The Wisdom Jesus Part One – A Larger Mind…
Jonah 3:1-5 & 10, Psalm 62, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:9-20
Sunday, January 21, 2018 – The Third Sunday After Epiphany
Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory
This morning, we begin 4 weeks of reflections exploring ideas from the book The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind —a New Perspective on Christ and His Message which is written by the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault—she is an Episcopalian Priest, writer, retreat leader and modern day mystic who seeks to restore to the consciousness of the Christian church broadly speaking, a recovery of the contemplative and wisdom path within the Christian Tradition.
Bourgeault is part of the core faculty of The Living School at the Centre of Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, which is coordinated by Richard Rohr, the author of the Divine Dance which is a book we explored in the early fall of 2017 —both books certainly delve into similar places, reaching back centuries and even millennia looking to the follow the thread of mysticism within Christianity that has always been there, but often to be found on the edges.
I’m not sure what you hear in the word mysticism or mystic, but we use it here to refer to that stream within a religious movement that is concerned with experience rather than doctrine, and with transformation rather than membership.
It’s worth remembering that for the first 400 years, the spiritual tradition that will become known as Christianity is pretty broad and diverse, and there is no agreement, and no attempt at agreement about what will be the common beliefs, practices, or even sacred texts, and even when this discussion begins in the Roman world it takes a long time, several hundreds of years in fact to define what Christianity will believe, or perhaps a better way to put it, is what beliefs will distinguish a Christian community, or person —we sometimes call this orthodoxy (right beliefs).
Here in North America, forms of Christianity that we may be most familiar with have emerged from that process in the Roman world that codified Christianity into a set of doctrines, with a set of sacred texts and practices —it evolves over centuries, and groups and versions emerge —and I’d suggest that where this gets complicated, in Europe and eventually North America, is the relationship these groups have with power, and with a tendency to equate unity with uniformity.
So the history of different streams in Christianity begins to look like conflict, and an inability to get along —which is fair, because there is a lot of that —but it’s not that Christianity should be one uniform expression, it’s that these forms, emerge within a worldview that has a tendency to reduce diversity to uniformity, seeing one correct way of doing something.
But during those first 400 years, Christianity had already migrated from the Palestine, into what we now call Iraq, into Egypt and Ethiopia, and into India and China, and the expressions of the Tradition that emerge from these parts of the world don’t participate in the same way, in that project of trying to define orthodoxy —the right way to be Christian —and in these movements, there is much less concern with uniformity, which we sometimes mistake as a disinterest in unity.
I say all of this, to remind us, how diverse a Tradition we are exploring—and perhaps one of our challenges within Christianity today is to understand different perspectives as in conversation with one another rather than in competition.
There are of course some very real incompatibilities, and frankly injustices embedded within the way Christianity is expressed —that is another topic, and worth addressing at another time.
So when Bourgeault is speaking of recovering the contemplative and wisdom path with Christianity, she is not trying to erase all other expressions, but sees health within the tradition when there are these different paths that intersect, and share gifts, and occasional argue, but do so without trampling on one another and seeking to create a monolithic “rightness” —and I would say that an important corollary of this, is when we value conversation within perspectives within the tradition, we are better equipped to see the tradition in conversation with ways of being from other faiths and non-faiths —more about that throughout these 4 weeks.
So Bourgeault then offers a reading of Jesus of Nazareth:
“as a teacher of the path of inner transformation…suggest[ing] that he did not really come out of nowhere, but rather he belongs to a stream of living wisdom that has been flowing through the human condition for at least five thousand years”
I think that we can sometimes imagine that Jesus is to be considered within Christianity as wholly original, saying or doing things that have never been said or done anywhere else. Which is why then some parts of Christianity then struggle when connections are pointed to other paths.
Christians (again, within the Western world) have become used to seeing Jesus as a singularity, and the more people study this, the more it appears unlikely, and since there is this strong emphasis on Christianity as an exclusive faith some feel that this sort of learning is a challenge to its legitimacy.
But if Jesus is unique rather than singular, it’s a whole different ball game.
Liberal streams of the Christian Tradition have often been less concerned with Jesus as a singularity, and Christianity as a tradition making an exclusive claim on rightness, but this developed mostly as a rejection of exclusivity within fundamentalist theologies or expressions. Which means you wind up (and this is an over-simplification, but hopefully helps us create a starting point) with fundamentalism claiming that Jesus/Christianity is the only valid expression path to God, and with liberalism claiming (as Bourgeault points out) that “Jesus is just a nice guy, and wants us to be nice too”.
Neither, I believe offer a compelling reason to engage with this tradition.
I should pause and clarify that I have no direct objection to “niceness” be nice, or better yet, be kind.
Bourgeault then reads Jesus, neither as making an exclusive theological claim as being the only path to God, nor as being simply metaphor for polite piety, but instead as offering apprenticeship into a path of radical inner transformation and non-dual consciousness.
And to clarify, she does not read him as making an exclusive claim to this, but offering a unique path born out of the tradition of the Hebrew Prophets before him and in response to the social conditions of first century Palestine living under Roman Rule.
Bourgeault then believes that understood in this way, Christianity offers gifts both within and outside the tradition, that Jesus’ path, teaching, story, and example, can offer wisdom for a life well lived, beautifully lived, fully realized personhood, ethical action, for those who within a religious tradition bearing his name, and to those who will never do so.
Ok, so lots of things spinning around here, and I hope that some of them are beginning to coalesce to help us build a framework for these next four weeks.
This also feels like a good time to plug that during this series, at 10am on Thursdays, we have a small group gathering to read the book and explore the ideas more fully.
Now, on the final page of the sermon, I want to take a few moments to end by looking at the reading this morning, and what it might be hinting at when read through Bourgeault’s ideas.
Jesus [returned] to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
The word “repent” is a pretty loaded one, often weaponized to label a certain type of person or a certain behaviour as deviant.
Now it’s not that Jesus is advocating a moral relativism, I actually think that a Jesus based spirituality actually has a rigorous ethical challenge (but just not the one that Christianity has been known for —again a conversation for another day).
Repent, in Greek (the language this text is written) is metanoia —meta = beyond or larger and noir = mind/thinking.
So rather than understanding “repent” as “stop that deviant behaviour”, might we read it as “enter into a larger mind” which is not the same as “think bigger” but, in the words of wisdom teaching, is likely more akin to “higher consciousness” which sounds really abstract, unless we are able to see that so much of our thinking, processing, is centred in ego-self.
So, in this declaration to repent, is Jesus challenging a particular faith to join a new religion, is he challenging a certain morally suspect group to better behaviour, or is he challenging all of us, inviting all of us, to learn to challenge the ego-centred operating system which we default to, and enter into a non-dual, or unitive way of thinking?
It’s worth noting the need to not conflate Ego with Narcissism and extreme self-centredness. Especially when we allow ourselves to look at a figure like the current American President, and say that is ego —which it is, of course, ego running the show in an extreme and violent way, but that doesn’t mean that ego doesn’t run the show in a much more benign way in ourselves.
If ego likes to compartmentalize, and build boundaries, if ego responds to difference as fear, if ego sees scarcity, then metanoia likes to interconnect, likes to dissolve boundaries, sees difference as opportunity and sees abundance.
I think that this is what Jesus as wisdom teacher is inviting us into, not at the expense of devotion or sacrament, but in this context, these things are not about group membership or personal justification, but engaged in the service of inner transformation, out of which we live and work into an ethical framework of mutuality, relationship, responsibility and interdependence.
There is much more to say about this, but hopefully this begins to set up a framework from which we’ll explore Jesus’ teachings, Jesus story of birth, death and resurrection, and methods of contemplative spirituality, not as an exclusive religious system, but as an inclusive path to transformation—not the only one, but a unique one (as are all others) with a particular emphasis and implication, and invitation for fully realized personhood, and deep relationship with all people and all things.
For in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with, and we are not alone.