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:

Habit Formation: “Floss one tooth.”

In a memorable iTunes U lecture entitled “Changing Behaviour and Changing Policies” BJ Fogg offers this very interesting (albeit slightly foul and creepy) metaphor to explain why behaviour practitioners ought to focus more on “ability” and “trigger” (and not just “motivation”) when designing interactions for habit formation.

While change management literature often focuses predominantly on creating a compelling vision of the future that will motivate people to take action (and this is admittedly a significant part of the equation), Fogg suggests that success in new habit formation may depend more on making it easy for people to take a desired action. This is the logic behind the idea of flossing just one tooth. “You don’t work on getting people to walk 30 minutes a day until they have the automatic reaction, ‘Oh, I’m back from my coffee break, I’m going to go walk 5 minutes,'” according to Fogg, and  similarly, if all one has to do is floss a single tooth immediately after brushing, it becomes extremely easy to do, essentially eliminating the demotivators (such as bleeding, painful gums). Fogg’s thinking is that if the tiny habit is successfully trained, it does indeed become quite natural for that habit to expand on its own. So when it comes to flossing the rest of your teeth – no pressure – only do it if it feels good!

The key idea here is that a tiny habit, placed in an artfully designed context, has the potential to “grow without coaxing.”

Fogg reminds his audience that this approach underpins the success of consumer internet giants such as Facebook and Google that have been so successful in training users to return to their sites again and again. “Just use us for one little thing – search maybe, or to share your photos – and once we’ve got you visiting us every day, suddenly you’ll be using us for maps, mail, docs, etc.” What these companies do is “Put hot triggers in front of motivated people.” In other words, they put invitations to do things that are very small and easy to do NOW, in front of people that want to do those things.

This got me thinking about an intranet project I am building. What is the one aspect of an intranet that is small and needed by everyone in the company on a daily basis? What if we could build the most amazing, intuitive, simple, searchable, sleek phonebook in the universe and get people to LOVE using it and come back to it every day? Wouldn’t it be somewhat easier to add in things like birthdays, corporate announcements, knowledge assets, etc., subsequently, without having to train people to go to the intranet instead of their traditional channels?

What other applications for this idea do you see?

Takeaways from World Energy Congress in Montreal

1. When it comes to a global energy future we can all agree to, the path forward involves huge geopolitical, economic and environmental constraints. This means the range of available options is narrow, and none are without drawbacks. It is likely to be a long, untidy journey that involves a mix of technological innovation, mitigation of environmental impacts, systems adaptation, intergovernmental cooperation and behavioral change. Many different interests will need to be brokered (or broker themselves) in the process. It is a massive design challenge. That is the stark (bland?) reality of it.

2. There are at least two moral dimensions to the challenge, and they seem in many ways inextricable: (1) ensure that all people in the world have access to energy (or, in short, eliminate energy poverty, and (2) ensure that our global energy system does not impact the environment in unacceptable ways.

3. Some technologies are promising, in particular, hydrogen fuel cells, superconductors (both of which have immediate applications and many potential applications) and nuclear fusion (which is a long way off, but in the works).

4. At the same time, I did not hear a lot of “breakthrough thinking” or fresh ideas at the conference. It is hard to completely reimagine our global energy system because of its scale. It is unlikely that anything (with the possible exception of, god forbid, world war) will change the game over night.

5. The overwhelming consensus among energy leaders of all stripes is that hydrocarbons will be with us for decades to come. As a result, many believe we need to emphasize carbon capture and sequestration efforts in addition to increasing supply from renewables and changing human behavior.

6. The electric car is about to arrive, possibly with a vengeance.

7. Localized production will become increasingly important, and is seen by many to offer great advantages over centralized production when and where it makes sense economically.

8. Our existing transmission grids are a joke and we need to make them smarter.

9. Our ability to process and store nuclear waste has improved dramatically over the last 20 years, but there are still challenges – in particular, cooperation between governments about where and how to store it.

10. Sustainability does not mean the same thing in the developed world as it does in the under-developed world. This is because they each emphasize different moral aspects of sustainability (as noted in point 2). Essentially, if you don’t have energy, you’re more willing to make environmental compromises in order to get it.

11. Our electricity system is increasingly becoming intertwined with our broadband system: this is a phenomenon that is loaded with its own set of challenges and opportunities.

12. Photovoltaics have potential, if we could make them economic.

13. China is a paradox. But who doesn’t love a good paradox?

14. My personal impression after listening to many government leaders speak, is that our current political systems are ill equipped to deal with the challenges we face in the future, including the energy challenge.

And a few notes on Montreal…

1. Two great restaurants I will go back to are Saloon (in the gay village) and Barroco.

2. Smoked meat sandwiches – what is the big deal?

3. Traffic lanes mean nothing; they are “rules of thumb” at best. Someone told me that driving in a straight line is “very Anglo.” Also, nobody signals to change lanes.

4. Everything is underground: the gyms, nightclubs, supermarkets, are often 2 or 3 stories below ground.

5. People are beautiful, wine is good, food is incred, cheeses are divine, and there is no shortage of style. I have been told this before, but didn’t really expect it to be as refreshing as it is.

6. One exception to the above: all the smokers. Ick.

Never Miss an Opportunity to be Fabulous

I love listening to the Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series on iTunes. Last night I was listening to a lecture called “What I wish I knew when I was 20” (lecture 97), by Tina Seelig, the executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. Oh, and by the way, she just happens to have a PhD in neuroscience. Anyway, I was so inspired that as I was listening to the lecture, I imagined what the slides would look like and made up my own slide show to go along with it. I highly recommend that you listen to the lecture yourself, but here is my version of the slideshow for your viewing pleasure.

And yes, it’s possible, I might have too much time on my hands.

Update: I noticed that Tina Seelig has an account on slideshare! Here is the original slideshow (and… it appears she has actually written a book about it! Chapters, here I come.)

Design inspiration from the east.

I was reminded of the Beijing Olympics today. The design that went into the event is really powerful and interesting.



It’s really cool to see some of the art that is coming out of Asia these days. Here are a couple of chinese paintings I like. This one is called “The Lovers” by Yue Minjun. I love the looks on their faces.


This next one is from Iran. Don’t know what it is called, but the artists is Mohsen Ahmadvand. I love this piece, it is beautiful and makes me think of transcendence, guilt, being in the moment.


Here is a statue called “Happy Life #8”, by Chen Wenling. I interpret it as political, but it is just cool to look at as well!


And finally, this one is my favorite. I got it from but do not know who the artist is. It speaks to me of the alienation that I felt sometimes as a child.