Saturday, July 24, 2010

Of Context & Flavor, Teacher & Savior, Meltdown & Rebirth, Loving Enemies & Meeting the Master (Week Two)

When Bourgeault begins our second chapter with a slight against what she calls the “Tennessee Bible belt,” she reveals her own bias & context, ever reminding us that even advocates of Jesus-following that’s rooted in “nondual acceptingness” wrestle with their own dualistic tendencies.

The context of our Sunday school class is, of course, a PC-USA church in the heart of that same “Tennessee Bible belt,” & we we each bring our own positive & negative associations to that terminology. As a naturalized southerner of midwestern stock -- living in my chosen home here in the frontroom of the roots music tradition, in the cradle of the Civil Rights movement, & in the beauty of Appalachia -- I admit a lot of regional pride that resents & resists any kneejerk stereotyping of southerners.

Bourgeault is beatifically blunt in begging us to honor the the “unique flavors” and “energy streams" to which Christ’s “meteor" shines with much meaning, as she name-checks a spicy, multicultural garden of God-consciousness blooming on every continent. What energy-stream are we? What Jesus context do you call home?

The contexts of my Jesus encounters are always already mediated by media & by pop culture -- especially late 20th century music, movies, & art -- as evidenced by my fascination with the vast diversity of Jesus images & icons (for an awesome collection, I often turn to Matt Stone’s blog). So, I feel I needed a chapter called “Jesus In Context” that reminds us of “the original Aramaic,” of the “Near Eastern event” of Christ’s ministry 2000 years ago; Bourgeault helpfully & hopefully pulls & tugs at our perceptions & assumptions as the (generally speaking) white Americans of European ancestry in her target audience.

Bourgeault’s brief mention of the Aramaic Lord’s Prayer on page 13 propelled me down a rabbit hole of reading & research that’s preoccupied me for most of the week: listening to chants & music & mystical podcasts; finding visionary students & scholars of “the native middle Eastern mystic Yeshua” including Neil Douglas-Klotz & Dale Allen Hoffman; learning about the Peshitta, the alleged original scriptures written in Jesus’s native tongue (where the word for “God” is, interestingly enough, “Alaha”).

On my bookshelf, I found Douglas-Klotz’s The Hidden Gospel: Decoding the Spiritual Message of the Aramaic Jesus, a book I bought for $7.50 at a used bookstore in Michigan last summer, & am currently devouring it. Immediately, Douglas-Klotz drew me in with his premise that we see “translation & interpretation as personal spiritual practices, rather than as academic pursuits,” a process where “all possible meanings may be present” in native languages rife with “rich & poetic wordplay” (19). With an approach to biblical study that he dubs “experiencer response” (171) -- riffing off the idea of “reader response” -- Douglas-Klotz dances & breathes into the Bible with an invigorating & open-hearted attitude. He adheres the abstraction of words to the real that “remains a wordless experience,” making scholarship a “‘translation’ between our outer & inner lives, as well as between our lives as individuals & members of a community” (21).

Although Douglas-Klotz doesn’t show up in Bourgeault’s bibliography, he’s also invoking Sophia & “the wisdom of Jesus” as pointing to what he calls “Sacred Unity, Oneness, the All, the Ultimate Power/Potential, the One with no opposite” (27) or what Bourgeault cites in Jesus as “the Single One” or the “Unified One” (21) who was “the New Age of his time” (25). Understanding these striking statements (as in the way spiritual lightning strikes us in epiphany) suggesting that “we really are all one" (wow, man!) could make Jesus sound like Jedi master or a hippy idealist or a Zen Buddhist or an ungrounded new age crystal-channeling polyanna. Of course, I think Douglas-Klotz & Bourgeault understand this explicitly & implicitly & are acutely aware of the accusations of heresy & witchcraft & worse that some Christians have aimed at theological & experiential explorations along similar trajectories. But what blows my lid with light inside this life-giving line of interpretation is how Jesus-centered & ultimately biblical & irrefutably Christian it all is.

These aren’t things we necessarily benefit from arguing or debating but perhaps rather from entertaining & contemplating before drawing our own personal conclusions in intimate conversation with God. If Bourgeault is correct & “the primary task of the Christian is not to believe theological premises but to put on the mind of Christ,” this doesn’t really deny a savior or sinners being forgiven and saved, as Paul did when “he had a powerful visionary encounter with the risen Christ.”

What this does mean, though, is that accepting the Christian theological premise might push us toward a Christian spiritual practice where we meet “the living Master present in [our] hearts” through contemplative prayer & meditation, through “intuition & direct revelation.” I don’t think this supplants or suppresses the more well-known & well-honed Christian practices of evangelism, mission, activism, or justice work.

With Bourgeault, we stand simultaneously on several fault lines within our fractured but still fundamentally thriving religion. (In the US, as many as 80 percent of us identify as Christians.) According to Marcus Borg, “Our culture wars are to a considerable extent Jesus wars.” Bourgeault touches some of these controversies directly & dances around others.

The juxtaposition of a savior-focused versus a wisdom-centered way might be a false opposition, but other troubles she touches on cannot be so easily dismissed. She’s obviously a student of the Gospel of Thomas, various interpretations, & other non-canonical Christian texts at a time when the canonical King James bible remains inviolable & sacrosanct to many. Bourgeault teaches tools to help us realize “divine indwelling” when others see Christ as a purely external force performing divine intervention on our otherwise wretched souls.

In choosing the “love your enemies” passage from Luke as her scripture passage for this chapter, though, Bourgeault does more than just remind us that parables are like Zen koans thus rooted in “radical reversal and paradox.” By reminding us of this terribly uncomfortable teaching, she hints at the kinds of controversies that Borg addresses & that face our denominations today, such as the tension between liberals & conservatives on a variety of issues such as inclusion & ordination of LGBT persons.

When I first addressed & embraced this teaching as a younger person, I understood that loving my enemies meant loving America’s enemies in places like Nicaragua & the former Soviet Union. I’ve understood that loving my enemies later meant loving the people of Iraq & Afghanistan. As a heterosexual Christian, I know that I need to love my neighbor the homosexual Jew. And I’ve never had any trouble loving folks from other religions & traditions in an interfaith context as well.

If I’m honest, the people I’ve perceived as my real enemies are the political & theological conservatives within my own religion, those that would intentionally: exclude our LGBT brothers & sisters; oppose a woman’s right to choose; support US foreign policy & its economic roots in colonial & imperial notions of capitalism; endorse a doctrine of personal profit & prosperity rather than one of humble solidarity with the poor; invest more time in an aggressive evangelism focused in the fear of future damnation rather than rooted in the radical grace of the ever-present living Lord. Now, loving my enemies was easier when they were overseas; now that I’m honest, they’re much closer by, worshiping at the church down the street or in my own church, & they’re sitting just down from me in the pews.

If we’re really sisters & brothers in Christ, if we’re really interested in extending rather than breaking the covenantal bonds of light, love, & liberty, then to pit the “social justice Christians” against the “conservative evangelicals” is to pit the mind of God against the body of Christ, to eat the bread but refuse to drink the cup. Either Christ unites & heals in cosmic unconditional love or He doesn’t. Either we love our enemies or we are no better than the sinners who only love those that love them back.

When Bourgeault presents us with the opportunity to transform our consciousness, she’s saying that Jesus “asked those timeless & personal questions: What does it mean to die before you die? How do you go about losing your little life to find the bigger one? Is it possible to live on this planet with a generosity, abundance, fearlessness, & beauty that mirror Divine Being itself?”

When rock-bottom of alcohol addiction & the moral electricity of a shattered ego admitting entrenched sin woke me up to God’s loyal presence at age 42, I experienced an agonizing spiritual death & sudden resurrection & lost a life to gain one; so yes, I know what she’s talking about in framing the questions that way! And I also know that Christ has been conduit, conductor, & coach in this cathartic coming to new consciousness. Does that make Jesus my personal savior or my wisdom teacher. I really hope the only correct answer is both.

I don’t think any of us go looking for a “total meltdown,” but so often, it’s in our mortal pain, suffering, weakness, openness, & vulnerability that we move from meltdown to the total “recasting of human-consciousness, bursting through the tiny acorn-selfhood that we arrived on the planet with into the oak tree of our fully realized personhood” (27). My most recent Jesus encounters have been just like she describes, & I hope this tree He’s planted in my soul continues to grow.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Adjectives For Jesus

By placing "wisdom" with the word Jesus in the title of her text, Cynthia Bourgeault creates an emotional & mental image; she also makes a strong theological statement. Pairing the name of Jesus with various words & adjectives creates powerful & positive associations. In class, we brainstormed our own list of "Jesusy-adjectives" based on our own ideas, feelings, & experiences.

This is the list we came up with. Would you like to add your own?

Creative Jesus
Forgiving Jesus
Transforming Jesus
Practical Jesus
Applicable Jesus
Accepting Jesus
Tolerant Jesus
Insightful Jesus
Universal Jesus
Loving Jesus
Compassionate Jesus
Spiritual Jesus
Elusive Jesus
Open Jesus
Disturbing Jesus
Mystical Jesus
Little Jesus
Empowering Jesus
Human Jesus
Real Jesus

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Water At The Well: Recognizing The Wisdom Jesus (Week One)

“Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God, this deep, deep wisdom? It’s way over our heads. We’ll never figure it out.” Romans 11:33 (The Message)

Nervous on the eve of my Sunday school instruction debut, I’m inspired by the open-ended nature of this quote, the open-hearted & open-minded trajectory of my faith. To paraphrase Bono in “The City of Blinding Lights,” “The more I learn, the less I know.”

God’s generosity is good beyond good, God’s nature the great mystery beyond mystery, God’s wisdom the depth beyond depth. That’s as over our heads & as way out there as we can fathom & then some.

With our book The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault promises to “challenge our assumptions” with “a new take on Jesus” (2) & “a major paradigm shift” (3) largely by asking us to look at the old story without out our clip-on lenses of what she calls the “twenty-twenty hindsight” of knowing how the story ends, not to mention two-thousand years of Christian doctrine, theology, & history.

By placing Jesus inside the interspirituality of what she calls the “worldwide wisdom tradition,” Bourgeault intentionally decenters Christ’s role as our sacrificial savior, as personal sin-eraser & super rescue worker pulling us back from the gates of hell. For me wisdom teacher & personal savior are far from mutually exclusive & I am grateful to have them both in the human & divine aspects of Jesus Christ.

In a more simply understood definition, what makes Jesus a wisdom teacher is his use of a poetic & prophetic style, of short sayings & aphorisms, of teaching through parables. & what’s consistent & crucial about Christ’s wisdom seeds are their deeply alternative & unconventional nature, there at times uncommon & illogical aspects.

Marcus Borg contrasts the “the broad way & the narrow way, the foolish way & the wise way, the way of death & the way of life” (191). In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus warns us “Don’t look for shortcuts to God. . . .The way to life--to God!--is vigorous & requires total attention.” Emmet Fox suggests that salvation itself is interior, “bringing about a radical & permanent change for the better in [our] own consciousness" (199). Bourgeault invites us to “the headwaters of all the great religious traditions of the world today” to get washed into “the transformation of the whole human being” (4).

According to Bourgeault, “an unprogrammed, unmediated experience" characterized by “direct knowingness” and the “raw immediacy of presence” are internal markers of this transformation into “love and compassion,” transformation from “a judgmental and dualistic worldview into a nondual acceptingness.”

What about contemplative wisdom insights make the old, familiar biblical stories impressively new each day to 21st century ears & eyes?

In our first chapter, several questions about & features of this “radical path” emerge. Not just meeting Jesus directly as dying savior but moreso as living teacher, imagining the Christ that the disciples met, before they knew the final outcome of the resurrection narrative.

“Recognizing” Christ for Bourgeault might be a more subtle, softer, daily, meditation as revelation encounter with the personal Jesus during your daily quiet time, as opposed to the lightning flash or burning bush or road-to-Damascus “meeting” Christ described in so many visionary born-again experiences. But it’s intended to be as life-shaking, life-changing, & transformative as we can imagine. This spirituality, then, is as imaginally rich & robustly intimate as any preached by any evangelicals, it’s just native to a different wiring, wired to a different tradition.

Some kind of shakeup or even pain -- atleast a growing pain -- precedes spiritual evolution, so Bourgeault begins with an epigram from The Gospel of Thomas that implies the troubled & confusing & unsettling aspects of our amazing new discovery of the Christ-being. Her own childhood spiritual awakening “suffused in golden light” surrounds the death of a friend.

Bourgeault bids us a bold invitation to say yes to the pre-Easter teaching Jesus when “the outcome was as yet unknown” (9) The teaching-Jesus is “amazing, strange, wild, true” but also “dangerous” (8).

This Jesus is also what her Father Bruno calls “the break-through of life,” the “wave-front of wonder” (qtd. in Bourgeault 9). Lots of people want to surf that wave that takes us to the center of the center, the light inside the light, so much so that Jesus is wildly popular today. So what makes this so “alternative” & “radical” if it’s so popular as to be boasted on billboards, broadcast on television, blasted on radio airwaves, rocked out in megachurches? What’s so dangerous about that?

The danger might be an abundance in a world of scarcity, a love in a world of hate, a water that quenches all thirst. The biblical text that Bourgeault chooses to bring it all back home with is found in the fourth chapter of the gospel of John.

Jesus asks a woman for water. A man asks a woman. A Jew asks a Samaritan. The way it’s described in scripture & by Bourgeault, I suppose we could transpose a black man asking the same of a white woman in the Jim Crow south. This is the risk-taking & boundary-crossing that makes this Jesus so radical, so dangerous. But is it wise? It’s not “common sense,” that’s for sure.

Later in that section of John, Jesus says, “But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you're called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It's who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That's the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration." (The Message)

The bondage-breaking, boundary-shaking aspect of this teaching is its shedding of cultural expectations, indeed of worrying who goes to church where & with whom, & reframing it as propositions about who is authentic & honest in her being, in keeping it real with God. This is not the religion of who, what, where, & when but the deeper personal journey of why & how.

In her reading of this passage, Bourgeault wants to take us “higher & higher & deeper & deeper” in the “mutual boldness” of unconditional love & unconventional wisdom exchanged between complete strangers. She suggests that the Wisdom Jesus is not the third-hand Jesus, the second-hand Jesus, the hand-me-down Jesus, or the xerox Jesus.

The downlow is that we can’t dial-in the Jesus-app or download Jesus to recognize Jesus in our hearts. Bourgeault wants us to meet & recognize the real Jesus in the pre-Easter teaching Jesus but also in the unexpected women at the wellsprings where we all pause when need water to quench the hot thirst in the noondays of our lives. In closing chapter one, she suggests knowing Jesus means always living water instead of forever leaving to wander.

I want to stay & drink. How about you?

Borg, Marcus. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, & Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. New York: Harper-Collins, 2006.

Fox, Emmet. Around The Year With Emmet Fox: A Book of Daily Readings. 1952. New York: Harper-Collins, 1992.