Tom Harpur’s compelling spiritual journey from fundamentalism to mass media.
Tom Harpur, the late author and host of numerous radio and television programs, was at the forefront of the modern challenge to humankind’s spiritual identity. His radical and ground-breaking book The Pagan Christ touched the lives of thousands of seekers. In Born Again , he tells the story of his own search for spiritual understanding, and the result is a spiritual odyssey, the story of one man’s escape from the narrow grip of religious fundamentalism.
Born into an Irish immigrant family in Toronto, Tom Harpur was groomed for the ministry by his father from an early age. He won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, then returned to Canada and enrolled in Wycliffe College, the bastion of Anglican evangelicalism. Ordained to the ministry, Tom Harpur served for a number of years in his own parish before seeking a wider ministry in the world of mass media.
In 1971, Tom Harpur joined the Toronto Star as the religion editor and, over a number of years, reported on and met with many important spiritual figures, from Pope John Paul II to Mother Teresa, as he travelled around the globe.
Perhaps Tom Harpur’s most intimate book, Born Again is an important work of spiritual insight, revelation, and renewal, outlining the critical elements of his own path.
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About the Author
Tom Harpur was a columnist for the Toronto Star , Rhodes scholar, former Anglican priest, and professor of Greek and the New Testament, and was an internationally renowned writer on religious and ethical issues. He was the author of ten bestselling books, including For Christ’s Sake and The Pagan Christ. He hosted numerous radio and television programs, including Life After Death , a ten-part series based on his bestselling book of the same name. He passed away in 2017.
Read an Excerpt
SURPRISED BY GOD
Many readers of this book will be aware that in the spring of 2004, just before Easter and within days of my seventy-fifth birthday, my world was rocked by the publication of The Pagan Christ. I was thrown suddenly into the centre of a whirling vortex of controversy, praise, criticism and media attention such as I had never experienced before. Already a bestseller even before its official "pub date," the book remained at the top of several Canadian bestseller lists for many months, and the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail later judged it to be the number-one bestseller of the year. The book and its author were attacked with vitriol by conservative critics in all camps, while emails of gratitude and congratulation began to flow in by the hundreds from an ever-widening circle of avid readers whose primary emotions seemed those of joy at release from old, religion-induced fears and of renewed spiritual energy at now being freed to get on with a rational trust in God. My publisher and chief editor, forty-year publishing veteran Patrick Crean at Thomas Allen Publishers, said publicly that The Pagan Christ "is the most radical and important book I have ever worked on." We could scarcely keep up with media requests for interviews, while simultaneously several TV producers were vying for the film rights. Eventually, CBC and an independent producer, David Brady Productions, won out. There was also a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war for foreign rights. The book went on to sell in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and in translation in France, Holland, Germany, Japan and Brazil.
Put in its simplest form, the message of The Pagan Christ is that the Christian story, taken literally as it has been for centuries, is a misunderstanding of astounding proportions. Sublime myth has been wrongly understood as history, and centuries of book burnings, persecutions and other horrors too great to be numbered were the result. The light crying out to be rediscovered is that every human being born into the world has the seed or spark of the Divine within; it's what we do with that reality that matters. Building upon the work of earlier scholars, I set out my reasons for being unable to accept the flimsy putative "evidence" for Jesus's historicity. In its stead I made the case for the Isis–Osiris–Horus myth of ancient Egypt as the prototype of a much later Jewish version of the same narrative. The media jumped on that as their leading theme. The message of my follow-up book Water into Wine leads on from there. Its thesis is that the "old old story" is indeed the oldest story in human history, and it focuses upon us. The story of the Christ is the story of every man, woman and child on the face of the earth. The miracles, rather than being snipped out of the text with scissors à la Thomas Jefferson (who did it to solve the problem of their otherwise seeming to contradict the very laws of physics said to be God's own creation), are shown to be allegories of the power of the divine within us all. Read as historical, they border on the ludicrous. Read as allegory and metaphor, they shine with contemporary potency for one's daily life.
Obviously, for a theologian who had become a freelance journalist with the express objective of reaching the greatest possible number of people with a genuine message of faith and hope in terms they could readily comprehend, it was an exciting, even thrilling moment in which to be alive. Everything before that took on the aura of a guided preparation for this peak adventure. But it was a very stressful time as well. I had challenged traditional religious doctrines and taboos in a wholly radical way and the guardians of orthodoxy were not about to take that without a fight. While there were many clergy of all denominations among the enthusiastic readers of The Pagan Christ, and subsequently of Water into Wine, there were also those who felt it their duty to attack these books vigorously in print, on TV, in the lecture hall or from the pulpit. A few former clerical friends disappeared into the woodwork altogether, while many admitted they had no intention of upsetting their beliefs by exposing themselves to "heresy." In other words, they were afraid to have to rethink in any way what they have chosen always to preserve "as it was in the beginning, is now and evermore shall be, Amen."
Looking back to even my earliest memories, I realize how deeply rooted was the impulse to search for and know God — and at the same time to possess a reasoned, reasonable faith open to everyone and not just to holy huddles of specially chosen ones. This is far from saying that I held reason alone to be the sole path to that ultimate mystery. As the familiar words of Blaise Pascal in his Pensées remind us, "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of." However, our greatest gift as human beings is our faculty of self-reflective consciousness (our ability to think about what it is we are thinking and feeling) — in other words, our ability to think rationally. What we hold to be true about God must never contradict or oppose reason. Thus, for example, while I believe the current mushrooming crop of atheists, however vocal or eloquent they may be, to be very mistaken, I have a great deal of sympathy for their sense of exasperation or even disgust at much of the pious, popular religion of our time that has little use for reason at all.
This morning I received a letter from a young New Zealand woman who has just written her first novel. Speaking of The Pagan Christ and Water into Wine in particular, she wrote: "Your work gave me the courage to journey where I felt my soul had always been." Interestingly, that has been the overwhelming message carried by the response to both volumes. I say this with the greatest sense of humility because of my commitment to the belief that the Holy Spirit of God does indeed guide and inspire us all the days of our lives no matter how often we stumble or fall. Indeed, one of the things I believe the discerning reader will find in the narrative that follows here — and may well recognize from a similar phenomenon in his or her own life — is that events or insights which initially seem isolated and perhaps unconnected to anything else often can suddenly become pregnant with meaning, linked together, illumining a far larger landscape than was anticipated at first.
Reflection since the momentous happenings of Easter 2004 and then Easter 2007, when Water into Wine first appeared, has shown me very dramatically that neither of these books dropped from the sky. As what follows illustrates, they came as the product of many years of study, travel and experiences of many kinds. Yes, there was much immediate, painstaking research in the laborious months before publication, but all the major themes were already there, percolating throughout the length of an eventful life. My editors encouraged me to digest the research but above all to use my own "voice" in the light of a lifetime of experience, and that is eventually what happened. I had finally found a way to make sense of the traditional Christianity in which I had been reared and professionally trained and to which I owed so much in a way that resonated with my heart as well as my intellect.
To my mind, the process I'm describing is somewhat like that of the prospector of an earlier era who spent his entire lifetime searching for an elusive treasure. There were moments when his journey up winding creek beds and over mountain trails seemed bleak and void of purpose. But from time to time he would catch amidst all the debris and seeming chaos around him a tiny gleam of gold, the promise that the reality was there somewhere to be found. Then one day, perhaps when and where he least expected it, the true mother-lode was revealed to him and he rushed to share the good news. Using this as an analogy, I now see that the creation of The Pagan Christ and Water into Wine was a kind of spiritual alchemy. The dross of weary-making traditionalism and the emptiness of outworn and in some cases enslaving dogmas had in spite of themselves been carriers of a buried wisdom. There truly was some spiritual gold to be found buried and hidden in "them there tired ecclesiastical hills."
When I was preparing for my final examinations in Classics at Oxford, my tutor in philosophy, Richard Robinson, called me to his study for a brief chat. He was a man who made a habit of taking long pauses for thought before he ever spoke a word. At times it was almost alarming, as if he'd forgotten what he was going to say. But he definitely had not. It's a habit many of us could well emulate, to everyone's profit! On this somewhat solemn occasion he said to me: "Harpur, let me give you a word of advice. When you get the examination paper, study it well for a few moments. If you see a question you can write something intelligent about, do so. If you don't see such a question, then pick out a question that is itself questionable. Examiners are not infallible. They can be wrong. In any case, you have nothing to lose by taking the question itself apart. Dissect it. Parse it. Put it under scrutiny and show its innate contradictions — if any — or demonstrate how it could have been improved upon or otherwise directed. That will save you from the risk of either writing nothing at all or demonstrating your ignorance in some other fashion. Sometimes challenging the questions themselves is the best path to knowledge I know."
Clearly I have never forgotten those few words of a warm, gentle afternoon in the spring of 1954. They are deeply connected with the events of spring 2004, a half century later. From the very beginning it's as though I already knew the wisdom of Robinson's insight somewhere deep in my own unconscious mind. Though all through my childhood, youth and years of training for the ordained ministry of the Anglican Church I was a model of conformity, at the same time I was quietly questioning the major questions themselves. The tradition assumed a hubristic superiority over all other faiths. As I matured, I was silently asking myself, was it right that a white man's saviour was the only mediator or redeemer of the many billions here on earth today? And what of the far greater number of billions making up "the majority," as the Romans referred to them, those who have died over the entire span of Homo sapiens sapiens' presence on the planet? Why did it take the Church five centuries — not to mention so much bloodshed — to work out its understanding of how Jesus could be wholly God and wholly man without rupturing the basic concept of a truly human humanity entirely? The struggle to make sense of this conundrum is clear in the words of the Athanasian Creed from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which says Jesus Christ is "God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds: and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world; Perfect God, and perfect Man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting; Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood. Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ ..." Based upon Greek philosophy, this makes little or no sense to the average person today.
What kind of religion, I later asked myself, would burn at the stake three of its own bishops in the city of Oxford (a short distance from my own college of Oriel) simply because they could not accept the dogma of transubstantiation, that is, that the symbols of bread and wine actually become Jesus's body and blood in the Mass? Latimer and Ridley, the latter of whom was the Bishop of London, were burned alive in Oxford on October 16, 1555. Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was killed on March 21, 1556, for the same offence. The travesty is that, whatever its meaning, Holy Communion or Mass was meant to bring people together, to enhance life. It certainly has nothing to do with murder. Once again, mistaking symbols for facts had cost — and continues to cost — the Church dearly.
The following narrative tells of a quest for truth. Its goal is hopefully to bring more light. For me, it has been the spiritual journey of a lifetime.
BIRTHMARKS ARE FOREVER
In 1969, I did something that in my teens I'd never expected to do — reach my fortieth birthday. In a Byronic, Romantic mode, I had earlier seen myself as destined for a premature, no doubt spectacular demise in the midst of some high adventure. Reflecting on this development, I was aware that all of the major goals my parents, their friends and various clergy had set before me from the beginning had been reached. I was an ordained priest of the Anglican Church of Canada, a former Rhodes Scholar and hence a graduate of Oxford University as well as the University of Toronto, where I had graduated in 1951 with the gold medal in Classics. I was also a graduate of Wycliffe College, Canada's evangelical Anglican seminary, and had been the class president and valedictorian in my graduating year. Furthermore, I had had a highly successful parish ministry for eight years, highlighted by the building of a beautiful new church to accommodate a large and growing congregation. I had left there in 1964, after another year of graduate studies at Oxford, to become an assistant and then a full professor of New Testament and Greek back at Wycliffe. I was in good health. So too were my then wife and three much-loved daughters. There was every reason for me to be happy with these successes. "They" — the proverbial and in part shadowy influences that too often one can attempt to live one's life by — were happy. But I was not.
The truth is, I was profoundly miserable. At times I had a feeling of having arrived successfully at a defined destination after having taken the wrong boat. It seemed that I was reaching a major turning point. Deep inside I felt I was bursting with repressed creative energy, but at the same time I was baffled and uncertain about where to go with it. Although it was far from clear at the time, a process was beginning that would utterly transform me at every possible level. I was about to experience a radical series of changes that I now realize was a kind of second birth. It would lead eventually to a total transformation of my understanding of God, of the Christian religion, of human evolution, and of myself. What ensues is the story of how that came to be and of what it led to. Like all births, it happened in stages. Like most, it wasn't always neat.
What follows, then, is not a memoir in the usual sense. It is a spiritual odyssey, the story of one individual's escape from the narrow grip of a rigid, wrong-headed religion. Many who grew up in similar backgrounds have escaped as well, by abandoning their spirituality altogether. In my case the struggle was to hammer out a believable faith in God. Of course, by the traditional term God, I mean that transcendent, ever-present "presence" whose offspring, as the ancient Pagans also saw, we truly are. This is the great mysterium tremendum et fascinosum of Rudolph Otto — the Mystery that kindles in us both an overwhelming sense of awe and a heart-yearning desire that can never be satisfied with anything less.
The question most often posed in the many hundreds of letters that have poured in over the past few years is this: "How did you come to the radical conclusions set out in 2004 in The Pagan Christ? You were once an evangelical preacher, weren't you?" A partial answer is given at the beginning of that book. But the real answer, like most truths worth knowing, can only be fully told in a more detailed narrative. I invite you to come with me on this adventure.
While we all are born as genetic composites of previous generations, our ideas and outlook must of course grow and adapt to our ever-changing surroundings and intellectual development. Over the last fifty years and in the span of only two generations, beliefs and ideas in my own family have changed radically. Few could have predicted the extent of the change in the understanding of God and religion that I am about to describe. But I am fully aware in saying this of the truth of an aphorism attributed to Muhammad Ali: "The person who views the world at fifty the same as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life."
Both my parents were born and raised in Northern Ireland and came from fairly large families, with each of them having six siblings. My maternal grandfather, who always wore a wing collar and a black bowler hat for going to church and other dress occasions, served as an ambulance driver in World War I, and I vividly remember him telling how their convoy was attacked one night by bombs from a German dirigible or blimp and they all had to scramble for cover into a ditch, where they lay for several hours in the cold. He could be very kindly, but his basic demeanour was stern and forbidding. I first met him at the age of nine in 1938 on a visit to Belfast, and soon shared my cousins' view that he was dangerous when provoked. Grandpa Hoey, as he was called, was definitely of the old school where discipline of children was concerned. Following the end of the war he was hired as chauffeur and gentleman's gentleman by a wealthy Belfast industrialist. My grandmother's family name was Cooper and they were from farming stock near Portadown on the coast. She was a jolly, comfortable-looking woman who loved nothing better than being up to her elbows making Irish soda bread.
Excerpted from "Born Again"
Copyright © 2017 Tom Harpur.
Excerpted by permission of Dundurn Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- 1 Surprised by God
- 2 Birthmarks Are Forever
- 3 From Homer and Plato to Theology
- 4 “The Lord Is My Light”: Motto of Oxford University
- 5 The Cure of Souls
- 6 Living My Father’s Dream
- 7 “St. Paul, had he lived today, would have been a journalist.”
- 8 The Fork in the Trail
- 9 Living My Own Dream
- 10 Can Christianity Be Born Again?