Thursday, 11 March 2010

Christian Antecedents - The Pagan Christ

This Blog is excited tonight. I have nearly finished reading Tom Harpur's "The Pagan Christ - Is blind faith Killing Christianity". Its subtitle is "Recovering the Lost Light". Its that I want to review tonight.

However, at our Progressive Christianity Network Britain session tonight we were looking at the Jesus Seminar's work in 'de-mythologising' the Gospels - basically how they concluded that very little of the New Testament is presenting the actual words of an historical 'Jesus'.  To learn more about the Seminar's approach check out, "The Five Gospels" - link here:

I was a bit of a pain to my colleagues, because I had been excitedly reading "The Pagan Christ" and was trying to point out the differences and points of converegence of the two approaches.

As I see it, the Jesus Seminar was primarily composed of scholars who bought in to the view that the gospels carry much that, to the modern mind, would be regarded as 'myth'. So, to make sense of them we need a thoroughgoing process of de-mythologising. Hence the search to draw out from the "myth" a core of sayings that reflect the words of a 'Jesus of history'. Unsurprisingly the scholars found very few sayings to be authentic and ranked as definite "red letter" words of Jesus.

By contrast Tom Harpur is one of a growing number of scholars who would, rather, want Christians to be into a process of re-mythologising the Gospels. Tom Harpur argues that, "to take the Gospels literally as history or biography is to utterly miss their inner spiritual meaning." He calls for a return to an "inclusive religion" capable of helping us, "regain a true understanding of  who we are, and are intended to be." The Jesus Seminar, in seeking to de-mythologise, and thus downplay the hope of finding clear evidence in the gospels of the words of Jesus as a historical figure, are potentially missing the point. The Gospels are not a history, but a carrier of "story" and "myth" - which needs to be set free to work on our souls.

I love Tom's quote from Dominic Crossan (one of the Jesus Seminar Scholars) in the introduction to Chapter 1, "My point .. is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally." The book's thesis is that, "The Christian Church made a fateful error ... in a competitive bid to win over the greatest number of the unlettered masses", when it took a literalist, popularised, historical approach to sublime truth." "The transcendent meaning of glorious myths and symbols was reduced to a farrago of miraculous or irrelevant, or quite 'unbelievable' events."

Tom Harpur relies heavily for his thesis on earlier books by Gerald Massey and Alvin Khun, which have unearthed amazing parallels between the New Testament and the foreshadowing of almost all the gospel stories in "pagan" sources, often pre-dating the gospel versions by millenia. He sets out how an allegorical, spiritual and mythical approach to the Bible and Christian faith solves the enigmas of scripture and the Christ story, which makes the, "Bible stories come alive".

The heart of his argument is that the ancient world had deep insight, recognising, "our own potential for Christhood, and for experiencing the indwelling spirit of God here and now." The mythos has the power to frame a "cosmic" faith that resonates with the natural world and our humanity. What Harpur has uncovered is that deep similarities exist between Christian beliefs and the earlier Pagan religions. He argues that, "the Bible in general, and the New Testament in particular, actually copy or repeat motifs laid down centuries or millenia before.

He points out that a "true myth" is, "more eternal than its meaning in history". Moses was an Egyptian name and Jesus figures in Egyptian lore as Iusu / Iusa, meaning the "divine Son who heals and saves". There was an Egyptian Christ named "Horus", who had a mother called Isis - forerunners of the Madonna and Child. Other names and place names from Egyptian religion are used in the Bible. Beyond the names and their links is a common theology from across the "pagan" world - based on the Osyris myth - that, "the incarnation of spirit in human flesh" is, "in fact the oldest, most universal mythos known to religion."

We are encouraged to recognise that "myths aren't fairy tales" and that, "myth was the favorite and universal method of teaching in archaic times." Myth, like a Shakespear tragedy or comedy, is capable of carrying universal truth - acted out in ritual, made flesh in story - with no-one in the ancient world blind to the power of myth and story to change people. "The myth itself is fictional (or only loosly tied to history), but the timeless truth it expresses is not."

In this Blog I will conclude by retelling the central "Christ Myth" - the ancient story behind the New Testament themes - all of which are borrowings of the ancient myths previously played out by the "Sun Gods" Osiris and Horus in Egypt or Hercules in Greece. These myths were there to symbolise the point that, "the prime datum is man (humanity)  himself, a spark of the divine fire ... and buried in the flesh of body to support its existence with an unquenchable radiant energy." The ideal person - Adonis, Mithras, Khrishna, Christ, symbolised the divine spark in every human being. Similar myths were universal across other cultures.

The conclusion is that the "myth" of God incarnate is an (almost) human universal - but for the west after Constantine, Christianity forgot its origins and imposed credal belief on the masses, who then burned all the ancient books of wisdom, and set back civiliation by hundreds of years. What Paul and the early Christians knew was a very different faith - in which:
  • Christ is the name given to the presence of God within - "Christ in you, the hope of glory"
  • The Christos is known by many names, present in all humanity
  • Everyone will come to realise his or her spiritual power (as did Jesus at his baptism and Paul on the Damascus road)
  • Doctrines, creeds, dogma and institutional religion has masked the inner light
  • The gospels are a drama about the Christos - with Jesus a symbolic personification
  • Jesus' birth, death and resurrection are events happening within us
  • We must release the divine within to spiritualise our nature - as fragments of God with divine potential
  • Religions and spiritual paths free us to commit to the eternal Christ experience.
Much more can be said, but to me this way of looking at the basis of  Christain faith is truly liberating. It frees us from the literal, to experience afresh the power of story, of universal myth, and the life changing realisation that we are blessed as a spark of God's light, called to live in enlightenment, now and beyond our earthly lives.

John Hetherington - 11th March 2010
[This summary and reflection fully acknowledges the copyright subsisting in, "The Pagan Christ" by Tom Harpur- Walker and Company New York, 2004.]

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