liberal christianity

Marcus Borg, Leading Liberal Theologian and Historical Jesus Expert, Dies at 72

Photo via Kaihsu Tai / Wikimedia Commons / RNS

Marcus Borg speaking in Mansfield College chapel in 2009. Photo via Kaihsu Tai / Wikimedia Commons / RNS

Borg, a prominent liberal theologian and Bible scholar who for a generation helped shaped the intense debates about the historical Jesus and the veracity and meaning of the New Testament, died on Jan. 21. He was 72 and had been suffering from a prolonged illness, friends said.

Borg emerged as a major voice in biblical studies in the 1980s just as academics and theologians were bringing new energy to the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus,” the centuries-old effort to disentangle fact from myth in the Gospels.

Alongside scholars such as John Domonic Crossan, Borg was a leader in the Jesus Seminar, which brought a skeptical eye to the Scriptures and in particular to supernatural claims about Jesus’ miracles and his resurrection from the dead.

Like many of those critical scholars, Borg tended to view Jesus as a Jewish prophet and teacher, like many figures who emerged from the religious ferment of first-century Judaism.

Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat

Diana Butler Bass

Diana Butler Bass

In recent days, conservatives have attacked the Episcopal Church. The reason? The church has just concluded its once every three-year national meeting, and in this gathering the denomination affirmed a liturgy to bless same-sex unions. Conservatives assert that the Episcopal Church's ever-increasing social and political progressivism has led to a precipitous membership decline and ruined the denomination.

Many of the criticisms were mean-spirited or partisan, continuing a decade-long internal debate about the Episcopal Church's future. However, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat broadened the discussion, moving beyond inside-baseball ecclesial politics to ask a larger question: "Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?"

The question is a good one, for the liberal Christian tradition is an important part of American culture, from dazzling literary and intellectual achievements to great social reform movements. Mr. Douthat recognizes these contributions and rightly praises this aspect of liberal Christianity as "an immensely positive force in our national life."

Despite this history, however, Mr. Douthat insists that any denomination committed to contemporary liberalism will ultimately collapse. According to him, the Episcopal Church and its allegedly trendy faith, a faith that varies from a more worthy form of classical liberalism, is facing imminent death.

Losing the Mainline Mojo?

Church building photo, Kevin Eng /

Church building photo, Kevin Eng /

Is the Mainline Liberal Church in decline? Numerically, sure. Absolutely. But what this means, I cannot say. Many have tried to make sense of it. In the wake of recent editorials, some theologians and others have offered up their thoughts. I surmised it might be helpful to collect one or two of the links here on the outside chance that you missed them. 

Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved - Ross Douthat offers some sharp critiques of the tradition. Once the bastion of the Social Gospel movement, the liberal mainline is not all "social" and very little "Gospel." 

"But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves."

There have been a couple of good direct responses to Douthat's OpEd piece.