I was reminded again today how much the spiritual journey for human beings can be likened to a spiral path.
Well, maybe less a spiral, and more a helix. Like a Slinky — from one direction (end-on) it looks like a simple circle, yet from the side you can see it’s actually a long, continuous, spiralling wire. Another good analogy is a DNA helix — long, complex, and spiralling, with no two points exactly the same. Both the Slinky and the DNA helix capture the idea that the spiritual path can sometimes feel like a circle (as in “I seem to going round and round in circles”), yet a closer examination of your experiences (from the side angle) will reveal you’ve also made some forward progress.
But, you know, from a strictly artistic point of view it sucks to call the spiritual path “the helical path.” Like, you can’t even doodle a helix on a pad of paper and have it make any sense to somebody who doesn’t know what a DNA helix is. But when you draw a spiral on a piece of paper, everybody can recognize the idea of going round and round in circles, while at the same time never being in precisely the same place. That’s why the image of the spiral path has been used in many times and in many places to represent the spiritual path. Don’t mess with a perfectly good symbol, I say. So I’m sticking with the image of “the spiral path.” But, really, it feels more like a Slinky.
I got on this train of thought today because I suddenly decided to revisit Tom Harpur’s book The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light (Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2004). I bought this book when it was first published because I’d been reading Tom Harpur’s column on religion in the Toronto Star and I was curious to know more about his theories. The book was attracting a lot of attention from Progressive Christians in Canada because it seemed to offer a way out of the dangers of dogmatic, literalistic Christianity. It didn’t hurt, either, that before Harpur turned to journalism, he’d been a professor of Greek and New Testament at the University of Toronto. The guy had credentials. He had credibility.
When I’m reading any book, no matter what the topic, I read at two levels. I pay attention with as much objectivity as I can to the flow of the factual argument — what facts are being stated, what facts are being left out, what inconsistencies exist. But I also pay attention with my intuition — with my mystical side. Sometimes when I’m reading an alarm goes off in my intuitive circuitry, and I know there’s something fundamentally wrong with the author’s argument.
I may not know at a factual level what’s wrong, but I’ve learned to trust the information I receive from my mystical side. My task at this point is to accept the challenge of closing the gap between the factual reading and the intuitive reading — to do more research on the factual side so I can understand in an objective, logical way why my “gut” is reacting the way it’s reacting to a particular author.
It often takes me years — years! — to do enough academic research to get to the point where I can close the gap between the factual reading and the intuitive reading of a book.
To give a specific example, it’s taken me 6 years to close the gap between my factual reading of The Pagan Christ and my intuitive reading of The Pagan Christ. It’s taken me 6 years on the spiral path of spiritual (and academic) learning to figure out why I was so incensed at an intuitive level when I first read Tom Harpur’s book.
The information I needed didn’t appear to me in the form of a “revelation,” a “vision,” or a “prophecy.” I had to slog through sixteen half-courses in topics such as New Testament, Old Testament, early church history, and church liturgy, plus I had to research and write a long academic research paper (also called a short thesis or a cognate) on the topic of early doctrines of the soul. I had to work my ass off.
My goal in taking those courses wasn’t to challenge Harpur’s book. By the time I enrolled in graduate studies, I was focussed on other questions, other challenges, that occupied my time, energy, and enthusiasm. Nonetheless, with the hallmark unpredictability of all spiritual journeys, I accidentally discovered this morning that I now have the tools to challenge Harpur’s thesis. The tools didn’t come to me accidentally — but the realization of what I could do with the tools kind of snuck up on me.
Somehow the spiral path has brought me back to a book, an author, and a thesis that has been quite influential in the past few years.
Just for the record, I’m NOT going to do an about-face, and I’m NOT going to claim that upon revisiting Harpur’s book I’ve suddenly “seen the light” (pun intended). No way, Jose. To be ultra-clear, I don’t agree with Harpur’s thesis AT ALL — in fact, I’m more incensed today with the ideas in his book than I was when I first read them in 2004. The difference between then and now is that I’ve moved forward on my spiral path. I’ve added to my knowledge. I’ve added to my experience. I’ve added to my healing. I’ve changed, learned, grown. Most of all, I’ve worked hard.
God helped me at every turn (and I could never have accomplished what I’ve accomplished without God’s loving guidance), but the knowledge base I’ve built has come through conventional means — such as university courses, academic journals, and interdisciplinary research. Even though I’m a mystic, I did not acquire this new knowledge through revelation. I had to use the brain God gave me. What’s more, I had to use the free will God gave me. And I had to look after my body and my brain (i.e. choose a healthy lifestyle) so I could learn effectively. Just like any other person on Planet Earth. God did not make special rules for me.
Even though I’m a mystic, I have to follow the rules of healthy living and healthy learning that God wants everybody to respect. I’m able to communicate clearly with God the Mother and God the Father BECAUSE I use my free will to respect my body, my soul, my mind, and my heart in a balanced, holistic way. This life of balance lies at the core of the teachings of the man who once lived as Jesus son of Joseph.
I can’t emphasize enough how radically different this claim is when compared to the claims of traditional, ascetic, cloistered Christian mystics.
Or when compared to the claims made by Tom Harpur in his book.
Near the end of The Pagan Christ, Harpur says:
“So [Alvin Boyd] Kuhn can argue that you and I, in a profound sense, are never going to be more “dead” than we are right at this moment. He says, ‘Right now our deific souls are at the very bottom of the arc of death and can never be as dead again as they are now and have been.’ As we live our lives here, immersed in matter, we are gaining experience and expanding consciousness. But we are, in a deep sense, alienated from, or ‘dead’ to, the spiritual realm whence we originally came and to which we shall one day return (page 192).”
All I can say to this is . . . speak for yourself, buddy.