Wisdom Christianity: Transforming Human Consciousness
As we learn more about other religious traditions, we discover that there is a common wisdom at the heart of each—whether that tradition is Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Christianity.
We can receive the benefit of Jesus’ death for us by believing this story about Jesus. If we believe these things and either ask Jesus into our hearts to be our personal savior, or belong to the church and observe certain sacraments—and live a good life—we will go to Heaven when we die. This is our salvation. Those who don’t do these things will spend eternity in Hell—otherwise known as damnation. This dualistic view of good and evil, reward and punishment, has often been wrapped in a thick cloak of shame and guilt.Most of us know the story by heart. There is a God who sent his only son down to earth, being born of a virgin girl. She named him Yeshua, or “Jesus” to us Westerners, which means: God saves. Jesus dies a horrible death on the cross to save us from an inherited sin or deficit that only his death can rectify. Having paid this debt, he is raised to New Life on the third day and ascends to Heaven to sit at his Father’s side and judge the living and the dead. This was all God’s plan from the very beginning of the world.
For the past 1600 years, this has been the main Christian story in the Western world. As it turns out, however, it is not the only story about Jesus. For the first 200 years or so following the death of Jesus of Nazareth (and continuing to this day particularly in Near Eastern and Eastern Christian traditions), there was another understanding about Jesus. This was the understanding that Jesus was a wisdom teacher who had discovered the Divine “I Am-ness” within his humanity. He had become “one person.” To speak in contemporary terms, he had transcended the false self—the fortified ego that is necessary for surviving in a harsh world—and found his one true Self, which we refer to as God.
Like all wisdom teachers, Jesus taught in parables. These are not moral stories like Aesop’s fables, but have more in common with Zen koans. They are designed to illuminate by “blowing ones’ mind”—moving us beyond rational thought and our assumed ways of seeing things to apprehend deeper realities and perspectives. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is an interior reality: “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” And when he said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will not bear fruit …” he was talking not only about himself, but about us as well. The path to the level of consciousness he had experienced is the path of dying to the false self and being resurrected into new and higher consciousness.
The very first followers of Yeshua of Nazareth did not have much to believe about him. There were no creeds, no doctrines, and no theological statements of belief. Somehow, Christianity spread in the first few hundred years, for the most part, without all these things. What the early disciples had was an experiential belief in Jesus. They had met him and their lives had been transformed by knowing Christ. They sought to have this same mind inside themselves. They, too, could know the Divine “I Am-ness” within their humanity. They, too, could die to their false selves to know their own true Self as one in God, or All That Is.
This story about Jesus is being rediscovered today. As our world shrinks, we realize that the Western way of being Christian is not the only way. As we learn more about other religious traditions, we discover that there is a common wisdom at the heart of each—whether that tradition is Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Christianity. Archeological discoveries of the last century have brought to light other ancient manuscripts that seem to have also been revered as scripture by certain Christian groups. Scientific methods have given us new tools to read anew and understand these and the previously accepted written sources of Christian teaching.
We can also see the lineage of the Wisdom Tradition within Western Christianity. From St. John the Divine, one of Jesus’ first followers and the Jewish Rabbi Yeshua to mystics and theologians such as St. Francis, Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich, there flows an ever growing stream of wisdom throughout this tradition. More recently, the tradition has been continued by people like Evelyn Underhill , Thomas Merton, Basil Pennington, Matthew Fox, Fr. Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault in the liturgical traditions.
Of course, all this is not to say that Salvation Christianity is an incorrect way to understand the “Christ event.” Indeed, all the major religious traditions have a Salvation Tradition within them. It is a conventional approach based on rules or laws that enables one to transcend superstitious, magical beliefs and structures that can torment a person with fear until they grow beyond them. That is, it moves us from a Magical worldview in which the gods and spirits must be appeased and pleased in ways to protect and benefit the individual to a Traditional worldview, where God need not be feared but can be counted on to help, heal and save the people within the group. Salvation Traditions lay the basis for moral and ethical behavior and the ability to live together in larger groups as populations grow. They move an individual beyond egocentrism to ethnocentrism. And, they provide a hopeful view of death.
What the Wisdom Way shows us, however, is that there is more. There is more than just a system of belief, for there is a way to “put on” the mind of Christ and experience the mystery of the Incarnation—that God, indeed, lives in human form—yours and mine. As early Church Father Athanasius observed: “God became human, so that humans could become Divine.” In this sense, the Wisdom Way is the path to our One True Self.
There are other traditions whose teachings and practices lead in the same direction: Buddhism, Hinduism, Kaballah, Sufism, etc. We are fortunate today to be able to access and learn from all these ancient paths. For those of us raised in the Christian Tradition, it is good to know that there is also a path to be followed in the language and stories of our childhoods. We need only listen to them from a deeper, more mature perspective. Through the capacities of the heart-mind, many of us have discovered and explored this perspective not only through our own religious practices, but also, perhaps, from other traditions.
The reality discovered is the oneness of All That Is. As Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” And then he prayed that all who followed him would know this same oneness themselves. Wisdom Christianity shows the way.
By Gary Steele
Gary Steele is a life-long Alaskan and Episcopal priest who practices and teaches Wisdom Christianity. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org