Common Ground

We all yearn to be special. We all want a peg to hang our hat on that says we are unique in the world. It could be through our clothes, our hairstyle, our musical tastes, our reading habits, among many other things; we all seek out ways to distinguish ourselves from the crowd. This impulse is not altogether a bad thing. For instance, it often drives our creativity. However, I wonder if this drive to distinguish can also be harmful in other circumstances. Specifically, I wonder if this instinct can muddy the waters when we should be seeking common ground. In religious conflict, we all too often concentrate on what makes us different rather than the things we have in common. What would happen if we concentrated on the things we hold in common and allowed the differences go without significant comment other than acknowledging that they exist?

I can only speak as a Christian and I believe that Christians should begin starting their conversations with, “what do we hold in common?” I think it would drastically change the tenor of our exchanges and consequently change how the outside world views Christianity. I have felt this way for a long time, but those feelings were stirred by my recent reading of the late biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg. When I started, I did not know how fruitful reading Borg would be because I was already aware that there would be significant disagreement between us. I was reading mainly to satisfy my curiosity. At the same time, much of my current thought has concentrated on Christian dialogue. My firm conviction is that intra-Christian dialogue should be cordial and generous, rather than devolving into the vicious infighting that generates heat without light. I soon realized that in reading Borg I had a conversation partner to exercise my convictions on Christian dialogue in the midst of significant disagreement. I have discovered, at least for me, that if you start with what you hold in common, it changes everything that follows. Disagreement can still exist, and it is still important, but it often does not need to impede the fruitfulness of the conversation.

I discovered this as I was examining my deep disagreement with Borg on the physical nature of Jesus’s resurrection. As another example, consider Borg’s view on the origin of the Bible. In Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Borg describes the Bible as an entirely human book. Specifically, the Bible is a human response to experience with God.[1] He rejects any notion of dual authorship (human and divine). The Bible tells us what humans think about God and not what God thinks. I disagree. I think the Bible was produced in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. I do not believe in plenary verbal inerrancy, but I do believe in what I will call a conceptual inerrancy. The Hebrews and early Christians who wrote the Bible were enflamed by the Holy Spirit. The Bible certainly is human. It contains human errors, human moral convictions, and a human context. However, I believe that the divine still shines through the Bible’s “humanness.” Borg counters my position by arguing that it leads to awkward attempts to separate and distinguish the divine from the human. One example he uses is the odd story of God seeking to kill Moses because he was not circumcised in Exodus 4:24-26. It is a strange story and does not paint God in a positive light. What could possibly be the lesson there? Borg believes that if we view the Bible as a purely human product, then it is just a human story produced by an ancient Israelite. We do not have to reconcile the uncomfortable things it says about God. That is an attractive argument in this case. However, I believe that Israelite was motivated to tell the story because of his (or her) relationship with God (something Borg maintains as well). There is a divine intended concept in that story. I may not know what that concept is, but that does not mean that it is not there. The Bible is the product of a call and response. God initiates and the human responds. I believe that God’s initiation means that we can make a claim of divine authorship along with the human. I acknowledge that my argument is not as tidy as Borg’s. However, I do believe that I can maintain it.

So we have disagreement on the divine/human origins of the Bible. That is not an insignificant issue. I guess I could have stopped reading Borg at this point. However, if I had, I would have missed something very important. Borg still considers the Bible sacred; specifically it is a sacrament of the sacred. This brings him to some stunning conclusions — at least they were stunning to me given that he thinks the Bible is a completely human product. He writes, “the Spirit of God speaks through the human words of these ancient documents: the Bible is a sacrament of the sacred.”[2] He also believes that “the Bible contains the primary stories and traditions that disclose the character and will of God.”[3] For Borg (and for me), the Bible is the foundation of Christian tradition and “being Christian is about a relationship to the God that is mediated by the Christian tradition as sacrament. To be Christian is to live within the Christian tradition as a sacrament and let it do its transforming work within and among us.”[4]

I agree with every one of those statements about the Bible. It seems that Borg’s ultimate conclusions about the Bible and its purpose look a lot like my own even when we have distinct differences concerning its origins. God speaks through the Bible. It discloses God’s character and will. Ultimately, the Bible should transform us. We agree on all of this. It is like I have argued that 6+6=12 while Borg has contended that 8+4=12. We have both ended up with the same result. How much should our disagreements on origin really matter? Asking that question does not minimize the importance of the disagreements. However, despite our disagreement, we can still have important conversations about the character and will of God and how the Bible is supposed to transform us. By focusing on what we hold in common, those conversations will probably look a lot different than if we kept concentrating on our differences. I am willing to wager that if we then came around to discussing our differences on the Bible’s origin after acknowledging our commonalities, our conversation would be more constructive and fruitful than if we saw ourselves as opponents in an argument. Seeing what I have in common with Borg brought me back to his arguments for the humanness of the Bible. I still think the Bible is both divine and human, but I address the subject somewhat differently after exposure to Borg’s point of view. The interaction was constructive and clarifying rather than contentious.

Difference is still important. Right now, I am resisting the incredible urge to provide countless examples of when differences matter. However, Christians should first examine what they hold in common before they approach their differences. Maybe then, the outside world would not see a bitterly fractured Church. What kind of witness do we provide when we argue so violently among ourselves? Focusing on our commonly held beliefs, we could put a better foot forward within society as a witness to the love of God for the world. In this regard, we are better together than apart.


[1] For Borg’s complete argument read Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But not Literally (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 21-36.

[2] Ibid., 33.

[3] Ibid., 34.

[4] Ibid., 35.

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