Cynthia Bourgeault — Wisdom Jesus

Cynthia Bourgeault is at her best in Wisdom Jesus: Transforming the Heart and Mind when she’s interpreting Christian tradition without recourse to Gnostic metaphysics, which add little to her considerable grasp of Christian spiritual theology and history of doctrine. Indeed, resorting to the Gospel of Thomas as somehow indicative of the true meaning of Jesus’ teaching undermines her credibility. Why in the world would a 21st-century theologian resurrect and rehash cosmologies and metaphysics that have no more relevance to contemporary thinking than a literalist interpretation of Genesis?

Bourgeault is not the first and probably will not be the last Christian theologian to pour Jesus into a particular mold to argue that conventional thinking about Jesus falls considerably short of the truth that makes us free — and in this, Bourgeault is absolutely right. Jesus’ message and ministry were not about making the world and its inhabitants “nice.” (WJ, p. 28) His was a radical, disruptive call to live as though there were no tomorrow — because he really believed there might not be — to live as though the Kingdom of God already had come on earth as it is in heaven. He called for righteousness exceeding that of the most righteous (and hypocritical) people of his day. Jesus’ good news proposed an ethic of radical love that brings healing and reconciliation with God.

Bourgeault writes with brilliant clarity of Jesus’ spirituality of kenosis – “not love stored up but love utterly poured out” (WJ, p. 70) — and of its relationship with Christian understanding and appreciation of God as Trinity. I’ve not read anywhere a clearer, more engaging, discourse on perichoresis: “The Trinity, understood in a wisdom sense, is really an icon of self-emptying love. The three persons go round and round like buckets on a watermill, constantly overspilling into one another. And as they do so, the mill turns and the energy of love becomes manifest and accessible … God reveals his own innermost nature through a continuous round dance of self-emptying. On the great watermill of the Trinity, the statement ‘God is love’ brings itself into reality.” (WJ, p. 72)

Bourgeault’s solid Christology, however, begins to lose traction when she asserts as fact utterly disputable beliefs regarding the so-called Gospel of Thomas. It is simply not true that GT is “most certainly as old — if not older — than the four gospels that found their way into the canonical New Testament.” (WJ, p. 56) Bourgeault cites no scholarship on this contentious issue but says in a note that the document’s form indicates that it is “from the first stratum of Christian writings in the second half of the first century.” ( WJ, p. 195) For starters, form criticism is but one test of a document’s antiquity, and first-year seminarians learn that form criticism is not a stand-alone test for authenticating ancient documents. In the case of GT, it is far more relevant to investigate its sources and analyze its literary content historically and critically, as modern scholars have done with canonical Christian scripture for more than 300 years.

A more likely earliest date for GT is 140, but that’s because I favor the “late composition” arguments of scholars such as Nicholas Perrin, Craig Evans and Bart Ehrman, who believe, among other things, that GT is dependent upon other sources composed later than the first century. (“Early composition” scholars include Stevan Davies, Elaine Pagels and Albert Hogeterp. See this Wikipedia article.) The late-composition “window” ranges from 140 to 225; in any case, though, there is no “most certainly” about GT’s antiquity. So, it’s somewhat disconcerting for Bourgeault to say on the first page of WJ that her opening citation from GT is “now largely accepted as an authentic teaching of Jesus.” Bourgeault may believe it, but if she’s as knowledgeable as she seems to be, it’s intellectually dishonest to make a “most certainly” out of something that is by no means certain among those who know most about this subject. It’s utterly irresponsible to assert something like this in a book for general readers.

So, if GT is not what Bourgeault says it is, what is it? Even she would have to agree it’s not a gospel at all. There’s no story here, as in the canonical gospels. It’s a list of sayings of Jesus, some of which seem to stem from canonical sources. The opening passage, for example, resonates with Matthew 7:7-8 and Luke 11:9-10, and it seems to be a brief meditation based on the experience of finding what one seeks: “You will become troubled. Your confusion will give way to wonder. In wonder you will reign over all things. Your sovereighty will be your rest.” Bourgeault claims this passage is more original than either Matthew or Luke, but that is unlilkely. Matthew and Luke, independently and not relying on Mark, depict Jesus’ “seek and you will find” teaching as being about God’s answering prayer. The passage from GT, however, is pure esoterica, said to be dispensed by Jesus to Thomas alone and totally uprooted from the theme of prayer in Matthew and Luke. It may have value as spiritual insight. It may be “true” in many ways, even helpful and enlightening, but it is not “an authentic teaching of Jesus.” It is an engaging second-century reflection on an authentic teaching of Jesus. It is simply astonishing that Bourgeault would plant any of her remarkable thinking on such rocky ground.

There’s a lot to like about this book, even though one has to wade through Bourgeault’s Gnostic gnonsense to find it. Her critique of Christian patriarchy and institutional development is typical of some contemporary thought that perceives an emergent Christianity rising from the ashes of mainline Christian denominations. Her chapter on “Kenosis: The Path of Self-Emptying Love,” by itself, is worth the price of this book. Her reflection on Mary Magdalene eventually becomes touching and evocative but only after readers must endure a surpassing-strange expression of gratitude for Dan Brown’s having written The Da Vinci Code. Now, there’s a piece of fiction that ought not darken any serious work of spiritual theology.

My favourite passage from the first section of Wisdom Jesus is at the end of Bourgeault’s beautiful meditation, “Easter Morning.”

“The gospel narratives unanimously leave us with a powerful icon of the deep and pure soul love beween Jesus and Mary Magdalene and attest that it is on the basis of this love that she is able to proclaim the resurrection as a living reality. Clearly a very deep mystical bond between the two of them, stronger than physical life and death, becomes profoundly engendering to the whole subsequent unfolding of Christianity. In a sense — and without wanting to make unfair distinctions — one must honestly say that 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- female-ness to become living spirits.” (WJ, p. 86)