Tag Archives: paranormal

Strange Orthodoxies

SeriouslyStrangeI had already read three of his books before I called on Jeffrey Kripal. Reading his work created a strange longing in me, as if I had been missing something I once might’ve had, but had lost on my way to academia. Kripal is a fearless writer and a profoundly kind man. He gave me a copy of his edited collection, Seriously Strange: Thinking Anew about Psychical Experiences, (co-edited by Sudhir Kakar, part of the Boundaries of Consciousness series). Like myself, Dr. Kripal had come to the conclusion that a number of apparently disparate human experiences actually belong to the same overarching class. Religion shares not a little ground with monstrosity, heroes, and the paranormal. With the exception of religion (generally) the other phenomena are classed as puerile and not worthy of consideration beyond their juvenile appeal. No real scholar would bother with them.

The orthodoxy of knowledge is a funny thing. I have been fascinated by what science teaches us about the universe since I was I child. Some of it is seriously strange as well. I always thought that science was observing the world closely and drawing logical inferences. Somewhere along the line, science became theory driven—I suspect it was some time after Darwin; and even Freud recognized the draw of the uncanny and how it related to numinous regions of human experience. In any case, by the time I was able to comprehend (partially) the fantastically complex system that science had built up I found a universe teeming with black holes that nobody had ever seen, and sub-atomic particles that behaved very naughtily, not being consistent with what we’d expect. Indeed, uncertainty abounded. Uncertainty is crucial to the humility which is the only true adjunct to human knowledge. We can only know enough to say we wish we knew more.

In the last few decades, however, science has adopted a magisterium like that of the medieval Catholic Church. That realm of unchallenged knowledge ignores the anomalous and declares that everything is reducible to material. Ironically, it seems, material is reducible to energy, and energy is less well tamed. Our understanding of our universe is still in its infancy. We haven’t even learned to walk yet. From the beginning, however, we have been religious and even science suggests that it may be biologically beneficial. So Seriously Strange takes some of the borderlands of mainstream science and looks closely at them. Some of the assertions are modest, and nobody claims to prove anything here. The essays will, however, instill a sense of much needed wonder into a Weltanschauung that increasingly has no space for simply being human.

Sidekick

I have moved from the territory of Sharon to that of Laura. New York City is a conglomeration of smaller neighborhoods, and even Midtown Manhattan hosts hundreds of smaller sub-divisions. Although I’ve never intentionally consulted a psychic, I do tend to notice them. Once while on a visit to Galena, Illinois during the summer, we stumbled on a psychic booth where the proprietor was giving free readings. With some trepidation, we let her give our daughter a reading, just for fun. I don’t recall what she said, or even what her name might have been. There’s just enough fear of the unknown left in me to compel me ever want to visit a psychic, even if it is for entertainment purposes only. Clearly, however, there is a market. Where the market makes a hole someone will fill it. So I pondered Laura the psychic.

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The other day I passed her sign. Like most psychic ads I see, Laura’s sign makes use of religious symbols; the cross, bird, crescent and star, all thrown together amid an interfaith openness from which most religions might learn a lesson. Are psychics religious? I suppose that’s a personal question. The phenomenon of psi, if it does exist, and if it does involve spooky influence at a distance, tends to be classed with the supernatural. A few brave universities have from time to time explored the phenomenon, whether or not commercial psychics have it, scientifically. They set up controlled experiments and have even obtained statistically significant results. I’m more inclined to doubt statistics than the outcomes. Statistics are the tools of markets, and markets, well, make me shiver.

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Then I passed another sign. This one, just a block or two from Laura, seemed to suggest that witchcraft might unleash my potential and power. That sounds like a good thing. But then I noticed the FOX logo at the bottom. Another quality program, it seems, has fallen to the spell of witchcraft. It did confirm, however, that it is all about money. One size does not fit all. Religion adapts to fit a free market economy. Totalitarian states either attempt to disband religion completely and/or build up a national mythology that supplements traditional teachings. It doesn’t take a psychic to see that coming. As long as there’s money to be made, who’s complaining?

Alien Jesus

While trawling the internet over the weekend, I came upon an interesting article that ties together religion and paranormal belief. According to ADG, a unnamed woman (already the question marks erupt) in Galilee in 1967 was visited by aliens. Instead of photographing them, as most unnamed women would, she followed their instructions to point her camera at the lake (Sea of Galilee) and snap one for the album. When she turned back around the aliens were gone, and when she had the film developed there was a picture of Jesus and a disciple or two, walking along the sea in earnest conversation. Well, one doesn’t have to be a scholar of Tobit to spot the apocryphal, and this obviously bogus story received far more hits than any of my posts do. People are fascinated by the concept, even though most of the comments show some healthy skepticism.

To me the fascinating aspect is that religion and paranormal topics hold hands so easily. That is not to suggest they are the same thing, but rather that they are both perhaps directed toward a similar goal. We find ourselves in a cold world, often. There are cruelties, atrocities, and a disheartening lack of care for others. We want to believe that somebody out there has got our backs. Is it so different to believe that God dwells in the sky than to believe that aliens do as well? What is more important than the putative fact of such celestial dwellers is the belief in them. Our minds, no matter how we may protest otherwise, are perfectly well aware of their own limitations. We can’t know everything, and so we must believe.

Many of us find ourselves in an uninspiring cycle of work, sleep, and work. Sometimes we actually even do sleep, too. Cogs in a capitalistic money machine, we leave our weekends free (sometimes) to pursue a little meaning. As much as some may castigate religion, we should not forget that without it we would not have the weekend! For a little while we can break the meaningless cycle, the treadmill upon which we heavily thump our way through five days out of every seven. Is it any wonder that so many want to believe that, like Calgon, aliens might come to take us away from our drudgery? If that doesn’t work, there’s always religious services. All you have to do is point your camera and believe.

BurnandJeanPierre

Dangers de la nuit

Sex&Paranormal Some books require extra clothing on the bus. When I saw the title of Paul Chambers’ Sex and the Paranormal, I noted the juxtaposition of two aspects I’ve frequently argued are intimately related to religion. There can be no question that religions in some way attempt to regulate sexuality. Those forbidden topics loosely collected under the sobriquet of “the paranormal” tend to be only a baby-step or two away from religious beliefs. Often those who are open to religious acceptance also allow for the possibility of the paranormal. So what did these two quasi-religious phenomena have to do with one another? How was I going to read a book with a title like this on public transit? How would I plumb the depths of its wisdom without feeling like a pervert? I found an unused book sock, a kind of colored condom for textbooks, and wrapped in around my questionable interests and read as discretely as possible.

Chambers, a member of the Society of Psychical Research, as well as a scientist, starts the reader off with what he is surely correct in identifying as a combination of sleep paralysis and hypnopompic hallucinations—the feeling of being violated by demons or ghosts in the night. While the reasons are poorly understood (beyond our latent sense of vulnerability while asleep), the fact of sleep paralysis is well documented. As Chambers points out, our over-active, often religiously fueled, imagination fills in the blanks for those who wake up unable to move, feeling a presence in their darkened rooms. This leads Chambers into a discussion of Lilith and succubi and incubi, the molesting demons of ancient lore. Witch-hunts and amorous aliens are strange bedfellows in this volume as well.

Studies like this daringly bring together subjects that have been parsed apart by conventional society. They are also deeply relevant. Many of us remember the (largely mythic) Satanic worship scares that plagued pockets of America, and then Europe, in the 1990s—latter day witch-scares, as Chambers points out—the tremors of discontent that rumble through societies struggling for an overly rational explanation for human behavior. They are present-day reminders that no amount of fiscal solvency and empirical data will ever banish the deep fears from the human mind. Our emotions have often served us very well, and have sometimes abused us, for the entirety of our evolved existence. And although we can hold them at bay in the clear light of day, at night we are surprised to discover that we really believe in monsters after all.

Paranormal Academy

ParanormalA recurrent theme on this blog (as my faithful few will doubtless know) is that religion draws from the same stream of cultural energies as do other phenomena such as horror movies and the paranormal. Religion and fear and curiosity seem to share some common parameters, and every now and again serious academics tackle these connections as well. Erich Goode, a sociologist, has taken on unconventional beliefs in his The Paranormal: Who Believes, Why They Believe, and Why it Matters. Unlike many academic writers on the topic, Goode does not attempt to debunk, but it is also clear that he does not ascribe to the unconventional viewpoints he examines either. In what must be an important realization among sociologists, Goode, like some of his colleagues who also consider the paranormal, finds that belief is widespread. Large segments of the US population allow for some validity toward ghosts, psychics, aliens, and yes, even creationism.

That last one stopped me for a second. Several seconds, actually. Creationism paranormal? When Goode’s delineations are considered, this is not completely inappropriate, but creationism is pure-blood religion. Not that it is necessary for religion, but its birth and considerable growth has been among the conventicle of true Bible believers. It is clear that in Goode’s line of reasoning there is only a fuzzy line between religion and the paranormal. I’ve asserted that same fuzzy line, but I’d never considered biblical literalism as paranormal. Maybe because I was raised in that environment it seemed normal and natural to me. Maybe because it is in the Bible it feels weird to hear it classed as paranormal. Maybe because believers in ghosts, aliens, and undiscovered forces have at least some viable evidence to indicate their beliefs are valid; the creationist distortion appears not to belong in the same camp.

Creationism is a complex psychological phenomenon, to be sure. How people who know the obvious practicalities of science (such as television and the internet, where creationism can be expounded) have demonstrated that its overall methodology is sound, how such people can accept a fairy tale beginning to a Grimm tales world is difficult to fathom. And creationists, in general, would reject belief in what most of society considers paranormal. Can these coexist in the same category? While Goode constructs his paradigm as those who accept and reject empirical reductionism, I’m not convinced that religious belief is the same as paranormal belief. The parsing is a bit too coarse here. Creationism, which began life as a religious belief, has become a political agenda all about domination. It is not so much naiveté as it is need to rule. Somehow I doubt the ghost hunter with her or his night vision camera and digital voice recorder has any real designs on textbook distortion or having women keep silent on Sunday morning.

Flying None?

RoughGuidesWhile reading about a saint or two recently, I once again came across the concept of levitation. Long dismissed as overly gullible piety of superstitious pre-moderns, the practice has been relegated to the scratched and damaged basement of religious thought. Or so it would seem. While examining a World Religions textbook at work, I came across a picture of a young person in meditation who was, to all appearances, levitating. The caption simply noted that levitation is a component of some religious practitioners’ discipline and then quietly moved on. No scare quotes or allegedlys to be seen. The publisher of the text was one of the major textbook moguls. Curious, I found a reference to The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena by Bob Rickard and John Michell. This intriguing book, in its second edition, bears the Penguin imprimatur, and therefore should be taken seriously. While I am certain that any number of skeptical readers will declare me hopelessly naive, I found the book full of interesting anomalies, and many of them, as I’ve noted several times on this blog, tied the paranormal to religion.

While I can’t accept everything I read in The Rough Guide, there remain, even after healthy doubt, a number of weird things that persist in our reductionistic world. Strange phenomena do not necessarily validate religion, of course, and many of those “revelations” people claim must be simple pareidolia. These are entertaining, no doubt, but hardly newsworthy. It is rather those phenomena that refuse to play by the rules that raise questions about our demon-haunted world. If even just a handful, or even one of the cases of levitation actually occurred, it would mean some serious rethinking concerning the nature of gravity. Do saints levitate? I’m no saint, so perhaps it’s best not to ask me. If one lies about it, then s/he is hardly a saint.

As uncomfortable as the unexplained may make us, these reports do serve as a reminder that our scientific worldview is, in many ways, still in its infancy. A few years back, sitting in on the lecture of a friend concerning the science of the Mesopotamians, it was clear that rational thought has very early origins in human civilization. At the same time, the Mesopotamians had plenty of room for gods and the supernatural in their worldview as well. Here in our electronic twenty-first century, it might seem that reason will see us through just about any crisis. Even a glance at the headlines reveals we’re not there yet. Some will blame the religious, the “superstitious,” the irrational for our problems. Meanwhile far from the eyes of scientists and authorities of secular power, maybe, just maybe, a religious practitioner may be hovering a few inches off the ground.

Peculiar Mythology

Peregrine Confession: I love books like Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Ambiguity in fiction is under-appreciated at times. Of course, I’m not formally trained in fictional literature outside the confines of ancient mythology, but I do know what I like. This wondrous story of paranormal children in an alternate universe could almost have been drawn from Celtic mythology, and indeed Riggs provides a mythology to explain how things got this way. And every mythology is a kind of religion. In this world there are peculiars—not far removed from real life, for those willing to accept it—who have unusual powers. Miss Peregrine’s home, one where the children are under the guardianship of ymbrynes, houses those with special gifts. Some ymbrynes, however, wanted their godlike powers to make them into actual gods and in addition to causing the Siberian explosion, gave birth to hollowgasts, a kind of living damnation monster. “Rather than becoming gods, they had transformed themselves into devils.” Sounds a touch like Lucifer’s fall, n’est-ce pas?

It might be supposed by cynical readers of this blog that I select my reading based on the potential for finding religion in fiction. If that is true it is so only on a subconscious level, I assure you. I read about religion for many hours every day and I taught the subject for nearly two decades. When I turn to fiction it is generally for escape. I have found, however, that there is hardly any escape from religion. When I find it in fiction, therefore, I ponder some of its implications. Religion is so much a part of our lives that it can’t help working its way into popular culture. Maybe I just see it everywhere. That doesn’t mean that it’s not really there. But back to our story…

Hollowgasts, like Ugaritic devourers (sorry, couldn’t help myself), are powerful hungry. They must constantly feed their voracious appetites. Their favorite food, which actually transforms them a slight step back toward humanity, is the blood of peculiars. Blood is their salvation. The depth of this idea trickles down to the very roots of religion itself. Transformation is not possible without somebody paying the cost. Religion is bloody business. I won’t throw any plot spoilers in because I want to encourage you to read this strangely moving book. I will say that it is a strikingly well executed mythology for a world where God is not present, but where monsters and peculiars both partake in their own kind of divinity. And the strange photographs are real.

Mutants, Mystics and Memory

MutantsMysticsParadigms. These patterns of thought are self-reinforcing and very useful. As anyone who’s studied foreign languages knows, paradigms are an effective way to keep all those impossible verb tenses in mind. Until you encounter an irregular verb. Once you discover irregular verbs, you start to find there are more of them than you wish. As with language, so with life. Like most boys, I grew up reading comic books. We didn’t have much money, so I wasn’t as fluent in super-heroese as some kids were, but I felt that irresistible draw to garish colors inking exaggerated muscle-tone under a costume that held a body capable of extraordinary things. Everything seemed possible. Then adult responsibility hit. Who had time for comic books and heroes?

That’s why I was delighted to discover Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal. The three sub-topics just about summed up my childhood. But, like Paul declared to Corinthians, the first time around, “when I became a man I put away childish things.” Turns out, maybe my desire to be grown up was premature. I commented on Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible earlier this year. In his work I’d finally discovered that academics can sometimes get away with asking unorthodox questions. Perhaps it was my exposure to biblical studies, a discipline which goes one of two ways—overly facile attempts to maintain a literal reading, or a staid, solid approach tied to serious linguistics and archaeological records—that forced me into a reductionist paradigm. Well, everybody else was doing it! Academic thought had little room for the unusual, the bizarre, the irregular verb. The same applies to our no-nonsense, money driven society. Just shut up and do your job.

Mutants and Mystics, however, shows that our repressed unusual experiences, like a freudian phobia, will find ways into daily reality. It is a mind-stretching book. As for Authors of the Impossible, Kripal is to be congratulated on allowing himself to consider walking down paths that most academics assiduously bypass. Coming to his work as a fellow student of religious studies, I see that he has arrived at similar conclusions to mine, although clearly more advanced. I’d just assumed that since I never had the serious backing of a serious university my way was the low-way. The way of the kid who just couldn’t bring himself to grow up. There is a reason we spent our formative years reading about heroes for whom the impossible was daily reality. Perhaps we were in training after all, and comic books prove the point of old Isaiah that a child may indeed hold knowledge adults often just can’t see.

Barely Departed

Back before any of us, or anyone we knew, had attended Grove City College, one tragic night a student on the basketball team crashed through the glass doors of the gym on west campus and bled to death. If you walked across that part of campus at night, it was said, you would see his ghost. Everyone knew his name was Jim, but I never saw him. Folklorist Elizabeth Tucker presents a rare treat of the anomalous and academic in her book Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses. Professors have traditionally shied away from the paranormal. It can be a risky way to spend your time since the supernatural has been banished from the academy for ages. That doesn’t mean that students and professors have stopped seeing ghosts, though. Tucker, like a good prof, doesn’t just tell us ghost stories and dismiss class. She tries to unpack a bit of what they might mean.

Ghost stories, even when entertaining, are able teachers. Kids going to college find themselves in liminal situations. Not really independent, not really supervised, they test the limits of what they’ve been told. Ghosts, not supposed to exist, are the ultimate rebels. They don’t even obey the laws of physics or biology. But what are ghosts if not the embodiment of the human spirit? We call them spirits, and they represent that part of us that stubbornly refuses to go gentle into that dark night.

Tucker’s book will not convince a skeptic that ghosts exist. It probably won’t cause you any sleepless nights (unless you are about to send your child off to college). Her book is more about what ghost stories say about the living, as would be expected of a folklorist. Although not a comprehensive survey, Haunted Halls may well bring back the ghostly tales of your own college years, for very few places are without their specters, especially on a rainy October night. And even though I never saw Jim as I cut across west campus in the dark, who am I to say that he’s not really there?

Goats and Sheep

Having missed the movie, when I found a cheap copy of Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, my curiosity was piqued. With such a title I had assumed it to be fiction, but, proverbially it turned into the truth stranger than. The book explores the weird world of the X-Files chestnut, the super-soldier. There is no doubt that despite science’s discomfort with the paranormal, government agencies have utilized psychics for some years now, hoping to gain some advantage over the other guy. Not everyone agrees on how effective such tactics are, but they exist nevertheless. The Men Who Stare at Goats (TMWSAG) provides a rare glimpse into that world where no one knows who is telling the truth (otherwise called “government”); we live in an era when truth has become negotiable.

One of the accidental recurring themes in my recent reading has been the horrendous abuse of power at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Far from placid eyes, the land of the free advocates torture to get prisoners to talk. After years of government bungling, it is no surprise that misguided efforts at torture on the part of a democracy would invariably be discovered. It would be easier to doubt that governments kept lethal secrets if they didn’t keep getting caught in flagrante delicto. Who can you trust when governments, ruled by gods of their own making—in their own image—preach the gospel of torture? TMWSAG weaves this sordid story in with 9-11, Uri Geller, Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate and Deuteronomy 18—what’s not to like?

I’ve been alive long enough to know that some supremely odd stuff goes down. TMWSAG provides a service in demonstrating that the government takes some of this mysterious reality seriously. It also shows the twin surfaces of resistance: religion and science. Science has a difficult time admitting what can’t be seen; with few exceptions psychic phenomena are considered not even worth the bother of a lab test. Religion, at least in its biblical, American incarnation, lumps all spooky stuff together with the devil, something Jon Ronson declares that even high-ranking generals in the military believe. So when I put this little book down I was left scratching my head. It may just be me, but where have all the sheep gone?

Religious Aliens

While surveying books purchased as texts in religion courses (something that an editor sometimes does), I came across a book called Interdimensional Universe by Philip Imbrogno. As I’ve often suggested on this blog, the study of the paranormal is related in people’s minds with the study of religion. I suspect a large part of it is because both deal with matters that go beyond mundane, daily experience. Indeed, the tiresome caricature of those interested in the paranormal is that they are individuals dissatisfied with their lives who project their disappointments into bizarre beings or situations to make up for the emptiness. Sometimes the same thing is said of those who are religious. What is really lacking in both fields, it seems to me, is people with strong critical thinking skills who remain open minded. There are serious scholars who study the paranormal—not many of them—and it is clear from the market-informed choices that Hollywood makes, people are intensely interested. So I decided to read Interdimensional Universe.

On the bus, however, I fidgeted to find ways to hide the cover and contents of the book. I don’t want some urban, Manhattan sophisticate seeing the letters U-F-O in my reading material. Still, like most honest, open-minded people, I have to admit curiosity. After a couple of chapters Imbrogno’s work appeared to be a standard UFO book. Then it started to get weird when he suggested that angels and jinn are, like aliens, interdimensional beings. He went from citing declassified Air Force and FBI documents to quoting the Bible. And not just quoting. He assumed the historicity of biblical accounts that scholars have extensively exegeted (oh, that word!) and demonstrated to have more plausible explanations. For the jinn he draws extensively on Islamic lore, believing that they are responsible for much of the trouble in the world, tricksters like the Marvel Universe’s Loki.

I put the book down disappointed. I still consider myself open minded. I admit to not knowing what is really going on with paranormal phenomena. If the number of reports alone are anything to go on much of the human race is either insane or is seeing some unusual things. The subject requires some real academic consideration. When self-proclaimed experts, however, veer into mythology to start explaining the unknown, we are getting no closer to finding the truth that, as Fox Mulder assures us, is out there. At the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh I taught a course entitled Myth and Mystery. It was some of the most fun I had in the classroom. It was also one of the most difficult classes for which I’d ever had to prepare. Is there intelligent life in outer space? I don’t see why not—the universe is awfully big to rule it out categorically. Are there jinn literally lurking in the closet? For that I’m afraid for that there is a much more prosaic answer.

Call for Papers

The following is a call for papers from my colleague Dr. Joseph Laycock. Anyone interested and qualified, please contact him directly:

Dear Colleagues

I have recently been given the privilege of guest editing a special
issue of Nova Religio on the paranormal. In the last few years,
several good books have appeared that consider so-called “paranormal”
beliefs, discourses, and experiences as an object of inquiry for
religion scholars. Like the category “religion,” the category
“paranormal” is poorly circumscribed and may potentially include a
wide milieu of supernatural and pseudo-scientific beliefs and ideas.
We seek papers that address the place of paranormal discourses within
the larger context of religious and cultural studies. We also invite
papers on religious aspects of specific paranormal discourses such as
UFOs, psychics, hauntings, etc.

Submission Guidelines
Potential authors should first review Nova Religio’s website to get a
sense of the aim and scope of the journal. Authors should follow the
guidelines for authors on the website for the format of the paper and
its citations.

Submission queries, including abstracts, should be sent to Joseph
Laycock: jlay@bu.edu. Completed articles are due August 1, 2012, and
should be approximately 8,000-10,000 words including all documentation
and critical apparatus. As the guest editor, I will make the initial
determination about which papers are suitable for publication, and
work with authors to improve their draft papers before forwarding them
to Nova Religio’s co-general editors. The co-general editors, Eugene
Gallagher, Joel Tishken, and Catherine Wessinger, will make the final
decision about whether or not a paper can be accepted for publication
in Nova Religio.

Battle the Angels

Over the weekend I finally got around to watching Battle Los Angeles. Now, I’ve never been a fan of war movies, but I do have a soft spot for aliens, so I decided to tough it out and see who won. I knew the historic event upon which the premise of the film was based took place in 1942, before flying saucers captured the American imagination. The official Air Force story suggests that old nemesis to our control of the air: weather balloons. Considering that Los Angeles was blacked out and ground forces lobbed 1,400 artillery rounds at the things, I wonder why the balloons at my daughter’s birthday parties never managed to last the night. In any case, the movie runs with the premise that aliens have taken over the city of angels and the U. S. Marines are the ones to get the job done when it comes to taking out aliens. (The Air Force, one expects, is too busy chasing weather balloons.)

Gratuitous aliens and science fiction action may be merit enough to get into this blog, but there is actually a more compelling reason. Back in my teaching days, I tried to demonstrate to students how deeply the Bible pervades our culture. When I taught those long summer and winter term courses, sometimes lingering four hours into the night, I would break up the inevitability of my lectures with a few movie clips to show them just how often the Bible shows up in films. Sometimes the cameo appearance is a matter of fleeting seconds, but when directors pay attention to every detail of a scene, we can be sure that Bibles don’t just show up by accident. Battle Los Angeles is no different. As our platoon is being air-lifted into the alien hot zone, one of the soldiers (I couldn’t figure out which one, since most of them get dispatched in fairly short order) is shown reading the Bible. The camera hovers there a second before pulling back to show the pre-battle chatter.

The viewer is probably supposed to be reminded that there are no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes. Or it is a sign of how serious this is: before the big guns come out, bring on the Bible? In our culture the Bible has that kind of role. I recently read of a Catholic astronomer who was seeking alien civilizations in order to convert them to Christianity. The premise is as intriguing as it is arrogant. Human beings can be tenacious when it comes to matters of belief. In Battle Los Angeles, however, we speak with our guns and our missiles. But first we read our Bibles. Without wishing to ascribe to much intentional subtlety to the movie, this might be the underlying paradigm. Once the battle begins in earnest, the Bible never comes back into play. It is human ingenuity that wins the day, and perhaps the aliens are being taught to pray.

Who Knows?

While I have nothing less than respect (and just slightly less than utter awe) for my alma mater of Edinburgh, I cannot help being bemused at times by the alumni magazine. Between my wife and I, when we fail to cover our tracks adequately, we receive almost as many alumni magazines as exclusive credit card offers. Anybody intelligent enough to graduate realizes that these magazines are attempts to raise money, but they maintain the illusion of giving actual news. Thus it was I found myself facing a pithy piece stating in no uncertain terms that “Near-death events are ‘tricks of mind.’” The rationale given is that psychologists at both Edinburgh and Cambridge have decided it is so.

Now, I’ve never had a near-death experience, nor do I really ever want to. I don’t know what to make of the stories of those who claim to have “crossed over.” The problem is, there can be no winner to the argument of authentic experience versus mind trick. Those who know, by definition, can’t tell. Each side has good points to make. Some religions, particularly those of western orientation, tend to offer an afterlife anyway, so when someone appears to have slipped over the edge and claims they saw a great light, well, why not? Scientists often make the equally valid point that the rapid images that occur in the brain may seem to stretch on into minutes or hours and may incorporate images that our culture lends us of what to expect when the darkness falls. The near-death experience is, they say, final jolts of electrical “noise” just before brain activity ceases.

Some things we just can’t know, even if we attended Edinburgh. “Near-death experiences are not paranormal but are triggered by a change in normal brain function, according to researchers.” So the article says. There seems nothing paranormal about death—it is as natural an event as exists. It is common to us all, including pets and pests. The “paranormal” is the idea that something continues after death. If that something includes a deity or two, it becomes “religious” rather than “paranormal.” Whether religious, psychological, or paranormal, intelligent people continue to debate what is actually happening to those who have been briefly dead and have the medical records to prove it. For my part, if there’s something on the other side, I hope it’s a lot like Edinburgh. Maybe with a few less alumni magazines, however.

Life, and then this.

Paranormal Activity

Once in a great while books with the potential to shift paradigms come along. These rare books often deal with taboo subjects, those areas of inquiry forbidden even to the most educated sectors of society. One of those books is Jeffrey Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible. I bought this book because of its subtitle: The Paranormal and the Sacred. I have argued before that paranormal subjects are very closely related to religion, but it is so unusual to find another scholar who openly takes on this question that I was shocked at finding Authors of the Impossible. Kripal is an academic who is willing to consider what is, as he admits, impossible. Those who’ve read deeply in the record of human experience, however, know that weirdness has accompanied us from the time we could write it down. It stands to reason that the uncanny stretches back before even that singular hallmark of human development. I have suggested elsewhere that it might even be the origin of religion itself.

Universities are establishment institutions. Free inquiry is not free, as I’m sure advocates of the National Security Act are glad to know. Most university professors who’ve seen a ghost or some unidentified object in the sky or an anomalous creature will never admit it. The easy equation of such things with mental instability keeps establishment people in line. It also cuts off honest inquiry into things people have experienced for centuries. Kripal is unafraid. In this book he considers the works of explorers most academics refuse to take seriously, despite their obvious intellectual ability: Frederic Meyrs, Charles Fort, Jacques Vallee, and Bertrand Méheust. Let’s have a show of hands: who has heard of any of them, except maybe Charles Fort? Each of these explorers was/is very educated. Each takes an aspect of the paranormal seriously. As Kripal points out, we will accept a physicist from CERN telling us that the impossible happens at the quantum level, but if you see a UFO you belong in an asylum. Is it because the paranormal violates not only the laws of physics, but also the laws of religion?

Life is too large to take it all in. We don’t even know what consciousness is. This is a question to which Kripal returns to conclude his book. His suggestion is that the paranormal is a literary hermeneutic—we are written by forces and powers outside our knowledge. Without denying science, indeed, while advocating it, Kripal suggests that it is not the whole picture. We are animals with two brains fused into one, and even scientists and materialists feel the sting and caress of emotion. Kripal is brave enough to assert that the emotive, imaginary side is just as real as the rational, materialist side. Noone can seriously doubt science and step onto a jet, Kripal shows that one need not doubt science to step onto a UFO either. If we are willing to participate in the reality our minds generate, the potential for human evolution really explodes. The only problem with Authors of the Impossible is that it is too short. An extremely deft writer, Kripal makes you laugh and think at the same time. And when you’re done, you’ll realize just how weird the world really is.