Saturday, February 27, 2010

Marcus Borg, James Carroll, and Faith

At Christmas and Easter Mass, when parishioners bring friends and relatives to church to celebrate with them, our pastor always voices an admonition prior to Communion. He says that only practising Catholics and only those who believe all of the teachings of the Church may receive Communion. In the beginning, this gave me pause as I knew from the time I returned to the Church that there were many teachings that I could not agree with and some core beliefs that I could not accept. Should I then deny myself the Eucharist as a half-hearted Catholic? Would I be committing a sin if I received Communion in spite of this grave admonition?

In the end, the very state of my disbelief led me to go ahead and receive Communion. First, in my heart I did not believe in the Catholic notion of sin—a list of major and minor offences for which I had to ask forgiveness and “serve time”—and second I did not really believe in transubstantiation. I knew in my heart that the bread I received from the priest or from the extraordinary minister was a symbol of the transformation that imitation of Christ could bring, not the real body of Christ. As I took the host and returned to my pew I prayed that I would be transformed, that I would die and rise again as a more loving, more forgiving, more caring person.

I did ask myself why I was a Catholic if there was so much basic stuff that I just could not buy into. At the same time, I felt God was calling me to be a priest! (More about that little contradiction in a later blog.) A friend recommended I talk about this call to the priesthood with a gay United Church minister that he knew, so I contacted the man and had lunch with him. In our conversation he recommended that I read Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. The book transformed my whole notion and understanding of faith.

The most revealing and resonant part of Borg’s book was, for me, the chapter entitled “Faith: The Way of the Heart.” Here he explains that the notion of faith as believing in a set of doctrines or teachings—the virgin birth, the resurrection, the ascension of Mary—is a recent phenomenon. This notion resulted from the competing claims of orthodoxy that arose out of the Reformation and from the need of the various churches for protection from the effects of the Enlightenment, which “called into question the factuality of parts of the Bible and of many traditional Christian teachings.”

For Borg, faith as belief, to which he gives the Latin name assensus, or “assent,” is a matter of the head rather than the heart.

Prior to the modern period, the most common Christian meanings of the word “faith” were not matters of the head but matters of the heart. In the Bible and the Christian tradition, the “heart” is a metaphor for a deep level of the self, a level below our thinking, feeling, and willing, our intellect, emotions, and volition. The heart is thus deeper than our “head,” deeper than our conscious self and the ideas we have in [our] heads. Faith concerns this deeper level of the self. Faith is the way of the heart, not the way of the head.

Borg asserts that besides assensus, there are three other meanings of faith, all of which understand faith as a “matter of the heart.” The first of these he calls fiducia. This amounts to “radical trust in God. Significantly it does not mean trusting in the truth of a set of statements about God….Rather, it means trusting in God.” The opposite of fiducia is mistrust, which leads to anxiety or worry. Borg illustrates the concept with the words of Jesus:

Consider the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them….Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

The second meaning is fidelitas, which is fidelity or faithfulness to our relationship with God.

Faith as fidelity means loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self at its deepest level, the commitment of the “heart”….[It] does not mean faithfulness to statements about God, whether biblical, credal, or doctrinal. Rather, it means faithfulness to the God to whom the Bible and creeds and doctrines point. Fidelitas refers to a radical centering in God.
The opposite of fidelity, of course, is infidelity, and one of infidelity’s biblical meanings, relevant yet today, is idolatry. If we worship the things of this world to the neglect of or in place of our relationship with God, which is central, we are unfaithful. We practice faithfulness through “worship, prayer, practise, and a life of compassion and justice.” Being faithful to God also means loving “the whole of creation,” which includes our neighbour.

The third meaning Borg gives to faith is visio, “faith as a way of seeing the whole, seeing ‘what is.’” We can see “what is” as hostile or threatening, as indifferent, or as “life-giving and nourishing.” The latter perception “leads to radical trust. It frees us from the anxiety, self-preoccupation, and concern to protect the self with systems of security that mark the first two viewpoints. It leads to the ‘self-forgetfulness of faith’ and thus to the ability to love and to be present to the moment.”

So Marcus Borg has turned the notion of faith as assensus, which we Catholics are required to subscribe to, entirely on its head. But Borg’s interpretation seems to speak to the thinking Christian, the one who may be sceptical of the literal reading of scripture and who is looking beyond orthodoxy for a faith that joyfully embraces God as divine mystery.

If we accept Borg’s understanding of faith as a matter of the heart rather than of the head, thereby putting aside what I consider our childish faith, are we then bad Catholics? In his most recent memoir, Practicing Catholic, novelist and memoirist James Carroll has a great deal to say on this topic. In the brilliant and moving last chapter of the book, entitled “A Writer’s Faith,” he says that once it was very clear who bad Catholics were.

Bad Catholics were in bad marriages, or they were openly gay, or they had had abortions, or they practiced artificial birth control.

But it is no longer as clear:

Members of Catholic reform groups, like Voice of the Faithful, Future Church, and Call to Action, are labelled as bad Catholics by some. Lay movements are generally looked on askance, even though they are thriving in the Church around the globe. In Latin America, priests who organize campesinos without permission of the bishop are bad. So are Latin-American laypeople for that matter, who organize themselves into “base communities” without a priest; Dutch theologians who evoke Erasmus; and women who preside at unofficial Eucharists without waiting to be ordained. On the other hand, Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma would seem to be a good Catholic since the American bishops appointed him head of their National Review Board on Clergy Sexual Abuse in 2002. Yet Keating had authorized dozens of death row executions, and Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, had said justification for the death penalty is “rare, if not virtually non-existent.” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is regarded as a good Catholic, yet he is openly contemptuous of the pope’s teaching here. And what about Catholics who supported George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, and his program of torture, despite the grave misgivings expressed by Church leaders? Was Pope Benedict’s honouring of Bush with an unprecedented papal visit to the White House consistent with those misgivings? Not long ago bad Catholics were also known as cafeteria Catholics, choosing beliefs as much by conscience as by the menu of authority, but it seems now that Catholics from left to right approach the cafeteria line, eying options.

In this same chapter Carroll, a former Roman Catholic priest, movingly describes an encounter with the poet Allen Tate, a Catholic, who had been a mentor to Carroll. Tate and his wife had just lost their infant child Michael, and the local priest had refused to give the child a Catholic burial because Tate was married to a young woman who had left the convent for him. The poet was devastated, and Carroll, soon to be ordained, was moved to console him.

I do not have a detailed memory of what I said to Tate on that day, but the burden of my words—their weight and significance—is very clear to me today and was then. All that poured from me showed that my faith had been transformed. The God of judgment and condemnation, so vividly incarnate in the excommunicating priest, had nothing to do with the God whom Jesus preached. Human love, Jesus said, which seeks not to command but to lure, is the great signal of who God is. And wasn’t it in Jesus’ own life, as those who loved him told the story, that we saw that?

He goes on to say this about Jesus and salvation:

What Jesus offers is not salvation, conceived only as a negative rescue from damnation. Instead, Jesus offers a positive completion of life—“life,” as he said, “to the full”— not some endless Sunday afternoon stretching on toward an omega point that never comes, but the fullness of life here and now. Past, present, and future, experienced in the light of God’s promise, change the meaning of time, and that same promise changes the meaning of space. But the point is, it happens here. Not in some afterlife. By being fully human, Jesus became God’s real presence.

And this on the Resurrection:

I do not recall discussing the Resurrection with Allen Tate, but I might have. Just as I would never have spoken of Michael at play in the streets of heaven, I would not have spoken of some miraculous resuscitation of the dead body of Jesus— as if the reorganization of molecules and atoms forms the content of Christian hope. I had learned from Tate himself the power of metaphor and symbolism, and was at home in understanding my religious impulse in those terms. Resurrection is the symbol pointing beyond itself to the intuition that, as his friends could not give up their affection for Jesus, neither could God. God’s permanent affection is for life, life over death, resurrection. It is not that God intervenes to counter the normal course of nature, but that the normal course of nature is itself the intervention.

These are not the words of a man who subscribes to the meaning of belief as assensus. There is clearly much that he does not believe and much that he believes more as matter of the heart than of the head. Yet James Carroll has not moved to a denomination that would be more welcoming of his rather unorthodox theology; he remains a practicing Catholic.

To repeat Rabbi Heschel’s words: God is greater than religion. Greater than every religion. Every denomination. Every time-bound ecclesiastical manifestation. And today many religious people see that. Certainly including many Catholics. God is greater than any language used of God.

The problem with assensus is that the critical mind questions; it wrestles with the concepts of God and of faith. It refuses to be bound to the limitations prescribed by the Catechism. Marcus Borg is just one Christian mind; James Carroll is just one Catholic mind. But what they represent to me is the freedom that can be experienced when I dare to go beyond official boundaries of Catholic teaching, when I question even core beliefs. Reading The Heart of Christianity and Practicing Catholic freed me not only to disagree—without guilt—with the official teachings of the Church but also to begin to experience God in my own unique way and to recognize that I may experience Him entirely differently tomorrow.

And still be Catholic.


  1. I, too, cannot recommend enough the Borg title. It's changed me in profound ways.

  2. It is slightly ironic that the books which have had the greatest influence on me in my recent journey as a Catholic are not "Catholic" books. BTW, have you read the Carroll book?

  3. I'm in your boat, Ross. I understand.

    And no, I haven't read the Carroll book, but it's being added to my (pretty lengthy) list of must-reads.

  4. Church is boring. The songs, the standing, the kneeling, the stupid silk clothes; and you have to pay for it. Why bother?