HOW CAN PARAPSYCHOLOGY BE CHRISTIAN?
by Roger Straughan
Certainly there has been plenty of profound and well-informed work done on the subject over the years, much of it by members of the CFPSS, and I shall be drawing upon some of that in what I have to say. But in the study of any subject it can be useful from time to time to stand back a little and ask some critical questions about the precise nature and status of that subject, where it has come from and where it might be going – and that is particularly important when we are considering something as controversial and speculative as that area we call Christian Parapsychology. So my aim here is to approach the subject from a slightly different angle which some may consider somewhat heretical, but which at least may provoke some further debate. After all, the heresy of today can often become the orthodoxy of tomorrow.
Let’s start with that first way of asking my question – how can parapsychology be Christian? I have some sympathy with the implications of that question. Can Christian Parapsychology really qualify as a meaningful area of study? To start off on a provocative note here, I suggest that Christian Parapsychology isn’t really a ‘subject’ as such. After all, we do not normally put the adjective Christian in front of other academic subjects and speak about Christian chemistry or Christian economics or Christian sociology, for example, so why Christian Parapsychology? Christians can of course be parapsychologists just as they can be chemists or economists or sociologists, but that does not create separate subjects with those titles. Any academic subject, whether it is chemistry or economics or parapsychology or whatever, has its own procedures, its own rules, its own methods, and it is these that allow claims and theories within that subject to be tested. So the religious beliefs, or lack of them, that are held by a chemist or an economist or a parapsychologist are irrelevant to whether or not that person’s work and ideas are sound and worthy of attention within that subject; that can only be judged by the procedures of the subject itself.
In other words one cannot use religious criteria to support or reject a theory or conclusion put forward in that subject. That would be like mixing up the rules of two games – for example, by asking the umpire at cricket to make a decision by using the rules of baseball, which is impossible. We have seen what can result from mixing up religious and scientific criteria, for example, in the cases of the Church’s reaction to Galileo and Darwin. So we cannot mix up the rules of two subject areas - we cannot sensibly talk of Hindu astrophysics or Islamic geography or Buddhist algebra or Christian Parapsychology as if these were valid, independent subjects. That is not to deny, of course, that it is perfectly possible to hold any religious set of beliefs, or no such beliefs at all, and work in any established area of study or research.
This means that if parapsychology qualifies as a valid subject for study, with its own methods and rules for collecting and analysing data, for drawing conclusions and testing theories, we have to recognise that putting that word ‘Christian’ in front of it does not allow us to overrule those methods or to reject certain data or conclusions or theories. We cannot, for example, dismiss out of hand all the data on the possibility of some form of reincarnation just because that may conflict with some Christian beliefs. The evidence has to be tested against parapsychological criteria not theological ones.
There is another reason why Christian Parapsychology cannot be interpreted as an independent subject in its own right which tries to apply Christian criteria to parapsychology and which accepts only those areas of parapsychology which are acceptable to Christian beliefs. What would these Christian criteria and these Christian beliefs be? What would the yardstick be? How exactly is the word ‘Christian’ to be defined?
These are huge questions, but we do have to face them when we are considering what Christian Parapsychology might be, because it is easy to be complacent and assume that there is no real problem here and that surely we all know what ‘Christian’ means.
What we should all know is that the history of Christianity has been marked throughout by controversy, disagreement and conflict of all kinds, often very violent kinds. We also know that this has resulted in a huge diversity of beliefs, practices, doctrines and denominations. So what Christian yardstick could be consistent with all of these? How could we possibly get any agreement over what would count as the Christian view of parapsychology from, say, an evangelical fundamentalist, a liberal or radical theologian, a Catholic, a Quaker, a Christian Spiritualist, a Christian Scientist, and so on? Yet all these would no doubt rightly object to being denied the title of ‘Christian’. Also, it is not necessary to go to the edges of the Christian spectrum to find radical disagreements over the interpretation of many fundamental beliefs and doctrines and practices. Surveys have shown widespread differences of belief both within and between a variety of Christian churches and denominations on key issues such as the Resurrection, salvation, the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, Original Sin, the Second Coming, and - a question of special relevance to parapsychology - life after death. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, has always been problematic for many Christians, and has been described as an inadequate attempt to formulate that which is above reason (Johnson, 1957, pp.162-3).
It is difficult to disagree with the former Dean of St. Paul’s, Dr. Matthews, another influential early member of the CFPSS, when he wrote, ‘The greatest misfortune which followed from the Christological disputes was the substitution of the criterion of acceptance of a set of theological propositions by which to judge a genuine Christian for that which Jesus Himself laid down for his disciples – “By their fruits ye shall know them.” ’ (Matthews, 1950, p.24). The definition of Christian and non-Christian, then, must be recognised as highly controversial, and this wide diversity of Christian beliefs must raise further serious objections to using the label Christian Parapsychology to refer to a ‘subject’ in its own right.
So is there any way in which the whole idea of Christian Parapsychology can make sense? So far my argument may have sounded rather negative, but I now want to turn much more positive and suggest that there are other ways of interpreting Christian Parapsychology which may be much more fruitful.
Christian Parapsychology cannot refer to an identifiable ‘subject’ in its own right, but what it can and should refer to is a process – a process that explores the relationship between two different sets of data, parapsychological data and Christian data. Where are these sets of data consistent with each other, where do they disagree, and how can one illuminate the other? Some Christians might feel unhappy about having their religious beliefs and experiences and traditions described by that rather cold-sounding word ‘data’. But what does ‘data’ really mean? It simply means what has been given, and if we keep that in mind, most Christians surely would not object to the idea that all aspects of their Christian understanding have been in some sense given. ‘Data’ do not equal ‘proof’, however. Data offer evidence of various kinds that can be weighed and interpreted in various ways – and that certainly is the case with both parapsychological and Christian data.
If Christian Parapsychology, then, is concerned with the relationship between Christian and parapsychological data, we need to ask two key questions: firstly, what parapsychological data are most relevant to Christian belief, and secondly, what Christian data are most relevant to the study of parapsychology?
First then, what parapsychological data are most relevant to Christian belief? It could reasonably be argued that all parapsychological data are relevant, seeing that they are concerned with exploring the largely unknown range of human faculties and the largely unknown nature of human consciousness. Surely the question, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ lies at the heart of Christian belief. But definitions that seem to include everything are not usually very helpful – after all, we could say that all knowledge is relevant to Christian understanding, but that does not take us very far. We need to sharpen the focus if we want to get to grips with the key points where Christianity and parapsychology overlap; and we have to note at this point that from some Christian perspectives that overlap is to be avoided at all costs, because the paranormal matters that parapsychology deals with lie firmly within the province of the Devil.
If we are prepared to take the risk of exploring the overlap, however, the most obvious example lies in the whole question of the possible survival of individuality after physical death. This was the question which gave the Society for Psychical Research its initial impetus well over 100 years ago, and it remains a major area of parapsychological research today, though the subject has of course broadened considerably since the 1880s. A vast amount of relevant data has accumulated over that period, and it comes from a number of different sources, including studies, for example, of apparitions, mediumship, near-death experiences, possession and reincarnation. This is not the place to go into this varied data in any detail, but how does it bear upon the questions I have been raising about the concept of Christian parapsychology?
It follows from what I have argued that this data cannot be accepted or rejected on religious or theological grounds. Prof. Ian Stevenson’s lifetime work on cases suggestive of reincarnation (Stevenson, 1975-1983), for example, cannot just be rejected or ignored because reincarnation is thought to be inconsistent with orthodox Christian belief – though there have always been Christians who accept it. The evidence has to be judged on its parapsychological merits and not on theological grounds.
The same applies to mediumship and the picture of the afterlife that emerges from apparent post-mortem communications. There is no lack of evidence here – there is almost too much to cope with and make sense of. The detailed analytic work of Dr Robert Crookall tries to do just that (e.g. Crookall, 1961 and 1965). Using an extensive body of data, drawn from a wide range of varied sources, he was able to build up a consistent, coherent picture of what we can reasonably expect to happen when we die; and like the professional scientist that he was, he developed models and hypotheses from this data about how individual differences might affect our post-mortem experiences. Again this work has to be judged on its parapsychological merits and not rejected out of hand if it does not conform to standard Christian beliefs.
In fact it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify anything that could be properly called the standard, orthodox Christian view of the afterlife. We are back again here to the problem of defining that word ‘Christian’. Some might be argue that there is an orthodox Christian view of the afterlife, based on a belief in ‘resurrection’, but that agreement breaks down as soon as questions are asked about what sort of resurrection is involved, what form does it take, what precisely is envisaged as being resurrected and where and when does this process take place. There are and always have been widely different responses from Christians to these questions. Furthermore, the picture does not become any clearer when some theologians and clergy claim that resurrection can and does take place in this life and we do not have to wait until after death to experience it. That does not help in sorting out any clear Christian view of the afterlife; it sounds as if the same word is being used to refer to two different things, which is usually a recipe for confusion.
The difficulties involved in trying to sort out that clear Christian view are well summarised by the Revd. Allan Barham, another leading figure in the development of the CFPSS. Writing in the collection, Life, Death and Psychical Research (1973), about Christian conceptions of Heaven, Hell and the afterlife, he criticises the stark picture of traditional Christian teaching on Heaven and Hell and continues :
The very idea of the existence of Hell is far less common than it was two or three generations ago. But the general conception of heaven is not an altogether attractive one. Some visualise it as a kind of unending church service, and even those with a love of music would hardly welcome such a prospect. Moreover, entry into heaven, it is sometimes taught, is to be preceded by “the sleep of death”, which may well last for an immense period of time. On the other hand, it is also taught that the moment after death we shall be in the full presence of Christ, for which most people would feel ill-prepared. As a consequence, among Christians there is often a feeling that the conventional idea of heaven is almost as unreal as the conventional idea of hell. It is not surprising that public opinion polls show that very great numbers of those who call themselves Christians have no belief at all in a continuance of life in another state when they die. (p.213)
John Hick (1985) in his monumental work, Death and Eternal Life, discusses the historical roots of this confusion. He contrasts the early Christian understanding of death and the afterlife in terms of the departed having ‘gone to God, being received and accepted by God, living with Christ, being among the angels and the saints, refreshed and joyful among the stars’, with the theology of Augustine who ‘first wove the dark themes of guilt, remorse and punishment into the tremendous drama of creation, fall, incarnation, heaven and hell, which has dominated the Christian imagination in the West until the last 100 years or so.’ (p.207) The Augustinian view is also in further conflict with Bunyan’s picture of life as a pilgrimage, with bodily death marking the passing from one stage to another of that pilgrimage.
So not to put too fine a point upon it, Christian teaching about the afterlife is a confused mess and this is no doubt a major reason why so many clergy appear so embarrassed about the subject , why many Christians have no firm belief in an afterlife, and probably also why Christianity has lost its appeal for so many today. It is worth remembering that the founder of the Churches’ Fellowship, Reginald Lester, described how he found the Church completely unable to supply the guidance and comfort he needed when he lost his faith after his first wife’s death (Lester, 1952).
In view of this wide array of incompatible beliefs about death and the afterlife, all of which would claim to be Christian, can parapsychology offer anything to try to resolve some of these issues? It certainly can. The parapsychological data on apparent post-mortem communications and on near–death experiences provide no support for the idea of a comatose state of lengthy hibernation, lasting until a final Day of Judgment. Nor is there any hint of a once-and-for-all external judgment process at death, dependent on our religious beliefs and resulting in our immediate and irreversible transfer to an eternally glorious heaven or an eternally horrific hell. In fact, the data are much more in line with Bunyan’s image of a journey or pilgrimage, which allows our spiritual development to continue after death. Paul Beard’s careful analysis of a wide range of apparent post-mortem communications (1980), for example, suggests a gradual progress through a number of stages or levels which allow different forms of learning to take place as our consciousness is altered. The main obstacle to that development seems to have nothing to do with holding the wrong doctrinal beliefs, but rather with being stuck in any form of inflexible dogmatism, including religious dogmatism. (This should not surprise any Christian in view of Jesus’ illuminating reference to ‘many mansions’ – probably better translated as ‘many stopping places.’) There are, it seems, lessons to be learned, work to be done and problems to be resolved – a prospect very different from the traditional Christian one so evident on gravestones of ‘Resting in Peace’. We carry our character weaknesses with us to be worked upon, rather than have them magically sponged out.
The fast-growing data on near-death experiences (e.g. Fontana, 2005, Chap.15) are also at variance in some respects with many traditional Christian beliefs. The ‘Being of Light’, for example, seems to be interpreted in terms of cultural expectations, and is not usually directly identified with Christ. Again there is no reference to any irreversible, external judgment, though some form of provisional self-judgment is often mentioned. One common feature is being greeted by loved ones who have previously died, and this is supported by the extensive data on death-bed visions. The prominent welcoming role played by these individuals, who do not seem to need the qualification of holding particular religious beliefs, is again in conflict with some Christian perspectives. Some Christian writers have even suggested that near-death experiences are the work of the Devil, designed to lull us into a false sense of security. The reported life review and self-judgment are too mild for these Christian writers. As one of them proclaims (with apparent glee), ‘Either the individual is forgiven and taken to be with God, or he is not forgiven and is taken to the future home of the devil.’ (Levitt and Weldon, 1978, p.77)
Rather than asserting that kind of inflexible, dogmatic position, however, my suggestion is that the sort of parapsychological data so far mentioned can help to clarify and illuminate some issues on which there is no Christian consensus. Where there are radically conflicting sets of belief, surely the parapsychological evidence should be taken into account in trying to reach a rational judgment. It can be a powerful ally – and it should be a welcome ally - in the fight against materialism - particularly when we see how the decline in traditional Christian belief today has been matched by an apparently massive increase in interest among the general public in all aspects of the psychical and the paranormal. But sadly it seems that many clergy still have not moved far from the extraordinary views expressed by the eminent Archbishop William Temple in his Gifford Lecture (1935, pp.458-9), where he claimed that sound evidence for man’s survival of death was ‘positively undesirable’, because it would ‘make very much harder the essential business of faith.’
Parapsychology, then, can contribute to Christian understanding, but what about the reverse situation? What can Christianity contribute to parapsychology? Christianity can provide parapsychology with a rich fund of data. Both the Old and New Testament are chockfull of psychical material, for example, and it is difficult to find one page of the Bible that does not refer to apparently paranormal events. A number of writers, many of them within the CFPSS, have explored this psychical dimension of the Bible, following the shining example of the Fellowship’s first secretary, the Revd. Maurice Elliott. This is not the place to summarise in any detail this body of work, but the main theme of much of it is that all or most of the paranormal events described in the Bible have their close parallels in the data of modern psychical research and so should not be seen as unique occasions of divine intervention. An early exponent of this argument was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who claimed that almost all the so-called New Testament miracles had their modern counterparts in psychical research, as did Paul’s ‘gifts of the spirit.’ Maurice Elliott (1938 and 1959), a personal acquaintance and great admirer of Conan Doyle, went further with his detailed analyses of paranormal events in both Old and New Testaments. More recently, Bishop Hugh Montefiore in his last book, The Miracles of Jesus, (2005) argued that the so-called ‘Gospel miracles’ fall into a category of phenomena not only found in the Gospels but also in modern secular sources of paranormal events.
The Christian contribution to parapsychology is not limited to Biblical sources, however. The 800 page volume, Irreducible Mind, for example, (Kelly et al. 2007) which is likely to become a classic text in both psychology and parapsychology, has lengthy sections on Christian mystical experience, Christian healing, prayer and the appearance of stigmata. This forms part of a comprehensive survey of various paranormal phenomena, which are used to support the theory that the brain is not identical with the mind, but somehow limits or filters consciousness, rather than creating it. The implications of this theory are massive, and Christian data play an important role in developing it.
Many more examples of the possible interaction between Christian and parapsychological data could be given, but I want to finish by emphasising the provisional nature of our understanding in both areas – and indeed in all areas. As already emphasised, data do not equal proof, and dogmatism has rightly been called the only unpardonable sin here. The limited nature of our understanding is well captured in these words of a man who could certainly be called a Christian parapsychologist, and who also found time to become a poet, a philosopher and incidentally a Prime Minister - Lord Arthur Balfour: He wrote these words, which the great Raynor Johnson (1957, p.149) thought should be inscribed over every church and temple:
Think not to settle down for ever in any truth,
Make use of it as a tent in which to spend a Summer’s night,
But build no house of it, or it will be your tomb.
We don’t hear that sort of thing from Prime Ministers today unfortunately!
The issues with which this paper has been struggling can at present offer us only half-truths at the most. Yet if we can continue to foster the kind of interaction between Christian and parapsychological data that I have tried to sketch out, perhaps we may be able to move just a little nearer to some three-quarter truths.
Barham, A. ‘The Nature of Life after Death’ in Life, Death and Psychical Research, eds. Pearce-Higgins and Whitby, (Rider, 1973)
Beard, P. Living On, (Pilgrim Books, 1980)
Crookall, R. The Supreme Adventure, (James Clarke, 1961) and Intimations of
Immortality, (James Clarke, 1965)
Elliott, G.M. The Bible as Psychic History, (Rider, 1959) and The Psychic Life of Jesus, (Spiritualist
Fontana, D. Is There an Afterlife? (O Books, 2005)
Hick, J. Death and Eternal Life, (Macmillan, 1985)
Johnson, R.C. Nurslings of Immortality, (Hodder & Stoughton, 1957)
Kelly, E.F. et al. (eds.) Irreducible Mind, (Rowan & Littlefield, 2007)
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