Marcus Joel Borg (1942–2015): An American New Testament scholar and theologian. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Marcus Joel Borg (1942–2015): An American New Testament scholar and theologian. (Photo via Wikipedia)

Believing the Right Things and Being a Jerk

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

One of my favourite quotations from Marcus Borg reads, “You can believe all the right things and still be a jerk. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable, still be in bondage, still be untransformed.”

Faith is not a matter of believing the right things. Rather than being a head trip, Christian faith is a living, loving, relationship with God. It is a way of living in the world with compassion, integrity, and love.

Borg continues by reminding us that this emphasis on believing is “modern and mistaken. It’s also very divisive. Once people start thinking that being a Christian is about believing the right things, then anybody’s list of what the ‘right things’ are becomes a kind of litmus test as to who’s really a good Christian and who’s not.”

We’ve run into this kind of litmus test over and over in the history of the church. It’s one of the primary reasons why the church has split as often as it has. As I wrote last week, there are over 45,000 different Christian denominations in the world today. A group in the church thinks that another group doesn’t believe the right things about God or Jesus or worship or the Bible or … well, you can fill in the blank. It’s happening right now in the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant denomination in the USA) around the issue of human sexuality. Congregations which are more welcoming to members of the LGBTQ community are being kicked out of the denomination.

Indeed, the fundamentalist movement began with “The Five Fundamentals,” a document put together in 1910 to protest the modernization of Christian theology in the early 20th century. These Fundamentals laid out what a person must believe to be considered a Christian: 1) the inerrancy of Scripture means that the Bible is completely without error in all of its writings in the original languages; 2) the virgin birth of Christ as a historical reality; 3) the substitutionary atonement of Christ, which means that Jesus died in our place to pay the penalty for sin; 4) the bodily resurrection of Christ, which many fundamentalist Christians consider to be the cornerstone of Christianity itself; and 5) the reality of the miracles performed by Christ.

If this is what you need to believe to be a Christian … then I fail completely. That will come as no surprise to some of my conservative friends.

I agree completely with Borg that “Being a Christian is about one’s relationship with God. And that relationship with God can go along with many different belief systems.”

Let me suggest three elements included in a living and loving relationship with God.

First, in Borg’s magnificent phrase, “being Christian is about loving God and loving what God loves.”

Loving God is at the heart of both Judaism and Christianity— “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.” Jesus calls this teaching from Deuteronomy the Great Commandment. We participate in a relationship of love and trust with the God who animates the universe. This is not a head trip; it’s a commitment of the heart. Jesus calls us to love God with our whole being.

But not just God. We also love what God loves. And what does God love? The best–known verse in the New Testament helps us here. “For God so loved the world …” (John 3:16) God loves the world — not just me, not just you and me, not just Christians, not even just human beings. God loves the whole of creation.

But there is a deeper meaning here. John uses the word “kosmos” for world, and in John’s vocabulary, kosmos points to what is hostile to God in the world. Even in the face of such hostility, God loves. We are to love in the same way with the same passion.

However, God’s love doesn’t just accept things as they are. To use Robert Frost’s famous phrase, God has “a lover’s quarrel with the world.” God loves the world and wills it to be a better world. When we love what God loves, we work to make our world a better place.

Secondly, being Christian is about becoming the kind of person who can live this out more fully day by day. I’m talking about a daily transformation. We need to be transformed, because the process of growing up doesn’t teach us to be concerned about others. It inclines us to be concerned about ourselves. It happens to all of us. We’ve seen it again in all those protests who insist on “my rights” and “my freedom” with no concern for any others.

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Christian faith is a journey of transformation. We cultivate those habits of the heart which make us more compassionate, more considerate, more graceful, more loving. We are being transformed so that we can “love our neighbour as ourselves.” To love our neighbour requires practice.

Thirdly, being Christian is about being part of a community of transformation where we can practice becoming loving people together. I talked about this kind of community last week, where we are encouraged, supported, and formed to be gospel people in the world.

The older I get, the less I think that Christian faith has anything to do with what I believe. It has so much more to do with how we live, how we treat one another, how we treat the environment in which we live.

Believing has extraordinarily little transformative power. You can believe all the right things and still be quite untransformed. You can believe all the right things and still be a jerk.

Christian faith, however, is about entering that process of transformation in which our lives are quite literally turned around and focussed on the one who sustains the universe and the neighbours with whom we inhabit this fragile planet.

Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook