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.


  1. "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” --"

    BEAUTIFUL, regardless of he text or experience we are "reading" in to.

    I love the love your neighbor part too. Truth, and strong medicine. It doesn't always taste good - but it heals what ails you.

    Lovely stuff, Andrew.

    Love, peace, and passion,

  2. Andy, I absolutely identify with that feeling of being more opposed to the person in the pew next to you than in those we are supposed to fear/flee or judge, thanks for helping me feel like I'm not the only one who struggles with loving my brothers and sisters lots of the time.