Dialogue #1: Marcus Borg

This dialogue is the first in a series entitled “Dialogues on Christian Faith Formation and Education” and is offered with the intent of promoting conversation around the past, present, and future of faith formation in the United Church of Christ.

For this particular dialogue, Rev. Dr. Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi had the opportunity to interview keynote speaker Dr. Marcus Borg at the Western Christian Educators’ Conference in Lake Tahoe, Nevada in October 2011 and gather his thoughts on faith formation in the mainline Protestant church. Marcus J. Borg is Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. Internationally known in both academic and church circles as a biblical and Jesus scholar, Dr. Borg was Hundere Chair of Religion and Culture in the Philosophy Department at Oregon State University until his retirement in 2007. He is the author of nineteen books, including Jesus: A New Vision (1987) and the best-seller Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994). His novel, Putting Away Childish Things, was published in April 2010. Dr. Borg was described by The New York Times as “a leading figure in his generation of Jesus scholars.” Dr. Borg has been national chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature and co-chair of its International New Testament Program Committee, and is past president of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars. His latest book is Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored (2011).

In what ways do you envision faith formation as the very essence of the identity, culture, and program life of congregations and other related ministries?
One of the central tasks of a congregation—maybe the most important task—is Christian formation. All of us have been socialized into a culture that sees reality and life very differently than the way Jesus talked about it. The current central values of American culture are comprised of what I call the “three A’s”—achievement, affluence, and appearance. Most messages of our culture reinforce this, and these values are so different than anything biblical or Christian. Formation is about re-formation, re-socialization. This includes education, bible study, Christian practices (especially prayer), and worship. Without those things, there really is no church.

What cultural influences or changes in the public realm have affected faith formation in the past 10-20 years?
Anything from the birth of the internet to growing religious pluralism, particularly evident in the contemplative movement and its Buddhist influences. Just this morning during breakfast, I talked with a pastor whose sermon podcasts are gathering a large number of hits from China and Germany. Those kinds of changes are increasingly prevalent.

Overall, the decline in the cultural expectation that people would be part of a church means that the church of the future will increasingly be made up of “intentional Christians.” Some of our dying congregations are not made up of these types of Christians; they became a part of the church for conventional reasons, which then may have deepened over the years. As those generations pass away, only intentional Christians will be left. Honestly, that’s kind of exciting. An intentional community of 200 people can accomplish much more than a conventional community of 2,000.

How do you perceive/understand the evolution of the language used to describe this ministry (“Christian Education” to “Christian Faith Formation”)? 
“Education” can become a big enough umbrella to include “formation,” but I would prefer to use “formation” as the big umbrella and “education” as one element under that umbrella. I think Christian formation also includes things such as trainings in contemplative prayer, and these practices are more about formation than simply education. Christian formation can also include “good works,” actual hands-on experience serving disadvantaged peoples. You could broaden “education” enough to include that too; but these experiences can become an occasion for consciousness-raising and transformation around issues of poverty, racism, etc. “Formation” and “education” are interactive with one another; but because “education” has come to signify teaching and learning, “formation” is a broader category that encompasses much more.

I also don’t know if I would call it “faith formation,” because—for me—it means that one is being educated to believe something as opposed to engaging in the work of transformation. This is why I use the broader term “Christian formation.” For a lot of people, faith is understood as one aspect of being Christian—it’s what we believe. We need to get away from that notion, even though what we believe or affirm is also very important.

What are the 5 most valuable lessons for living the Christian faith that you feel the church needs to be teaching? If we fail to teach those lessons/ideas/values, how might we find ourselves less faithfully formed?
1.    Centering oneself in God, as known in Jesus.
2.    Compassion.
3.    Economic justice. This is the central justice issue in the U.S. and in the world today. It is the greatest source of unnecessary human suffering. This leads not only to less food for people, but also to other anxiety-provoking societal issues such as lack of proper education and access to health care, which results in an impoverished quality of life. Economic justice is simply about fairness, which is very different than charity—it’s about how the system is put together. Charity is about people with some resources helping other people who need those resources (i.e. soup kitchens). It will always be good and necessary, but it is not justice. It is important for Christians to know about the difference between justice and charity. Justice means how you are voting, how you are working to change the system. For example, a multimillionaire who gives away millions in charity and yet supports certain political causes is a terrible contradiction.
4.    Active non-violence. The two greatest causes of human suffering in the world are economic injustice and war. We must work to address both.
5.    Courage to change/transform the world.

How can progress in theories of how people learn and change be more effectively utilized within systems of training leadership for the church?
I know a little bit about different modalities of learning but have not used them. One thing I haven’t cared for (I say this as a novice) is an almost mechanical incorporation of various modalities of learning. There’s almost a political correctness in making sure we teach to all learning styles, and that can sometimes get in the way of the learning process itself.

For Christian formation, ways of exploring people’s experiences are important—for example, spiritual journey groups that provide people access to their memories. I’ve led some sessions where I’ve asked people, “What are some of your earliest memories associated with church, the Bible, God, or Jesus?” Then, I give people five minutes of silence. It’s great for group formation, and I am surprised by how many times I’ve been told that no one has ever asked them this before. You can follow it up with, “Did there come a time in your life when any of that changed? What was the occasion?” Another question I have asked is, “Have you ever had an experience that seemed to you to be an experience of God?” In a retreat with Episcopalians, 80% of them said they had. Get people talking about their own experiences—it can be rich to hear others’ stories in order to help someone get in touch with her own story.

What directions/paths do you envision the future of Christian education and faith formation to take in the next 10-20 years? 50 years?
There will probably be a much greater emphasis on adult education, increased exposure to and training in Christian practices, and a much more relational understanding of the Christian life. Not just relationships of people, but relationship with God or “What Is.” Everybody has a relationship to “is-ness” whether they’ve thought of it or not, and maybe they are indifferent to it. To paraphrase Richard Rohr, “The church that doesn’t teach its people how to pray has virtually ceased to be a church.”

What are your thoughts on the emerging/emergent church movement and its relationship to faith formation?
Emerging/emergent Christianity is an ambiguous phenomenon; I’ll explain what I mean. Some of the movement is about a change in worship and institutional style, but with the same old theology. That’s not what I think of as progressive Christianity. My wife and I went to a number of emerging services awhile ago—we were impressed with the large numbers of 20- and 30-somethings and were aware of the difference in worship style. But the sermon was all about Jesus dying for our sins, and there were no women visibly leading the services. The biblical readings were done by men, and these places were more clearly evangelical. Some emerging movements are genuinely different than that—just look at the work of Shane Claiborne, for example. I admire him greatly—he is certainly a progressive Christian, although I don’t know if he would call himself one. I see something very exciting in that form of Christianity that is focused, non-exclusive, and doesn’t proclaim that Christianity is the only way.

Also, much of emergent Christianity rejects the notion of owning buildings—I see this as a big part of the Christian future. The number of mainline churches that will decline is significant, and they are becoming small enough that they cannot sustain the buildings and professional paid clergy that they currently have. Churches of the future are likely to be smaller, much more intentional, and—often times—without the burden of a building.

What questions did I not ask that I should have? What do I need to know about faith formation that you have not yet told me?
A book that my wife and I are likely to write in the future answers the question, “What 25 stories would we want every Christian to know?” In age-appropriate ways, we should let those stories shape Christian education, not through memorization, but in terms of shaping an understanding of God and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. What stories would we want to be central to formation? A lot of the “traditional” stories would not be there. The flood would not be there—it’s a terrible story! I also wouldn’t include David and Goliath. These are the big stories that we teach to kids; but for the sake of formation there are others that are much more important. This might be an interesting project for any congregation to take on. It’s a return to the oral, narrative storytelling approach.

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi serves as Minister for Christian Faith Formation Research on the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries. She can be reached at hajbik@ucc.org.