I’m still feeling grumpy about Tom Harpur’s suggestions for Christians who want to find “the only way ahead,” so I’m going to talk some more about that.
Early on in my writings on this blog, I stated — in bold letters, no less — that I am NOT a Gnostic (March 6, 2010: Some Reference Books I Read & Recommend). Even though I’m a practising mystic, and even though I believe in a number of things that can’t be seen by the human eye (so sue me — even radio waves can’t be seen by the human eye), this doesn’t make me a Gnostic. Only sloppy thinkers who haven’t done their homework on the topic of Gnosticisms would insist on calling me a Gnostic. (Note here that I’ve used the plural form of Gnosticism because careful researchers know there’s no such thing as one single historical form of Gnosticism any more than there’s one single historical form of Christianity or one single historical form of Judaism.)
In order for a person to be included under the umbrella term of Gnosticism, he or she has to hold certain beliefs about the nature of humanity’s relationship with God. Central to all Gnosticisms is the idea that the soul is a tiny piece of God’s essence that is trying to find its way back to God. Immortal souls end up in mortal bodies, but this isn’t really a good thing because our physical bodies drag the soul down into a “prison” of matter. The spiritual task for Gnostics is to recognize the spark of God/Christ/Divine that exists within, and to set about freeing that spark by raising their consciousness to a higher level. The goal is to seek “wisdom” and hidden knowledge (gnosis in Greek). This knowledge leads to transcendence.
If this sounds a lot like Plato’s teachings about the soul’s journey, it’s because Plato’s teachings and later Gnostic teachings have a lot in common. Most orthodox Western Christian scholars don’t want to admit it, but these teachings also strongly influenced the apostle Paul. The famous passage about life after death in Chapter 15 of First Corinthians is a fascinating blend of Jewish apocalyptic thought (future resurrection) and Platonic thought (incorruptibility of the divine): “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (Cue Handel’s Messiah.)
Tom Harpur is quite up-front about the fact that he admires Gnostic thinking. On page 175 of The Pagan Christ, he says, “What’s really important is that Paul’s spiritual view of Christ (his Christology) and Gnostic Christianity held the early Christian movement up to a truly high standard of intellectual and philosophical excellence.”
Bear in mind that Harpur himself doesn’t believe there ever was an actual man named Jesus Christ who lived in1st century CE Palestine. He believes the gospel stories about Jesus should be read typologically, not literally. He believes the story of Jesus is pure symbol. An important symbol, but a symbol nonetheless. A myth, not a fact.
In fact, Harpur believes that all Scripture should only be read symbolically, not literally or historically. For Harpur, “the enigma of the Bible has been largely solved. Dark passages, cryptic narratives or events — all have been shot through with a new, though long-lost, light because of this awareness that the key to all Scripture is to be found in the doctrine of Incarnation (page 181).”*
And what is the long-lost light that Harpur sees in this symbolic reading of Scripture? Why, it’s the ancient wisdom of the Egyptian mystery cults!
Here’s where I have a really big problem with Harpur’s thesis. He recommends without reservation that Christianity of the third millennium reclaim “the wisdom expounded by the Egyptians, the Orphics, the Pythagoreans and Plato, as well as by St. Paul, the Gnostics, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and a host of others . . . (page 191).” (Can’t argue with the historical links that existed among these groups, although I would have added Manicheans and Albigensians.) He thinks the choice to reclaim this long-lost light will arm us “with the moral and intellectual courage to live our lives to the fullest for the advancement of all . . . (page 193).”
Me, I think such a course of action will demolish whatever moral and intellectual courage Christians have.
Why do I think this? I think this because I’ve lived through the devastating effects of ancient mystery teachings on the human brain, and although I’ve fully recovered from the effects of my Big Fat Idiot Stage, I’m alarmed when I see reputable scholars using their positions of authority to urge dangerous spiritual practices on vulnerable, less well educated people.
It’s irresponsible, and there’s no excuse for it.
Harpur is advocating a return to what is indisputably a cult psychology based on status addiction. He’s kidding himself if he thinks the leaders of these ancient cults were nice people who truly found divine wisdom and willingly shared it with all people. Pythagoras (of whom Harpur seems fond) founded a sectarian cult with strict rules where only a small group of chosen disciples were initiated into the secret knowledge and rituals. (That’s status addiction!) Hellenistic mystery cults such as the Orphic mysteries and the Eleusinian mysteries engaged in bizarre, ritualistic, occult practices that most people would find abhorrent today. Addiction issues and sexual misconduct were rampant in these cults. Later, especially in the Eastern Roman Empire, Christian monks, nuns, contemplatives, and mystics separated themselves from regular communities and engaged in self-harming ascetic practices so they could “imitate Christ” and be “closer to God.” (Again, status addiction.) Needless to say, addiction issues, sexual misconduct, and other forms of abuse continued to take place in monastic communities and continued to be blamed on evil forces such as demons, incubi, and the devil.
Is this what Harpur wants? Because this is what he’s going to get if he naively places these ancient mystery cults on a pedestal. Where he sees a “long-lost light” in these ancient teachings, I see only a “darkness of abuse” we’re well rid of.
As for Harpur’s claim that he wants to help bring science and religion closer together and “highlight Nature’s guiding role” in a renewed Christian faith, I just want to choke. There is no hard science in his book, but there are lots of superficial cliches and lots of references to the spiritual symbols seen in Nature. When Harpur says, “I never see the moon without being reminded of its reflecting the solar glory and its monthly telling of the story of our incarnation and ultimate resurrection (page 188),” I gotta say that don’t impress me much. (Cue the Shania Twain song.)
There’s tons of light and wonder and goodness and love in the natural world — the scientific world — that God the Mother and God the Father have created for us. But we won’t find it by looking backwards to the mystery cult teachings of people who believed in a status-ridden journey of spiritual ascent, and we won’t find it by pretending that all Scripture is “good” if only we understood how to read it symbolically! Christianity has been there and done that. It doesn’t work.
The only way forward for the Church, as I see it, is for us to come at spirituality from a whole new angle. We have to let go of “traditional teachings” and “infallible doctrines” that don’t line up with new findings in neuroscience, quantum physics, quantum biology, astronomy, and so on. Other fields of endeavour have had to let go of cherished beliefs that eventually proved false. Why should Christianity be any different?
Does it make sense to you that God would make special rules for us and hold us to a LOWER standard of scholarship than the standard observed by secular researchers in fields such as teaching, environmental science, or psychiatry?
Maybe it’s our unwarranted sense of entitlement — not God, and not the devil — that’s the source of our ongoing problems in the Church.
I think I’ll sign off now and go read Discover magazine’s latest special issue on The Brain. Although I don’t always agree with the scientific conclusions I find there, there’s plenty of good food for thought, and I’m grateful for that.
* In his glossary, Harpur defines “incarnation” as “the God within each of us — the ‘Light which lighteth every person coming into the world.'”