This is a post in my project series, tentatively titled “Overlapping Magisteria” – which is a project to bring together old spiritual wisdom about how to live as human beings, with current scientific understandings.
I’ve been having a great time reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s book “The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind“. The reason is that it is the best articulation that I’ve come across of Jesus’ teachings that really resonates with my own understanding and experience – Jesus as a teacher of transformation. Ever since I read the Beatitudes in church when I was a child, I knew this Jesus dude had something going on – something I knew I wanted a part of. But even as a Nazarene in my late teens and early twenties, I had a hard time with the “Jesus as Savior” narrative, and I spent a lot of time in seminary thinking about how I was going to theologically squirm my way around the Nicene Creed. I was introduced to the “Jesus as Political Radical Revolutionary” narrative just before and since seminary, and I certainly like it a lot better, but it didn’t quite sit right with me either.
There are some very challenging teachings of Jesus that neither of those narratives can really handle very well. One of them is the parable of the bridesmaids in Matthew 25, another is the parable of the workers in the vineyard, and another is the parable of the prodigal son. Here’s what Bourgeault says about these:
These hard teachings are admittedly disconcerting. You simply can’t translate them into a sentimental theology that says, “Jesus just wants us to be nice, to share, to trust.” They are classic esoteric teachings, echoed and confirmed throughout the universal wisdom tradition, that speak to the need for a certain spiritual substance (or quality of consciousness) to crystallize in a person before he or she can emerge as a complete human being. But what are these teachings doing here? They are like sophiological tidbits that somehow strayed into our soteriological gospel, and there they stand out like a sore thumb, always irritating and slightly unsettling. And even if the four gospels are all we have to work with, these sayings are odd enough to tweak our suspicion that there might be more to this iceberg of Jesus than meets the eye.
Another “hard teaching” is found in the Gospel of Thomas, Logion 7:
Jesus said, “Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man.”
It seems like a strange teaching, doesn’t it? But really, in essence, it’s pretty simple (simple, but not easy.) If you think of the lion as our dual (us/them) nature, then to consume the lion is to be able to tame that dual nature – in neuroscience speak, to tame our amygdalas. To be consumed by the lion is to be consumed by the dual nature – to allow our amydalas to rule us.
I imagine if Jesus were alive today, he’d probably use a lizard instead of a lion, but it’s the same idea.