THE THINKING PERSON'S GUIDE TO GOD: Overcoming the Obstacles to Belief
By Tom Harpur
199 pp., $20
Canadian author Tom Harpur sees in today's flight from mainstream religions a spiritual quest on the part of many individuals that won't be satisfied by yesterday's answers.
"People want and need a faith that makes sense in the world of today," Harpur writes in his newest book, "The Thinking Person's Guide to God: Overcoming the Obstacles to Belief." "Above all they do not want to purchase faith at the expense of numbing, denying, or offending their intellect. They must either have a God whom they can love with all their mind and intelligence or they can have no God at all."
Ever larger numbers of spiritual seekers are rejecting "meaningless rituals and limiting, enslaving dogmas" as irrelevant to their lives, he writes. Even the conservative and fundamentalist Christian churches "are in just as much trouble as their more liberal counterparts."
Harpur characterizes himself as an "uncomfortable Christian" who sometimes finds it hard to sit through a sermon without interrupting. An Anglican priest and Rhodes scholar turned journalist, he puts his own lifelong convictions about God on the table first. Then, with input from readers of his religious column in the Toronto Sunday Star, he lists - and offers perspectives on - the major obstacles to religious belief today. (His previous book, "The Uncommon Touch: An Investigation of Spiritual Healing," was reviewed by the Monitor in 1994.)
Of the topics he treats, the biggest stumbling block of all is people's inability to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the evils, pain, and suffering they see around them. Harpur's answer to this, written as a separate chapter, unfortunately offers more human comfort than convincing argument.
What, then, has Harpur provided for feeding people's need for faith and a fulfilling sense of God's existence and presence today?
For one, he offers insights about prayer and its implications for spiritual healing, as well as about developing the art of inner stillness. He also gives assurance that there is a transcendent yet personal God - a "numinous Other" who is benign and all-embracing - whom people can trust and be at one with, whether or not they go to church. He points to the life and teaching of Jesus, not the deified Jesus of the later creeds, but the "pious Jew," the "fully realized human being" in whose life Harpur catches "the fullest glimpse of the humanity of God."
He also argues for abandoning "either/or" Aristotelian logic, which has bred black-and-white decisions on morality since it was introduced into Western religious thought, and adopting the "both/and" ambiguity of Eastern-influenced "fuzzy logic." This, Harpur claims, is more the teaching style found in the New Testament and would foster greater tolerance and inclusiveness.
Drawing on various sources, some more persuasive than others, "The Thinking Person's Guide to God" attempts to point the way to a nondenominational, God-centered spirituality that will prove both meaningful and practical as humanity enters the third millennium.
Linda Giedl is a senior wrier and project manager for the public information office of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston.