Idea Museum Magazine,
Issue 4, November 1, 2002
By Lorette Luzajic
Tom Harpur describes himself in his best-selling book, Would You Believe? as an "uncomfortable Christian." And his views make many Christians uncomfortable. But for the masses of people who hunger for a spirituality that has been reality-checked, Harpur has offered comfort, perspective, and a way back to God.
Harpur has earned his reputation as Canada's "thinking Christian." His thoughts have been on public record for decades. He's an Anglican priest, whose active ministry took place in the late '50s and early '60s. In the late '60s, he was a New Testament professor at the University of Toronto. In 1971, he became the religion editor of the Toronto Star. He has regularly written columns for the Star ever since. He has appeared on television as Canada's authority on spiritual matters, including Vision TV's series Life After Death and The Uncommon Touch. He has written numerous books on religion, many of them bestsellers.
It's hard to perceive Harpur's thought-provoking philosophies as outrageous. But bringing history, politics, and mythology into faith's perspective has always been an act against the fallacies of religious dominion. My family's own church referred to Harpur from the pulpit as a heretic. Speaking out for the rejected flocks- women and homosexuals- has been basis for death in some historical epochs.
Still, the few who are closed to the possibility of truth behind another's search can't hold a candle to the multitudes who have rekindled their restless beliefs for the Lord, who have found a stronghold where they almost believed there was none.
"They huff and puff and threaten and say nasty things more or less continuously. But, they have to, don't they? They're afraid I might be right."
Perhaps what is most difficult to handle is Harpur's unpretentious and inarguable academic knowledge that is coupled with a gentleness and personable honesty.
"There are times when I don't hold onto (faith), it holds onto me. Facing doubts squarely is one way. Trying to be infinitely grateful for the miracle of life and the miracles of so-called ordinary things ...is another. It's easier to believe in God when you pay attention to what God has done in your life and in the world around us." Harpur finds God in his long nature walks, in music, "especially Mozart, because the very wellspring of life and of the Divine bubble up so plainly and so freely in his works."
Harpur studied diligently and won the Gold Medal in classics at University of Toronto, which he attended on a scholarship. He later studied at Oxford University, also on a scholarship. He studied Greek on his own with a tutor. But Harpur says that "traveling the world as a journalist for The Star for 12 years was by far my greatest education, apart from the experience of life in general." His dream of traveling to the Arctic was one of many destination dreams fulfilled.
His writing is intelligent yet directed at the reader, allowing a public of intelligent people a rapport. Deciphering theological texts is nearly impossible, yet reading baby food in the spirituality or self-help section hasn't done much for us either. So Harpur's works fill a need for a niche apart from academic writing that is challenging and factual, with poetic interpretations. Perhaps Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, and C.S Lewis are among few in this category. Along comes an absolute treasury of helpful texts on topics we have all wondered about: faith healing and miracles, the mystery of Christ, the divinity of the Bible, the questions of accuracy, the merits of other religions, and even hell.
Some profound theological puzzles that have plagued seekers for millennia are answered. In a few lines of beautiful prose, fissures in the actual soul, ripped open by too many nights up thinking, are healed. Decades of some dark burden or tormenting question are replaced quietly with relief and light.
One such issue in my personal experience, and I know I'm not alone, is the question on why God requires so much worship. Much of my patchy interpretation of God as a deeply believing Christian child centred around a distasteful concept of God as a tyrant, or worse as some kind of S&M type, requiring irrational amounts of praise and worship. Otherwise, you were sent to suffer permanently in Hell, with truly sadistic happenings from God's imagination.
I wanted to be free of this sacrilege before I understood that every single Christian has had these same secret questions. Tom Harpur simply stated an idea that changed my perspective on this forever. In Would You Believe: Finding God Without Losing Your Mind, he addresses this.
But suppose the very opposite is true. Suppose the Creator has made us to need to worship, to need to give our ultimate allegiance to something or Someone. Suppose that in his infinite wisdom he knows ...we have a desperate need to express it towards the Ground of our very being.
Harpur's opinions on explosive human rights issues like feminism and homosexuality are especially helpful to thinkers who can't salvage God from those who interpret Him. How many have been lost to Christ's nourishing because there was no place in His congregation for them?
The tragedy has long been the interpretation of the Holy Bible and the interpretation of what place the Holy Bible has today, a book that teachers refuse to show as a historical document. By making it into a ridiculous, magic book that supposedly transcends all of history makes its timeless meanings meaningless. Who can believe that every word is God-breathed when there are actual glaring contradictions? This issue is so easily resolved if we are only allowed the obvious: written by so many, over such a vast expanse of time, there are bound to be human differences. The church has been so concerned about throwing the baby out with bathwater, that they haven't yet caught up to what millions in their pews already know: the Bible's weight and majesty isn't reduced by such an admission: it is multiplied a thousand fold.
Personal politics, national current events, nomadic forays, pagan celebrations, birth and death, spies and traitors, heroes and heroines, magic and miracles, exalted and base emotions- these are just a few of the rich layers in the Bible. Losing my fear of the word "myth" has freed me to explore the mysteries of the Holy Bible without rejecting their place in the real world.
Harpur says, "The word myth terrifies Christians today more than ever before because literalism far exceeds the bounds of Fundamentalism and seizes the minds of at least two thirds of remaining church members at a conservative guess. Given the popular sense of the word 'myth' as equal to fairy tale, fiction, downright falsehood, and you have the recipe for total rejection ... Christianity, since the third century, has vaunted its historicity and 'facticity' over against the myths of the ancients, i.e. pagans. Christians, (especially fundamentalists), are very nervous today - fear that pulling one thread or removing one brick will unravel or tumble down the lot."
"A myth is a way of raising our consciousness through the telling and/or dramatization of an essential truth about ourselves, the cosmos, or the Divine which cannot be expressed in any other way than by story. Myth moves beyond history in that it deals with abiding, eternal verities rather than the flim-flam or transitory details of ordinary existence. Myth, then, gives the inner meaning to all history, personal or universal. Myth, because it reaches in and touches the heart as well as the mind, has a unique potency for transformation - which is what I believe life is all about. Few things are more needed today than a renewed sense of the power of myth - both for good and evil - especially for the Christian religion. Christianity has an urgent need to reconnect with its basic rootedness in myth, the Christos Myth, in particular."
Sexuality is another area where so much trouble arises. Somewhere between secular philosophies of anything goes and Christian teachings that nothing goes, the truth must lie. Here, Harpur finds simple perspective as well. Sexuality is a human reality and a human need, but the same moral laws apply to sexual expression as to any other. Harpur addresses this issue in Would You Believe?
"The problems of false guilt and of thinking of sex as 'dirty' are not 'God problems' at all. They arise from warped, man-made teaching promulgated in the name of God but that has little to do with either reason or true faith. This is not to say you can adopt the 'anything goes' approach to sex and pretend to be following the will of God. There are moral criteria which apply here as they do elsewhere; for example, the law of compassion, of not doing harm, or of not using others as objects rather than meeting them in mutuality as subjects. There are matters of commitment and of full equality. But, if there is a God, sex is his creation, and to suggest it is otherwise than 'very good' is the real sexual sin."
Harpur believes homosexuality is feared "largely because of an abiding ignorance, but also the human tendency to prefer conformity to majority norms, basic fear of the unknown, crude understandings of sacred texts..." Yet he recognizes also that "homosexuals have not always told their own story, or told it well. What is more, they need to be challenged to think deeply...about ethical values, standards, and sexual norms for the gay members of our society. Where are these being debated and what are the results? Society at large has a right to ask about such issues." This is the kind of view that helps us acknowledge what is true and false behind every question. No specific group is exempt from ethical responsibility- and blame is shifted to where we can determine it belongs without hysteria.
The question of feminism- or of equality or of female sexual roles- is another black hole for so many seekers. Where do I fit into this? asks more than half of the population! "Women's spirituality is terrifying also because -having been suppressed and/or ignored for so many centuries- it is a virtually unknown force. A persistently patriarchal society gives ground only inch by inch, and nowhere more grudgingly than in the religious realm. The Church has not yet resolved either the problem of patriarchy or that of the body in general and sexuality in particular. Woman challenges all three areas, and raises the...deep-seated fear of change."
Harpur's book, Finding the Still Point: A Spirituality of Balance, describes a variety of spiritual remedies for dealing with stress. Drawing on the Bible and other sacred texts, spiritual comfort for life's profound questions is the antidote. Harpur's tone never adopts the easy-breezy fluff of puffy, positive thinking. Positive thinking is, instead, given a weight. Visualizing cotton candy has always seemed a paltry nourishment for real crises like recovery from divorce, loss, sexual abuse, or war. Here, we reflect on transforming our dark waters.
Harpur will no doubt cause some Christian uproar for the time and relevance he gives to other paths like Islam and Buddhism. How refreshing to find a text that addresses the world's religious turmoil and political unrest with some analysis of the spiritual teachings of these faiths. The press generally lambastes or candy-coats the traditions of 'other' religions. This balanced view that always demands motive-examination from all sides in an issue is a rare voice that asks for equal accountability from all. Blame isn't thrown around, but rather, self-searching for our role in every aspect of our lives. We all have our hand in the human dilemma, and so does God.
How beautiful to find some Islamic prayers that moved me to read meditations from Buddhists. Christ's truths are standing in these places, the still points. "Go to the places that scare you," was the line from Om Mani Padma Hum that got to me. Religious and secular human history has been filled with nothing but war and misery. War today is erupting everywhere, but actually, life has always been filled with turmoil. The peace is in the still point- there is no erasure or absence of pain. Instead, there is peace, a far more profound and realistic ambition than many of us have gleaned from our faith.
Tom Harpur's writing is an eloquent gift to us all. His public journey to the heart of God has had healing effects on a spiritually starved era.
This journey has been the gift of God, and of Sue, Harpur's wife of almost 23-years. "Sue is my editor-in-chief, my link with the common sense, non-theologically isolated world! She'll not be impressed with my saying this but without it a distorted picture emerges of a one-man, egotistically all-male 'show.' I assure you it's not at all like that. None of my books would have, could have been written without her."
I wasn't referring specifically to Harpur's beautiful prose when I asked him, "Why is art important?" But the answer is certainly relevant. "Because it gives us sight with new eyes," he says. "Opens the doors of perception wider still- and so has enormous power to transform and change consciousness for the better."