Women's Concerns Magazine, 2005: Issue One
The Gift of the Pagan Christ
By Jordan Sullivan.
The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light, by Tom Harpur. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers. 2004.
In the spring of 2004, I happened on a television interview with Tom Harpur, who was talking about his book The Pagan Christ. I was about to flick to another channel when Harpur mentioned Origen of Alexandria. I was immediately hooked. Six years before, while in graduate school, I had read some of Origen's writings. While somewhat confused by the writings, I was also drawn to them and to the whole world of early Christianity that they had introduced me to. It was certainly a very different Christianity than the one I had known, or had come to know.
During the interview, Harpur spoke of the influence of Egyptian Mystery Religions on early Christianity and how this was reflected in the life of Origen and in Gnosticism. Now I was really hooked! The next morning I purchased a copy of The Pagan Christ. As I read it, Christianity was turned upside down, and the potential for an intelligent theological world of mystery and wonder was revealed! Grateful for this, I logged on to Harpur's website and sent him this message:
I don't know how to find the words to express the incredible joy, excitement, and peace that have descended upon me since reading The Pagan Christ. I feel as if a door of incredible opportunity has been opened for me (for everyone) to find a more authentic, rational, and deeply spiritual faith. After completing my Master's Degree in Religious Studies I had found it impossible to believe in Christianity any longer. Your book has re-opened the history of truth that I had caught only a small glimpse of during my graduate studies. It has explained so much, created many new questions, and opened up a whole new world of rational theological wonder! Thank you, Tom Harpur!
My enthusiasm and joy can be better understood by a sharing of my faith journey...
Over the years I had transitioned from a very conservative, fundamentalist theology to a much more liberal theology, yet still carried emotional and religious baggage from my fundamentalist roots. I had gradually changed my thoughts/beliefs as regards who Jesus was and what role he had to play in my life, and I had also grown more and more frustrated with the inability of the church to boldly speak of these issues and to move forward in its thinking and teaching—or to tolerate those who did speak out.
After becoming aware of the theological and philosophical inconsistencies of an omnipotent God (i.e. the problem of evil), I was left with the challenge of how to relate to a God I no longer knew. Over the years my perception of God had undergone many changes, but the conscious shift away from an omnipotent God had left me uncertain of the purpose of prayer, and eventually incapable of prayer.
My education provided me with a growing awareness of the contradictions between the theology of early Christianity and the supposedly foundational theology of today's Christianity, leaving me completely dissatisfied with the Christianity I saw all around, even within the so-called 'liberal denominations.'
Another disturbing gift of my graduate studies was learning in further detail how often violent, political powers were instrumental in the development of some foundational Christian theologies (foundational to both Catholic and Protestant theology).
I was also frustrated with the almost total lack of communication from theologians/clergy to the average church member about what has been learned of the Christian story, historically and theologically. While the reason for this lack of communication may have grown out of a desire to avoid controversy and upheaval in congregations, I fear that this leads to two extremes of thought: 1. an increase in fundamentalism where people are led to believe they know the truth in a very black and white sense, or 2. a dying church which is incapable of speaking in a meaningful way to the people of this century.
Harpur has potentially rescued Christianity for me by addressing so many of my concerns, while boldly and honestly proclaiming the truth of how and where early Christianity and 'Christianism'2 were formed. He has provided the means by which I can create an intelligent belief system from within the Christian story.
...By viewing scripture allegorically, I find myself no longer hindered by literal and historical complications and free to embrace the deeply spiritual and eternal truths contained in its stories.
While some of what I read in his book was familiar to me, it was the similarities between Egyptian Mystery Religions and the Christian story that unlocked the door to an entirely new way of looking at Christianity. Harpur's book was the last gentle nudge I needed to be able to see scripture and the Christian story allegorically. I no longer feel obligated to believe any of it as historically accurate or literal in order to identify with its spiritual message. In fact, by viewing scripture allegorically, I find myself no longer hindered by literal and historical complications and free to embrace the deeply spiritual and eternal truths contained in its stories. It lays the groundwork for me to develop a meaningful faith. Harpur writes:
" You will find that the allegorical, spiritual, mythical approach to the Bible and to Christian faith—that is, the true, spiritual Christianity, before official Christianism took over—solves the enigmas of Scripture and the Christos story as nothing else can do. Bible stories come alive with amazing new freshness, believability, and power. Our own potential for Christhood, and for experiencing the indwelling spirit of God here and now, sounds forth in a clear and relevant message for everyone. Hope for a truly cosmic faith is kindled and fanned into full flame. There is a theological grounding given for our own instinctual yearning for a faith that resonates with our own 'matter,' the natural world. Our fresh (yet ancient, more universal) understanding of the Jesus theme opens up doors to other faiths that orthodox Christianity as it is now can never hope to pass through." 3
I write that Harpur's book has 'potentially' rescued Christianity for me, because I realize I still have some work to do in identifying my old values and ways of thinking to create room for new values and new ways of thinking. The month following my first reading of The Pagan Christ, I wrote in my journal...
"I know deep in my heart and soul that these new-found understandings with regards to the Christian story and its incredibly beautiful, complex, and yet simple truths—are life changing. The weird thing is, these new understandings are an upside-down version of what I learned from fundamental/literal Christianity...
"Fundamental/literal Christianity taught me that I was dead in my sins. It taught me that I had to rely by faith upon Jesus Christ to save me, and that it was only through the resurrection after this life that I would be truly 'alive.' As a result I learned to live unconsciously and irresponsibly towards myself, and the world in general. Fundamental/literal Christianity taught me to live fully reliant and dependent upon a source outside myself, and to see that source as my only hope. The foundational belief of this form of Christianity is that we are sinners in need of a saviour. " No one is good—not one." (Romans 3:12) The belief that our salvation comes only through the death of someone outside ourselves (Jesus Christ), pleading to another someone outside ourselves (God the Father), empowered to live in this life by another someone outside ourselves (the Holy Spirit), who by invitation dwells in this sinful body—is totally disempowering and completely irresponsible towards the individual that I was born to be.
Allegorical Christianity is teaching me that in living dependent upon outside sources—to the neglect of my own reality and sense of self—I am living as if I were already dead. It is only through realizing that the Christ spirit lives within me that I truly resurrect into LIFE. Not life in some far off, after-death future—but life here and now. By realizing that I possess that same spirit of God, that same divine spark of life as Jesus recognized in himself, I learn to live consciously—ALIVE—and therefore responsibly self-aware in this life."
Traditional Christianity taught me about power-over as compared to power from within, blind obedience instead of mutual respect and personal responsibility, self-hatred and self-distrust rather than love for the unique individual I am. Looking at the Jesus story through the eyes of allegory teaches me that I can know myself as a part of that divine spark of life. The Christ within—or the pagan Christ—offers me value and meaning in this world, the potential to ground me in the here and now, and it becomes a place from which I can learn to personally and rationally relate to that Ground of all Being.
Those who have been taught the Christian story as one of allegory and myth will not necessarily find this book new or exciting (although it contains some fascinating historical facts about the origin of the Christ story). Those who are satisfied with their faith as a literal interpretation of scripture rooted in salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ, and who do not see any contradictions in scripture, may not find this book to be of any benefit in their faith journey (although they will be seriously challenged by it, if they allow it). Personally I find myself excited by the truth-telling and by the challenges it awakens for my spiritual journey. I do not pretend to have comprehended fully the depth of truth and wonder that lies within the message contained in the Christian story, but I do believe that Christian symbols and stories having roots in Egyptian Mystery Religions reinforces their meanings rather than nullifies them. Eternal realities do not die, they are simply retold through different stories, languages, cultures, times, and people—each of which shines a new light on their beauty.
How does Harpur's book help me in my personal spiritual journey? It provides me with the intellectual girding for a meaningful spirituality that while contained within the stories of Christianity is not exclusively the property of Christianity. It points a way for those of us who have been wounded by Christianity, turned off by extremism, or who have simply found it all too impossible to believe—to discover a pathway to travel from which we can discover the truth about ourselves and God—that mysterious unknown.
The Pagan Christ has reminded me of the inherent message of the Christ story—the value, meaning, power, and potential of every soul, of my soul. Therein lies the hope for the future of my personal spiritual life, and I believe the hope for the future of Christianity.
Jordan Sullivan has been an elementary school teacher, and worked for the Canadian Mental Health Association. He completed his M.A. in Religious Studies in 1999, and has been employed at the national office of The United Church of Canada since 2000. Raised as a conservative Seventh-day Adventist, Jordan’s journey has taken him through many changes in his theological and spiritual life. He has great respect for the freedom found within the United Church – the willingness to have the conversation and live in a place of uncertainty and wonder. He is also on the board of directors of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity. Jordan identifies as a trans man and lives in Toronto, Ontario.
Note: In fall 2004, a 32-page A Discussion Guide was published to aid groups in reading and discussing Tom Harpur's The Pagan Christ. (Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers)