Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Harpur's The Pagan Christ: Myth vs. History

Harpur calls the Gospels myth, but insists this is not the same as calling them a lie. They are spiritual truths, he explains, but not literally true. P. 39: “There was one primal, central myth—originating undoubtedly in Egypt—and all the rest flowed from that.” P. 30: Harpur quotes Kuhn, then explicitly agrees, saying that “no one can make the search and discover these numberless resemblances without forming the conviction that the Bible writings are rescripts, often … corrupted, of antecedent wisdom literature.”

This is the fallacy of the false alternative. They can be both. Not only is this not the only possible explanation for these claimed similarities; it is one explanation that does not work.

What Harpur says about myth is half true. The common use of the term to mean “falsehood” is wrong. “Myth” literally means “story,” but its deeper meaning is those stories that seem to especially resonate with us.

Like Zeus or Herakles, characters like Scrooge or Falstaff or Babbitt are mythic. They seem to resonate in our consciousness, to have a life of their own beyond the page or the stage.

A modern icon by Andy Warhol, who was an Eastern Catholic. Is she ahistorical?

But Harpur shows he does not really understand the term, because without saying so, he assumes that the fact that Jesus’s story is mythic means that it is not historical. This is just the popular misconception that myth means falsehood persisting. In fact, the English word “history” means exactly what the Greek word “mythos” means: story (compare the French “histoire”). Characters like Hitler, Mother Teresa, or Marilyn Monroe, or stories like the Titanic or the Kennedy assassination, are also perfectly mythic in the proper sense. They resonate and are memorable. Yet they are also historical. In fact, it is primarily the myths of history that we remember.

Harpur claims that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life were originally intended to be read symbolically, yet later, were reinterpreted as literal. This requires the hypothesis that the earlier, correct reading was suppressed by a vast conspiracy. Harpur, p. 50: “a conspiracy had operated over a span of centuries.”

This idea of a conspiracy operating with perfect efficiency over centuries is so improbable it sounds like paranoid thinking. It sounds delusional.

In any case, it cannot be. The gospels and the epistles themselves make it clear they are claiming the events to be historical.

What an ahistorical character looks like.

One should look for rhetorical clues in the text itself to understand the author’s intent. If you are writing ironically, you must include sufficient information that the alert reader can see the irony; if you are writing allegorically, you must do the same, or the allegory fails. If you do not, you are not expressing yourself well. So, if you mean to tell a story that is purely allegorical or fictional, you begin it “once upon a time,” or words to that effect: “there once was a king who …”; “long ago in a galaxy far away.” “In Never-Never Land…” “In Utopia .” “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” “Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago…” (Points for recognizing the stories that so begin).

Time and place are made deliberately vague to make the point, “this is not to be read literally, as happening at one particular time and place, but has a symbolic meaning.”

Note, by contrast, how the gospel for a few Sundays ago began:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region
of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, …

Nothing vague there; the evangelist is going to great lengths to nail it all down so that it can be traced. Nothing could be plainer (or more important in the chronicler’s mind) than that this is a historical event, not something allegorical or to be read only metaphorically.

And, as I noted previously in my commentary on The Pagan Christ, St. Paul insists on the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection as the single most important thing in the Christian message, the sine qua non.

1 Corinthians 15:

14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Just as Harpur says, there is nothing Jesus says that some other figure had not said in some way before; differences are in emphasis, no more. This is necessarily so, because truth does not change with time, and God would not have concealed truth from mankind at any age. The message of Christianity is not the words of Jesus; the message is Jesus. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light.”

And this means Christ crucified, crucified in the flesh. This is essential to Christian theology. God himself died to expiate our sins. If Christ did not die, in the flesh, as Paul says, our sins are not forgiven. We have no hope of heaven.

Origen, Church Father and "Father of the Homily"

Harpur’s great champion of the “esoteric” reading of scripture is Origen. Harpur writes, “Once the early Church turned to literalism and an exoteric, bottom-line rendering of the faith, Origen was condemned as a heretic and his books were banned.” But Origen’s style of reading the Bible did not see it as purely allegorical, and Origen’s style of reading the Bible has never been condemned by the Church. The Catholic Encyclopedia mostly praises rather than condemns Origen’s Biblical exegesis, calling him the “father of the homily,” and saying his principles for reading the Bible are “unimpeachable” and “proof against criticism.”

Origen certainly believed in the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, and of his crucifixion and resurrection.

Origen’s views were later condemned by many not because of how he interpreted the Bible, but because of his other beliefs: in the preexistence of souls, and in universal salvation.

Now for why the claim that Christianity is just a retelling of older Egyptian myths, “wisdom literature,” cannot work.

Harpur himself claims that Cortez found Aztec religion to be strikingly similar to Christianity (p. 29). The real similarities, indeed, seem just about as strong as those to Egyptian religion. If Horus is a type of Christ, then so is Quetzalcoatl, or the Hawaiian god Kaili. There is no plausible way some ancient wisdom literature could have been known to Europeans, and also not only to people off in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and also in the Americas, isolated from the rest of the world for an estimated 12,000 years---since long before the invention of writing. On top of this, as Jung has demonstrated, the same myth motifs appear spontaneously in people’s dreams and fantasies, when they could not possibly have read the ancient or foreign texts in which these myths appear.

The far more plausible explanation is that these myths are imbedded somehow in our consciousness as humans. And the simplest explanation of this is that God put them there. If God did this, he is also fully capable of making the same thing happen in the physical world, in history. Why not? Moreover, if he wants to put it in our consciousness, it is obviously important. If it is important, then he obviously would also want to do it historically, in the physical world.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Harpur's Gnosticism

Funny, you don't look Egyptian...

More notes on Tom Harpur's book The Pagan Christ:

Harpur quotes Kuhn approvingly, on p. 52, explaining the truth behind the Christ myth in these terms: “by the time the descent of the Monad … from the Logos of divine intellection into the water of the human body had been ‘clarified’ and ‘simplified’ to poor mental capacity as the baptism of a man in the Jordan River, it was a delusion and a snare to uncritical thought…” This is a precise statement of Gnostic theology, using Gnostic terminology.

Harpur talks of myths as a means to prevent “gnosis” (knowledge) from “falling into unworthy hands,” and says “The principal determinant of those admitted to the meaning of the myths … was genuine zeal for the divine.” Elsewhere he quotes Higgins saying that the true Gnostic Christ “could be shared only with initiates and ‘genuinely tested and accredited competents.’” (p. 53) This idea of a secret society of Illuminati is a fundamental part of Gnosticism.

What’s wrong with it?

First, it is a conspiracy theory, and, like all large or elaborate conspiracy theories, is intrinsically improbable. Occam’s razor. How likely would it be that any given organized group of self-appointed “knowers” who say that their true teachings are secret are in possession of real superior wisdom or knowledge? Without evidence, anyone can make that claim. So long as the teachings are secret, it is without evidence.

This has been a profitable con throughout the ages. The con artist claims to be in possession of secret spiritual knowledge that he will not divulge to just anyone. Anyone who denies his claims is simply said to be out of the know. Great source of power, prestige, possibly wealth.

This is why any claim of secret knowledge is anathema.

Second: if salvation comes through “gnosis,” through special knowledge of some hidden truth, there is an obvious cosmic injustice to those who happen through no fault of their own not to have been told the truth, or indeed who may not be able intellectually to understand it. Note that Harpur, in our opening quotation, speaks of people of “poor mental capacity” being unable to grasp the spiritual truth even if it is simplified for them. He speaks of the divine as “intellection” and of the dangers of “uncritical thought.”

So what happens to the stupid, in this theology? Simple: they have no hope of salvation.

A just God would not disseminate Truth in such a way.

Ergo, “gnosis” cannot be the key to salvation.

Third, this idea of secret societies and conspiracies intrinsically violates Jesus’s second commandment, to love your neighbor. This is the same commandment violated by Cain in the Old Testament. It separates humanity into us and them, the in group and the other, based on this secret membership and this supposed secret knowledge which one is not supposed to share. That means others are damned, and you are actively helping to damn them. This is only morally justifiable if you assume those “others” who do not possess the secret key to the Truth are less than human. If, then, they are less than human, you are also free to abuse them at will in other ways as well. This gets ugly.

You actually hear some of this tone, I fear, in Harpur. “Vulgar fables for the illiterate mob” and so forth (p. 52). “People who were ‘children in intellect;’ took the grand parables and allegories of the esoteric wisdom and ‘fed them to infantile minds” (p. 150). Belief in the resurrection is “unlearned foolishness.” (p 150).  “The Logos was declared to have come as the man Jesus walking the lanes … like any peasant” (p. 150). Sounds like contempt for the unlearned, contempt for the poor, contempt for the working class. God forbid that God might come as a “peasant.”

But the idea that the ordinary people and the poor are morally superior to the educated classes (i.e., the scribes and Pharisees) is in fact part of the literal message of Jesus in the Gospel. Nobody who thinks as Harpur and the Gnostics do has accepted the Gospel teachings, even apart from the matter of the incarnation.

Fourth, the way of thinking characteristic of Gnosis has dangerous effects on one’s mental equilibrium. Once you start down the path of vast conspiracies and secret knowledge, there is no longer any way to be sure the CIA is NOT controlling your brain, or the world is not being run by lizard-like aliens who can change their shape. Nothing can be certain any longer; anything could be true. Hence Occam’s Razor. But then, the existence of a good and all-powerful God is our guarantee that this cannot be so. He would ensure that every soul had a lifeline in plain sight; he would ensure that no vast conspiracies could arise to lead anyone of good will astray. Accordingly, the existence of God, once accepted, prohibits Gnosticism from being true.

Harpur claims that the true path for knowers is “realizing their own Christ-power within.” (p. 20). Later, he describes the essence of the true Christ myth as “To release the potential power of the Christos within.” (p. 25). He says that the goal of religion is “ultimately to deify humankind” (p. 22). Indeed, in his opening quotation, God himself, the “Monad,” is nothing more than the sum of all human souls.

This is Gnostic talk, not Christian talk.

What’s this about “power”? Is life really about gaining “power”?

Harpur’s promise here, and that of Gnosticism, is essentially the same one the serpent made to Eve in the Garden of Eden: “eat this fruit of knowledge, and you will become like gods, knowing good and evil.” Knowledge, power, self, divinity. Whether or not you accept that this is the original sin, as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam say it is, there is no way Harpur can honestly claim this is the “true” reading of the Bible. The Bible rejects it in its first story, its first myth. From the beginning.

To Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, indeed to any theist, this is a fifth, and vital, objection to Gnosticism: that it is fundamentally immoral. It is the primrose path to hellfire. It violates the first commandment.

One more element of Gnosticism that Harpur endorses: p. 21, “man is himself, in his real being, a spark of divine fire … buried in the flesh of the body.” “Buried,” he says, as if dead; elsewhere, he speaks of the spirit being “entombed” in the body. On page 45, he writes, “To be in the body was to be put—even impaled or crucified—on this cross of fleshly existence.” “The Greeks said that the body is the tomb of the soul.”

Problem number six: if the material word is a tomb for the spirit, a bad thing, a place in which the spirit is trapped, how did it come about? How could it have been created by a good and all-powerful God? Ergo, if you accept the fundamental principle of God’s existence, you cannot accept this view of the material world. The material world must be of value in itself, and it must also be redeemed. Otherwise you have an immoral God, or an impotent God, both of which Gnosticism commonly asserts. Goodbye monotheism.

This is in turn why it is necessary to assume that the Messiah really did come, or at least will come, in physical form, in history. The material world must be important, or God would not have created it. God must manifest himself there as well. It is not a question of whether God ever came in the flesh. It is a question of when he came: which report of him coming seems most probable.

Speaking of the temptations of Jesus in the desert, Harpur writes (p. 96) “Once understood in its symbolic sense, it speaks at a much deeper, cosmic level of the yin and yang of existence, the struggle to balance the polarities of life—light and dark, up and down, centrifugal and centripedal forces, hot and cold—and so on.”

This is pure Gnostic dualism. And watch out: notice that Harpur is talking, specifically, of good and evil here. As did many Gnostics, he is clearly implying that they need to be kept in balance. In other words, you should not be too moral, too good. Gnostic dualism can be used in this way to justify all kinds of moral depravity.

It is also a false justification, if you look carefully. There is no ultimate value in "balance." Even his specific examples are wrong. Scientifically speaking, there is no "balance" between and light: darkness does not exist as a real entity. It is simply a relative absence of light. It is the same with hot and cold: cold is nothing but the absence of heat. There are not two quantities here, but only one. There is no necessary balance between existence and non-existence. And there is no necessary balance between good and bad.

Harpur concludes by saying his new theology will lead to world peace and to healing the environment. It would be more likely to do the opposite. His claim that wars are usually based on religion, to begin with, is the opposite of the truth. Religion is probably the single most important way to prevent war; besides preaching against war, they offer ultimate principles to which both sides in a disagreement can appeal. Wars over religion are the exception, not the rule. Obviously, you cannot change a person’s mind by shooting at him, so wars over religion make no sense.

But to the extent that wars are based at times on religious differences, his theology opens a far greater gap between Christianity and the two other monotheistic religions, Islam and Judaism. His theology abandons monotheism for Gnostic dualism. If Jews and Muslims object to three persons in God, and to one man being divine, they are certainly going to object to several billion persons in God, and to everyone being divine.

As to the environment, it is Christianity that, among the world’s religions, takes the physical world most seriously, and we have the incarnation to thank for that. Remove it, and the physical world becomes, as Harpur calls it, a “tomb.” Not something to be tended and perfected, certainly; something to be gotten rid of.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Harpur's Sources

Horus, Jesus: see the resemblance?

More on Tom Harpur's book The Pagan Christ, denying the historicity of the Jesus story.

Harpur rarely gives any kind of citation for his claims. Without this, we have every right to ignore what he says, particularly since his claims do not mesh at all with what we know about Horus, or Mithras, or Origen, or St. Paul. Anyone can make any assertion.

When he is candid or careless enough that it is possible to trace his claims, they essentially always turn out to be false. For this, see I could add a few more to their examples, but what's the point? It is enough to realize that you cannot believe anything from Harpur without outside corroboration, and he offers no outside corroboration.

In addition to this, he repeatedly refers us to the “Mystery Religions” as the true source of the Jesus story:

p. 38: “Christianity and the Mystery Religions share virtually all the same beliefs, doctrines, rituals, and rites.”
p. 148: “It is highly significant that crucifixion was an integral component of many of the Mystery Religions.”
p. 148: … the candidate was “even in some rites, put into a hypnotic coma, to be wakened from ‘death’ after three days, on Easter morning.”
p. 159: “the body of material regularly used in the ceremonial dramas of the widespread early Mystery Religions around 1200 years BCE makes up in general the series of events narrated in the New Testament as if they were Jesus’s personal life story.”

So that's his claimed source for the Jesus stories, in a nutshell.
There were Greco-Roman mysteries of Dionysus, of Mithras, of Orpheus, and of Isis, presumably including her spouse Osiris and son Horus. Harpur even appeals to a supposed Jewish Kabbalistic Yeshua Jewish mystery religion predating Jesus (p. 164), even though Kabbalah is commonly believed to have developed in the 12th century AD.

There is a reason why they were called “Mystery Religions.” Can you guess why?

Because we know nothing about them.

Anyone introduced to their true beliefs, doctrines, rituals and rites was first sworn to secrecy. Any ultimate source claiming to know what they were, therefore, is either guessing, or is a perjurer. Either way, you can't believe a word of it.

Note that when Harpur does cite some authority, it is almost invariably quite an old one: Higgins, Massey, Kuhn, Budge, Gibbon, Frazer, Cumont. Nothing from later than the early 20th century. Even had he given proper citations so we could check his claims in their works, they are virtually worthless as sources. It might seem surprising, but we have actually learned a great deal about the ancient world over the last hundred years or so. When Higgins wrote, we could not yet read Egyptian writing; everything was guesswork. We can now read a great deal of ancient writing we could not then, and a great deal more has been translated into modern vernaculars. We have recovered a great many ancient manuscripts we did not have then. And many more Europeans have taken the time and trouble to learn non-European languages.

As a result, wild speculations that might have seemed at least possible a hundred or two hundred years ago, have now been pretty conclusively disproven. Once, the Egyptian temple paintings were like an inkblot test in which you could see just about anything you could imagine. Nobody now seriously doubts the historicity of Christ, and nobody now thinks Horus or Mithras is particularly similar to Jesus. No virgin birth, no incarnation, no crucifixion, no resurrection.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Why Contemporary Art is Bankrupt

Apparently Camille Paglia is saying exactly what I've been saying about contemporary art.

Obviously, she reads Od's Blog:

For Paglia, the spiritual quest defines all great art—all art that lasts. But in our secular age, the liberal crusade against religion has also taken a toll on art. “Sneering at religion is juvenile, symptomatic of a stunted imagination,” Paglia writes. “Yet that cynical posture has become de rigueur in the art world—simply another reason for the shallow derivativeness of so much contemporary art, which has no big ideas left.” Historically the great art of the West has had religious themes, either explicit or implicit. “The Bible, the basis for so much great art, moves deeper than anything coming out of the culture today,” Paglia says. As a result of its spiritual bankruptcy, art is losing its prominence in our culture. “Art makes news today,” she writes, “only when a painting is stolen or auctioned at a record price.”