Summer 2005 - Volume 8 Number 3
The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light
Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2004
Young people are, understandably, uncertain about matters of faith. Whether or not teachers should become embroiled in religious controversies, it is inevitable that some will. Teachers in the humanities, the social and the natural sciences cannot and ought not to avoid such issues.
In the Occident, it has long been an assumption among progressive intellectuals that the age of faith was nearing its end. Philosophers and social commentators, beginning with Hobbes and Hume and becoming more explicit through Voltaire, Marx and Freud, seemed to agree that religion was a product of immature human minds and that, in time, it would be put aside as our species embraced science as the principal epistemology and left superstition and wishful thinking behind. A telling instance of this trend comes, of course, from the work of Ludwig Feuerbach, who took "Hegelian philosophy [to be] the last magnificent attempt to restore Christianity, which was lost and wrecked, through philosophy and, indeed, to restore Christianityas is generally done in the modern eraby identifying it with the negation of Christianity" (Quoted in Harvey, 2003). Feuerbach believed that Hegel's desperate attempt to rescue Europe's dominant religion through the application of reason was doomed to failure. It was the frantic final gasp of an exhausted mythology, a superstition too much at odds with objective, scientific understanding to survive.
Though many critics empathized with those who felt psychologically ill at ease at the discovery that we are alone in an uncaring universe, a mere historical contingency of biological evolution on a small planet, some said that Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of God was a singular liberating moment in the history of humanity. While the question of whether God's death was to be celebrated or lamented, however, a growing proportion of the literate and educated population came to understand that the demise of the deity was a fact that would increasingly be accepted as irreversibly truth.
Disputes between science and religion remain forcefully in play. For instance, recent public opinion polls in the United States vary, according to the specific question asked, but all agree that an extraordinary proportionroughly 40%of the people in what is arguably the most technologically sophisticated society on Earth does not "believe in" evolution and that 60% or more support the teaching of "intelligent design." These are not mere backwoods Bible-thumpers speaking. They also include individuals who personally approve of scientific studies, but also believe that "fair play" is warranted in a free society and think that both sides of this issue should be heard. Sifting through this debate makes for disconcerting results.
Even progressive educator Neil Postman urged a sort of equal time for both Darwinism and Creationism, confident, I am sure, that the truth would prevail, but happy to give each side its due; conversely, conservative columnist John Derbyshire writes that President Bush's endorsement of teaching Intelligent Design represents the president "at his muddle-headed worst ... Does the president have any idea, does he have any idea, how many varieties of pseudoscientific flapdoodle there are in the world? If you are going to teach one, why not teach the rest?" (Derbyshire, 2005).
This, says a putative conservative, "is Bush ... conferring all the authority of the presidency on the teaching of pseudoscience in science classes. Why stop with Intelligent Design? Why not teach the little ones dowsing and Velikovskianism? The Secrets of the Great Pyramid, ESP and the hollow-earth theory?
Would the same kind of equanimity would be accorded to astrologers (vs. astronomers) or advocates of Aryan-only ideologies. Apparently it would, since "academic freedom" policies have recently been implemented in colleges (my own included) that permit religious opinions to confront scientific studies when those studies cause people of faith to feel distress.
That aside, it is plain that the influence of religious commitment is not limited to al-Qaeda, "Hindu nationalists," or people caught in struggles over property and power such as those inhabiting the so-called "holy lands" or (we may hope) the contested areas of Northern Ireland. Although generations of secular humanists may have foreseen and foretold the demise of religious faith, it is still with us and held firm by people from all points on the political spectrum, from all geographical areas and from all ethnic origins.
The reluctance of religion to go quietly from the human scene is, of course, partly the result of conscientious efforts on the part of religious institutions and "charismatic" leaders to recruit young people into traditional religious organization as witnessed, of course, by the popularity of the late Pope John Paul II. Another stream of potential religious revival comes from what are generally called "liberal" theologians.
My own abandonment of Christianity was held in abeyance by the works of men such as German theologian Paul Tillich (The Courage to Be) and Anglican Bishop John A. T. Robinson (Honest to God). Their willingness to accept the inevitable reformulations of faith in light of modern science seemed, in the late 1950s and early 1960s to be gracious and commendable work. More recent reformersmany centred at Stanford University's "Jesus Seminar"have done extraordinary service in their "quest for the historical Jesus." Likewise, the Internet has been used to great advantage by individuals such as retired Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong. What these people have in common is a willingness to discard large parts of the Christian heritage and doctrine up to and including the virgin birth, the miracles and the resurrection in an effort to grasp what is essential about the teachings of the Christ and not get bogged down in preposterous superstitions. For them, Jesus was a great teacher whose spiritual message ought not to be sullied by unsupportable stories from a less skeptical age. So, Barbara Thiering recounts the story of Jesus as a mission to expand Judaic monotheism by bringing the faith to the Gentiles and, specifically, to the Romans. Apparently it worked; for within a very short historical time, the entire Empire had converted to a variation on this small Middle Eastern faith. Others cite Greek and even Zoroastrian influences. The life of Jesus as an Essene Jew, as a Hellenized Cynic, and as the carrier of an evangelical tradition that sought to reformulate Talmudic teachings in ways that would appeal to the larger world are stories that need to be told, discussed and debated.
Canada has a significant contributor to the ongoing conversation in the person of Tom Harpur. He goes a step further. No matter how intriguing debates about the historical Jesus may be, he says, all the research into his life, teaching and death is essentially beside the point.
Was Jesus born of a virgin? Did he perform miracles? Did he die on a cross? Was he resurrected? My answer is "No" to all of them. I also do not much care. Harpur, I think, agrees with me, but he does care ... at least enough to try to convince Christians that they should not waste breath debating such matters. Tom Harpur is eager to share the sense of God within all of us. He is open to all religious traditions. He knows a lot more about ancient beliefs in places such as Egypt and Persia than I (and probably you) will ever know. He knows a lot about India and China. He has a genuine reverence for the ways in which other cultures have tried to sort out what people are, what people should do and what (if anything) is the meaning of human life. Good for him! Tom Harpur's work over many years has been to give people a sense of spiritual purpose and a hope of redemption. No small task!
This book deals with Christianity as mythology. Harpur follows the lead of Alvin Boyd Kuhn, who seems to have taught Tom Harpur a lot. As you read this, chances are that I will be snuggled away in a library reading Alvin Boyd Kuhn. Tom Harpur likes him and that is good enough for me.
I don't, however, like Tom Harpur much. The reason has nothing to do with his theological opinions. It has to do with the fact that in a local dispute over development in an environmentally sensitive area (the Oak Ridges moraine in southern Ontario), Mr. Harpur took the side of the developers and (living in the same area) I did not. I think Tom Harpur brings much comfort to the spiritually afflicted. I applaud him for that. As for building residential subdivisions on wetlands, God will get him for that!Works Cited Derbyshire, J. (2005, August 30). Teaching science: The president is wrong on intelligent design. National Review Online. Retrieved 30 August, 2005.
Harvey, V. (2003, Winter). Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Zalta, E. [Ed.]. Retrieved 1 August, 2005. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2003/entries/ludwig-feuerbach/
Howard A. Doughty teaches philosophy and evolutionary biology at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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