“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.