Was There No Historical Jesus?
by Earl Doherty


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Recovering the Lost Light
by Tom Harpur

Thomas Allen Publishers, 2004

    This book operates on several levels, and so does my reaction to it. It is first of all the story of the author's conversion from orthodox, literalist Christianity, in which he was trained as priest, professor and writer, to a radical new way of seeing and applying his faith. Or rather, to an old one—since the premiss of The Pagan Christ is that Christianity, before it fell into the clutches of ecclesiastical literalists during the 2nd to 4th centuries CE, was based on ancient and widespread religious ways of thinking, yet another expression of deep and vital spiritual truths which much of the ancient world had in its wisdom long embraced. Harpur's purpose is to reveal to the reader Christianity's roots in those long buried truths, in the hope that today's Christianity can be brought into a new light—or, as the subtitle of the book puts it, to "Recovering the Lost Light."

    On this level, the book is an honest and heartfelt declaration of faith. The style of faith it professes, despite its ancient roots, may appeal to many in today's culture who are spiritually and mystically oriented. Of course, another element of our culture, especially in North America, is anything but mysticalor enlightened by any measurenamely the sizeable fundamentalist and literalist segment of the Christian population who are backward-looking in an entirely negative way. If Harpur hopes to reach that segment, even given the force of his writing and the appeal of his convictions, I think he will be disappointed. From those quarters, his book has already met severe criticism and censure.

    On another level, The Pagan Christ relies on a body of scholarship which is today regarded as problematicwhether deservedly so is a very large question. Although Harpur has supplemented that body of scholarship with a lifetime of study of the bible and ancient religion, the dramatic conclusions he is propounding in this book are not the product of his own investigative efforts. Rather, he is championing the work of others, by whom he was persuaded to his new insights and convictions.

     The Pagan Christ is a paean to three very unorthox scholars of the past. Godfrey Higgins, who lived from 1771 to 1834, was a true groundbreaker in coming to the conclusion that the formative histories of all the great peoples and empires, all the great mythologies embodied in sacred books and traditions, bear no relation to actual history, and this includes Christian and Jewish traditions as contained in the bible. Higgins seems to have been the fountainhead of a theory one still encounters in some circles that, as Harpur puts it (p.200), "there was a most ancient and universal religion from which all later creeds and doctrines everywhere sprang," attributing to this primordial religion an "accurate knowledge of universal and concise phenomena."  It is difficult to put any credence in such an idea (Harpur is not clear whether he subscribes to it himself), but it is expressions of this sort which compromise for the 21st century mind an appreciation for the groundbreaking work and the genuine debt we owe to people like Higgins. Harpur regards Higgins as a mentor to the stream of thought and research that came to fruition in his other two "giants."

     The first of these is Gerald Massey, 1828-1907. Massey still commands a certain degree of respect today—except, of course, in orthodox circles. As a self-made Egyptologist, he was perhaps the first to uncover the profound debt which Hebrew mythology, ethics and religion owed to Egypt, and one of the first to document the many parallels between the story of Jesus and the Egyptian myths of the divine trio Osiris, Isis and Horus. He came to the conclusion that the Jesus myth embodied in the Gospels was derived from Egyptian and other antecedents and was no more historical than any of them. Like many such researchers, Massey came to despise what Christianity had become in ecclesiastical hands, and Harpur quotes [p.202] one of his convictions that "it was an unforgiveable pretense for the clergy to continue to preach that man was a fallen creature doomed to plead for God's salvation. Every advance made by science for humanity was the result of research and perseverance, not praying to 'a jealous God'." Massey stressed the absolute necessity for every person to do his own thinking. As Harpur recounts it, speaking of Massey's lecture, The Coming Religion, "he advocated a religion of science in place of superstition, looking to the reality of the present, not a mythology of the future. He believed western society was on the verge of adopting a religion of accomplishment rather than of worship, a pagan religion whose temple was the human form rather than churches of brick and stone." Visionary, and certainly appealing, it was inspiring to many more than just Harpur, even if the realization of Massey's expectations seems further off than ever in present-day North America, and the U.S. in particular. Still, Harpur has written his book in the hope of furthering Massey's vision.

     The 'giant' nearest Harpur's heart is Alvin Boyd Kuhn, who died at the age of 83 in 1963. Kuhn, too, acknowledged Massey as his mentor, but he was more of a mystic and less a realist, it seems, than Massey, convinced through his long study of the origins of religious symbols and meanings that there was an "ancient wisdom" that humanity needed to return to. Harpur seems to agree and has taken up that torch.

Problem Research

     My own reading of these three "giants" has been very limited, and I have been largely dependent on the reports of others, both for and against. Kuhn, especially, is a demanding read, to judge by what little of him I have attempted. His style is dense and flowery and not a little pretentious—perhaps the mark of the mystic mind as it strikes someone who is anything but a mystic. And herein lies the problem that Harpur (and others who have championed and drawn on the research of these men) faces—actually, it's a two-fold one. Kuhn and Massey approach the subject as visionaries, seeking to generate change in society through their scholarship. As the reader might imagine, I have nothing against this in principle, even if the rhetoric could stand some toning down, but it raises understandable resistance and even suspicion in the minds of more neutral observers—not to mention those whose vested interests are being assailed. How has the agenda of these scholars, they ask, affected their work and conclusions? Compounding such 'suspicion' is the fact that this is basically old research. It comes out of the heyday of the History of Religions School of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, something against which there was a concerted reaction (I call it 'a circling of the wagons') within mainstream New Testament scholarship from World War II on. To what extent is that older research stale or outdated, how deficient might it be for lacking access to the great strides that critical biblical study has taken in the last half century? Most important, how legitimate is its derivation from primary sources? Not having surveyed Higgins, Massey and Kuhn myself, that is unclear to me, but this is a common accusation brought against such scholars (including the infamous Kersey Graves and his Sixteen Crucified Saviors, a product of the same era), that their identification of and appeals to primary sources are somehow less than adequate. A few more recent publications in the same vein also show this deficiency, and there is no doubt that this type of research needs to be "rechecked" by revisiting the primary sources in the light of more modern scholarship and knowledge.

     Harpur does not provide this—indeed, it would be a daunting task, taking the lifetime that Higgins, Massey and Kuhn once devoted to their own endeavors. Nor is this Harpur's purpose, though I gather he may not have understood the problem or necessity involved, and has been somewhat taken by surprise at the resistance his book has met on that basis. (The writer known as Acharya SThe Christ Conspiracy, Suns of Godhas also faced similar problems and resistance in her reliance on the same type of older scholarship.)

The Root Myth

    So what are the claims of Massey and Kuhn which Harpur is promoting, the analysis of ancient religious ways of thinking and how they fed into—or created in wholesale fashion—the myth of Jesus which passed into Christianity and became devastatingly and intolerably corrupted? How should they be retrieved and applied today? Answering these questions is the raison d'etre of The Pagan Christ.

    Modern skeptics of the field of comparative religion, with its claims of close correspondence between the elements of the Jesus story and a multitude of precurors in the mystery and salvation religions of the era, may have a case of sorts to make when they dismiss such parallels as being often unclear, exaggerated or unfounded. The primary sources for such things are a wide and uncoordinated array of texts and fragments of texts, artifacts, frescoes, uncertain records of oral traditions and rituals, excavated temples and places of worship (some ruined by Christian depredations), many requiring interpretation and a careful gleaning of their significance. There have no doubt been parallels suggested, or even declared with confidence, between Jesus and this or that 'savior god' in ancient cultures, which rest on shaky ground or have turned out to be erroneous. Christian apologists are ever at pains to point out these uncertainties and errors. But a few overstated claims and an inevitable degree of ambiguity where some features are concerned does not destroy the entire case, and serves only to provide some handy red herrings for determined apologists. The overall picture is not significantly compromised and is indeed beyond question. There are enough common features between Jesus and antecedent savior figures and their mythologies to make the principle valid. The story of Jesus is not original, much less historical. It owes its life blood—and many of the moles on its skin—to mythical motifs and far more ancient ideas that are found not only throughout the Near East but literally around the world, often in cultures that had no direct contact with those now familiar to us, making such expression endemic (some might say 'epidemic') to the human mind. This, of course, does not make them a party to some ultimate truth, but simply reflects the commonality of the workings of that mind.

    What is the essence of that universal story, one whose expression may well have first developed most fully in Egypt, as Massey claimed and Harpur supports? It is found in the mythology of Osiris and Horus, not only in the details of the myth but in the larger spiritual significance which is read into it by Harpur and the scholars he draws on.

    It is not the place of this review to list all the parallels between the Christ story and the Osiris/Horus myth, going back thousands of years BCE, much less try to investigate and pronounce upon the specific accuracy of each one of them. Harpur discusses many of them along the way. Drawing on Wallis Budge's still-respected work of the early 20th century, Egyptian Religion: "Osiris was divine, yet in the myth he became a human who lived on the earth, ate, drank, and suffered a cruel death, then triumphed over death through the help of the gods (Horus) and attained everlasting life....(Osiris) became the cause of the resurrection of the dead; and the power to bestow eternal life upon mortals was transferred from the gods to him....He who was the son of Ra [the principal Egyptian deity] became the equal of his father and he took his place side by side with him in heaven [p.70-71]." (For more recent Christian scholars to point out that Osiris' "triumph over death" did not constitute a return to earth in flesh, and thus the whole parallel is discredited, is a blatant red herring, since the effect remains the same: through the god's 'rising from death' the initiate joined to him undergoes the same salvation. Besides, every indication is that a return to earth in flesh by Jesus is a later development in the Christian saga, probably invented by the Gospel writers and not envisioned by early preachers such as Paul, and thus the essence of the two myths is identical.)

    Osiris and his son Horus (by Isis) share many features which, within the variety of myths attached to them, are sometimes interchangeable. Harpur draws from the very ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead: "Thy Son Horus is triumphant....The sovereignty over the world has been given to him, and his dominion extends to the uttermost parts of the earth [p.71]....the divine son 'left the courts of heaven,' as Massey puts it, and descended to earth as the baby Horus. Born of a virgin (through whom he 'became flesh,' or entered into matter), he then became a substitute for humanity, went down into Hades as the quickener of the dead, their justifier and redeemer [p.77]." While Harpur's focus is on the Egyptian myths, similar close parallels also exist between the Jesus story and those of other savior gods, such as Adonis, Mithras and Attis—as well as the Buddha [p.29].

     It is no wonder that the second century Celsus (whom Origen did his best to refute) accused the Christians of having nothing new, of borrowing or stealing everything from the widespread myths of the time. Harpur notes that Massey "discovered nearly 200 instances of immediate correspondence between the mythical Egyptian material and the allegedly historical Christian writings about Jesus [p.85]." Whether a few of these parallels may be less than secure or exact, or may rely on interpretations of the sort of evidence I enumerated earlier, does not change the principle of Christianity's genesis from the whole mystery cult and salvation myth ethos of the ancient world. This genesis took place within a milieu that was Jewish-oriented. Whether it was the product of Jews on the hellenized fringes of Judaism, or of gentiles who had adopted and immersed themselves in things Jewish (a fairly widespread phenomenon of the time), may be difficult to say—probably a mixture of both. But Christianity with its Jesus story and its system of salvation is fundamentally a pagan expression, and Harpur recognizes this. Judaism was anything but monolithic in the pre-70 period, and there were many points of contact and absorption between the two cultures. In related areas, we can identify an entire cultural phenomenon and give it the name Hellenistic Judaism (as in Philo of Alexandria), but it may be that we need to more clearly identify and label another side to the coin, a 'Judaistic Hellenism.' My own feeling is that this was the syncretistic offspring of the two dominant cultures of the time that produced Christianity.

    Because of this close and detailed derivation, because it applies to virtually all the elements of the Gospel story in one way or another, Harpur has come to the conclusion that for all intents and purposes, the historical Jesus of the Gospels never existed. (It was gratifying to observe that he has drawn on The Jesus Puzzle, book and website, as a corroborative source of such conclusions [p.152-154], referring to the "wide-ranging and heated debate" that has been going on here for several years. In Harpur's view, "the work...makes what seems to me to be an incontrovertible case [p.224]".)

Some Asides

    Many of the enumerated parallels that exist between the Jesus story and more ancient myths of the savior deities are contained within the Gospels, not the epistles and other documents of early Christianity. They relate to the 'biographical' dimension given to Jesus, as opposed to features of ritual, christology and soteriology. The latter are thoroughly present in Paul, but not the former; there simply is no biography of Jesus in the epistles. The early Christ cult reflected the 'essence' of the savior-god mythos, but few of its particulars. The latter were added by the evangelists, as if consciously to supply the missing biography. I am not suggesting that this entire dimension was necessarily created solely by a handful of writers, since it may have reflected the development of ideas, the creation of oral mythologies under the influence of pagan salvation cults, within the communities such writers moved in. As Harpur points out, the evangelists, most notably Matthew, tried to couch these biographical elements in Jewish terms, linking many of them with passages in scripture and styling them as fulfillments of prophecy—not only to 'mask' their real derivation from pagan antecedents but in keeping with the expression of the Christ myth as something arising within a milieu of Jewish culture and expectations. That mask has fooled a lot of people for two millennia.

    On this subject, and that of prophecy in general, Harpur has an observation which is worth repeating: "Matthew's technique of scouring the Old Testament for appropriate 'prophecies' to act as a framework for his narrative gives that Gospel a surface feeling of authentic Jewish history. But the whole edifice collapses when you realize that these so-called prophecies were all fulfilled in the Old Testament and can be wholly explained without any future reference at all. Often, in the New Testament, they have been taken out of context and twisted beyond recognition. Hebrew prophecy, it must be remembered, was not about fore-telling but about forth-telling (i.e., about speaking out on issues immediately at hand)." Indeed, such an 'atomistic' use of scripture by early Christian writers is the clearest indicator that the story of Jesus as found in the Gospels is an artificial construction. The evangelists have modelled the basic tale on the ancient prototype as found in Egypt (and as developed through previous Jewish literature), but they have created much of its surface detail by recasting bits and pieces from the Jewish bible. The Jesus story is the product of a midrashic use of the Old Testament. Once pointed out, this is easily recognized and completely demolishes the 'Jesus as fulfillment of prophecy' argument so common on the evangelical scene.

    Incidentally, as to why the Christ cult represented by Paul lacked any biographical dimension for so many decades until the Gospel process evolved, I have always claimed that this provides insight into the real nature of the early Christian movement. The stories attached to Osiris, Tammuz, Dionysus, etc. were very ancient and had arisen within views of mythology which placed the events recounted by them in a primordial past "on earth" though not in recorded history. The fact that Paul had no stories of Jesus "on earth" shows that the Christ savior was from the beginning envisioned within an entirely spiritual setting, in the upper spiritual realm of Platonic thinking, where he interacted with angels and demons, not with disciples and Roman procurators, not engaged in teaching and working miracles. He resided and could be discovered only in the scriptures, which opened a window onto that higher spiritual world where God's workings "in Christ" took place. To give him the kind of 'biography' found in the myths of the pagan cults, he had to be brought to earth, and because such an earthly dimension had no long heritage, it was placed in present times, in recent history, rather than in a distant, sacred past. (This was a characteristic of Jewish thinking: even their own biblical myths, such as the patriarchs and the Exodus, had been placed in supposedly identifiable history, on a measurable time scale.)

Sun and Christ

    Harpur sees all this savior-god myth as ultimately derived from sun-god worship and mythology [p.22]. The sun was for the ancients the visible representation of the ultimate God, and the workings of the heavens and nature were reflective of deep spiritual truths. The ancient sages, as he calls them, drew from the world around them insights into the true meaning of the universe and human destiny. And reflective of this destiny was the "Christ" idea—Christ used in the broader context of an "anointed" divine appointee of God to humanity, not simply that of Christianity. Here we get to the heart of the book, a reflection of Harpur's own religious convictions, which raises The Pagan Christ to the level of a theological treatise, a faith declaration. I will quote from an extensive passage (p.22-25) which embodies Harpur's spiritual manifesto:

    "All of this brings us to the central Christos myth, which in its many different forms lies at the heart of every ancient religion. The work of Massey and Kuhn, reinforced by the latest scholarship, establishes beyond doubt that the single vast theme (in fact, the central teaching) of all religion is indeed the incarnation of the divine in the human....
    "The ancients placed at the myth's center an ideal person who would symbolize humanity itself in its dual nature of human and divine. This ideal person
—the names were Tammuz, Adonis, Mithras, Dionysus, Krishna, Christ, and many others—symbolized the divine spark incarnate in every human being, the element 'destined ultimately to deify humankind.' Rooting their religion firmly in the bedrock of nature itself, the ancient sages saw the successive phases of our divinization being enacted daily, monthly, and yearly in the solar allegories of rising and setting, waxing and waning (of the moon, which mirrors the sun's movements), and on the larger scale, in the precession of solar equinoxes and solstices....The sun god was the embodiment, or model, of what each of us, through spiritual evolution, was finally meant to become.
    "Since myth and ritual always go hand in hand, the entire evolutionary history of humankind was accordingly programmed by these same theologians and depicted in a great drama that was repeated in mystery plays aimed at raising people's consciousness and allowing them to experience the emotional catharsis involved in living through a symbolic dying and rising again 'to newness of life.' All the subsidiary myths, allegories, parables, rites and fables were formulated to support and supplement this central play, or acting out of the one truth
that we are embodied souls or spirits destined, through the love of God, for eternity. Like the sun setting in the west, we too have descended into mortal forms through incarnation. As it rises daily in the east with renewed power and vigour, so we will rise again. In other words, what the central Christ (or sun god) represents, we too one day shall be, and not just in theory or according to some mythical ideal, but in a final, resurrected reality. This is a spirituality full of hope and power.
    "[W]here did these brilliant insights and convictions come from? The answer seems to be that they came from deep within. Through prolonged meditation and inner searching, the ancients discovered archetypal images and symbols that corresponded to what they saw and experienced in the natural world. They came to know, for example, the reality of the Christ (or atman, or soul) within by inward exploration. They discovered what God had already in compassion planted there: the divine, God's own 'image.' Since the language of the unconscious is based on symbols
—as Jung and many others have discovered—it was natural to express such profundities in ageless imagery, metaphor, and allegory."

    I don't know if literally all religion has as its central theme the incarnation of the divine in the human. Perhaps in some respect it does. One would therefore expect that religious mythology would reflect this conviction, and central to Harpur's outlook is the thesis that the earliest Christian myth as reflected in writers like Paul did indeed focus on such a spiritual truth ("Christ in you"), but that this became adulterated, obscured, even lost, when literalist Christianity took over and created an historical Christ. At that point, 'Christhood' was removed from within the individual and placed onto an external person, which everyone who hoped for salvation had to seek out and prostrate him or herself before, never able to hope to emulate. This excision of the Christ within was, in Harpur's view, a catastrophe. It plunged us all into darkness, creating not only a Dark Age of history but a Dark Age of the mind.

    Incidentally, Harpur provides [p.54-65] a detailed and harrowing account—one of the most thorough and damning I've read—of literalist Christianity's campaign of persecution, destruction and burial of all this ancient thinking, conducted from the third to the sixth centuries, wherein rival cults (especially gnostic ones) were hounded and eradicated, their followers murdered, temples and places of worship razed, priceless and irrecoverable ancient manuscripts systematically burned along with the knowledge and culture they contained. Accompanying this ruthless depredation was an industry of fraud, forgery and doctoring of documents both Christian and pagan, a revisionism which obscured the true nature of earliest Christianity and its derivation for many centuries. Harpur is not the only one to single out the church historian Eusebius as an outright fabricator and falsifier, one who found justification for such devices in the need (at the emperor Constantine's insistence) to provide an acceptable basis on which Christianity could be adopted as the state religion and to eliminate the disputes and rivalries with which the movement was saturated. Some of the later Church Fathers complained bitterly about such tactics, and a few even of their own number were ostracized and condemned as heretics, such as the great Christian apologist Origen of the 3rd century, whose writings were no longer in line with the new dogmas and Council decisions. Origen was posthumously excommunicated and many of his own books were consigned to the pyre. To any of this great litany of crime and corruption, Harpur reminds us, the Church has yet to admit or seek pardon for.

The Nature of Myth

    Myths in general are often said to be, if not literally true, the embodiment of deeper truths and ultimate realities which could not be explained or expressed in any other manner. (As noted, Harpur alludes to the unconscious mind thinking in symbols, leading to allegorical expression.) Even the ancients said this, and today it is almost a divine principle among mythologists and non-literalist defenders of the faith. As far as Harpur is concerned, the 'Christ' mythology of the ancient sages is not just the embodiment of what they believed, it is the expression of what is actually true. It reflects reality.

    Is this an elevation of myth to a status it does not deserve; is it a little too starry-eyed? Let's consider three myths contained in the Old Testament. The sacrifice of Isaac is a legitimate example of a myth that reflects a broader, actual reality. Most mythologists are agreed that this story of God directing Abraham to sacrifice his eldest son, then withdrawing the requirement and accepting the substitute sacrifice of an animal, embodies the evolution over time from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice as practiced in the Near East. (Canaanite and Phoenician human sacrifice persisted into the latter first millennium BCE, and even occasionally among the Hebrews up to the time of the Exile.) This may well be a myth born out of deeper understanding.

    Now turn to the myth of the tower of Babel and the appearance of different languages. How is this reflective of actual reality? Of course, we have on the earth multiple languages, but the myth of Babel gives us no insight into how those languages actually formed and evolved. It does not seem to reflect any instinctual or deeper memory of linguistic development. The ancient mind was not in touch with anything here. This is a myth born out of ignorance.

    Much has been said about the myth of Eden and the creation of humanity as embodied in Genesis 1 and 2. The great 'test' to which Adam and Eve are subjected (and which they fail) has been related to the birth of consciousness, the transition from life evolving out of behavior based on instinct to one involving self-awareness, and the development of concepts of conscience and moral decision-making. Such insights may to some extent be valid, but how much of this meaning was really present in the subconscious or instinctual wisdom of the fashioners of these myths and how much of it is simply being brought to them today, given our own modern knowledge and dispositions? To what extent are we reading more into them than is actually there? And how much else is tied up in the mix which has a less honorable origin? Eve's creation out of Adam, and her responsibility for the Fall, is hardly reflective of a timeless truth or insight into the true nature of reality, but is simply an expression of the prejudices and misogyny of a patriarchal society, of the priests who actually wrote this stuff in the first place (or reworked them from earlier myths of other peoples). This is myth born, at least in part, out of prejudice and the primitiveness of society.

    I am not seeking to place Harpur's grand myth of the divine within the human into some sordid category, but it is no less an embodiment of personal and cultural dispositions. The ancient Egyptians may well have been the first to generate the idea that humans were not the playthings of gods and spirits, not vulnerable to their whims and inscrutable requirements, needing constant attention and placating lest misfortune and doom befall a helpless humanity, but rather that we were intimately linked with them, possessing even a part of their natures. Such a linkage would guarantee a favorable disposition on the part of the gods toward their spiritual offspring. The human mind has always found it difficult, if not impossible, to accept death as final, an extinguishing of the light of awareness, and thus a humanity that possessed a portion of the immortal spirit of the gods would not have to undergo such an extinction. If spirit and the gods lived in a perfect heaven, those who possessed part of their nature could leave this imperfect, cruel world and attain such a place and destiny. To bring about all this (for knowledge of such things and their attainment could not be a simple matter) the creators and philosophers of myth had to envision a process and an agent of salvation, the portion or emanation of God which not only had been appointed to empower it all but to dwell as God's representative in the human being to transform the prison of the body into a temple of the Divinity. These are myths born of wishful thinking. That they have proven to be so universal in one form or another is hardly surprising.

    If myth is the embodiment of ultimate, subconsciously-recognized reality, why has it failed to recognize some important dimensions of reality, as discovered in the modern age? Primary among these is evolution, and with it the principle of a naturalistic universe—none of which is even remotely present in the mythology of the ancient world, and certainly not in the Judaeo-Christian variety. Modern science has uncovered nothing so much as the realization that this is an impersonally functioning universe, without conscious direction on the part of any entity, let alone a benevolent deity concerned with saving us from his own creation. Nature, as science has revealed it, gives support to none of the value judgments human cultures have tended to make about the worth of the world, the importance of human life, the existence of evil, and so on. (Such conundrums led ancient gnosticism to conclude that the universe was not God's own creation, but that of an evil sub-god, a "Demiurge" whose misguided work the true God needed to counter and rescue us from.)

The Future of Myth

    Thus, myth was an embodiment of the experiences of ancient and primitive peoples and reflected a range of insight, prejudice and need (intellectual and emotional) in their own cultures. We cannot speak of it as necessarily embodying fact or reality. To the extent that it may sometimes do so, it can suffer from being improperly interpreted and applied—to the detriment of the society that embraces those myths, as we know all too well even today. Tom Harpur makes a good case that the long history of literalist Christianity has made something out of the Jesus myth—and biblical myth in general—which has wreaked havoc in many areas of progress and enlightenment. But how much better is his alternative, his championing of the ancient root he and others have perceived behind the traditional Christian myth? Are we going to be better off pursuing it and applying it to our personal and collective interpretation of the world and our place within it? Will we improve our lives, our environment, our understanding of reality, by continuing to postulate a supernatural realm for which there is no evidence, continuing to impute a divine dimension to ourselves, links with non-existent gods and spirit forces? Do we strengthen our pride and self-esteem by extrapolating all that is good in humanity onto an external, idealized entity? Will our world receive the attention it needs and deserves, let alone be brought peace and happiness and harmony, by our insistence yet again that we are destined for some glorious, pie-in-the-sky afterlife, an attitude which can only lead to the eclipse and neglect of the world we do live in?

    The problem with Tom Harpur's view of reality is that it perpetuates the ill effects that religion has always brought us, regardless of the degree of 'enlightenment' we claim for it. Harpur speaks of our "dual nature" (human and divine), but what does that tell us except that we are split in two? How are we to understand, how resolve, that duality? How do we even know and study it? Only one half of this duality is accessible through science and reason, through objective empirical knowledge. The other half is entirely subjective, supposedly intuitive and mystical, inaccessible to verification and experimental investigation. It is open to all manner of misunderstanding and conflict, to different interpretations that cannot be resolved by objective means. In a radio interview about his book last year, Harpur remarked that in an increasingly pluralistic society we can no longer hold to religious doctrines that rigidly categorize people as saved and unsaved according to the dogmas they hold and the established religions they follow. I couldn't agree more. But in his continued championing of a divine dimension to reality and human nature, has he simply adopted a different brand of interpretation and dogma about the nature of that spiritual dimension and what it requires of us? More sophisticated and enlightened he may claim it to be, but has it not thereby become more inaccessible to many people, some of whom have difficulty coping even with the more literalist views of salvation and the supernatural? This is hardly going to eradicate divisiveness and uncertainty.

    This philosophy of duality encourages us to believe in things that cannot be confirmed, that cannot be objectively verified. What a Pandora's box! If we imagine a spiritual dimension, inhabited by divinity, how far do we go in populating it? Angels? Demons? Astrological forces governing our fates? Convenient entities to explain evil, suffering? Where and how do we draw the line? If there are no built-in objective parameters, how can we impose any limits? More insanity has been created in the human mind by the imaginings of otherworldly forces, more suffering inflicted on others as a consequence, than just about anything else in the catalogue of history.

    Matter and spirit. The knowable and the unknowable, the verifiable and the unverifiable. Do we want to chain ourselves forever to this incompatible team of horses, each animal straining in a different direction, only one of them running on solid ground, only one visible from the driver's bench, only one accessible to the flick of the whip?

    Matter and spirit, body and soul. The two halves of such a duality are never equal. One will inevitably suffer at the hands of the other. One will be elevated, one will be denigrated, and where is the harmony, where the peace, in that? Harpur, in that interview I spoke of, as he does in his book, waxed about the symbolism of the cross. Spirit and matter intersecting. Spirit penetrating downward into matter: the Christ, the divine element from heaven, injected into the human. We carry both, like two ingredients in a recipe that can never properly bake. It would be impossible for the human mind to envision them as compatible, peaceable, as belonging naturally together, and the history of this kind of thinking only bears that out. Continuing in the tradition of Orphism, Plato, Gnosticism and Christianity, Harpur extends the symbolism of the cross. Spirit inhabiting flesh is to be on the cross. The soul is imprisoned in the body, suffering upon that cross. Flesh and matter constitute a state of imperfection; they are the cause of pain and misfortune. We must abandon them, gain release from them, rise (literally) above them. We don't belong in this world, in this body of flesh; we are meant for something and somewhere else. And since knowledge and experience and objectivity reside in matter and flesh, the only avenue open to us lies through a realm where none of these things operate, where the only certainty available is through faith. The inevitable result of all this is a permanent fragmentation of the human psyche, an ongoing psychosis, a self-imposed alienation from the world out of which we grew.

    Harpur is still operating in myth, even if he might be said to have penetrated one level deeper, one level closer to reality. And yet, in that respect, might his myth be considered to possess a certain potential? Can something be rescued from it? Let's say that reality entails no divine dimension, no deity or other supernatural forces inhabiting it, that we do not come from such a dimension nor will we be returning to it. No element from that non-existent realm has descended to enter into us. We are not dualistic, but are made up entirely of the components of the physical universe, and we behave and function according to its properties and the inherent capacities of the complex assemblage of its elements. Our perceptions, our emotions, our intellect, our moral values, are products of an ever-increasingly sophisticated evolution of that assemblage. Our self-awareness is another of these products, and really belongs to the universe itself. It is the means by which the universe has evolved to become aware of itself, and in this way of seeing things the awareness we carry does not cease and face oblivion after individual death. We have placed nothing outside the universe's visible boundaries, given it no hidden dimensions or attributes; nothing is inaccessible to our investigation and understanding. We have postulated no entity who operates by laws outside those by which we ourselves function. And our own evolution, as an integral part of the evolution of the universe, is open-ended, possibly without limit: but always within naturalistic boundaries, which are really no boundary at all, since the natural encompasses everything. Could it be that Tom Harpur's myth, and those of the ancients he appeals to, might be seen as a pointer to such a reality? Has the universe's own 'subconscious' been groping to explain itself, to itself?

    I will leave that determination, an exercise more exhilarating than anything the ancients could have envisioned, to the reader's own devices.

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