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In his various writings, Marcus Borg has consistently espoused the notion that the church’s tendency to view God through the lens of “Supernatural Theism” has caused many problems and is also one of the chief culprits behind the mass exodus from the church today. As an alternative, Borg puts forth the notions of “panentheism” and also of “viewing God as Spirit.” Panentheism, which views all things as being “within God” is a logical and valuable model. Here, however, I want to reflect a bit on several implications inherent in the Spirit model. Borg covers this theme in considerable detail in his book, The God We Never Knew.
Borg begins by stating that the Spirit model leads to an image of the Christian life that stresses three vital things: relationship, intimacy and belonging.
In addition, Borg states:
As a root metaphor for the sacred, Spirit images God as a nonmaterial reality pervading the universe as well as being more than the universe. As used in the Bible…..its meaning is broader than the specific Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” which sees it as one aspect of God. But in the Bible, Spirit is used comprehensively to refer to God’s presence in creation, in the history of Israel, and in the life of Jesus and the early church. ……Some of its resonances of meaning are suggested by the Hebrew word for Spirit. “Ruach” also minds wind and breath. The associations of both are suggestive. Both are invisible yet manifestly real. We cannot see the wind, though its presence and effects are felt; it moves without being seen. When it blows, it is all around us. Breath is like wind inside the body. For the ancient Hebrews (as for us), it was associated with life. Metaphorically, God as Spirit is both wind and breath, a non material reality outside of us and within us. Our breath is God breathing us, and God is as near to us as our own breath. Speaking o f God as Spirit, as both wind and breath, evokes both transcendence and nearness.
Borg goes on to point out how the Spirit model of God allows for the inclusion of feminine images of God, specifically images of God as:
It is as a Journey Companion – or Good Shepherd – that I think Christ has the most direct impact and relevance for Christians today. Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd. Borg elaborates on this role of Jesus:
Rather than a single image, this is a category of images pointing to God as a companion who travels with us. It includes the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day that led the Israelites through the wilderness, as well as the presence of God that tented among them in a mobile home (the tabernacle). God as shepherd is another such image, but with the added dimension of nourishment and protection. The shepherd not only travels with the sheep but leads them to water and food, finds shelter, protects them, and seeks them when they go astray. In the New Testament, journey companion imagery is associated especially with Jesus. A disciple is one who journeys with Jesus (who also provides bread for the journey, indeed, “companion” literally means somebody with whom one breaks bread). In the Emmaus Road story, the risen Christ journeys with his disciples, even though they do not recognize him. And in John’s gospel, the image of God as shepherd is applied to Jesus: the Johannine Jesus is “the good shepherd.
I especially feel a vital connection with Jesus as “journey companion” when I reflect on the realties inherent in Paul’s brief statement in Ephesians 4:10. This is where Paul describes Jesus as the “one who ascended higher than the highest heaven so that he might fill all things with himself.” The implications of this one small comment are literally staggering. With the Ascension of Jesus, all things underwent a tremendous change – all things became a home for the Risen Lord.
Once we understand and accept this reality – the infusion of Christ into all things – our priority should be to deepen our conscious contact with the Indwelling Light. In my mind, I believe the best way to facilitate this deepening is through the practice of the classic spiritual disciplines. Borg speaks of these practices, what he calls “sacred practices,” which are means by which the sacred is mediated with daily living. With the infusion of Christ into all things, almost all activities have the potential to be considered “sacred acts” if performed with the proper reverence and mindfulness.
Returning to the theme of what I call “divine infusion,” as described in Ephesians 4:10, the implications of this act are staggering. In my own spiritual journey, when I first discovered this sublime biblical truth it was as if a flood gate of spiritual understanding had been opened. I could fill pages with the new insights brought about by this one small, often overlooked verse. Space does not allow for that, but let me explore just one minor implication of this profound biblical reality.
We know from Old Testament accounts that God accompanied the Israelites on their journey in the Wilderness as both the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day. As mentioned in the above quotation from Borg, we also are reminded that the Great I Am then took up temporary residence in the Tabernacle. Eventually requiring a more permanent home in the Promised Land, the Lord had Solomon construct the first Temple in Jerusalem and, deep within the Temple in what was called the Holy of Holies, God made his earthly home. And it was in this innermost sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem that the Father resided when John the Baptist and Jesus appeared on the scene.
With the Resurrection and subsequent Ascension of Christ, along with the advent of the Holy Spirit, a most remarkable thing occurred. The Great I Am took up residence within every person. And if that was not miracle enough, with the “infusion” the Lord “filled all things with himself” (Eph. 4:10).
We can see in this pattern a sort of “progressive intimacy” orchestrated by God, culminating in the essence of Christ permeating all things, great and small. It is this all-encompassing Christ filling and animating all things that fits so well the “God as Spirit” model as described by Marcus Borg. This image of God as Spirit is, at the same time, highly personal and transpersonal. As an all-pervading Spirit resident in all of creation and especially in the hearts of his followers, Christ engages in a depth of intimacy that was not possible prior to his ascension and infusion. This divine indwelling fosters a deeply intimate and personal relationship between the individual and the animating Spirit in which he or she “lives, moves, and has their being.” At the same time, the all-pervasive Spirit is transpersonal, going beyond the individual and, by the very nature of His being, unites all creation in a interdependent and interrelated whole.
In Borg’s view, this expansive view of God as Spirit, as opposed to “Divine Monarch,” gives rise to a number of useful metaphors which makes the personal/transpersonal Spirit more accessible and pragmatic in daily life. Borg discusses several of these positive metaphors including God as: fire, light, breath, wisdom, mother and father, lover, and journey companion. I find all of these metaphors useful in terms of making the incomprehensible power, creativity, and intelligence of God more accessible.
All of these metaphors are carried over from the Old Testament into the New Testament. On a personal note, I have found the analogy of Christ as “journey companion” to be highly pertinent and impactful. We especially see this in the imagery of “Christ as Shepherd” in the 23rd Psalm and in the gospels as well, especially the writings of John. Personal experience has also shown me how each of these biblical metaphors can be beneficial in ways both practical and meaningful. Borg goes on to describe a trio of more obvious ways the metaphor of God as Spirit impacts our experience of God:
The biblical metaphors for the Spirit model affect our root image of God in three quite obvious ways. First, these metaphors emphasize the nearness of God rather than the distance implied by the monarchical model. They evoke closeness, relationship, and connection. God as Spirit is near, at hand; indeed, we live within Spirit. Nearness also involves concern: God as Spirit is compassionate. God is the womblike one who gave birth to us, who nurtures us, cares for us, yearns for us. . . . . . . . . . . . . .Second, both male and female metaphors (as well as some that are neither) are used, rather than exclusively male images of the monarchical model. God is like a woman giving birth, like a mother raising her children, like Sophia the wisdom woman; God is like an intimate father. Moreover, some images go equally well with either gender: God as lover, as companion or friend, even as shepherd. . . . . . . . . . .Third, rather than the essentially anthropomorphic image of God as king, lord and patriarchal father, the metaphors for God as Spirit include both non-anthropomorphic and anthropomorphic images. . . . . . . . . . .The presence of both is suggestive. . . . . . . .That is, they suggest that there is a personal dimension to the relationship to God. Yet non-anthropomorphic images suggest that God is not simply a person. Combining the two suggests that the relationship to God is personal, even as God is more than a person. The sacred is not simply a non-animate mystery but a presence.
Although it is hard to contain in the limited nature of words, it is this sense of God as Spirit in general and God as presence in particular that I have found most transformational. Christ, a unique, pre-existent being who, at the very same time, is an all-pervasive, deeply penetrating, and fully indwelling force, becomes a life-enhancing, life-changing force – an ever-present presence that is indeed an indispensable and welcomed companion for my journey.
© L.D. Turner 2012/ All Rights Reserved