A life in search of Christian truth
Tom Harpur's seminal 2004 book, The Pagan Christ, challenged the existence of a historical Jesus and took readers well beyond the bounds of conventional Christian doctrine.
His new memoir, Born Again: My Journey from
Fundamentalism to Freedom (Thomas Allen Publishers, Toronto), could well bring Harpur back to the fold, or at least bring the fold closer to him. So much has happened since The Pagan Christ, to conventional doctrine and to Christendom.
Advocates for agnosticism and atheism have since overtaken popular discourse about theology. Tom Harpur is neither of these, as his memoir clearly demonstrates.
Born Again describes in efficient, engaging prose a life-long search for the divine. It places its author quite clearly within the context of humanity's traditional urge for spirituality.
"My deepest intuition from earliest days . . . is that we, each of us come from divinity and we are destined to return to God again," he writes in one of the memoir's concluding chapters.
His text expresses belief in life after death, the value of prayer, in God and the spirit of God. Harpur maintains his critique of religious literalism while using capital letters on God words, in all the right places.
He is an ordained Anglican priest and former University of Toronto theology professor. Now 80, Harpur lives near Georgian Bay in rural central Ontario. His 2004 international bestseller challenging Christian orthodoxy notwithstanding, he may still be best known as a controversial, former religion editor and columnist at the Toronto Star.
Until the early 1970s, Harpur pursued the conventional path of a career-minded, professional clergyman of the mid- 20th Century. He had a wife, three children and a booming parish in suburban Toronto. He married and buried parishioners, counseled them against their anxieties and presided over the construction of a modern sanctuary to meet the needs of a growing community.
Indeed, he was something of a priestly paragon.
A prize-winning student of Latin and ancient Greek, Harpur experienced an early religious calling nurtured by devout, evangelical, Irish Protestant parents. As an undergraduate in Classics at the University of Toronto, he combined scholarship with athletics and northern Canada mission work to earn a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. He pursued further, post-graduate studies in religious matters at Oxford.
His studies began raising conflicts for Harpur, however, mainly concerning the complex identity of Christ and the roots of Christian religion. These conflicts were sufficiently powerful to derail his expected career path. In mid-life, he launched what became a very successful career in journalism.
The new book -which follows 2007's Water Into Wine -documents twists in Harpur's search for God and identifies them as the inevitable continuation of his earliest spiritual inclinations. It's a deftly-written, 250-page biographical essay that touches on highlights of a career spent near the heart of religious life after 2000 years of the Christian era.
The book reads at times like the script for some eventual Tom Harpur, stand-up routine: Baptisms of squalling infants, what to do with the leftover sacramental wine, the confusing imagery of the Eucharist itself. He also writes poignantly about his priesthood, particularly his first funeral for a three-year-old child killed accidentally under the wheels of her grandfather's tractor.
Readers learn of Harpur's love for the practice of journalism and the opportunities it provided him to explore the world during more than 14 years on staff at Canada's largest newspaper. The memoir includes passages reflecting on those days.
There is a renewed critique of the authoritarianism of Pope John Paul II. There are also passages expressing deep admiration for religious practitioners whose actions embodied the compassionate teachings Harpur sees at the core of all religious traditions: Mother Teresa, Jean Vanier and the Scottish preacher, George MacLeod, who founded the Iona community in northern Scotland.
Harpur also explains his ith and his optimism about the continuing role of organized religion in human affairs. It is an argument that God cannot be confined by doctrine and by literary accounts of the divine.
His belief "in the dimension of being that most of us call God is stronger than ever," Harpur writes. "All language about God and the activity of God's Spirit is first and foremost that of symbol, of metaphor, of verbal imagery, of poetry, music and art."
"The ultimate dimension of reality (which is as close as words can come) cannot be conceived of," he says.
With this book, Harpur calls on organized religion to raise its sights from the limitations of scripture to look for God in the evidence of a larger creation - the universe itself.
Jim Algie lives and writes in Owen Sound.