MUCH OF Christendom, including factions within the Anglican Church, may be split along liberal-conservative lines, but it doesn't have to be, contends a leading American theologian.

Speaking to a packed church at St. Mary's Kerrisdale this summer, Marcus Borg said that Christians would do well to consider more often what they agree on, rather than what divides them.

An Anglican, Borg teaches religion and culture at Oregon State University, south of Portland. The author of many books, his most recent is The Heart of Christianity.

Theologian Marcus Borg speaking at St. Mary’s Kerrisdale.

"Christians are people for whom the relationship with God as known in Jesus is central to their lives," he said. "We agree about that."

"If we agree about that then there might be some room to talk about our disagreements."

Borg's lecture was the first in the Vancouver School of Theology Chalmer's Institute's visiting distinguished scholar series. He also taught a three-day summer course at VST.

Over the ages Christianity has been practiced in many forms: Second Century Syrian Christianity; Eighth Century Irish; Thirteenth Century Chinese; Medieval Christianity; Seventeenth Century Anglican, and so on.

"It's not that one of these ways is right, and the others wrong."

At present, Borg said, using one of the main themes of his recent book, two visions of Christianity predominate. It's almost as if there were "two different religions."

Borg labelled these two visions the "earlier paradigm" and the "emerging paradigm." A paradigm he defined as a comprehensive way of seeing a whole.

While Christians who hold these two visions share the "basics" of Christianity, they differ on the details.

For instance, all share a belief in "the reality of God." But those who hold to the earlier vision see God as a supernatural person. Those who accept the emerging vision of Christianity think of God not so much as a person but as the Spirit that encompasses all of Creation (yet is more than Creation).

Christians see Jesus as the "decisive revelation of God." But the disagreement is between those with an earlier vision, who feel Jesus is the only decisive revelation (the Way), and those of the emerging vision, who think Jesus is one of several revelations of God.

Christianity, Borg said, is about relationships and transformation through those relationships. All Christians agree that "at the centre of the Christian life is a relationship with God as known in Jesus."

Likewise, to all Christians, the Bible is sacred scripture. But is it somehow a "divine product" - the earlier view? Or is it a human product - how the Hebrews and early Christians experienced God, but not necessarily how we do today?

Scripture to Christians is the most important collection of documents they have, and is "foundational." "It helps us figure out what is real, how to live."

But the Bible is not historical in the modern sense of telling us what really happened, Borg said.

"It is a story that is never true, but is always true," he said. He quoted a Catholic priest as once saying to the congregation in a sermon, "The Bible is true, and some of it happened."

Whether or not one takes the Bible literally, all agree that "more than the literal meaning is what matters," said Borg. That's why we have sermons that make points from scripture and give us the meaning of scripture to tell us how to live.

"Believe what you want about whether a [biblical] story happened - let's talk about what the story means to us."

The "earlier" vision or paradigm is not all that old, Borg insisted. It came about three hundred years ago as a response to the Enlightenment. The "emerging" paradigm has actually been emerging from seminaries for the past one hundred years, he said.

Mel Gibson's recent movie The Passion of the Christ was, in a sense, a "Rorschach test" which indicated which paradigm people subscribe to.

Those who liked the motion picture and found it moving generally held to the earlier vision of Christianity; those who rejected the movie were more often amongst those who subscribe to the emerging paradigm.

Anger, fear, and righteousness prevent "bridge-building" between Christians who hold to the different visions, said Borg. But that need not be so.

"I think it is really important to talk about our affirmations. I think we have too often been defined by what we don't believe," he said.

Bridges can be built, Borg insisted, if Christians talk about their agreements rather than their differences.

We mustn't insist we have the "absolute truth" or fear diversity, he told the audience.

"We might be at a time when we see a variety of Christianities bloom and flourish at the same time. But it's always been that way. To some extent there needs to be different kinds of Christianities because there are different kinds of Christians," he said.

Speaking briefly about Anglicanism, he said that Anglicans are united around a common liturgy and worship, a common table - not around common doctrines.

Speaking of the current threat of schism within the Anglican Communion, he said: "Sometimes if people want to leave, you just have to let them go. It's like a marriage. You can bust your gut with marriage counselling, but it's just not going to work."

"The only thing spiritually worse than schism is perpetuating an injustice to avoid schism," he added.

In the end, what matters is not "getting our beliefs right." Those who believe that we are saved through grace, not works, shouldn't believe we are saved by having the right "mental works."

"If you take grace seriously, having the right beliefs is not required," he said.