The Wisdom Jesus

This week I’ve started reading The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His Message by Cynthia Bourgeault.  It was a book recommended last week at AMBS Pastor’s Week. 

I’m always a bit skeptical when books claim to have a “new perspective” on Christ given the fact that this is a conversation that’s been going on for two thousand years.  After reading the first third of the book it appears that the author is both working on a recovery of a very old perspective on Jesus, as well as some new insights into the meaning of his life. 

What’s old, even older than Jesus, is the Wisdom traditions of human cultures.  Wisdom is concerned both with how we see and how we live – how we come into a fullness of life.  In this perspective, Jesus’ favorite phrase, “The Kingdom of Heaven” (or “The Kingdom of God”) is not a place but a state of consciousness.  Bourgeault laments that the most common view of Jesus seems to be “Jesus is nice and wants us to be nice too.”  She references the beatitudes and parables to show that Jesus’ intent was not primarily to teach morals, but to break us out of an ego-centered consciousness into a larger mind.  “Into the larger mind” is her translation of the Greek word metanoia (meta = beyond or large; noia = mind), usually translated “repentance” in English Bibles.  Jesus is one of the Wisdom teachers of the world, but is unique in that rather than presenting the path of Wisdom as an ascent upward, he presents it as a descent.  His is a path of self-emptying in the poetic words of Philippians 2:9-16.  Jesus “fell through the bottom” in Bourgeault’s words.  Love pouring itself into the other, only to be replenished by the infinite Source to continue pouring, is the extravagant path of the Christ.  That’s the old way we are invited to recover. 

What’s new comes from a couple different important places.  One is the discovery in the middle of last century of ancient texts which shed new light on the social situation of Jesus and even his own teachings.  The author gives a focuses a brief chapter on the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings many scholars affirm as being authentic – some of them contained in the four biblical gospels, others not.  In that gospel it is especially clear that Jesus is inviting his hearers to a different way of seeing the world.  The second new factor in our understanding of Jesus is the growing awareness of Eastern thought and how that fills out some of the short-sighted perspectives of Western thought that has so defined the church. 

The last chapter that I read ends by saying: “Anyone who is willing to take up the burden of the much more difficult task – not the manageable complexity of rules and regulations, but the unmanageable simplicity of being present to your life in love – that person is walking the path of Jesus.” (p. 88)

Part Two of the book, which I haven’t gotten to yet, brings this perspective to bear on four different aspects of Christian teaching: The Incarnation, The Passion, Crucifixion and Its Aftermath, and The Great Easter Fast. 

Part Three focuses specifically on “Christian Wisdom Practices,” ways of cultivating the mind of Christ: Centering Prayer and Meditation, Lectio Divina, Chanting and Psalmnody, Welcoming, and Eucharist.

The book largely steers away from technical theological jargon (or explains it well when it is used) and is accessible for a wide audience.  You can’t borrow my copy until I’m finished!  Whoops, that doesn’t sound like a very self-emptying attitude….Oh my….