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Marcus Borg, Quaker Bibliomancy, and the Meaning of Myth

So here I am, back reading more of Marcus Borg's
Reading the Bible Again for the First Time
: Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally. I'm making a slow job of it--in part because Peter has had the book for a while. Partly, though, I just find Borg... thin. I may have to stop every two or three pages when I'm reading a meaty Quaker writer like Lloyd Lee Wilson, just to reboot my head after I hit my personal limit for Scriptural references, but I can feel the weight of both thought and Spirit pulsing through the pages. Borg is easier to read, on the one hand... but less absorbing on the other.

I take it that he's the the theologian that fundamentalist Christians love to hate. His two big insights--that the Bible is most useful for it's metaphorical truths (what I, a Pagan, would call myths, in a positive sense) and for its metaphorized (mythologized) history of a people's relationship with Spirit--seem pretty straightforward to me. And the readings he's presenting so far (I'm only up to Exodus) don't seem to be pushing me to read much deeper into the stories than I am able to do from my memories of the children's Bible from my secular humanist childhood.

I had a flash of deeper meaning calling to me as I read his description of the story of Joseph, and his greeting of the brothers who sold him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph, for those who did not have the benefit of my illustrated children's edition of the Bible, was the one who dreamed true dreams, and helped Pharaoh prepare his people for a famine. I found it interesting that, when his hungry brothers showed up in Egypt, Joseph, that mystic dreamer, was able not just to forgive, but to embrace the experience and the mitzvah that experience allowed. Borg quotes Joseph as saying:
Do not be distressed [they might well have been afraid!], or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life... God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here but God.

This combination of a spirit of forgiveness and a direct experience of spiritual leading seems to me to be a very Quaker thing. And, while I'm most familiar with Friends' quoting from the New Testament and the letters of the early Christian church, it's kind of neat, stumbling across such a Quakerly way of re-reading this story.

On the whole, though, I'm not finding Borg's Bible terribly nourishing stuff. It's not that I disagree with his way of looking at the Bible... it's that it just doesn't seem to be enough. I compare it with Quaker readings of the Bible that I've been privy to, and I miss the quick flash of lived Spirit I've found among some Friends who quote the Bible. I may have to work to let the language in, but I do find those Friends often have something to say that makes it worth my while to try.

For instance, reading in Each of Us Inevitable, an anthology of keynote addresses given on GLBTQ concerns, I came across Jan Hoffman's essay, "Eros and the Life of the Spirit." Jan's retelling of the story of Moses and the burning bush, spoke to me--spoke to me clearly, in the heart of my Pagan experience. She writes about that moment that Spirit reaches out and grabs you by the scruff of the neck and suddenly--SHAZAM!--you are changed:
Moses was just wandering along. He saw a burning bush and turned aside, and when the Lord saw that Moses turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses!” It is indeed through our senses that the Divine gets our attention.

Once our attention is captured, dialogue becomes possible. Moses did not just stop at the bush, listen quietly to God’s command, and simply go away and follow that command; he talked back and negotiated with that Voice:

“You want me to talk to the People? Who shall I say sent me?”

“Tell them‘I am who I am’ sent you—that Presence which breathes life into

“Are you kidding? They’ll never believe that name!”

“Well, if they won’t believe words, maybe they will believe signs.Take up that rod and throw it on the ground.”

“It turned into a snake! Pretty impressive, but the People will think I’m just crazy, throwing rods around that turn into snakes. Can’t you send somebody else? I’ve got my dignity, after all.”

“Moses! Somebody else didn’t step aside to look at this burning bush; you were drawn to the bush; you go tell them about it...”

...This encounter was at the very center of Moses’ life; it informed his life and changed its direction. We often hear people say after similar encounters, “I’ll never be the same again.” No, thank God, we won’t. To be touched by the Divine is a gift, and it often attracts our attention in unexpected ways. Moses didn’t expect God to appear in a burning bush,and when he turned aside to see a bush and found himself in God’s presence, he at first resisted yielding to that Presence. Yet when he did yield, he found his life’s deepest integrity—that is indeed a gift.

Yes. Yes. Isn't this what a spiritual life is for? Suddenly, the Universe is speaking to us. We didn't expect it (though we may have longed for it). But having seen and heard the Voice of Spirit, whether in the near and familiar life of trees and animals and faces we love, or in a strange and sudden revelation, suddenly, there we are--in relationship, in dialog.

If we're lucky, or perhaps if we're wise, or maybe just if the Universe is persistent enough, we let that Voice in. And something about being in dialog makes us whole, or at least starts the process toward the kind of integrity that makes us whole.

So, OK. I suspect that some of my Pagan friends are cringing about now, thinking of other stories of Moses we know and find acutely distressing. (The story of Moses and the Midianite women comes screamingly to mind.) Yes, yes. The Moses of the Bible could be a right prick from time to time. (Rather like Zeus, if I put my feminist hat on,by the way.) And if we think of him as a historical human or an idealized moral model--well, sorry. He sucks. Patriarchy sucks--past, present, or future--and the myths of Moses are from a very patriarchal strata of world history.

But Pagans reclaim patriarchal myths every day. The Bible, though... the Bible is different.

What keeps those of us who are alienated from patriarchal religion from reclaiming those myths, too? Well, chiefly I think it is the fact that, unlike the stories of Zeus and other patriarchal Pagan deities, we are expected to take them literally, as absolute and historical reflections of the will of one supreme and rather vengeful god. Take it or leave it—this material, we're told, is to be swallowed down whole.

Pagans don't do that when it comes to Pagan mythology--we play with it, rethink it, re-envision it in art and music and theater. And, most of all, we experience it in the light of direct encounters with Spirit. In Quakerese, it might be said that modern Pagans read our myths "in the Life." And I think that's my point. Pagans read our mythology in something the same way that Quakers—at least some Quakers—read the Bible, not as a dead document with unchanging meaning, but as a kaleidoscope of meaning. Turn it, let the Light of Spirit shine into it, and you may see something new. Spirit--God or gods--may show you something new.

I'm not clear on the extent to which Quaker Christians see this kind of playfulness as legitimate. I'm not sure Quakers themselves are clear. At times, the creativity and openness I've seen demonstrated in Quaker readings of the Bible are breathtaking to me--though, from where I sit, it's done with an openness to Spirit that is more moving to me than any other aspect of the process.

Still, I'm sure the question gets asked--among Pagans and Quakers: can this playfulness toward sacred story—and, for a moment, to the chagrin of all, let me drop the distinction between the written god-stories of the Bible and the oral traditions of the Pagan world—can it be abused?

Well, sure. You know anything humans do that can't be, when we've a mind to it? I've read some marvelously creative and, I think, spiritually illuminating retellings of Pagan mythology over the years. Evangeline Walton's faithful retelling of the stories of the Mabinogion are a personal favorite. I'm also incredibly fond of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, chilling though it is in parts. But I've seen some ghastly-awful retellings of mythology, too. One achingly politically correct tale of a repentant former-rapist Zeus comes to mind at the moment, and I have to say: however little I admire the wielder of the thunderbolt, literary castration is no solution for the ethical challenge his myths pose for his worshippers today.

The answer, though, is not in slavish literalism, for Pagans any more than for Christians. How about we accept the possibility that our sacred texts reflect the people who told the stories, and are not perfect containers for the experiences of Spirit by those who handed them down to us? Our gods, just as much as the reality behind the creation stories and origin myths of the Bible, are badly served by fundamentalist literalism. But moving from literalism to mythological thinking will not be enough, for Pagans or for any other spiritual tradition, if we do not allow our interpretations to be guided by direct experience of Spirit. We owe it to our gods to be open to discovering for ourselves the meaning within the metaphors.

And as for Christianity—well, who am I to judge? I suspect that many Christians, reading my words here, are understandably reluctant to entrust me with any sort of reading of the Bible. I regard the Bible with no more reverence, inherently, than I do the words of Homer: I don't “believe” in either, in the sense that the Evangelicals who ring my doorbell mean the word. Which, for the majority of Christians, would seem to settle the question of my fitness to even think about the Bible. I have no "standing" (to borrow a legal term) to argue for or against literalism or playfulness in approaching its stories.

Well, the Bible is in no danger from me as yet. It remains, when placed in my hands, a lifeless thing, without voice. But I am intrigued by how, placed in the hands of Quakers moved by Spirit, that book of old and often troubling stories can speak to me. It seems to me, outsider though I am, that Quakers have a knack for reading the Bible in the Spirit, and that allows a Light that I can't help but feel is too large for any creed to capture to illuminate it's pages, at least for them—or for me, if I am very daring, very open, and very wise.

At the very least, it seems to offer more meat than the thin reading I am finding so far in the liberal Christianity of Marcus Borg.


Anonymous said…
I love this about you Cat - the willingness to see beyond boundaries to the essential.

So, you see Friend's reading the Bible and your eyes and ears tell you that magic is happening. The question might be what the nature of that magic is?

Is it the object itself? If you grew up with the Bible in a positive way, just the touch of it may open pathways, like touching a well loved ritual tool or a tree.

Is it the sound of the words irrespective of their actual meaning? There's a reason that the King James Bible still is popular (though inaccurate). Like the Tridentine Mass, the sound of the language itself is transporting. Or the ye olde language of some BoS'.

Then there is the meaning of some of the words. I can understand why Brighid was Jesus' midwife (not in most Bibles). I'll also take Song of Solomon with or without allegory.

Is the Bible a book of spells (other than the Armor of God, which almost certainly is a spell)?

Maybe the prayers and incantations within the Bible actually work - if you actually want a relationship with this particular Hebrew God.

So, perhaps its desire. A polytheist might deal with this gently - desiring relationship with this god or that goddess - a theological polyamory. But polytheists are not generally attracted to jealous gods. Jealous gods seem to demand theological monogamy. Which may not be a problem for a monotheist but is problematic for anyone wanting to party with Thor next weekend.

So you haven't been touched by this particular combination of touch, sound, words and incantations. yet, you can sense the particular magic of the Light in this interaction. So is the question whether this is the same Light you have relationship with or is it a different Light?

If its the same Light, a pagan would not worry. All mystics have their own rituals and tools and so why not the Book? It seems only problematic when the tools and rituals separate mystics who should be sharing the same experience. You may not believe that its a different Light, but others may and that builds a separation. No amount of logic will break through that wall - it takes a heart's understanding. That's its own form of magic.

Hi, David,
I'm coming to the conclusion that the gods may be many, but Something weaving us together is One. And I've come to believe that the Light in which I've seen Friends read the Bible is the same Light I've experienced also.

For that matter, I believe it to be the same experience Gus DiZerega describes, explaining how he became Wiccan, in his wonderful book, Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience. He writes:
As the invocation came to an end I was suddenly enveloped in a presence of incredible power, beauty, and love. While nothing was visible to my eyes, the closeness of that presence was palapable. There was a sense of nature, of forests and streams and meadows. At the same time, there was a pervading sense of beauty beyond words, power beyond imagining, and love beyond conception... It was a gift and a blessing that, if it never happened again, was enough to leave me grateful for a lifetime.

(Come to think of it, maybe it's time to re-read di Derega. Though, alas, his characterization of Christianity is far less accurate than that of Paganism. He knows he's only describing Wiccan Paganism... but he forgets there's more to Christianity than fundamentalist intolerance and incuriousness.)

I'm not arguing that all the gods are one god. But I would argue that all the gods--and each of us, and every bud on every bough of every tree--are bathed and suffused within that same Light.

I do not equate the Light with all the stories told of the god of Abraham. I can't; I won't. That story of Moses passing on an order from god to slaughter the Midianite women--in no way do I believe that order came from that Light. If the story is accurate, Moses was passing on an order from something far less reliable than that Light.

Which is the reason I've not granted that particular god, in times where he appears to be clearly acting contrary to even a rudimentary awareness of the Light, a capital letter.

I'm sure that will earn me some scorn from somebody somewhere. Who am I to judge a god? Well, who are any of us? I've long maintained that we are responsible for the gods we choose to worship. To me, the remarkable thing is not that one would choose to "just say no" to a genocidal order from a "god", but that, in my experience, careful discernment in the company of others who are also really attempting to "mind the Light" makes it possible to be supported in doing so, and not just by human agencies and human ethics.

For some Pagans, I'm already waaay out there in the dangerous shoals of monotheism. For most Christians, I'm a dangerous heretic, I suppose. But in the Light, and in the company of the Quakers I worship with at my own meeting, there is only quiet and warmth as we listen together for something none of us are claiming to understand--just to love and trust. The Bible, in those circles, acts as a tool, and not a wedge, either. And I'm not going to let it divide me from the Voice when it comes to me in those words--not when I can sense the Light behind them.

I think I'm going to have to be content with that (not like that's cause for complaint, right?) and the respect of heretical universalists like yourself.

Ah, well. ;) Not such a raw deal!
Anonymous said…
If I've become a heretical UU then I have really accomplished something:-)

I'm going to hallucinate what I think you're saying. Its entirely possible that I'll get it wrong, so please correct me.

Your response to my comment centers on the almost panentheist conception that the Light infuses everything and underlies it (and yes, the 2003 poem I posted on my own blog was for you and one other.)

You're also saying that there is at least one space in your life where that Light is made obvious. Not called into existence, but just made obvious in you and others. Like electrical current through the right filament, glowing. And, in that space, the unnecessary divisions, not just between religions, but, between humans, between humans and nature and everything else are cleared away.
Its not that the Light makes every other belief false or only partially correct or worse makes one completely correct. Its just that this experience of the Light is true in a different, complete and satisfying way.
It seems possible for Friends to live completely in the Light (or at least most of the time) to the exclusion of any other particulars. But, neither pagan nor Friend's thought seems to support a both/and view where the Light and the particular Old Ones and spirits of place can exist simultaneously. Which isn't a problem of personal belief, but highlights a sadness. That sadness seems that pagans do not experience the Light under normal circumstances and that Friends miss out on the deep connection to the Earth, not as a reflection of Light, but the Earth filled with Particulars that we are in relationship with.

By theology, you seem more of a druid than either a wiccan or a Friend. Atleast some druid traditions are both/and. The old OBOD course had pagans gagging on bardic grade prayers and Christians wondering if they were going to hell by working ovate grade rituals.
But saying that is like taking a quiz at Beliefnet. You have real commitment to two communities, both of which are nourishing in their own unique ways.
Perhaps that's the good of it. Two homes instead of one, telling tales of incomprehensible wonder in each?

Hey, David,
You do fine work while under the influence of hallucinogens. Who knew that entheogens were among the UU Mysteries? ;)

When you write, "You're also saying that there is at least one space in your life where that Light is made obvious," I'm with you, 100%. Yes, that is exactly right.

When you write, "Its not that the Light makes every other belief false or only partially correct or worse makes one completely correct," that also reflects at least my experience. After all, those human creeds and codes of belief are all metaphors for things we can scarcely grasp in any form. The apparent contradictions, even between ideas that seem as basic as theism and nontheism, or polytheism and monotheism, are largely due to the inadequacy of our understanding--like the apparent conflict between an understanding that light (in the physical sense) is a particle, and that light is a wave. Not only can it be both, but it is both--though not quite in the way we normally envision.

But when you write, "neither [P]agan nor Friends' thought seems to support a both/and view where the Light and the particular Old Ones and spirits of place can exist simultaneously," I am unclear as to your meaning. If you are saying that, in the traditional ways of seeing that both of these groups have cultivated over years, the possibility of such coexistence isn't much acknowledged, that, I think, may be true. (Though, in practice, I find that both groups are able to entertain a much wider set of ideas than might be theorized. I think that's because both are practice and experience-oriented rather than primarily creedal.)

If I understand you, when you write, the "sadness seems [to be] that pagans do not experience the Light under normal circumstances and that Friends miss out on the deep connection to the Earth, not as a reflection of Light, but the Earth filled with Particulars that we are in relationship with," I find myself hesitant to agree. I'm not sure I do feel such a sadness. For myself, I feel great joy, that Spirit can reach out to us in such a diversity of forms that each of us can encounter it as we need to. The universal need not supplant the particular and the local, but the particular and the local are not the limit of meaningful relationship with God, either.

I do know at least one Friend who believes that Quakers need to begin to adopt more specifically Pagan thoughts and perhaps even practices into our religious life, in order for our relationship with the earth as sacred to be sufficiently clear and passionate to us to open us to more active environmental ministry. This is, at least, the sense I've gleaned from speaking with him over time, and I know he is wrestling with the possibility that this is a leading to active ministry among Friends on that matter.

But it's not my ministry, even if it is his. So my appreciation of it, for the moment, is the abstract appreciation for an idea that might or might not make sense, rather than a sense of a sacred leading.

Interestingly, I don't feel any particular need to sing a different song than what I've sung so far. Which I guess might be loosely translated to, "Hey! Lookie here! The world is even more full of Joy than we'd thought! Woo-hoo! Let's be glad!"

I'm pretty sure there's more to the song, but I haven't learned it yet...

As for having two homes in which to tell my stories of incomprehensible wonder... hm.. I suspect that all the True Stories are tales of incomprehensible wonder, however we tell them.

I do find it a source of frustration that I have only a limited time to serve on Quaker committees, earn a living, and engage with the Pagan world. Thus far, it's the involvement with Pagan institutions--Cherry Hill Seminary, Weavers LC of COG, etc--that has suffered. Sometimes I think about that, and why that might be.

And you're right, I do appreciate the ways Druids think. Especially in these last few years, I think there's been a real renaissance in Druid writing and thought! Though, when I was becoming Pagan, at least in the rural part of Vermont where I lived, we didn't waste too much time on fine distinctions between Druids, shamans, Wiccans, and reconstructionists. We were all just Pagans, and learned to listen to one another's wisdom and for one another's gods as carefully as we could. Worked pretty well, too!

Thanks for making me think--again. As usual. :)
Yewtree said…
Hi Cat, Hi David,

I think some Christians are henotheists and some are monotheists.

Both positions are problematic in Christian terms, because of the tradition that their god is a jealous one; the former because they are actively against other gods; the latter because they mistake a particular window or facet for the Limitless itself.

I too am of the view that we all swim in a sea of Spirit - I don't want to call it Light because I feel that terminology sets up a denigration of darkness
- deities, people, and every leaf on every tree.

I am not prepared to serve any deity without question - why would I have been endowed with the faculty of reason if I wasn't meant to use it?

If I am going to look at the Bible, I prefer the Scholars' Version, or Jewish interpretations. A Jewish gentleman told me that they enjoy wrangling over the meanings of the text, so much so that the Torah is said to have seventy faces - the seventy different possible interpretations of each verse. Now that's what I call postmodern and metaphorical :)
Hey, Yvonne,
I understand the argument against denigrating darkness by referring to Spirit as Light. I refer to the Spirit I sense in Quaker meeting for worship as "Light" however, because that is how I experience it: the most consistent visual metaphors that come to me are of flooding light. Second most commonplace: water. I know--both very common metaphors. However, in this case, I use the word I do not because it of its history as a symbol in the world, but because of personal experience. That's not intended to negate those whose experiences may be of different metaphors: I may sit next to someone in meeting whose inner eye is beholding a fertile darkness, like that of the earth. I wouldn't feel in conflict with that person or with their vision because we see that which I experience as the Light differently.

But, since there's more than enough linguistic confusion to go around, I've chosen to use the word for the experience I've had, and to trust my audience (in this blog, a pretty sophisticated one) to see beyond the trap of dualism that might be implied by my wording. It's my hope that if I need to talk about Spirit as shadow or darkness, Spirit will lead me to do so. Till then, I'm going to just trust my audience to fill in the missing understanding--as you have done, for instance.

I also sometimes use the word God,
a word so complex it's just dying to be misinterpreted. When I use the word, my current understanding is not much like the dude David showed reaching a finger out toward Adam--more like the qabalistic concept of Ain Soph Aur,as I've written before.

Like you, I'm very aware of the ways that traditional Christian mono- or henotheism can be problematic. What is a source of grateful wonder to me is the ways that Spirit moves through even what, as an outsider, looks to me to be a hopeless tangle in Christianity, and resolves those problems, at least as the religion is practiced by a good many Quaker Christians I know, and whose Biblically-centered ministry can be of real use to me.

Though I don't know why I'm surprised! As a member of a religion that can count the goddesses Squat and Discordia among the many deities we worship, a Pagan, above all, should know how readily Spirit can move through whatever crazy notions we humans throw up in its path!
Anonymous said…

Thanks for this post.

Not having read Borg, it wouldn't be fair for me to comment on his work.

However, I've noticed the trend in "progressive" religious writing of recent decades—one I myself admit to having participated in—to tiptoe very carefully around the actual guts of religious experience (to use an awkward image).

Those of us who have been burned by the religions of our childhood, or who have seen other people burned, or who don't want to give even the appearance of wanting to burn someone at the stake *small grin* have a wariness about giving public voice to any of our private religious passion.

I know that's mainly because it is private.

But it's also because we live in a reductionistic, partisan culture.

It wasn't George W. Bush who popularized the idea that "you're either with us or you're against us." In America, that seems to have been the motto across the spectrum in recent years, not only for the so-called "dominant culture," but also for each minority "identity group."

So…we write broad, insightful works of religious scholarship which voice a lot of universally tolerant ideas—but which dare to deal with metaphor only as metaphor.

Not as the powerful, Spirit-born and spirit-moving magic it can sometimes be.

I'm grateful for your reference to Jan Hoffman's essay. I haven't yet read it, but the passage you quote about Moses goes to the heart of the matter.

"To be touched by the Divine is a gift, and it often attracts our attention in unexpected ways. Moses didn’t expect God to appear in a burning bush, and when he turned aside to see a bush and found himself in God’s presence, he at first resisted yielding to that Presence. Yet when he did yield, he found his life’s deepest integrity—that is indeed a gift."

I'm almost finished with Part III of my "Am I a nontheist…?" series for The Empty Path.

A key section of this work in progress draws upon Todd Shy's Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Winter 2007) article, "The Democratic Dilemma."

Writing about Jim Wallis, Shy says:

"In the end, religion, like our other deep experiences, is disturbing, unsettling, even as it irresistibly holds our devotion. Liberals like Wallis need to engage us on the level of our private shuddering in order to energize our public commitments."

"On the level of our private shuddering…."

What a phrase!

Bl├ęssed Be,
Michael Bright Crow
Anonymous said…
Speaking as a Jewish pagan who is familiar with Friends:

I've been growing a lot lately in my relationship to the Hebrew Bible. One of my key insights has been that the Torah is not a novel in which G!d is the protagonist — it is a novel in which the Jewish people is the protagonist. Approaching it with the idea that its purpose is to allow one to get to know G!d, one will often find the human characters to be unreliable intermediaries, patriarchy being only one among many reasons.

However, approaching those stories in order to get to know the people in them — and here, I think, the Jewish and Christian perspectives show their difference, for the encounter is deepened for me because those people are my tribal ancestors — one does end up meeting G!d through their experience, through their stories.

I've come to this work from a deep leading that these stories are My Ancestral Heritage, so I don't know if this perspective will be fruitful for you without that angle. It may be that you simply aren't called to a deep relationship with those particular stories. In that case, simply take this as a testimony that those of us who are called to them come to them from many different directions.

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