Right Practice

The Wisdom Jesus

Right Practice
Monday, April 10, 2017

Guest writer and CAC faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault continues exploring Jesus as a wisdom teacher.

A well-known Southern Baptist theologian quips that the whole of his Sunday school training could be summed up in one sentence (delivered with a broad Texas drawl): “Jesus is nice, and he wants us to be nice, too.” Many of us have grown up with Jesus all our lives. We know a few of the parables, like those about the good Samaritan or the prodigal son. Some people can even quote a few of the beatitudes. Most everyone can stumble through the Lord’s Prayer.

But what did Jesus actually teach? How often do you hear his teaching assessed as a whole? When it comes to spiritual teachers from other traditions, it seems right and fair to ask what kind of path they’re on. What does the Dalai Lama teach? What did Krishnamurti teach? But we never ask this question about Jesus. Why not? When we actually get below the surface of his teaching, we find there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. And it doesn’t have much to do with being “nice.”

One of the most important books to appear in recent years is called Putting on the Mind of Christ by Jim Marion. [1] His title is a statement in itself. “Putting on the mind of Christ” is a direct reference to St. Paul’s powerful injunction in Philippians 2:5: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” The words call us up short as to what we are actually supposed to be doing on this path: not just admiring Jesus, but acquiring his consciousness.

For the better part of the past sixteen hundred years Christianity has put a lot more emphasis on the things we know about Jesus. The word “orthodox” has come to mean having the correct beliefs. Along with the overt requirement to learn what these beliefs are and agree with them comes a subliminal message: that the appropriate way to relate to Jesus is through a series of beliefs. In fundamentalist Christianity this message tends to get even more accentuated, to the point where faith appears to be a matter of signing on the dotted lines to a set of creedal statements. Belief in Jesus is indistinguishable from belief about him.

This certainly wasn’t how it was done in the early church—nor can it be if we are really seeking to come into a living relationship with this wisdom master. Jim Marion’s book returns us to the central challenge Christianity ought to be handing us. Indeed, how do we put on the mind of Christ? How do we see through his eyes? How do we feel through his heart? How do we learn to respond to the world with that same wholeness and healing love? That’s what Christian orthodoxy really is all about. It’s not about right belief; it’s about right practice.

References:
[1] See Jim Marion, Putting on the Mind of Christ: The Inner Work of Christian Spirituality (Hampton Roads Publishing Company: 2000; 2nd ed., 2011).

Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—A New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambhala: 2008), 28-29.

Image credit: The Calling of Saint Matthew (detail) by Caravaggio, 1599-1600. Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Italy.

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