When some of our women worked with Winton Boyd to design worship for Lent and Easter, one woman shared a resource for the group to consider, The Wisdom Jesus, by Cynthia Bourgeault. This book peaked my curiosity, and I began to read it not only because the women might be using it, but because I thought the Progressive Christianity Discussion Group might enjoying reading and discussing it. It’s a difficult read, with some challenging concepts, but I’d like to share with you some of Bourgeault’s reflections on the meaning of the death of Jesus, a theme many of us are pondering leading up to Holy Week.
Bourgeault asks, “What is the meaning of the passion (or the event’s which end Jesus’s earthly life: his betrayal, trial, execution on a cross, and death)?”
“First of all,” she writes, “God wasn’t angry! …Particularly in fundamentalist theology, you’ll often hear it said that God got so fed up with the sins and transgressions of Israel that he demanded a human sacrifice in atonement. But of course, this interpretation would turn God into a monster. How can Jesus, who is love, radiate and reflect a God who is primarily a monster? …NO, we need to bury once and for all those fear-and-punishment scenarios that got programmed into so many of us during our childhood. There is no monster out there; only love waiting to set us free” (page 107).
In contrast, Bourgeault shares a different perspective “from a wisdom point of view.” She writes, “So much bad, manipulative, guilt-inducing theology has been based on (the passion) that it’s fair to wonder whether there is any hope of starting afresh. I believe that wisdom does open up that possibility. The key lies in…reading Jesus’s life as a sacrament: a sacred mystery whose real purpose is not to arouse empathy but to create empowerment. In other words, Jesus is not particularly interested in increasing either your guilt or your devotion, but rather, in deepening your personal capacity to make the passage into unitive life (or what she also calls the self-emptying joy and generosity of full human personhood). If you’re willing to work with that wager, the passion begins to make sense in a whole new way…and reveals it as a sacred path of liberation” (pages 105-106).
She continues, “From the wisdom standpoint we need to stay grounded in the collective nature of what is meant by ‘He died for our sins.’ The false self is ultimately what crucified Jesus. It is an archetypal struggle. As each of the various characters in this drama surfaces and resurfaces (Pilate, Herod, the Roman soldiers, the Jewish leaders, Judas, Peter, etc.), we see through the swirl the core traits of the false self in action: fear, pretension, projection, self-importance, cowardice. In their collective mirror we can also catch, if we’re honest, a glimpse of our own unacknowledged shadows, our own particular pattern of inner doubt and darkness” (page 114).
In the death of Jesus, Jesus wasn’t judging or condemning the conditions of the false self, rather, simply allowing them to be as they were (page 124).
Or in other words, in the passion of Jesus, “he was just sitting there—surrounded by the darkest, deepest, most alienated, most constricted states of pained consciousness; sitting, if we can imagine it, among all those mirroring faces of the collective false self that we encountered in the crucifixion narrative: the anguish of Judas, the indecision of Pilate, the cowardice of Peter, the sanctimony of the Pharisees; sitting there in the midst of (it all), not judging, not fixing, just letting it be in love. And in so doing, he was allowing love to go deeper, pressing all the way to the innermost ground out of which (dualistic) opposites arise and holding that to the light. A quiet, harmonizing love was infiltrating even the deepest places of darkness and (inner doubt), in a way that didn’t override them or cancel them, but gently reconnected them to the whole” (page 123).
As I wrote earlier, this is deep stuff! But after pondering Bourgeault’s words long and hard, I’ve come to really appreciate her “wisdom perspective.” Bottom line, in the death of Jesus God wasn’t so fed up with us that he needed to punish our sins in the substitutionary death of his own son. Rather, in the death of Jesus God was sitting with us, ALL of us collectively, in the attitudes and behaviors of our false selves, not judging, not fixing, just letting them be in love, in order to gently reconnect us to the whole.
Hmmmm. Lots of food for thought!