The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Wisdom Jesus II: Cosmology

Posted by Ron George on November 27, 2009

‘Pleroma’ by Sophie Shapiro

Cynthia Bourgeault denies very early in her book, Wisdom Jesus: Transforming the Heart and Mind, that something she calls “sophiology,” which she also calls “wisdom Christianity,” has anything to do with capital-G gnosticism. She puts her marker down fair and square: “To reject the entire rich and authentic tradition of Christian sophiology (as many Christian fundamentalists are wont to do) on the basis of the scare word ‘Gnosticism’ is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” (WJ, p. 22)

I’m no fundamentalist, and I’m not trying to scare anyone, least of all my friends at church who are pondering Bourgeault’s book in formal and informal settings. I’m a wild-eyed liberal prone to pushing conventional Christianity past its comfort zone; but I believe capital-G gnosticism has indeed crept into Bourgeault’s discourse, and that her vision of “wisdom Christianity” is a kind of neo-Gnosticism that disingenuously pretends to be something else; viz., in Bouegeault’s words, “rich and authentic” Christian tradition. It’s a bit like Fox News saying it is “fair and balanced.”

The origins and ancient history of Gnosticism and its role in early Christian theology is an intensely contentious field of scholarship. It’s likely that Bourgeault’s opinion carries far more weight than mine, so perhaps this review is somewhat like a flea barking at a Labrador; however, my quarrel with portions of Bourgeault’s book is not what she believes but that she glosses over intensely controversial matters she wants her readers to take for granted; moreover, she’s too eager to smear her critics, which no doubt plays well in the circles of wisdom Christianity, but which seems out of place amid her otherwise sensitive and perceptive narrative. (We’ll get to that. Part Three of this book is another good reason to buy it.)

Classical Gnosticism probably originated independently and perhaps about the same time as Christianity but more likely a century or so later. It is fairly clear to me that second-century Gnostics found in nascent and theologically pliable Christianity a somewhat compatible narrative and began reinterpreting Christianity in light of its own cosmology; or should I say cosmologies, for this movement was quite diverse. Christianity resisted and ultimately repudiated Gnosticism – and it took about 300 years.

Cycle of the spirit by Sophie Shapiro

Gnostics tended to believe that matter is evil and that the goal of true spirituality was to transcend matter and, ultimately, return to union with God. Which God? Depends on which teacher one was following at what period in the several centuries of Gnostic ascendance. The point, though, was to escape the material world by means of gnosis, knowledge transmitted via secret tradition from “the One who came from above,” from God, to show us the way home. This, generally, is what scholars call the Gnostic redeemer myth.

Gnostic cosmology – the Gnostic creation narrative – asserted that we humans are sparks of divine light trapped in matter, and that we yearn to be re-incorporated into the great pleroma – the fullness of being itself – the highest realm of existence (or, perhaps, non-existence; some Gnostics taught that all there is was created by a non-existent god, and that our desire, our “salvation,” lies in being re-incorporated into that non-existence).

Generally, then, Gnostics saw the cosmos in dualistic terms – material-immaterial, light-dark, evil-good – and believed themselves trapped in matter yearning for reunion with the immaterial purity of the One. They believed their redeemer had come to show them the way “out of darkness into light” and back to the One. They believed their path back to the One was revealed by gnosis, hidden knowledge transmitted by the redeemer through chosen intermediaries. Imagine how pleased ancient Gnostics were to find in Christianity something like historic confirmation of their ideas; and, indeed, amid the fourth-century documents of Nag Hamadi were documents demonstrating that Gnostics did, in fact, “Christianize” their scriptures. (See Eugnostos the Blessed compared with The Sophia of Jesus Christ. Nag Hamadi scholars tend to believe that finding both of these documents in the same collection is more significant than Bourgeault’s favorite discovery, The Gospel of Thomas.)

Bourgeault, of course, does not wholly embrace the myths and cosmologies of ancient Gnostics, but her narrative in Part Two of Wisdom Jesus is shot through with language suggestive of classical Gnostic cosmology .

In her discussion of the Incarnation (WJ, pp. 91-103), Bourgeault explicates the meaning of the Christian tradition of “many dwelling places” in the fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel.

“[Jesus] does not mean physical places but rather states of consciousness or dimensions of divine energy … The tradition of Sophia perennis (perennial wisdom) pictures this vastness as a ‘great chain of being’ or ‘ray of creation,’ which begins in a pure, high-intensity, invisible, subtle consciousness and ‘descends,’ thickening as it does so into this world we inhabit: the realm of sharp edges and tables and chairs and human beings crashing and banging against each other in a finite and terribly solid world.” (WJ, p. 96)

Note the progression from above, where being is pure, to that which is below, where we are in our “terribly solid world.” Ancient Gnostics would absolutely recognize and embrace this language, and they would recognize Bourgeault’s riff on John 14 as one with their interpretation of what was, in their minds, a terribly unsophisticated religion. The rap against Christianity in second-century Roman society was that it was crude, unsubtle and altogether inexplicable. Why would anyone want to follow in the footsteps of a crucified carpenter? Now, if he were a redeemer from the highest realm of being, that’s more to our liking.

Psychomantic Vision by Sophie Shapiro

Bourgeault’s cosmological discourse, however, does take an altogether charming turn, a radical departure from the Gnostic mold. Amid all the nonsense about finding ourselves “at or near the bottom or the great chain of being” ( WJ, p. 97) and the utterly preposterous proposition that “here is not home,” (WJ, p. 98), Bourgeault proposes that we are here because it is the only place we may know God’s love as the fullness of life. “Could it be that this earthly realm, not in spite of but because of its very density and jagged edges, offers precisely the conditions for the expression of certain aspects of divine love that could become real in no other way!” (WJ, p. 103) This insight doesn’t redeem Bourgeault’s seemingly uncritical embrace of an outmoded cosmological myth, but it does reveal her deep appreciation for the meaning of human life and the Incarnation of God in Christ.

(It is troubling, though, that Bourgeault speaks of Jesus in Gnostic terms: “The first self-emptying that Jesus goes through is the self-emptying that lands him in bodily form on this planet, a human being.” [WJ, P. 93, emphasis added] I’m willing to believe this is no more than a figure of speech, albeit somewhat lame; but I wonder whether Bourgeault actually believes that Jesus came from elsewhere to inhabit a human body. That would be a denial of the Incarnation. Jesus was born of a woman, he didn’t zoom to “this planet” from another realm of being. The Incarnation is a mystery to be embraced and appreciated, not “explained” by any cosmology, let alone one so archaic and discredited.)

Bourgeault’s use of Gnostic language is usually more subtle. Even while making a good point (WJ, p. 107), Bourgeault speaks of Jesus as having descended to “ground zero, at the root of the root of all density, in order to insulate us from its sting and empower us to live within our human flesh as he himself had lived” (emphasis added). We do not live within our human flesh and neither did Jesus. We are our human flesh, and no degree of philosophical or spiritual denial will change that. We are at least somewhat near the root of all density, not in Gnostic but scientific terms. Jesus, however, didn’t come from somewhere else to be here. He was created here just as we are, and he became God in time and space and for all eternity by letting himself be loved by God with all his heart, mind, soul and strength. We are called to follow him in this. Jesus redeems us from ourselves, not an evil, material world but from our clear and present tendency to abuse each other.

Perhaps the least appealing conclusion Bourgeault draws from her neo-Gnostic worldview is that the resurrection of Jesus was no big deal, knowledge (gnosis?) gleaned from “spiritual teachers from other traditions.” (WJ, p. 133) “When a certain level of spiritual luminosity has been attained (which Jesus certainly manifested) it’s not in fact all that difficult to regenerate physical form.” Then she cites the spurious Gospel of Thomas as a proof text, concluding that a “whole stream of spiritual teaching testifies that not only Jesus but many others have done this …” Others? Who? When? Where? Bourgeault doesn’t say.

Freedom With Energy by Sophie Shapiro

What to make of all this? My gut reaction is to suggest that Bourgeault and “wisdom Christians” might consider just coming out of the closet to embrace their historic roots. Others have, apparently, as a simple Internet search will show. Neo-Gnostic Christians may wish that some of the more colorful myths of their ancient tradition hadn’t been told, just as contemporary Christians like the rest of us may wish that the crusades had never happened; but that’s no reason to dodge the issue by claiming authentic Christian origins where none exist. Gnosticism is clearly an ancient, independent, spiritual tradition, warts and all, and it seems to appeal to many in our time. Why not just go there and be that – and stop trying to concoct a makeover of Christianity by speciously arguing that Jesus himself was a Gnostic, but one among many highly-evolved spiritual masters.

It is beyond doubt that traditional Christianity has become stale, as Bourgeault and others maintain. It may be time for something new, something else, something that will refresh the good news that God loves us and wants us to love each other. That something may well be a kind of neo-Gnosticism proposing a way of life similar to Christianity and familiar to Christians but from a distinctly different cosmological standpoint. Bourgeault and wisdom Christianity may be on to something, a kind of reworked Gnosticism that makes sense in the 21st century – but why call it wisdom Christianity? That sounds a lot like pouring new wine into old wineskins. If traditional Christianity is dying, then let it; but please don’t distort its authentic meaning with an overlay of otherworldly cosmology it repudiated 1,500 years ago.

Better yet, drop the neo-Gnostic lingo and stick with what’s best about this book — Bourgeault’s broad and deep experience in forms of prayer that do refresh Christian practice and belief and which promise paths of spiritual transformation and growth that enhance personal and corporate faith. Part Three of Wisdom Jesus is one of the best short courses I’ve seen on centering prayer, chant, lectio divina and the like — and none of it relies on neo-Gnostic cosmology or  language derived from it. It is, indeed, Christianity for the rest of us, fair and balanced.


6 Responses to “Wisdom Jesus II: Cosmology”

  1. James said

  2. Catherine said

    “Jesus, however, didn’t come from somewhere else to be here. He was created here just as we are, and he became God in time and space and for all eternity by letting himself be loved by God with all his heart, mind, soul and strength. We are called to follow him in this. Jesus redeems us from ourselves, not an evil, material world but from our clear and present tendency to abuse each other.”

    Yes, yes, and yes! I haven’t read this book but appreciate your comments, and your recommendation of Part Three.

    Hope you had a blessed Thankgiving, Ron.

  3. Anonymous said

    All I can say is tha I appreciate your knowledge and insights and at some point I will ponder them. Maybe you could be a “guest” speaker at our class. I hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving. Jean

  4. Wow, Ron, lots to ponder. I couldn’t possibly debate this, because I don’t have the background, but I appreciate this thought-provoking commentary.
    Beautiful artwork. I wonder what Sophie Shapiro would have to say in our discusssion…

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