Spirit – he concludes: “In any case, quite apart from the question of ultimate truth, it is necessary to take seriously the reality of the word of Spirit if we wish to take the central figures of the Jewish tradition seriously. Try to understand the Jewish tradition and Jesus while simultaneously dismissing the notion of another world or immediately reducing it to a merely psychological realm is to fail to see the phenomena, to fail to take seriously what these charismatic mediators experienced and reported. For many of us, this will require a temporary suspension of our disbelief. Jesus’s vivid experience of the reality of Spirit radically challenges our culture’s way of seeing reality.” [Wow! This is deep truth for us to work with. But it is really worth the effort.]

Chapter 2 – Faith, A Journey of Trust – would be familiar to those who have read Borg’s books. I love the way it is summarized here: “Faith is thus about setting on a journey like Abraham’s in a posture of trust, seeking to be faithful to the relationship we are called into. We are invited to make that journey, that journey of faith, in which we learn to trust our relationship with God, learn to be faithful to that relationship, and learn to see in a new way. We will be led in that journey into an ever more wondrous and compassionate understanding of our lives with God. Indeed, if that is not what life is about, namely, growth and wonder and compassion, then I don’t know what it is about.”

Chapter 3 – My Conversion to Mysticism – tells about his third conversion – his series of experiences that began in his early thirties. He did not at first know that his experiences were mystical ones. They gave him the alternative to supernatural theism. Near the end of this chapter he says “In a broader sense, theology refers to ‘what Christians think.’ In this sense, all Christians have a theology – a basic, even if simple, understanding – whether they are aware of it or not. In this broader sense, theology does not matter. There is ‘bad’ theology, by which I mean an understanding of Christianity that is seriously misleading, with unfortunate and sometimes even cruel consequences. But the task of theology is not primarily to construct an intellectually satisfying set of correct beliefs. Its task is more modest. Part of its purpose is negative: to undermine beliefs that get in the way of taking Christianity seriously. Part of its purpose is positive: to construct a persuasive and compelling vision of the Christian life. But being Christian isn’t about having a correct theology by getting our beliefs right. It is about a deepening relationship with God as known especially in Jesus.

“To return to mystical experiences, these episodes of sheer wonder, radical amazement, radiant luminosity often evokes the exclamation, ‘Oh my God!’ So it has been for me, and for me that exclamation expresses truth. It is the central conviction that has shaped my Christian journey ever since. God is real, ‘the more’ in whom we live and more and have our being.

“It has also shaped my understanding of religions in general and major religious figures” ..…”The central convictions and foundations of this book are that God is real and that the Bible and Christianity are the Christian story of our relationship with God, ‘the more’, ‘what is.”

I feel that my giving such quotes from the first three chapters are enough to explain why this book was put together for anyone who holds Marcus Borg in very high regard. There is new material, including talks and sermons not published before, as well as material he had not included in Convictions (Book 601)), the last book he wrote before his death in 2015. I enjoyed reading every chapter.

But now I feel a call to extract some quotes from Ch. 16 – Listening to the Voice of God – for Borg’s ‘how to live’ wisdom: “Our sense of being a separated self with an identity conferred primarily by the values of our culture grows and grows.” …”The result is what the Benedict monk Thomas Keating calls ‘the false self’.” …”Listening to Jesus means undertaking this journey, embarking on that path of dying to the false self, to that identity, to that way of being, and to be born into an identity centered in Spirit, in Christ, in God. It is the process of internal redefinition of the self, so that a real person can be born within us.” We need to “go beyond the mind that we have – by hearing the voice of God, which says to us: ‘listen to him.’ Listen to Jesus.” [Each of us must take this journey to a new mind awaiting us – to have our mystical days of awe and wonder.]

As I said in my review of Convictions, I am overjoyed to read this book. I rate it at five stars, and I also add the comment (that I gave for Convictions) for you to ‘think six stars.’