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: