Dedicated to the recovery of the Christian contemplative path, Bourgeault is an Episcopalian minister, writer, and retreat facilitator. Her approach to understanding Jesus and his message is grounded in both current research and a view of Jesus as an awakened – and tantric – wisdom teacher. Bourgeault has worked closely with Fr. Thomas Keating, Fr. Bruno Barnhart, and other Christian contemplative masters, as well as in Sufism and the Christian inner traditions.
The excerpt I share today is from chapter one, "Jesus in Context," of The Wisdom Jesus. I particularly appreciate how Bourgeault offers a helpful overview of how the "energy of the Jesus event" radiated outwards from the Middle East in a number of different directions, resulting in various "streams of Christian influence" and thus different "flavored versions of the teachings of Jesus." As she notes, we in the West, because of the "rigid, control-oriented focus built into our Western [i.e., Roman] filter . . . struggle even to comprehend (yet alone accept) the vibrancy, breadth, diversity, and inclusiveness of early Christianity."
I also appreciate Bourgeault's musings on the word "orthodoxy.” Rather than meaning “right thinking,” she suggests and prefers to think of the word as meaning “right glory” or “right praise.” “People come from all different backgrounds and all different levels of spiritual maturity, and belief will fluctuate accordingly,” she reminds us. “But what should properly hold the body of Christ together is right praise, the ability to transcend all these differing viewpoints and in one voice (though maybe varied harmonies) offer glory and thanksgiving to the Master whose life transforms the human heart.” Amen!
One last thing before I share the actual excerpt: I want to express my gratitude to my friend Joanne for introducing me to The Wisdom Jesus and sharing her copy of this wonderful book with me. Thanks, Joanne! (In the image at right, Joanne is pictured at left with our mutual friend Kathleen. This photo was taken at a dinner at my home in September of this year.)
There’s a story, purportedly true, of a school board in the heart of the Tennessee Bible belt wrestling with whether or not to institute a foreign-language curriculum in its high school. After heated discussion, the debate was finally brought to an end when one board member stood up and said, “No way! If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for my son.”
We can laugh, of course, but the laughter is a trifle nervous; for most of us, it’s more a matter of degree than kind. The majority of Christians are still decidedly more comfortable reciting the Lord’s Prayer or Twenty-third Psalm in the old King James Version than in the many new translations now available (my well-educated grandmother insisted that prayer sounded holier when spoken in “these” and “thous”). And one Sunday morning when I offered the Lord’s Prayer in the original Aramaic of Jesus, several members of my congregation were distinctly troubled. “It sounded Islamic,” one woman worried.
Jesus was a Near Eastern event. We need to keep reminding ourselves of this. When the meteor of his being tumbled into time and space it landed in Palestine, not in Elizabethan England. From Palestine, of course, its influence radiated out in all directions. One line came west, carried by the apostle Paul through Turkey and into the Greco-Roman lands. That’s the line we’re most familiar with. But the energy also traveled in directions that we know a lot less about. Another line went southwest to Africa and from there jumped across the Strait of Gibraltar and traveled up the west coast of France to the Celtic strongholds of Brittany and Ireland. Still another line radiated east into Persia, India, and even China. And the energy certainly stayed right there in the Middle East, in lands that are today primarily Islamic: Iraq, Syria, Turkey. All of these energy streams flowing out from the Jesus event had their unique flavors – and they are very different from the flavor we’re used to in our own stream.
Back even fifty years ago the whole picture seemed a lot simpler. We had the Bible (and for most people this meant the King James Bible); we had tradition; we had creeds; we had our rules; we had our story line right. What was conveyed through the above channels was orthodox; what was not was heresy. And yes, some Christians did see things from differing viewpoints: there were Catholics and Protestants, and when they tried to converse with each other, this was known as ecumenism. Even today, the great majority of North Americans still experience Christians as coming in two flavors: Catholic or Protestant. Many of us have heard of the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches – although that is pretty much the limit of the known Christian universe. But what about the Ethiopian church? The Oriental Orthodox? The Nestorians? The ancient Syiacs? The Malabar Christians? The Chinese Christians of Xian with their distinctly Buddhist-flavored versions of the teachings of Jesus? What do we know of all these other Christian streams of influence?
It’s easy to be dismissive, of course – to simply shake our heads and say, “That’s all Gnostic.” “Gnostic” is a term we love to hate. We don’t exactly know what it means, but the one thing we do know is that anything labeled “Gnostic” is not scriptural and not orthodox; there’s something suspect about it. . . . When we use these terms so disparagingly, we’re actually exposing our deeply entrenched habit of viewing the Christian world through an exclusively Western filter – and of course, what this really means is that we’re looking at it through a Roman filter. The two chief earmarks of the Roman filter are that it tends to confuse unity with uniformity and it puts a high priority on order and authority. You can see how over the centuries these two tendencies have played out in the Western Church.
Speaking of orthodoxy, a lot of Christians assume that the word orthodox means right belief. It’s all about catechisms and creeds: believing the right things about Jesus, believing the way the church teaches you to believe. And yes, the word does etymologically derive from the Greek ortho (right) and dokeo (to think) – or in other words, it means right thinking.” But intuitively, I prefer to derive the “dox” part from the word doxa, which means “glory” (as in “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,” known as the doxology). Orthodox would then mean “right glory” (or “right praise”), and while this may be linguistically, well, unorthodox, it does come a lot closer to conveying the spiritual ambience of most of non-Roman Christianity (or in other words, the other 270 degrees of the Jesus-event arc). Particularly for the Near Eastern Christians, there was a strong sense that belief was not something that should be pinned down too tightly, like angels dancing on the head of a pin. People come from all different backgrounds and all different levels of spiritual maturity, and belief will fluctuate accordingly. But what should properly hold the body of Christ together is right praise, the ability to transcend all these differing viewpoints and in one voice (though maybe varied harmonies) offer glory and thanksgiving to the Master whose life transforms the human heart. Whatever the literal meaning of the term “orthodox,” this is its authentic spiritual meaning.
In the West, as I said, we early on lost that generosity of spirit. Because of the rigid, control-oriented focus built into our Western filter, we struggle even to comprehend (yet alone accept) the vibrancy, breadth, diversity, and inclusiveness of early Christianity.
– Cynthia Bourgeault
The Wisdom Jesus
The Wisdom Jesus
NEXT: Part 3
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Advent 2011: Thoughts and Reflections (Part 1)
Thoughts on Waiting . . . and a Resolution
Advent: Renewing Our Connection to the Sacred
The Centered Life as an Advent Life
My Advent Prayer for the Church
Letting God Loose
Mystics Full of Grace