Finding The Still Point by Tom Harpur

Finding The Still Point

Tom Harpur shows how ancient wisdoms, combined with exciting new scientific discoveries and mind/body relaxation techniques, can meet the stress crisis. Organized into four sections: "The Contemporary Scene," "The Spiritual Response," "Sources and Mantras," and "The God Within," the book considers medical solutions for stress, meditation methods and approaches from many traditions, and the Christian response.

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Finding his own way:
Vancouver Sun. Friday, January 10, 2003. Page: A15.  Section: Editorial. Byline: Douglas Todd. Column: Douglas Todd. Source: Vancouver Sun

Tom Harpur's new book says traditional churches increase stress in an already frantic world. He suggests turning to meditation and yoga with the knowledge they are based in religion

Tom Harpur, the elder statesmen of Canadian religion writers, has certainly made a lot of enemies in his time. When I told an evangelical Christian friend I would be interviewing Harpur about his new book, I was taken aback at the antagonistic reaction.

The evangelical, a PhD, said he felt sorry for Harpur; he'd obviously "lost his faith" but was desperately trying to trick himself into believing he still had it.

When I passed on the assessment to Harpur, he found it both annoying and laughable. An ordained Anglican priest and Rhodes Scholar, Harpur was not going to allow critics to define whether he's a Christian or not.

Now in his 70s, Harpur believes he's more spiritual than ever. While many would call Harpur a "liberal Christian" he told me in a Vancouver conversation he prefers "radical Christian."

It didn't take long to figure out why some Christians want to discount Harpur. The author of eight successful books and host of a variety of TV religion specials often takes on conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics -- including in his new book, Finding the Still Point: A Spiritual Response to Stress ($29.95), published by Kelowna's Northstone Press.

In the book, Harpur says he's discovered a more intellectually credible, authentic and mystical faith than the one he grew up with in his authoritarian conservative Christian home in Ontario.

Although the title of his book might sound like another breezy self-help book, Finding the Still Point makes a complex argument that the supposedly "secular" techniques people use today to combat stress, such as meditation, yoga and breathing exercises, would be far more effective if people recognized they're rooted in religion.

Harpur maintains his style of faith combats chronic stress, which he argues is the number-one issue in the Western world. There is a technology-fueled speediness to everything we do, he says. Anxiety and panic are in the air. There is not only talk of war ("where we become the object we hate"), there is economic strain, with polls revealing Canadians more dissatisfied than ever with their workplaces.

When it comes to reducing stress, Harpur acknowledges the "black-and-white theology" held by many evangelicals and Catholics can be useful -- in the short-term. Traditional atonement theology, he says, promises that God sacrificed Jesus Christ to atone for believers' sins and guarantee salvation.

In Finding the Still Point, however, Harpur argues many churches, including his own Anglican denomination, too often teach a guilt-oriented atonement theology that actually jacks up stress. These churches may offer "abundant life," he says, but only after the believer is "roasted over the fires of a literal hell and been fully assured of how unworthy he or she really is of God's grace."

With the what-have-I-got-to-lose attitude of a spunky senior citizen, Harpur also feels free to take on two icons of the Christian world. He chastises evangelist Billy Graham for failing to grow intellectually -- "for preaching the identical message today that he was preaching 50 years ago." And he goes after Pope John Paul II (not a thing to do lightly in a country where half the population is nominally Catholic) for condemning homosexuality, abortion and artificial contraception. "I think he gets a free ride in the media. Anyone else would be cross-examined. But the Pope never gives a press conference."

All of which helps us understand what Harpur doesn't like -- and why many don't like him.

But what does he believe?

For starters, it must be said he looks remarkably lean and fit, which he owes in part to his daily blend of contemplative walking, meditation, yoga, prayer, Chinese tai chi and qi-qong. They keep his body flexible, he says, and his mind centred.

The techniques also help keep him in touch with the "God within," he says. He doesn't appear to equate faith with holding the "correct" doctrine, at least not as defined by someone else. It has more to do with trusting in the divine.

Harpur's theology is not easy to encapsulate. But it begins with seeing the Bible, and other sacred texts, as meaning-packed stories -- not as literal history.

"The New Testament," he says, "is a drama of the Christ in every person." Contrary to conservative Christian thinking, Harpur doesn't think devotion to Jesus Christ is the only way to God. Nor does he believe Christ was the supernatural son of God.

He is convinced, however, Jesus became "one with God," which he variously names "Infinite Mind," "Cosmic Intelligence" or "Ultimate Source." Sounding like a Hindu or Buddhist who uses Christian language, Harpur believes Jesus embodied God's purpose, spoke God's words and did God's mission.

Meditation, yoga, tai chi, contemplation and breathing exercises can be far more than just a secular way to ease anxiety in the midst of a hectic business day, he says. On their own, they might create a sense of health, but "health for what?"

Harpur recommends using anti-stress techniques to aim for a meaningful connection to the sacred. He thinks the major religions at their core teach about the potential all people have to reach the same deep serenity Jesus found in God.

Call it enlightenment (a Buddhist term) -- or call it finding the kingdom of God (a Christian term). To his critics' chagrin, Harpur calls it both.

"The kingdom of God, Jesus said, is within you," he writes. "All that is necessary is to be enlightened with the knowledge of who we really are -- children, or "sons" and "daughters" of God."

By Lorette C. Luzajic
Idea Museum - Shelf Life

I have to admit that I find most church services don't challenge me in any way.  I know I'm not the only one guilty of writing to-do lists for the week ahead while the minister is labouring over his carefully planned sermon.  I also admit that I seldom make it to church, but I do attend with my folks when I'm visiting them.  There's a lot going on in churches that doesn't really suit me, but nor does it generally upset me.  I try to see faith as a refuge and a fellowship, and if church is where some people find it, great.

But one Christmas service, doodling my financial stresses into my daytimer, I looked up sharply because I heard the word heretic.  And much to my disdain, the good reverend was referring to one of the few Christian writers I find to possess reason and intelligent prose.  Tom Harpur, who has been the religion columnist for The Toronto Star for some thirty years, is a brilliant writer on ethics and spirituality.  But the very congregations that have much to learn from his stance as a "thinking Christian" are condemning him.  I suspect that his overly Christ-like attitude of tolerance and love toward such human issues as homosexuality and addictions might rile up a few protesters.  But Tom is such a gentle and strong writer with a  solid Biblical and social perspective, a refreshing blend, that I was surprised.

Finding the Still Point will be released in September by Northstone Books.  It's hard to beat his earlier classic, Would You Believe - Finding God without Losing Your Mind.  But there's enough food for thought in this lively and intelligent book on stress.  Hopefully it will be shifted from the religion section to the self-help, as I am surely not alone in believing the neurological/psychological crises that plague our era are spiritual crises as well.  There is much to soothe the spirit in this collection, for the whole population.  Tom's work has always transcended a Christian market because his work is applicable for everyone.  Bible thumpers, however, will be both calmed and irritated by this text:  while a great deal of it focuses on solutions in Bible verse or Christ's words, there is also a section on finding stress relief in the teachings of other faiths.

Atheists could probably use a good dose of relaxation from their defensive position.  But hardcore unbelievers will likely find Tom's explorations and advice a little too philosophical.  For those who enjoy Tom's reflections as much as I do, I recommend all of his previous books, and the Re-enchantment of Every Day Life by Thomas Moore.

By Gord Brown
The Presbyterian Record
October 2002

The Christian church as accumulated a lot of wisdom over the course of its long history.  Unfortunately, much of the wisdom that would help us all combat the modern scourge of built-up emotional stress has been lost.  This is the major theme of best-selling author and columnist Tom Harpur's Finding the Still Point, the sequel to Prayer:  The Hidden Fire.

Secular therapists and self-help gurus have been mining the church's tradition to create their own methods of stress relief and wellness.  But for all the success of these new techniques, the author and other Christian therapists see these secular methods as addressing the symptoms and not the underlying causes of stress.

Harpur says it is only through faith in the unseen world and prayfulness that we can get to the root of the modern problem of stress.  The book examines many of the time-tested techniques of meditation - mantras, controlled breathing and labyrinths - that can be used as part of a prayerful healing of the soul. 

Another useful section of the book includes an examination of the Bible (divided into Old Testament and New Testament) and the sacred texts of other religions in an effort to help readers find meaningful mantras for their own meditation.  Regular readers of Tom Harpur will see many of his regular themes, including how to read the Bible and how to reinterpret the Christian message for the next millennium.  The last section of the book restates these themes to help Christians reach out to a society devoid of the spiritual resources for coping with its increasingly complex problems and the stress these bring.

One of the new elements in this book is the question of community and how spiritual health needs to be created in order to help others.  Similar to his previous books, however, this book concerns individual healing and does not dwell on the question of "health for what purpose?"  beyond raising it as an issue.  Perhaps he will expand this theme in a future volume.

Finding the Still Point will appeal to anyone interested in the tradition of Christian meditation or in developing a more fulfilling devotional pattern as an answer to stress.  It will also appeal to those whose pastoral work includes helping those struggling with excessive emotional or spiritual stress.

By John Toews
a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Calgary.  He is interested in the field of spirituality, religion and mental health.

Stress, the malady of our time, arises from deep existential anxieties inherent in living in an uncertain age.  This is the problem that Tom Harpur addresses in his latest book. He notes that medical, psychological and mind-body techniques stop short of fully addressing the problem of stress.  The missing element is a spirituality deeply rooted in the theology and tradition of a major religion.  Since Christianity is the faith system that Harpur practices, Christian spirituality is the focus of the book.

Christian meditation, becoming in touch with the Spirit of God within oneself, Harpur asserts, is the key to dealing with stress.  One comes to appreciate the God-given gift of life.  Hence, in the phrase coined by T.S. Eliot that inspired the title, one finds "the still point of the turning world."  This still pint is the realization of the Kingdom of God which Harpur describes as "the living actively reigning presence of God" and the realization that we are "sons and daughters of God."

Harpur develops his theology of the God within and its centrality to the mission of Jesus Christ.  In his view Christ was unaware of his mission until his baptism.  In this experience he came to know God through the power of the Spirit.  In Harpur's view the commonality of all major religions is God.  This contributes to a broad ecumenical stance.

Harpur is very critical of the church.  He is particularly critical of the "born-again" style of faith and its "simplistic rigidities."  He finds that this approach misses the more open and inclusive point of the Kingdom.  Some readers will find Harpur disturbingly broad in his interpretation of the Kingdom.

Agree or disagree, Harpur demands we engage with him in dialogue.  He is not afraid to state his view strongly.  In doing this he may underplay the fact that many of a more conservative theology also experience the Kingdom of God in all its wholesomeness. 

Harpur's Finding the Still Point invites us to think and respond. It is for those who are not threatened by views that may be theologically different from their own.