Friday, December 26, 2008

The Proliferating Christ

It was in 2004 that Canadian theologian Tom Harpur published his world-shattering book, The Pagan Christ. Harpur convincingly shows how the Christ of the gospels was not a new figure appearing on the scene in Palestine about 2000 years ago. On the contrary, the idea of Christ, down to the details of his reported daily lived life, were found in a mythical character from ancient Egypt – and these details were laid long before the stories of the biblical Christ. In fact, this Christ figure repeatedly appeared, not only in Egypt and later in Palestine, but in many ancient mythologies.

Clearly this appearance of a Christ figure in ancient worlds, far outside of the Judeo-Christian worlds, long before the creation of the New Testament stories, is a major challenge for contemporary Christianity. However, the challenge this creates for modern day Christianity might not be quite as straight forward as it might appear on the surface.

One obvious way of understanding this difficulty is to distinguish between an emphasis upon the historicity of the biblical Christ, as is seen in modern day fundamentalist Christianity, and the spirituality of a more mythological Christ figure.

The issue as I see it, however, is not so much one of historicity over against spirituality, but one of singularity over against multiplicity – and this, by the way, is a challenge which supersedes religion and effects the modern day secular worlds as much as the religious worlds. Harpur reveals a Christ figure whose mythology is proliferate, repeating, in its spirit and its details, throughout cultures and civilizations. A Christ is revealed who refuses to be limited to one incarnation, to one point in history. And, here appears a challenge not just to Christianity but to a legacy of Western thought, religious and secular. For, in the world which Harpur presents to us, truth itself is transformed, it becomes additive; truth follows rhizome, zigzag lines; truth refuses reductionist lines and instead accumulates possibilities.

Harpur’s world does not so much reveal the Christ as it creates, generates a universe of Christs. Using Nietzsche’s language, we can say that Harpur creates a “becoming” Christ, or “becoming” Christs, incarnating not only in ancient mythologies but in contemporary lives and institutions. And not only Christs, but also proliferating creations of endless possible spiritual figures. Spiritualities emerging which shed exclusivity and unity and instead create repeated affirmations of endless life possibilities. Life collects, life assembles... and life refuses a systemic or mechanistic unity.

While there is a long history of challengers to such singular views of truth, I want to conclude with an emphasis upon the generative spiritualities so beautifully discussed by American poet, Walt Whitman. No exclusive gods in Whitman’s world, just a spreading divinity which enlivens life in its every corner. Christ, divinity is created, like “leaves of grass”.

Speaking of his own work of writing as if he were a visual artist, Whitman says:

Painters have painted their swarming groups
and the centre-figure of all,
From the head of the centre-figure spreading
a nimbus of gold color’d light,
But I paint myriads of heads,
but paint no head without its
nimbus of gold-color’d light...

Walt Whitman

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