Our third chapter takes for its title one of my favorite sentences from the entire New Testament. While irresistibly and elusively true, “The Kingdom of Heaven Is within You” remains a delightful, delicate, and dangerous statement: delightful in its comforting, magical simplicity; delicate for its fragile vulnerability to misunderstanding, misuse, and misappropriation; & dangerous because once stolen from its likely and loving intent, it’s an easy bumpersticker-slogan for the ego to broadcast as it takes the body & soul down self-destructive cul-de-sacs. But then, according to Cynthia Bourgeault, Christ’s insight might also be dangerous to today’s church doctrine if we’re to take her at face value.
Cynthia Bourgeault insists that “Whatever this Kingdom of Heaven is, it’s of foundational importance to what Jesus is trying to teach” (30). Neil Douglas-Klotz claims that “Jesus uses the word usually translated as 'kingdom’ more than a hundred times, most of these in Matthew and Luke” (83). While many references to this Kingdom (or as Douglas-Klotz calls it “queendom,” from the Aramaic malkuta) rely on the device of simile, this potent passage apparently does not say the Kingdom is, “like,” in you. No, it’s just there, “deep in the belly" according to Douglas-Klotz, cosmically knit by the Creator into our cells. The way Jesus puts it, I’m grasping the sense that’s it’s always been there in our heartspace -- some of us just choose to suppress, avoid, fear,deny, ignore -- or simply not accept, access, or pursue it through prayer.
In bringing this bold invocation of beautiful intimacy to our attention, Bourgeault carefully mentions (but quickly bypasses) two other more common notions of the Kingdom -- the perfect afterlife of eternal paradise & the earthly utopia of peace and justice (30). Now, many people might see our conscious contact with the spiritual Kingdom within as promoting the social justice Kingdom without through acts of solidarity & mercy & charity or supporting our chances for attaining the Kingdom hereafter by embodying the faith that follows from accepting God’s grace.
But Bourgeault doesn’t bring it like that; she says that Jesus “specifically contradicts” the confess-it-now, so you can cash-it-in-later approach to eternity, emphatically noting “not later, but lighter” (30). She insists, “You don’t die into it; you awaken into it" (30). Bourgeault also dismisses Kingdom notions of the ever-appealing “earthly utopias” distinguished by folks living “together in harmony” with “fair distribution of economic assets” (30). She says, “Jesus specifically rejected this meaning” (30).
Is Bourgeault accidentally creating another duality as she may have done with other oppositions (like savior vs. teacher) in earlier sections of the book? Or are evangelical concepts of the afterlife alongside social justice ideas of the “Kingdom come” the truly divisive dualities? Would Bourgeault eschew these popular notions of heaven or justice entirely? Where exactly is the new Jerusalem? Need I look no further than my breathing belly? Now, I don’t want to dig too deep into debating doctrine or creed regarding eternity or entirely dismiss practicing Christian principles of peace & charity & solidarity in the realm of politics. However, there’s something both refreshing, frightening, & dangerous if Bourgeault has this one right, if it really is now or never.
Before I continue to unpack what I find truly beautiful in Bourgeault’s mystical extrapolations, I want to make this qualification regarding doctrine & history. We’ve recently read an author in this class (& many other flood the marketplace of contemporary Christian ideas), who upends core Christian doctrine & even claims that the religion will die if the masses don’t follow. Not matter how heretical or blasphemous Bourgeault might sound, I think we do ourselves a disservice to focus on what she’s brushing aside & would benefit from seeing what she’s really bringing into the light.
Plenty of writers out there are pursuing historical arguments that question the historicity & divinity of Jesus Christ on all kinds of levels. Not just because I want to feel the Apostle’s Creed the next time we recite it in church & not because I don’t hold some heretical notions myself, I want to steer clear of that debate, not just in this lesson but in my life. I say this for two basic reasons: no matter how much I read & & study, I just cannot know for sure on these questions of history & doctrine for I wasn’t there; no matter how full or flimsy a spiritual argument might be on an intellectual level, I don’t meet Jesus in my brain & instead verify His living presence daily in my prayer life.
At the intersection of head & heart, we tap a greater consciousness. The New Age movement’s quite confident discussing this sense that it all fuels & fires into a “state of consciousness.” I’ve heard regular folks in a faithful way say “I’m a spiritual being having a human experience” or “the God in me honors the God in you.” Earlier in my life, having benefited from previous spiritual experiences, I think my ego thieved these concepts from their proper context and perverted them. The teacher said the Kingdom is within you, & the ego heard the Kingdom is you. Whenever any selfish, imperfect ego thinks it’s God’s incarnate perfection, we’re probably all in a little trouble. How do we glory in the gifts & grace or embrace the immanence of God in our lives without letting it get to our heads?
Bourgeault takes a noble & eloquent stab at describing the indescribable elimination of “separation between God & humans” (31). She warns our egos that “he [Jesus] is not speaking in an Eastern sense about an equivalency of being, such that I am in & of myself divine” (31). This “mutual indwelling” is delicate; the vine is strong, but we branches depend on the vine. We get to bask in the sheer magic of this “interabiding” because of “the indivisible reality of divine love,” not because of our own beauty, effort, or brilliance (31). As branches to the vine, we humans get to make God “visible” when we “articulate” God’s reality. With this, “The whole and the part live together in mutual, loving reciprocity, each belonging to the other and dependent on the other to show forth the fullness of love” (31).
Does her interpretation of Christ’s shimmering suggestion give you shivers? Do you accept that God’s already there inside you, right here, right now. She takes it further when she asks us to see our neighbor “as a continuation of your very own being” (31). Competition & jealousy seem pretty petty & futile if my neighbor & I “are simply two cells of the one great Life,” if “the indivisible reality of love is the only True Self” (32). While Bourgeault acknowledges that Jesus spoke in vast & expansive metaphors, she means for us to see this “transformed consciousness” as the real deal that “actually exists. It’s not just a metaphor, but a transfiguration of this realm through the power of Oneness” (33). If I understand Bourgeault correctly, she’s rejecting the notion of Jesus as advocating revolution because He’s already the revolution. She’s tossing the popular point that His sacrifice cracked a portal to paradise, because this “word made flesh” realized inside is paradise.
In the fellowships of recovery, we have this cute little saying that “ego” really means “easing God out.” I think Bourgeault would see that as spot on. What she dubs the “egoic operating system” is like the fundamentally flawed computer operating system (Windows Vista, anyone?). According to Bourgeault (& all the mystics before her), this land of either/or, this “hub of duality,” is nothing more than “a mirage, an illusion. There is no such self. There is no small self, no egoic being, no thing that’s separated from everything else” (34). Why, then, does the ego & all the pain it brings us feel so real? Why do “most people get stuck” in the ego?
Bourgeault appears to believe that the Good News of Jesus is our communal upgrade to the “operating system of the heart” (35). How does this heart-system function? Taking us “far beyond just the rational,” we can get back in touch “with what we truly know” (36). Congealing instead of concealing, Bourgeault contends, “Unlike the egoic operating system, the heart does not perceive through differentiation. It doesn’t divide the field into inside & out, subject & object. Rather, it perceives by means of harmony” (36). Coming into the kindergarten class of this greater consciousness, I’ve noticed dramatic shifts in my priorities & an intensified sense of gratitude & purpose, helping me to “live in fearlessness, coherence, & compassion” (37).
My renewed connections with this God-consciousness first came through adopting a daily spiritual discipline at the age of 42. Morning devotions, constant prayer, an attitude of gratitude, healthy diet, frequent exercise, regular participation in spiritual fellowship -- these fundamentals bear fruit.
I was months into this new life when I cracked the cover of The Wisdom Jesus. My “experiencer response” to her text involves lightning bolts of new learning alongside steaming cauldrons of confirmation, because she’s reinforcing what my spiritual journey’s already revealing. In this chapter, rather than berating the ego to “repent” for acting as an ego acts, she instead suggests “The repentance that Jesus really is talking about means to go beyond your little egoic operating system” (37). We don’t punish the egoic operating system for being an egoic operating system; instead, we get the upgrade to the heart system by being the truth we perceive in these teachings, by loving love & by living love. Many have already shared this as simply reminding the ego to let go & let God.
If it’s really beyond ego, we need not be intimidated by Bourgeault’s slippery slip into duality at the end of the chapter when she commits the sin of denial that she’s just criticized the larger Church for. I wonder if her invocation of “only a very enlightened few” is that different than what she rightly criticizes, the “deluded” idea that any one faction of us could own a “franchise on the gospel” (40). If she wrote this book, as she claims, to further clear the path, if Jesus really came for everybody & everything for all time & not just for some in-group, if the Kingdom really is already there for the noticing, accepting, & experiencing, then it’s not just for the saints & the sages, the monks & the mystics, & “the Mother Teresas” anymore. Unless, of course, she really meant to say “the Mother Teresa within you.”
While I think she’s too dualistic in the way she dismisses evangelical perspectives, I can’t quibble with her frustration with creed-based dogma. While I cannot agree more with the total futility of conscious Christians attempting to bring the Kingdom via social justice utopianism, I still think we’re called to act from a biblical conscience for greening into sustainable “creation care,” loving our enemies as a witness to peace & in abstinence from war, addressing unfairness at work & in society through democratic participation, & sharing some portion of what wealth we have with those in need. While her own evidence of dualistic thinking is hardly an argument for duality, it might be humbling for her ego to admit, & it’s humanizing for her readers.
For this chapter’s conversation with scripture, she’s chosen the challenging & contentious parable about landowners & laborers found in Matthew 20:1-15. In June of this year, I studied this passage collaboratively with about 100 others in a “Word & World” event at the US Social Forum in Detroit, Michigan. Our study leaders pursued a justice-based reading shared by Marcus Borg in his book Jesus that in this passage, God is not the landowner as so many other interpretations claim. Rather, they saw here “a story that indicts an unjust & ungenerous domination system in the name of God” (183). Borg entertains both competing interpretations & stops short of staking out a position, but the leaders of the Detroit study weren’t quite as diplomatic, describing in detail the plight of peasant day-laborers denied a living wage, day-laborers in our world today as well as in the one described in the gospel.
I didn’t agree with my Detroit discussion leaders & would add to what Bourgeault takes from this passage as “a whole new way of seeing & being” (39). Far from being a bullying boss who wants to shortchange the poor, this manager seems to me unrealistically idealistic by any standards & particularly bad at math. Far from being about a cheapskate proto-capitalist, I saw the parable as preaching against a rigid, inflexible workerist ethic, as about a rivalry between workers about discovering what’s really fair far beyond the bottom line.
What do you think the early-morning workers thought about the late-afternoon workers? Do you agree with the line of thinking taking by my teachers in Detroit that the morning workers are more like the hourly workers & that the afternoon folk are more like management, doing less actual “labor" but still collecting a healthy wage? Who else could be the late-afternoon workers in our world today? Are they the unemployed? The underemployed? The undocumented? The differently-abled & thus unemployable? The domestically distracted with childcare & household chores? Or the drug-addicts & alcoholics who only “came to” just in time to make to work well past midday? If Jesus is placing God in the place of the “generous landlord” does God’s grace extend to those late-afternoon laborers we encounter daily in our everyday lives?
Too often, I’m afraid we read Christ’s teaching through historical lenses of winners & losers. It’s particularly sketchy when the “domination system” that Borg sees Jesus as criticizing is in our age claiming to be “Christian.” To say, as many compassionate Christians do, that the gospel sides with the poor & oppressed, is very different than saying God hates rich people & banishes them period. Dualistic interpretations of scripture are so popular on the right & left because they too often serve to reinforce & entrench secular divisions with some biased but pseudo-sacred rationale. Does the operating system of the heart that perceives God personally & relationally as Oneness, as an everflowing love that leads us to as a sacred unity, does this God ever take sides in human battles?
If we are to get what Bourgeault says Jesus is getting at, maybe winning/losing is just another binary ploy. So, God could never be on “one team” forever rooting against the other. God’s not a Yankees fan cheering against the Red Sox; God’s not a Celtics fan cheering against the Cavs; God’s not an American at war with Afghanistan. This is why some contemporary Christian thinkers take real issue with the grand narrative of good & evil pursued by certain fundamentalists, seeing us approaching a bloody end-times battle between the so-called forces of good & evil. In this Kingdom of sacred unity without opposites, there are no losers -- only light & love.
To get these teachings, Bourgeault suggests that we move beyond the scarcity of the binary system to see our cup as half-full instead of as half-empty. I choose to meet Bourgeault’s bid of half-full in good faith & then raise it some. The God of our understanding doesn’t teach us that the cup is half-full; He teaches that the cup runneth over.
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