For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation waits for the manifestation of the children of God. ~Romans 8: 18-19
Beloved, now are we the children of God and it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that has this hope in him purifies himself even as he is pure. ~1 John 3:2-3
Let’s just say that with Jesus something entirely new entered the world. Something that wasn’t here before, or that was here, but that was locked away so tightly that it couldn’t be accessed until Jesus came with the key.
Let’s just imagine that’s true.
Jesus called this new thing the Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God. Many contemporary scholars, mystics and theologians (and many past ones) agree that Jesus was not talking about a paradise after death nor of a future utopia on earth. The spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle describes it this way:
We need to understand here that heaven is not a location but refers to the inner realm of consciousness. This is the esoteric meaning of the word, and this is also its meaning in the teachings of Jesus. “A new heaven” is the emergence of a transformed state of human consciousness, and “a new earth” is its reflection in the physical realm.
And from author and Episcopal priest, Cynthia Bourgeault:
[T]he Kingdom of Heaven is really a metaphor for a state of consciousness; it is not a place you go to, but a place you come from. It is a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place.
The idea of radical transformation has been present from the beginning of Christian teaching as evidenced in the scriptures quoted at the top of the page. But for centuries, this has been almost completely overshadowed by the notion of salvation, specifically salvation from hell – the punishment for sin – after death. And the heart of the gospel – the “good news” – often becomes only about this judicial transaction. One assents to the belief that Jesus paid on the cross for our personal sins, and now by faith (which comes to mean confidence in this belief), the believer is saved from eternal punishment.
So here we have a belief, which is basically a thought, and this is where things can get stuck. This is not just an issue with traditional believers. Change the language a bit, and the exact same “stuckness’ around thought shows prominently in progressive spirituality. There are countless books, websites, workshops and seminars out there – all teaching how to change and improve our lives, finances, relationships, bodies, etc. by changing our thoughts. All contain the core message that by working with our thoughts and feelings, we will create for ourselves a new reality. And depending on how a person is defining this new reality – if she means by it starting a successful business and having a happy marriage – then these techniques may very well work.
Both Jesus and Buddha taught the need for “right thinking,” and both gave us some description of what constituted right (and wrong) thinking, but I suspect that what their teachings are really aiming at is guarding the thoughts – which unfailingly, either in happy affirmative ways or in crappy negative ones, circle back to me and my ego. The “new reality” that we can shape with our thoughts will only be a reality on the level of the egoic life. And no matter how we dress it up and decorate it, we’re still running the same hamster wheel. This doesn’t get us to the Kingdom of Heaven.
One of the most potent discussions of radical transformation inside the Christian context is from a 1950s evangelical text now sadly relegated to near obscurity: The Divine Conquest by A.W. Tozer. He gets right to the heart of it:
There may be, it is true, a change of some kind; an intellectual and emotional bargain may be struck with the truth, but whatever happens is not enough, not deep enough, not radical enough. . .[I]t makes no fundamental difference. Water may change from liquid to vapor, from vapor to snow and back to liquid again, and still be fundamentally the same. [This] may put a man through many surface changes and leave him exactly what he was before. Right there is where the snare lies. The changes are in form only and not in kind.
Not in kind. Exactly. Nothing like the “children of God,” the still unknown new beings that we will become. Such a transformation doesn’t come from re-arranging our mental furniture or airing out our emotional closets and cellars; it comes from a constant intention towards God. Prayer, meditation – all the practices that turn us toward the divine and away from ourselves, that help us to surrender and to pour ourselves out.
They to whom the Word comes in power know this deliverance from the curse of the ego, this inward migration of the soul from slavery to freedom. They know in experience a radical shift in position, a real crossing over, and they stand consciously on another soil under another sky and breathe another air.
No one can do it [uproot the ego] alone, nor can he do it with the help of others nor by education nor by training nor by any other method known under the sun. What is required is a reversal of nature . . .and this reversal must be a supernatural act. That act the Spirit performs . . . when it is received in living faith. Then He displaces the old with the new. Then He invades the life as sunlight invades a landscape and drives out the old motives as light drives away darkness from the sky. (Tozer)
This transformation does not take us out of the world but pulls us more deeply into it. The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus said, is like leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of flour, till the whole was leavened. Those who are transforming sink back into ordinary life just like this leaven, fully richly engaged in (and invading!) all the nooks and crannies of life. ‘Frequency holders,’ Eckhart Tolle calls them. “A new species is arising on the planet,” he tells us. “It is arising now, and you are it.”
Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Wisdom Jesus. Boston: Shambala, 2008.
Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth. Plume: 2006.
Tozer, A. W. The Divine Conquest. Fleming H. Revell Co., 1950.