Part VI: Tom Harpur
Dissent, as noted, comes in many forms and disguises. It is certainly a most popular pastime in the academic world. The very atmosphere of academia – so it seems – favours debunking and dissent in general.
If at one time – let us say, deep in the nineteenth century – it was thought that truth could and would emerge after the clash of many opinions – not many still hold such a position today. This is now regarded as naïve and passé, what matters, it is said, is to recognize that all views are merely opinions and that all opinions should be allowed their place under the sun. One opinion is as good as another. The supreme virtue is to be tolerant of all of them.
Aside from academics, the most persistent and determined adherents of the “all-opinions-are-equal” syndrome are the communications media. Their very mode of operation in news reports interviews is based on not representing one particular line of thought or philosophy. Some of them try to avoid a glaring superficiality by allowing a wider variety of columnists to air personal views in the hope that in the long run these will balance out.
Authentic Christianity (in its major principles) and pro-life, (on the inadmissibility of killing unborn babies) both claim to be absolutely right. The former does so on grounds of being a divinely revealed religion; the latter on grounds of reason, strengthened by religious traditions which, in Canada, means that of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In other words, these views are intolerant. They do not accept that all opinions are equally true or untrue.
Normally, they incur the opprobrium of modern secularists, none more so than in the media, as for example, the Globe and Mail. This newspaper strenuously endorses the view that secular society has no place for religious opinions (the paper includes opposition to abortion among them) except in the privacy of heart, home, or church sanctuary. For most newspapers and especially for the Globe, the pluralistic society means a secular society; this denies the right of citizens to have religious convictions affect matters of the public forum (i.e., law and politics). Thus the pluralism-is-secularism philosophy is the bitter enemy of true pluralism. In a Christian country it is the avowed opponent of Christianity.
Academia acts in a similar manner. In the sixties, universities seemed to make a major leap forward by permitting the academic study of religion in Departments of Religious Studies (RS). Many did so for the first time, this having been unheard of until then. But much of it proved illusory because of two conditions: that the only study permitted be comparative religion and that the teaching be “secular.” That excluded studying the Judeo-Christian Revelation precisely as a divinely revealed religion. It also prohibited hiring professors who shared this belief and who desired to pass it on to their students. This was rejected indignantly as “sectarianism: and “proselytizing.”
Consequently, no Catholic priest, for example, was engaged anywhere in Canada at universities which did not have some sort of institutional Catholic presence. However, ex-priests were much in demand at universities in Edmonton and Calgary, Kingston and Halifax, Ottawa and Montreal, it being a time when a number of them became available for such posts. Their departure from the priesthood was counted as proof of their autonomy and independence from the shackles of Roman authoritarianism.
One of the first to be hired was a former priest from England, Charles David, who came to Edmonton in 2967. In his book A Question of Conscience (1966), he had noted that “the present Roman Catholic Church is no longer a credible embodiment of Christian faith, hope and love. It has become a zone of untruth,” Three years later in 1970, after moving to Concordia in Montreal, le let it be known in an interview that the Catholic Church was doomed because it had not come to terms with modern culture, a view to which G. Emmett Carter, then Bishop of London, felt drawn to respond as displaying an “incredible bad sense of history.”
Opinions such those of Charles Davis fitted departments of religious studies. Secular, in the eyes of its proponents, stood for objectivity and science, while RS in denominational institutions was supposed to be subjective and sectarian. With this judgment hanging over their heads, the latter felt that they, too ought to hire more secular minded academics, including those who recently had opposed Church decisions.
One anomaly of not hiring believing Christians was that some RS departments offered may courses on Eastern, Far Eastern, Judaic and native Indian religions, as well as on the bible as literature, but next to nothing on Christianity. In 1977, the RS department at the University of Alberta, for example, listed some 80 courses in the calendar, only three or four of which had any relevance to Christianity, a strange situation in a country where over 90 per cent claimed to belong to that religion. But under the circumstances, it was just as well.
Another feature of the emphasis on secularity was the ludicrous phenomenon of atheists teaching religious studies. In at least three universities, Windsor, Kingston and Carleton in Ottawa, such self-professed atheists occupied the headship of RS departments at one time or another.
One person who aptly illustrates the prevailing religious milieu in both the academic and the media world is Tom Harpur of Toronto. Those who live elsewhere and who never heard of him should not feel in the least disadvantaged.
Harpur is a lecturer in communications at the Toronto School of Theology (TST). He was a Rhodes scholar, a former professor of New Testament at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto, a former religion editor of the Toronto Star, a former ordained Anglican minister, whose former marriage was replaced a few years ago by a new one to this former secretary. He is an author (Heaven and Hell, 1982; for Christ’s Sake,1986); a radio broadcaster heard across the country as well as weekly columnist for Canada’s largest newspaper, the Toronto Star (Sunday edition over half a million; Saturday’s over 800,000). In other words, he reaches a very large audience.
Harpur writes well, that is , in that lively and provocative style which caricatures persons and ideas of substance and then demolishes the caricature with great relish, much to the amusement and, no doubt, approbation of thousands of readers. Within an anti-traditional generation. Harpur is a spokesman of the age. While his columns cover a variety of subjects, whenever he deals with religion – which is frequently – he attacks or descries one or other feature, usually that of Christianity.
Harpur’s main target is religious orthodoxy. It is almost as if he has devoted himself to demolishing authentic Christianity. Christians, he believes, have obscured Christ’s central message of love by a clutter of uncalled for doctrines, creeds and dogmas. The Virgin birth is a myth. To speak of the divinity of Christ, he say is “Jesuolatry.”
Harpur does not believe in the Trinity. He sees God “as the ground of being or the cosmic mind.” He writes of the “Divine Spirit” and calls it “the most powerful energy in the universe.” It is certainly not the Spirit known by Christians as the third person of the Trinity. For Christians this person is the Holy Spirit, but as Harpur is not fond of the idea that people are sinners, holiness makes little sense to him. His “spirit” is some impersonal force, akin perhaps to the field of energy which overcomes the force of darkness in the move Star Wars.
Naturally, then, there is no Divine Providence either. Harpur believes that human lives are run by “change or random luck.” As for religion in general, it has an “ambiguous nature,” with a “propensity to increase intolerance, even violence.”
Harpur bridles most at what he calls Christianity’s “absolutist” view of God and truth. Not believing in any absolutes (except the one which condemns all absolutes) he especially doesn’t believe in anything which smacks of punishment, such as Satan or hell. These are only constructs of those who have created a “cruel God.” Another result of the “absolutist” view he feels, is that “it enshrines and anti-female bias in the heart of metaphysical reality.”
On Easter 1986, the Star allotted Harpur space for two large articles, “What the Cross Means” (Easter Saturday) and “The Resurrection” (Easter Day) – both extracts from his latest book. They were in addition to his normal Sunday column.
The gist of the first article was that while orthodox traditionalists see the Cross as part of God’s plan “taking away the world’s sins and opening the way of life here and the age to com…theologians down the ages have (failed) to make sense of the idea.” The “rank crudity of the blood references are off-putting to reasonable people and in reality, “the whole blood-sacrifice myth comes directly from some of the most primitive religious thinking known to the ancient world.”
Having left the impression that the whole idea is barbaric nonsense. Harpur explains the true meaning of the death of Jesus.
Its purpose is “to make known the inner secret of the cosmos” that there is a Creator God whose essence is forgiving, all embracing love. “Gods redemptive spirit is at work everywhere, there are no limits to God’s willingness to forgive and pardon.” Moreover, “his love is such that there is nothing we can ever do to put ourselves beyond its healing reach.”
The implication is clear, there is no such thing as sin – let alone unforgivable sin – or hell, or holiness, or need of a divine Saviour.
A second major falsehood follows logically upon the first. Christ’s concern with the poor, he writes, “makes acceptance by God dependent not on right doctrine or correct ritual observance but on having done the will of the Father regarding the poor.”
It is a popular and frequently heard argument. One can be a Christian without benefit of clergy or Church.
Jesus not Divine
Harpur’s second article, “The Resurrection,” (Easter Sunday) is cut from the same cloth. Does the Resurrection prove that Jesus was God? Traditional Christianity say yes. But this, Harpur tells us in a complete distortion, part of the “jesuolatry” of a “traditional Christianity” which preaches “a deity masquerading as a man who only pretended to die.”
Scripture is clear, Harpur states, Jesus is only a normal human being, and as Paul shows (1 Cor. 15-10) we will be raised just like Jesus not by “some innate immortality of the soul, but by an act of God.” Jesus’ new body, his resurrected body, was not the body that had lain in the tomb. It is a kind of “soul traveler.”
One wonders why Jesus showed his astonished disciples his hands and feet after his resurrection, saying “Touch me, see for yourselves” (Lk. 24:39), or told the unbelieving Thomas one week later “Put your finger here; look, here are my hands” (Jn. 20:27). But statements such as these do not inhibit Tom Harpur. Jesus’ whole historical existence, he tells us, was “quickly surrounded by mythological overlays and interpretations.” Additions such as in Matthew’s Chapters 26, 27 and 28 are nothing but “legendary embroidery.” F. W. Beare, professor emeritus, Trinity College Toronto, one of his mentors, has said so himself.
What is one to think of a newspaper which publishes such all-out attacks on Christianity? (Not to mention doing so on Christianity’s high holy day). Anti-Christian? Well, no: after all, isn’t the author himself a Christian? And surely, a little secularism doesn’t harm anyone does it? At any rate, if you don’t agree, you may send the editor a letter. Please restrict yourself to no more than 200 words and preferably, keep it down to 50.
The articles very clearly are part of a set editorial view. Witness the Easter Sunday editorial in the same paper entitled “Christians and Jews seek reconciliation.” It was based on Rabbi Stuart Rosenberg’s new book Christians and Jews: The eternal Bond. The rabbi holds that much of the account of Jesus’ passion and death was written not by those who were there, but later on revisionist historians who molded the material to suit their bitterness against the Jews. This, the Toronto Star editorialist declares, is obviously the correct view. As for Christianity, “its roots in Rome, perpetuated the myth that it was the Jews who collectively killed Christ.”
Orthodox Christians, who believe that the Scriptures are Sacred Scriptures, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, do not honour the interpretation that the Scriptures are products of bile and acrimony. Nor do they have to admit the charge that the Church has deceived mankind for these last 2000 years. However, the point here is not to enter a new discussion but to note the resemblance of the editorial’s arguments (and the Rabbi’s) with those of Tom Harpur: in their view the New Testament, however impressive it may be in some respects, is only a human document of uncertain authority. This view is now widespread among many, including professors and teachers of religion.
Tom Harpur’s non-Christianity is clearly influential and popular. That is why the Star employs him. It is the reason why the Ottawa Citizen allowed him to publicize his latest book by giving him half a page to say Jesus never claimed to be God (February 15, 1986).
Some reviewers panned Harpur’s book For Christ’s Sake as pop theology (Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Sun, Windsor Star). But others approved it. Ray Bonisteel of TV’s Man Alive reviews it in the Toronto Star (February 9) and thought it “most beneficial” reading. Reginal Stackhouse, a former colleague from Wycliffe and now M.P. (PC Scarborough West), reviewed it for the Globe and believed it an opportunity “to go beyond the platitudes” of both theological “right” and “left.” Catholic teacher Al Sawatzky writing for the Catholic New Times (May 4), called it “a strong and compelling appeal to abandon the intolerance and self-righteousness of man-made orthodox Christian positions and to listen to a fresh way to the words of Jesus.” (To its credit, the CNT also published an article in the same issue which panned the Harpur theology in no uncertain terms).
Some Jewish reviewers too liked what they saw. Rabbis Don Marmur (August 21) and Gunther Plaut (September 4), writing in the Canadian Jewish News, both thought that if Christianity were to be reformed according to the Harpur model, much good might be achieved. Naturally, they both liked Harpur’s idea that Jesus is not the Messiah, and not divine, but only a pious Jew.
Clearly, they are not the only ones attracted by the Star’s Pied Piper. In the past year Harpur was invited to give a major address at St. Paul’s University and Catholic Faculty of Theology in Ottawa. More recently, in October 1986, he was invited to speak at St. Jerome’s Catholic College in Waterloo. On the weekend of September 19-20, his audience was the Canadian Association of Separated and Divorced Catholics in Toronto, with the topic “An end to religion?” Why would he be invited to speak at these gatherings if not out of appreciation for his opinions.
Let us return to the issue of “absolutist” corruptions. By this, as noted, Harpur means belief in firm truth and doctrine. That he is dissenter in religion is not in doubt. Some decades ago, he would have been recognized straightforwardly as a heretic. On consulting the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, a work produced by Anglican scholars, one reads:
Heresy – The formal denial or doubt of any defined doctrines of the Catholic faith…From the earliest days the Church has claimed teaching authority and consequently condemned heresy following Christ’s command: “If he refuse to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as the Gentile and the publican” (Mt. 18:17).
Denying the divinity of Christ is rejecting a defined doctrine.
Harpur does not merely disagree with religious leaders on doctrine; he disagrees every time they defend any particular teaching at all. The titles of his articles often suffice to indicate the content. On August 10, 1986, it was “The Pope’s stand on women is not supported by the Bible.”
The reader learns that the Pope’s reasons for opposing women’s ordination are purely social and emotional because he doesn’t know anything about women, let alone about modern democratic women, and he doesn’t know anything about the bible either. Is one permitted to smile? One may recall that the supposedly ignorant Pope is the author of such books as Love and Responsibility (late 50s), Fruitful and Responsible Love (1979), and Original Unity of Man and Woman, a Catechesis on the Book of Genesis (1981).
On May 25, 1986, Harpur’s column read: “Is the Vatican conducting another Grand Inquisition?” and on October 5: “American Catholics; Are they a target of their Pope? Both refer to the Vatican’s request of Father Charles Curran to abandon his dissenting views in moral theology. If you wish to know Harpur’s conclusion, simply drop the question marks and reverse the order of subject ad verb.
If love alone suffices, moral absolutes, especially those saying no, are insufferable. Consequently, Harpur did not hesitate to reject Cardinal’s Carter’s December 1984 rejection of abortion (following the decision to appeal Morgentaler’s acquittal) – as nothing but “an emotional diatribe.” Two months earlier, on October 14, Pope John Paul’s September 1984 visit to Canada had reminded Harpur, that “to force one’s own limited moral views on a pluralist society is religious tyranny.” The idea that a true marriage must remain open to procreation, is nothing but the Vatican’s “intransigence over artificial means of birth control (which) remains a key impediment to a humane curb on population…” The Pope’s attitude in this matter, he told his readers, is utterly callous and “his natural law (theory) is killing thousands by hunger in Ethiopia…”
Naturally, Harpur has an explanation for people like Cardinal Carter and Pope John Paul II, “Having observed religious institutions all over the globe,” he stated on March 3, 1985, “I can discover some deeper roots of repressed anger in the opposition to liberal abortion laws…the main factor behind the opposition to contraceptives, abortion, women priests, and an end to compulsory celibacy for clergy, is one of power, of control over the lives of the faithful.”
If Harpur does not hesitate to verbally assault religious leaders, one hardly dare inquire about his feelings on pro-life activists. These, he tells us, are utterly “fanatical;” they are “anti-choice” absolutists; they are “full resentment” and “violent.” (March 3, 1985). Indeed, he stated on another occasion, they are like all those who believe that “the wages of sin is death” (November 24, 1985). Compare also July 28, 1985, and other columns. Jesus, he assured them by way of expostulation, saw fear, not sin, as humanity’s real foe.” (December 23, 1984).
Just as Harpur’s “Christianity” is popular with some, so is his rejection of the traditional standards of sexual morality. The question how many cases of doctrinal heresy are the result of deviant sexual behaviour rather than its cause, must, I suppose, remain unanswered. But in an age of revolutionary changes in sexual-family morality, anti-orthodox convictions on sexual morality cannot but be a powerful force for disintegration in all areas of human endeavour. At any rate, Harpur’s attacks on sexual moral standards are fully shared by fellow Star writers Lois Sweet, Doris Anderson, Lynda Hurst and Rev. Bruce McLeod, former moderator of the United Church. They are also reflected in the editorial policies of the paper itself. The Star demands greater “accessibility” to abortions and supports enshrining legal protection for homosexual activity in Human Rights Acts.
What does Harpur think of Canada’s leading abortionist? Answer: He sees him to be a great man. Writing in defence of legalized abortion on November 25, 1984, Harpur cleared his mind on Morgentaler:
“I will venture to prophesy that history will one day count him among the pioneers of a truly human, truly moral social environment in this country.” He represents the view that the private conscience is supreme and “this means ultimately the right to be wrong.”
Did Harpur truly envisage the possibility that Morgentaler’s (“Up to five months or so we don’t speak of a baby; we call it a project”) might be wrong? One may doubt it. Probably the question was meant to be a rhetorical flourish to end the sentence. Those in pursuit of truth know there is no such thing as “a right to be wrong,” just as there cannot be a right to kill unborn babies.
Meanwhile, the article was so well liked by Canada’s most public pro-abortion politician, the NDP Svend Robinson, that he quoted it at length in the House of Commons a year later (Hansard, October 28, 1985). Robinson specifically drew the attention to fellow MPs to the fact that the author “lectures at the Toronto School of Theology.”
Why, one may ask, is Tom Harpur a lecturer at TST, a federation of supposedly Christian colleges? What would chemistry students think of a School of Chemistry hiring as lecturer a person who spent most of his time denouncing chemistry for polluting the country’s earth, eater and air? Surely they would feel cheated and good sense would quickly force such a teacher out on the street. Is it that god sense is in short supply as the ecumenical conglomeration of the TST? Is it that Tom Harpur fits the mold so well that no one even notices what he has to say? Is it both?
Before leaving Tom Harpur, let us read what Scripture has to say about Jesus:
He is the image of the unseen God and the first born of all creation, for in Him were created all things in heaven and earth.
And all things to be reconciled through Him and in Him, everything in heaven and everything on earth when He made peace by His death on the cross.
The series “Sexual Revolution, Feminism and the Churches” aims at informing readers of difficulties faced by the Pro-life movement among those whom it likes to regard as its natural allies: the Churches.
It seeks to bring a clearer understanding of how various trends, especially secularism, have affected religious thinking in Canada during the last 25-years. Because the series concentrates on difficulties, this better understanding must come first in a stripping away of illusions and a shedding of false expectations.
In the political arena it has taken Pro-lifers almost two decades to realize that all three existing parties are committed to a pro-abortion position. Notwithstanding promises and declarations made by individual politicians who claim to be pro-life. Closer inspection of these claims has shown that sincere and committed pro-life politicians are few and the courageous among them are fewer still; and that those prepared to sacrifice party favours for principle may be counted on the fingers of one hand.
A more realistic view of the political scene is leading many pro-life supporters to re-think their acceptance of the existing political scene in Canada. Moves are being made to enter upon new political ventures. If we cannot continue as we are and refuse to give up, then of necessity many feel that we must try new avenues. The same applies to Pro-life’s relationship with the Churches.
The first two parts of the series dealt with the United Church (April 1985), and the Anglicans (May). Parts three to five concerned Roman Catholic dissent or confusion with respect to academic institutions (June), marriage and homosexuality (July/August), and moral theologians (September). Both before, and printed concurrently with the series were other articles which touched upon related issues such as secular feminism, problems with some American Catholic nuns, and with the American moral theologian Charles Curran.
The concluding articles of this series will continue to probe the same issues, but in a slightly different context. Indifference towards pro-life priorities among those who claim to represent religious views – which in this series refers exclusively to Christianity – must have its cause in some theological development or other.
The key – as we have implied already – is dissent from authentic Christian doctrine. But dissent comes in many forms and many disguises. Sometimes it is open and brazen; at other times it is more the result of a certain one-sidedness in outlook and action. Again, dissent may appear vigorously in one area of religious activity; yet be absent in others.
With this in mind, the remaining parts of this series will treat briefly of three areas in contemporary church life which seem to cause special problems for both authentic Christianity and the pro-life stand in Canada: academic ecumenism, ideological feminism and one-sided interpretations of social justice. It starts by examining the views of a single person as indicative of the problems.