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Book Review: Convictions by Marcus Borg

Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most

by Marcus Borg

2014 HarperCollins Publishers

Convictions was the last book published by Marcus Borg before he died in 2015. Although I was familiar with Borg referentially, this is the first of his books that I have read.

I was attracted to reading this book by Borg as a result of a long and deep felt need that I had and have to frame and re-frame my faith. What is now described as “de-construction” is simply a 21st century way to describe what Borg discusses in his book: learning what matters most.

Curt Whiteman was one of my professors in college and as a naïve freshman I grappled with a statement he made in class one day, it has stuck with me with no need for notation: “Every generation of Christians must examine their theological statements and restate them so that they make sense to the generation they live in.”

WE aren’t very good at that. We are much more comfortable learning the statements of our faith and sticking with them. Our language and our values become dated and irrelevant to all but the informed, and our convictions remain cloistered. But maybe more importantly, we don’t feel the freedom to engage, think, re-frame, and challenge the ideas passed on to us. When we do, we endure ridicule from those who taught us.

Borg gives a framework for working through this challenge. He wrote this book at age 70 noting “if we aren’t going to talk about our convictions – what we have learned about life that matters most – at seventy, then when?”

As he finishes up the book he talks about imagination:

“Imagine that Christianity is about loving God. Imagine that it’s not about the self and its concerns, about ‘what’s in it for me,’ whether that be a blessed afterlife or prosperity in this life. Imagine that loving God is about being attentive to the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Imagine that it is about becoming more and more deeply centered in God. Imagine that it is about loving what God loves. Imagine how that would change our lives. Imagine how it would change American Christianity and its relation to American politics and economics and our relationship to the rest of the world. Imagine how it would change our vision of what this world, the humanly created world, might, could, and should be like.”

(p.230)

If you are looking for help to sort through the challenges of growing up and out of your childhood faith framing, this book is a helpful tool. Borg gives two “triads” to help us sort out the journey.

Triad 1

The first triad consists of our

  • Memories
  • Conversions
  • Convictions

He summarizes these elements of the journey this way:

“The story of my life and my Christian journey is about memories, conversions, and convictions. Memories: of what I absorbed growing up. Conversions: major changes in my understanding of the Bible and God and Jesus and what it means to be a Christian. Convictions: the affirmations that have flowed from those changes.”

(p. 19)

This triad resonated with me and I am sure will with you as well. We may have spoken of it differently (“faith must be internalized…you don’t inherit faith from your parents you have to work it our for yourself) or even biblically (work out your salvation with fear and trembling…study to show yourself approved) but all of us experience moments of memory, conversion, then conviction.

Three Conversions

Borg shares three major conversions in his personal journey.

The first he describes as “intellectual (and also religious) and has to do with the notion of God. Essentially, this first conversion was away from a rigid view of God and that knowing what is “right” was not characteristic of Christianity through the ages. There was and always has been a diversity and conversation about reality within Christianity. “The notion that there was one ‘right’ way of seeing things disappeared. This was enormously liberating, even if a bit alarming. But my curiosity was greater than my fear” (p.31). He talks about an “unending conversation” that we are a part of, “we enter that conversation when we are born, spend many years learning what it’s about, and then may take part in it as active participants. Then we die and leave it. But the conversation continues” (p. 31). This conversation matters and leads us to convictions.

The Second Conversion he describes as “political (and also religious).” This conversion came upon study of the prophet Amos which he speaks much about in the book. I personally concur that Amos is a mind bender and challenges modern, especially American expressions of Christianity. “Amos led me to realize that the Bible had a dimension that I had never seen before. Amos was about God’s passion, God’s desire, God’s dream, God’s yearning, for the transformation of this world to a world of greater economic justice” (p.33).

The Third Conversion for Borg is covered in his third chapter entitled “God is Real and Is a Mystery.” This section is his movement from what he calls “Supernatural theism” which is the belief that God is separate and distinct from the universe to Panentheism: “God is not separate from the universe but a reality, a “more,” a radiant and luminous presence that permeates everything that is” (p. 45). Acts 17:27-28 and Psalm 139:7-10 serve as pegs for his sense of the presence of God being in and among all of his creation. For Borg, theology is not about “getting our beliefs right. It is about a deepening relationship with God as known especially in Jesus” (p. 50).

Triad 2

The second triad to use as a tool in the journey are found in “three familiar stages of experience:”

  1. Pre-critical naiveté
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Post-critical affirmation

The bulk of the book then is a demonstration of the application of the second triad upon the first. You apply this second triad to your memories, conversions, and convictions. And here is where I will let you do the work yourself by reading the book. In summary the convictions that Borg lands on make up chapters 4-11 of the book and are summarized by the chapter titles:

  • Salvation is more about this life than an afterlife
  • Jesus is the norm of the Bible
  • The Bible can be true without being literally true
  • Jesus’ death on the cross matters – but not because he paid for our sins
  • The Bible is political God is passionate about justice and the poor
  • Christians are called to peace and non-violence
  • To live God is to love like God

Finishing Thoughts

You may not agree with Borg’s convictions but you will be hard pressed to find a flaw with his respect for the Scripture, his love for God in Christ, and his willingness to think out-loud around some basic assumptions many of us have about what is necessary in the Christian life. I appreciated his broad view and many insights into appropriately grappling with an ancient text and modern religious expression intertwined with that text and the complexities surrounding understanding its meaning and application. Even if you already know that you are going to hate the conclusions he draws, the framework of the two sets of triads is a helpful one, if only to “fine-tune” your world of ideas and imagination.

If you are currently going through a period of deconstruction (I like to call it “remodeling”) this book will be a handy resource and guide as you attempt to honestly build a framework for your journey. For me, it is books like this that provide a “ledge to stand on” while asking hard questions about Christianity.

This book was published in the UK as “Convictions: A Manifesto for Progressive Christians”

More by Borg:

Days of Awe and Wonder was published in 2017 as a re-publishing of some of his earlier works, essays previously published elsewhere and some previously unpublished works and interviews.

  • Evolution of the Word
  • The First Christmas
  • The First Paul
  • The God we Never Knew
  • The Heart of Christianity
  • Jesus
  • Jesus: A New Vision
  • The Last Week
  • Living the Heart of Christianity
  • The Meaning of Jesus
  • Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time
  • Putting Away Childish Things
  • Reading the Bible Again for the First Time
  • Speaking Christian

Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash

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