Jesus doesn’t want you to be nice! (Book Review: “The Wisdom Jesus” by Cynthia Bourgeault)

“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

It’s an injunction most English-speaking people have heard, and most of them have conceivably either attempted to live by it or filed it in the “wrong” box. As an adult, I have done the latter. I imagined the sentence loaded with metaphysical and meta-ethical baggage that melts under the spotlight of modern inquiry. I saw it as an egregious oversimplification of human motivation and choice. And for these reasons, I rejected it and similar Christian teachings as incapable of offering much to any contemporary human attempting in earnest to navigate the choppy and sometimes dark waters of their own internal being.

But Cynthia Bourgeault offers a radically different interpretation of that sentence. One that I’ve never heard stated so eloquently. One that brings it to life once again, as an adult, for me.

In “The Wisdom Jesus”, Bourgeault rejects the commonly held thought that Jesus was here in order to get you to believe something about him (i.e. that he died to save you from your sins). And she spurns the notion that his main point was that he wants you to be nice (which is funny when you say it out loud, but how often do we, unbeknownst to ourselves, actually frame most of what he was on about that way?)

Bourgeault systematically and methodically makes the case that Jesus was calling people to transform in ways that would transform the world around them. And that this is not something that he (or anyone else) could do for them, it is something they had to do for themselves. (This is in fact, she writes, the point of the baffling parable of the five wise (read: transformed) bridesmaids who wouldn’t be nice and share their oil with the five foolish (read: unenlightened) ones: “The oil stands for the quality of your transformed consciousness, and unfortunately, it’s impossible to become conscious unconsciously, through a donation from somebody else. You have to do the work yourself.”)

Similarly, through this lens, the instructions “repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” take on a different meaning. Borgeault notes that the Greek word being translated as “repent” is “metanoia,” which means to “go beyond your own mind” or to “go into the large mind” depending on how you translate the prefix “meta.” Either way, this does not sound like a command to change the direction of your life or to stop doing bad things. It sounds like an instruction to transform the way you know and see the world. And although this fact is often ignored, what is meant by “at hand,” is not a place you go when you die, but a place that is right here, right now. So, as Bourgeault puts it, the kingdom of heaven is “not later, but lighter – some more subtle dimension or quality of experience accessible to you right in the moment. You don’t die into it; you awaken into it.” Later, she writes, “It is a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place.”

All of this raises the question, if Jesus wanted his followers to awaken into a transformed awareness of the world, one characterized by a passionate, unified heart that is capable of loving with a fire that is “not of this world”, just how did he expect us to get there? “How do we die before we die? How do we love our neighbors as ourselves? How do we bridge the gap between what we believe and what we can actually live?”

Bourgeault believes that “Jesus does leave us with a path for getting across that gap,” and, although to her way of thinking it is something few human beings have ever achieved, it is what her book is principally about. I highly suggest that you read the book and form your own judgements about it. As for me, I’m not there yet. I do not claim to be enlightened and if anything I’m only more conscious now of how big the gap between the world I live in and the “kingdom of heaven” is.

At the same time, something in me says, “yeah, this is what Jesus was really trying to teach people. This is what he was on about. This is the weird, crazy stuff that baffled the spiritual leaders and turned the world upside down back in his day. It wasn’t just about being nice, and it wasn’t about dogma. Those things wouldn’t have had much of an impact. But this would have stirred the pot.”

What do you think?

PS: Here is a video of Cynthia Bourgeault for those who are interested:

http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=-200014893861038893&hl=en&fs=true

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2 thoughts on “Jesus doesn’t want you to be nice! (Book Review: “The Wisdom Jesus” by Cynthia Bourgeault)

  1. Hello Justin,

    I somehow stumbled upon your blog site through a series of links when looking up Christianity, Facebook, Calgary, oil jobs and pizza and thought I’d share my two pennies. I read your blog on Cynthia Bourgeault book because of your title “Jesus doesn’t want you to be nice” which seemed counterintuitive at first, but then I remembered a lesson I learned a very long time ago at a church I attended. There were only a few people in the church, and a keyboard player up in the front pew.

    I’ve not read Cynthia’s book. But based on your blog, it sounds like it’s the same message. I’m no expert in the subject matter, nor I am a Bible thumping beer drinker, spewing Christ or Bible based generalities that somehow justify everything that I do, good or bad. I’m just a regular guy that happens to be open minded enough, educated enough and hurt enough by the world and by me, to understand that there are some things where logic and empiricism does not apply but rather just is. “Is” is a verb to be in English syntax that annotates a presumption to exist without necessarily having a reason or cause.

    The pastor said something in the lines of “forget everything you know or think you know about God, Jesus, prayer, Christianity, love, the Bible, relationship…everything; because whatever it is…YOU did it, YOU caused it, and YOU formed it” I was like…wat?! His point was – everything that we think we know about Christianity, the Church and the teachings of the Bible is what we (our minds, the society, media, or what man makes us think) allowed ourselves to learn and this is exactly the problem. He said, to know God, is to know that we cannot exist. Initially, made no sense. Logically, it’s impossible. Emotionally, you’re implying suicidal behavior. I made fun of him and commented on the lack of attendance. But soon after realized that my very reaction to his words was the very premise of his point.

    I want to say that I believe in the teachings of the Bible. I even hesitate to use the word “believe” because somehow it implies a requirement for divine mystic intervention in order for us to forcefully accept something just because the Bible says so. This is false and ludicrous. However, this unfortunately is the approach western Christianity utilizes in prescriptive teaching of the bible to the masses. It becomes a game of dos and don’ts and who’s right or wrong. This is religion.

    I think the whole point of the Bible, which includes the popular phrase taunted by many churches “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” is descriptive; it is about understanding a guy name Jesus – not about what he did and say (prescriptive), but rather about who He is (descriptive) from cover to cover. This is non-religion. Taking this approach, everything in the Bible becomes a codified encrypted message written over a span of couple thousand years amounting to 66 books authored by various people from all walks of life. But somehow, they ALL uniformly discuss one simple message:

    I am because you’re not.

    He that hath ears to hear, let him hear (Matthew 11:15) This verse is an example of this very message.

    This is exactly what I think Jesus lived through. His teachings are not necessarily about what he did and say, they are simply the result (or the symptoms) of living a life where He himself was denied. And this was ultimately symbolized by His death on the cross; this is WHO HE IS…not about what he did and said; I think this is what caused the people in Jesus’ time to be baffled and shocked because they couldn’t connect what they already knew (or assume to know about God), to who God really is.

    Unfortunately, as discussed above, the Western Christianity media focuses on the prescriptive aspect of the Bible and Jesus’ stories and nothing about the description and understanding of Who HE is. This shows me that there really hasn’t been much changes since Jesus’ time. Prescriptive teachings inevitably causes contradictions in sermons debate and confusion among the people as you also poignantly mention, “…sentence loaded with metaphysical and meta-ethical baggage that melts under the spotlight of modern inquiry”.

    I think you may be skeptical and implausible to the teachings when you say “I saw it as an egregious oversimplification of human motivation and choice. And for these reasons, I rejected it and similar Christian teachings…” But before you conclude this again, think about it in the context of the message.

    Towards the end of your blog, I think you hit the nail on its head when you say “if Jesus wanted his followers to awaken into a transformed awareness of the world, one characterized by a passionate, unified heart that is capable of loving with a fire that is not of this world, just how did he expect us to get there? How do we die before we die? How do we love our neighbors as ourselves? How do we bridge the gap between what we believe and what we can actually live?”

    Although those are great questions to ask because it inevitably follows logically, they are also the wrong questions to ask because it has nothing to do with logic. Why? Because the verbs that are used in asking those questions already presupposes an action that has to be acted by us.

    I am because you’re not – is the one key message of the Bible.

    Before you ask the next question, catch yourself; and realize that it just is and it just will be. Jesus is, God is, the world is, your life is, time is…etc. They all just exist. The way I like to illustrate it is: we are just a dead leaf moving as the river’s ebb and flow.

    So you may ask, who’s in control? Don’t get confused with determinism. This is where the premise of Christianity comes in – Faith. Remember the whole Easter story of Jesus’ crucifixion? Likewise, we are just a dead leaf and faith is what carries us through the ebbs and flow of the river.

    I like when you said:
    “At the same time, something in me says, “yeah, this is what Jesus was really trying to teach people. This is what he was on about. This is the weird, crazy stuff that baffled the spiritual leaders and turned the world upside down back in his day”
    Because it tells me you really do already understand it. You’re not confused with Christianity, the Bible, God or yourself. You just have a natural human desire to materialize everything physically so that you can systematically and logically deal with it, which is something you’re so use to doing in this world and in your life. Don’t we all? The entire underlying theme of every single story of the Bible is exactly what this is about: someone always wants to do something but ends up in disaster but then God enters the story, always.

    I am because you’re not.

    “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”
    I think Cynthia was on to something…
    That’s my 2 pennies.

    Cheers

  2. Dear “Anon”,

    When you say…

    “Although those are great questions to ask because it inevitably follows logically, they are also the wrong questions to ask because it has nothing to do with logic. Why? Because the verbs that are used in asking those questions already presupposes an action that has to be acted by us.

    I am because you’re not – is the one key message of the Bible.”

    …I am reminded of the Buddhist teaching that we already have Buddha nature. We are always already free.

    Either way, there is nothing to do.

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