Halfway through Cynthia Bourgeault’s stunning book, The Wisdom Jesus, I could not wait until I finished it to begin writing about it, so rich it is with wisdom in general, and with a take on Jesus as a wisdom teacher that strikes me as profoundly, radically, and tradition-shatteringly true. Personally, I could not be more grateful for this book, since it answers for me the question (a question I have simply trusted until now that I needed simply to just ‘hold’ versus seek to “figure out”) as to how it can be that the more “real” Jesus has become as my primary guide in my own growth in wisdom and in love, over the years since my baptism (as an adult, in the Catholic Church)…how it is then that the more strongly I connect with Jesus, and feel I understand him through my own heart, the less of a fit there seems to me to be between what he was up to (and is up to, still) and the traditional portrayals and understanding of his messages –of his very Being– in Christianity and its institutions now.
In short, it feels like the more I “get” Jesus, the less like a “Christian” I feel.
It also seems less and less to me as though there is any significant difference at all between the radical, challenging teachings of other ancient Eastern transformation traditions and their mystical paths (and we tend to forget that Christianity is one of those “Eastern religions” with its own mystical paths) and the teachings and path of Jesus- an observation that Bourgeault concurs with heartily, being herself a self-described “serious student of the worldwide wisdom tradition” including the work of Gurdjieff, Sufism, and Vedanta and Kabbalah studies, as well as Christian mystical practice traditions.
Early on in the book, Bourgeault (who, by the way, is an Episcopal priest, as well as a respected theologian and writer) addresses this directly in Chapter 1, “Jesus as a Recognition Event,” where she lays out her primary thesis:
The angle of approach I will be using throughout this book is to see Jesus first and foremost as a wisdom teacher, a person who (for the moment setting aside the whole issue of his divine parentage) clearly emerges out of and works within an ancient tradition called ‘wisdom’, sometimes known as “sophia perennis,” which is in fact at the headwaters of all the great religious traditions of the world today. It’s concerned with the transformation of the whole human being […] from our animal instincts and egocentricity into love and compassion; from a judgmental and dualistic worldview into nondual acceptingness. This was the message that Jesus, apparently out of nowhere, came preaching and teaching, a message that was radical in its own time, and remains radical today.
And over the course of the next several chapters, Bourgeault reveals and suggests how mind-blowingly radical Jesus’ vision and intentions were, in the path of transformation he represented and offered. Bourgeault likens it to no less than “upgrading our operating systems” as beings, from “the egoic operating system (a binary system of perception which makes sense of world by dividing it–into “this and that,” “bad and good,” “inside and outside,” “you and me,” etc.) to a unitive system — a system of perception centered not in the egoic mind, but in the mind of the heart.
In wisdom, she says, the heart is primarily an organ of spiritual perception, a highly sensitive instrument for keeping us aligned […] to the realm of meaning, value and conscience. (p. 36)
This is a very, very different take on Jesus from the Sunday-school Jesus that many Christians were raised to recognize, the essential teachings of which one Southern Baptist theologian has summed up (perhaps tongue in cheek– hard to know!) as “Jesus is nice, and he wants you to be nice, too!” (p. 28)
I am mindful, Bourgeault writes as an aside (and I love this:) of one of my favorite quotes, attributed to the writer G.C. Chesterton, who reportedly said, “Christianity isn’t a failure; it just hasn’t been tried yet.”
This is a great book by way of which to “taste and see” what it might really mean to “try it.”
Meanwhile, below is a contribution of my own to the conversation, since prayer-that-is-poetry is my own primary way of “seeing with the eyes of the heart.” It speaks to another radical notion that Bourgeault suggests and develops: that Jesus’ spiritual path is essentially not a transcendent one; in fact it is a path that proceeds “not through acquisition or attainment but through self [ego] emptying; not through up but through down,” (p.66). It is about bringing down and entering in…wherein lies the possibility to experience that “The Kingdom of Heaven is within/among us.”
(Note: this poem was originally appeared in an issue of Christian Century magazine)
* * *
“And Were the Damned Glad?”
When he’d breathed his last, Jesus
hurried down to hell.
They thought they’d known the worst,
stewing and burning alone in the outer
they’d been secure in their fate,
its familiar misery
snug as a nest.
He entered this,
not cruising the rim
like a tourist,
sorry but separate—
into their deadness instead
and relentlessly loved them there,
each wretch in each foulness—
that was torment.
And it seemed
to the damned and eternity before
he left, tearing a hole in the seal
between hell and sky as he rose,
and that hole remained…