After reading The Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault (Shambhala 2008), Gillian Paschkes-Bell writes:
This is a book I have been looking for all my life. For me, coming from an interfaith background, and learning Christianity through school, I was early on troubled and confused by what I learned about salvation and by some of the attitudes I encountered towards sex. In The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault puts forward a new view, but one based on ancient material, giving satisfying answers to questions my heart was asking years ago.
Cynthia Bourgeault writes about the Wisdom tradition of Christianity – part of the Wisdom tradition of the Middle East, which has other expressions in Sufism and Kabbalah. Like these, its aim is transformation of consciousness. The emphasis is therefore subtly different from mainstream western Christianity, with its dynamic of reconciliation to God through salvation from sin.
Fresh material requiring us to take a fresh look
CB writes about the streams of teaching that flowed out of Palestine inspired by Jesus. One was adopted by the Roman Empire and replaced pagan traditions as the state religion. This stream focused on salvation from sin through Jesus’ sacrificial death. The other streams – which went east, south – and into the Celtic lands via North Africa, carried the Wisdom tradition. They are expressed in the lost gospels that emerged in the last century. Here, Jesus is seen as ‘life giver’ or ‘single one’ (ihidaya in Aramaic) – meaning, “a person who had integrated his or her being around the pole of nondual consciousness.” (p 76)
Living in our time and space world from the perspective of non-dual consciousness does not mean we lose our binary perception, in which I know that I am I, and you are you. It means we move as our heart-intuition prompts us between binary perception and unitive consciousness, in which we are all manifestations of the One Source. Increasingly, we become less identified with our personality selves. Our heads become the servants of our heart-intuition, not the master.
Two ways to unitive consciousness
Most of the world’s pathways toward transformation of consciousness can be described as ‘ascent mysticism.’ There is a dynamic of storing energy to send it ‘up’. Asceticism is a necessary part of the process. But this is not the path Jesus taught, writes Cynthia Bourgeault:
“There’s another route to center: a more reckless path and extravagant path, which is attained not through storing up that energy or concentrating the life force, but through throwing it all away – or giving it all away. The unitive point is reached not through the concentration of being but through the free squandering of it; not through acquisition or attainment but through self-emptying; not through ‘up’ but through ‘down’. This is the way of kenosis, the revolutionary path that Jesus introduced into the consciousness of the West.” (pp 65, 66)
The danger is that this self-emptying dynamic can be mis-applied. If people who are operating primarily in ‘duality’ or ‘binary consciousness’ seek to live this Wisdom teaching it can become distorted, and instead of the self-emptying that allows life to flow abundantly and creatively there is a possibility of getting stuck in a martyrdom of self-denial. Then there is no flow at all.
The path of kenosis is not essentially ascetic so in CB’s view the widespread tacit assumption down the years that Jesus was celibate is not necessarily true. Her aim is not to assert that he did or did not know sexual love – but to assert that it would have been compatible with his teachings for him to have done so. The importance of this point lies in its effect on attitudes towards sexuality within the Christian tradition.
Becoming living spirits
Taking as the starting point of the Christian path that moment when Mary Magdalene proclaimed the resurrection as a living reality, Cynthia Bourgeault writes:
“In a sense… the Christian path was not founded by the male disciples, although they are given the credit for it. It grew heart and soul out of the pure love and trust between a man and a woman who had, in a deep way, transcended their male- and female-ness to become living spirits.” (p 86)
What does this mean?
“As Jesus so profoundly stated in… the Gospel of Thomas, it is not a matter of whether you’re male or female, celibate or sexually active, a monk or married. What matters is that you become a living spirit. And a living spirit is a person who, like Jesus, has become ihidaya, who has moved beyond the opposites… Anyone who is willing to take up the burden of the much more difficult task – not the manageable complexity of rules and regulations, but the unmanageable simplicity of being present to your life in love – that person is walking the path of Jesus.” (pp 87, 88)
Seeing the world of form as a million opportunities for love
Within the Wisdom traditions the world of form is one of many, and relatively dense. “What are we doing ‘down’ here in a world that seems so dense and sluggish, so coarse and fragile and finite?” CB asks; “ …our mystics and visionaries are perpetually reminding us that in our heart of hearts we remember and yearn for a state of greater spaciousness and fluidity.” (pp 97, 98) Being in this world is difficult.
Cynthia Bourgeault suggests that these ‘dense’ conditions offer an environment in which love can be revealed. She writes that, “we can see that those sharp edges we experience as constriction at the same time call forth some of the most exquisite dimensions of love, which require the condition of finitude in order to make sense – qualities such as steadfastness, tenderness, commitment, forbearance, fidelity and forgiveness. These mature and subtle flavors of love have no real context in a realm where there are no edges and boundaries, where all just flows… Pay attention to the quality of human character that emerges from constriction accepted with consciousness forgiveness as compared to what emerges from rage and violence and draw your own conclusions. ” (pp 99, 100)
Jesus took divine consciousness into the false-self state
Cynthia Bourgeault makes it quite clear that, in the Wisdom tradition of Christianity, Jesus is in no way intrinsically different from the rest of humanity – no more so than any other person of outstanding spiritual development. In her view, what Jesus did was to bring the state of unitive consciousness in some sense right into the false self. What we are asked to grasp is that, through his willing surrender to the outcomes of society’s false-self behaviour – not avoiding, nor judging, nor fixing – Jesus in some sense which it is probably impossible to describe adequately in the language of duality, entered into the false-self state without himself manifesting false-self attitudes and behaviour. He took divine consciousness into that place. And because divine consciousness entered that place, but could not be held nor trapped there, a possibility was opened up, within collective human consciousness, for return from that place of non-being back towards our home divine consciousness.
The material world as sacrament
What has been revealed through all this is a way of looking at the challenging environment of our physical world as sacrament. Many traditions have viewed the material world as illusion, pointing us to look beyond. Jesus also points us to look beyond. But the Jesus story as interpreted here suggests that when we succeed in looking beyond while staying within the dense and difficult environment of our physical world, we manifest love in a way that could not happen in an easier environment. Our world is an opportunity for love. The physical world is illusion when our eyes see nothing but the material. But when, through the instrument of the heart, we see everything infused with divine radiance, we are no longer in the illusion. Then we see truth.
As arriving at a state of unitive consciousness is easier said than done – until it happens, when surely it is simplicity itself – Cynthia Bourgeault outlines five spiritual practice designed to help. These are:
- Centering prayer, a form of intentional meditation taught by Thomas Keating
- Lectio divina, a traditional way of using scripture, or any text, as a portal to the inner world
- Chanting as a direct route to opening the heart
- ‘Welcoming,’ one name for a bio-energetic practice of kenosis or ‘letting go’ developed by Mary Mrozowski
- Eucharist, the sharing of bread and wine, seen not primarily as a memorial but as a ‘subtle body’ channel between Jesus and his disciples
The Wisdom Jesus has a companion volume – The Meaning of Mary Magdalene (Shambhala, 2010 – a short appreciation is posted in Resources by Tessa Maskill) Here Cynthia Bourgeault focuses more strongly on this foremost of the disciples through the texts that have been revealed in the recent past and which can help us to re-read the gospels many of us have long been familiar with.
Gillian Paschkes-Bell is an Interfaith Minister. From 2006 – 2010 she tutored on the training programme of the Interfaith Seminary, part of One Spirit Interfaith Foundation UK. Coming from an interfaith background, with Jewish father and Christian mother, she developed a Christ-centred path and studied theology as a mature student at London and Oxford universities. From 2002 to 2014 she lived in the Findhorn community in northern Scotland where, with Janice Dolley she was co-convener of Findhorn’s 2012 Into Christ Consciousness gathering. She now lives in Wales.