Friday, December 23, 2011

Advent 2011: Thoughts and Reflections (Part 4)

The Wild Reed's Advent 2011 series concludes with a second excerpt from Cynthia Bourgeault's 2008 book The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – A New Perspective on Christ. (For the first excerpt, click here.) As I've noted previously, this book is actually one of two I'm reading this Advent, the other being Michael Casey's Fully Human, Fully Divine: An Interactive Christology. (Excerpts from Casey's book comprises Part One and Part Three of this series.)

I'm really enjoying Bourgeault's insightful book. In the excerpt from it that I share this evening, she examines the diverse cultural background and Near Eastern context of Jesus. It's fascinating. For instance, Bourgeault explores how Jesus' teachings "show clear areas of overlap with the great stream of sophia perennis [perennial wisdom] flowing through other spiritual traditions. Jesus would have been exposed to such wisdom, Bourgeault says, because Galilee, where he grew up and lived most of his adult life, was on the Silk Road, "that great viaduct of human commerce which from time immemorial has connected the lands of the Mediterranean with lands and culture of Central Asia and China." See what I mean by both insightful and fascinating?


Within our Western tradition there has been a strong tendency to sentimentalize Jesus as an uneducated tradesman. After all, didn’t he grow up in a small town in Galilee as a humble carpenter’s son? We’re actually somewhat invested in this fantasy, because it strengthens our case that he learned what he learned directly from God. But when you read the Bible carefully, the picture doesn’t hold up.

First of all, we need to recognize the implications of the fact Jesus grew up in Galilee, not in Jerusalem. We tend to think of Jerusalem as the cultural center and that going up to Jerusalem from the Galilean lands was like going from Appalachia to New York City. But in fact, it was the other way around. Far from being a cultural backwater, Galilee was actually the more cosmopolitan environment because it lay on the Silk Road, that great viaduct of human commerce which from time immemorial has connected the lands of the Mediterranean with the lands and culture of Central Asia and China.

The Silk Road went right through the city of Capernaum, where Jesus did a lot of his learning and his teaching. It was an environment in which he would have been fully exposed to a variety of ideas that could be seen as the New Age of his time. And Jesus evidently soaked up spiritual teaching like a sponge. While he was definitely his own person, he was not operating in a cultural vacuum. His teachings show clear areas of overlap with the great stream of Sophia perennis [perennial wisdom] flowing through other spiritual traditions, particularly Buddhism and Persian light mysticism.

Second, we know that he could read. We learn this from the scriptures themselves, when we see him in Luke 4:16 walking into the synagogue in that great moment of his public debut, reading from the scrolls of the prophet Isaiah and then announcing, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled.” He probably spoke several languages. We know for certain that he spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, and we can pretty well infer that he understood Latin (in light of his exchange with Pontius Pilate) and most likely Greek. He was a literate citizen of his day.

Further, we know that he almost certainly had some sort of religious training or apprenticeship. There has been a continuous effort to link him with the Essene community . . . whose teachings and spiritual practices are recorded in the Qumran scrolls. The Essenes were a Jewish ascetical sect, rigorous in their pursuit of repentance and purification. There’s a very good chance that John the Baptist belonged to this sect. And there’s also a very good chance that Jesus came through this training. He didn’t finally stay with it, but it is highly likely he would have been exposed to it and known about it.

Of course, this diverse cultural background was merely the springboard for his own original genius. He was not only a teacher of wisdom, he was a master of wisdom. He is particularly fond of taking a familiar saying or proverb and either pushing it to the limit or overturning it altogether. . . . In one of his most familiar but challenging teachings in Luke, he takes even the Golden Rule to its outer limits, pushing beyond all traces of enlightened self-interest into a no-holds-barred exhortation to love without counting the cost:

But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you . . . Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return . . . Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:27-28, 31-36)

We can see the razor edge of his brilliance as he takes the familiar world of mashal far beyond the safety zone of conventional morality into a world of radical reversal and paradox. He is transforming proverbs into parables – and a parable, incidentally, is not the same thing as an aphorism or a moral lesson. Its closet cousin is really the Buddhist koan, a deliberately subversive paradox aimed at turning our usual mind upside down. My colleague Lynn Bauman refers to parables as “spiritual hand grenades”; their job is not to confirm but to uproot. You can imagine the effect that had on his audience! Throughout the gospels we hear people saying again and again, “What is this he’s teaching? No one has ever said anything like this before. Where did he get this? Where did he come from?

Jesus’ response to those questions was always the same: “Come and see.” And this will be true for us as well as we prepare to follow him on his steeplechase. But in order to be able to keep him in sight, it is helpful to know where he is coming from. Within his authentic Near Eastern context he emerges as a sophisticated, fully attuned, and even cosmopolitan teacher, working in a genre that is recognized by his audience but teaching it so much more powerfully and boldly that he pulls people right up with a start. As we actually taste the flavor of what he’s teaching, we begin to see that it’s not proverbs for daily living, or ways of being virtuous. He’s proposing a total meltdown and recasting of human consciousness, bursting through the tiny acorn-selfhood that we arrived on the planet with into the oak tree of our fully realized personhood. He pushes us toward it, teases us, taunts us, encourages us, and ultimately walks us there.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Why Jesus is My Man
Advent 2011: Thoughts and Reflections (Part 1)
Advent 2011: Thoughts and Reflections (Part 2)
Advent 2011: Thoughts and Reflections (Part 3)
Jesus: Path-blazer of Radical Transformation
The Essential Christ
What We Can Learn from the Story of the Magi
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
Advent Thoughts
Letting God Loose
Mystics Full of Grace
Thoughts on Transformation (Part 3)

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